How Gary Whitta Turned an Unproduced Screenplay Into 'Oliver' Comic

Oliver Cover-Publicity-H 2018
Darick Robertson/Image Comics
'Rogue One' screenwriter and artist Darick Robertson talk about their new post-apocalyptic superhero series from Image Comics.

Gary Whitta may be best known for his multiple Star Wars projects. He worked on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the animated Star Wars: Rebels series, as well as Marvel’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi comic book adaptation. But while he’s been building his resume in a galaxy far, far away, the Book of Eli screenwriter has been thinking about another world altogether — a world where Dickensian drama and post-apocalyptic science fiction merge to create a new kind of action hero.

Oliver, a collaboration between Whitta and Darick Robertson — artist and co-creator of Transmetropolitan and The Boys — from Image Comics, sees the two refashion Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as a superhero in a dystopian alternate England whose origins are as mysterious as his motives.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to the creators about the project, which launches in January, and also has a six-page preview of the first issue.

Let’s start with something easy: What is Oliver, for the people who haven’t heard about it yet?

Whitta: I think it’s a couple of things. It’s a very twisted — no pun intended — take on the Charles Dickens book, which I thought was a really interesting starting point for telling a new kind of sci-fi story. I’ve always been a fan of stage and film productions that take the Shakespeare classics and re-set them in a wildly different, often contemporary, context. That’s always struck me as a great way to breathe some fresh air into a well-known story.

So I was on the lookout for a literary classic that I could put my own kind of spin — which is to say science fiction — on. Second only to Shakespeare in the literary canon is Dickens, and I’ve always loved Oliver Twist ever since they made us read it in school — I have a particular fondness for the musical, too — and as I revisited the book it struck me that Oliver Twist’s story is not unlike that of a superhero origin myth.

That’s kind of where it started, and from there it very quickly developed to mapping some of the major story beats and hero’s journey from the novel into a very different futuristic world, retaining the big themes and ideas that always meant something to be from the book, while giving myself the liberty to divert from the book’s narrative and tell my own original story. So the short answer to your question is, it’s half Dickensian adaptation, half original superhero origin story.?

You mentioned Shakespeare, and there are Shakespearean allusions in the first issue. It’s clear that, for all the Dickens at the heart of Oliver, there’s a lot more going on, not least of which in the world-building that forms so much of the debut issue. I want to ask about the origins of the series, but even more than that, I’m curious: When you’re dealing with a story like this, with a world that’s so different from our everyday — albeit, with connections you can draw to today — how do you choose where to begin, and what to reveal first?

Whitta:  For me, it always starts with character, although in this case developing the character and doing the world-building kind of went hand-in-hand with because Oliver is such a very specific product of his environment, he could only exist in this very specific post-apocalyptic world that surrounds him. So as I defined an element of the world, that would inevitably lead to defining an element of the lead character, and vice versa. It’s difficult to go into too many specifics about why that is without giving away some of the secrets of the story, but one of my favorite things about this particular story is how deeply the character and the world are intertwined.

The post-apocalyptic London that Oliver is born into is at once reminiscent of the Dickensian-era London that Oliver Twist exists in, and also other SF takes on the post-apocalyptic world — I kept flashing to Kirby’s Kamandi in a strange way; Oliver is the Last Boy on Earth, after all. The post-apocalypse/Victorian and Dickensian era crossover fascinating parallel I’d never considered before; was this the way into the source material, and how to keep the work your own, for both of you?

Whitta: Wherever possible, I would look for parallels between the Dickensian world of 19th century London and the post-apocalyptic future London depicted in the comic. And it turns out there were a lot of similarities that came up organically out of the world-building. Each for their own very different reasons: they’re both cities where poverty and indigence are rampant, populated by people who have been largely forgotten or ignored by the more privileged elements of society. That early similarity was definitely a central pillar of the adaptation, and it’s something that continues throughout the entire story.

Robertson: I’m a huge Kirby fan, but Kamandi wasn’t so much in the forefront of my mind when creating this world of dystopian London. I think of this as existing in an alternate timeline. I was more concerned with capturing London accurately, even flew there to take my own reference shots of Trafalgar Square and Westminster Bridge ... So when I drew it destroyed, I wanted it to feel visceral. What I really wanted to portray was Oliver’s vulnerability, so that you see how tough a kid he is to valiantly survive in this world, which to me, is the essence of a lot of Dickens’ stories. 

Gary, you’ve worked in … well, almost every medium, it feels like. What makes comics the best home for Oliver — besides Darick! — as opposed to, say, movies or television or even games?

Whitta: Well Darick’s involvement was definitely a very strong argument to do this as a comic. But the truth is Oliver was originally conceived and written as a feature, it’s actually the first script I wrote that got me representation in Hollywood. The movie version never got made, but I was determined to get the story told one way or another, I’d put too much blood and sweat into it for it to just gather dust on a shelf as yet another unmade spec, so that’s how I hit upon the idea of stripping the script down and re-writing it in comics form.

As it turned out, and this is a complete accident, the structure of the story lent itself very nicely to being chopped up into the episodic chunks necessary for a serialized comic. I think the story now actually works better in comics form than it originally did as a feature spec, so I guess everything happens for a reason.

The announcement of the project teased that this has been in the works for 15 years now; I’m curious — how did the two of you hook up in the first place?

Whitta: When I first started thinking seriously about Oliver as a comic book, one of the first things I realized was that I had absolutely no idea how to make one. One thing I did know was that I certainly needed an artist, and I had a list of artists whose work I’ve admired as a comics reader. Darick was on that list, particularly for his work with Warren Ellis on Transmetropolitan, and so I reached out to him — I think I just found his email address somewhere and cold-contacted him — and we hit it off immediately.

Robertson: Gary reached out to me when I was still living in New York back in 2002 or 2003. He had the screenplay and the idea to make into a comic. I wasn’t in a position to take it on, as I was still working monthly on Transmetropolitan and had just taken on regular art duties for Wolverine at Marvel. But I liked the idea.

Whitta: Darick warmed to the story idea and very quickly put together some character sketches and concept pieces that sold me on him being the guy to draw Oliver right away. We’ve since become close friends, and though the story has been fully formed since the beginning of our relationship, it’s taken so long to come to fruition in part because we were determined to hold out for the right publishing deal.

Robertson: When I returned to live in the Bay Area where Gary was living as well, we became friends and I discovered that Oliver was still in limbo. So in 2004, I agreed to co-create the comic by adapting Gary’s screenplay. It took us six years of false starts to get to a new phase of designs when I thought to bring in an edgier steampunk inspired look to the characters, which seems a natural fit.

Whitta: We had several offers from major publishers but we turned them all down because none of them allowed us to retain ownership and it was important to us both that Oliver remain creator-owned. During that time Darick developed a strong working relationship with Image, and with Image’s policy of all its titles being creator-owned it naturally made sense for us to do it there.

Robertson: In 2012, we finally found a proper fit for a publisher, but my career, as well as Gary’s, were such that I kept getting derailed, even having started the artwork for the interiors of the issues. That’s why I’m so excited that we finally have a clear schedule and release date! I’m so grateful for Image’s support and Gary’s unwavering loyalty and patience. The whole project has benefitted from the wait, honestly. 

Darick, I feel like this book plays to your strengths a lot, and feels like something that challenges you in a way that nothing else has since Transmetropolitan; I know you’ve talked about this book being something that brings together everything you love about comics. Can you unpack that a little?

Robertson: One of the projects that inadvertently delayed me on Oliver was a book I co-created with Adam Egypt Mortimer for Black Mask Comics in their infancy, called Ballistic, and that was some extensive original world-building as that world was completely invented and the architecture and technology was purely organic materials. That book was a world creation on par with Transmetropolitan.

With Oliver, I am devoted to bring in the scope of the destruction and the tangible nature of realistic backgrounds based on reference photos of London in order to create an atmosphere wherein the reader hopefully feels enmeshed in the brutal and dystopian world wherein Oliver exists.

I’m curious about the collaborative process on the series; the first issue genuinely feels like both a Whitta story and a Robertson story, with interests/themes from your earlier work co-mingling and combining. Is this a traditional full-script/artwork process, or is something else going on?

Whitta: As artist and writer Darick and I have a collaborative relationship that I think is pretty atypical in comics — often writer and artist don’t communicate a great deal beyond what’s communicated from one to the other in the scripts, but because Darick and I were already personal friends and had the luxury of living close to one another, a lot of the early concept and panel work was done with us literally in the same room with Darick drawing while we would hang out and talk.

That’s not always possible in comics due to logistical and other concerns, but the fact that Darick and I had that luxury really helped us collaborate in a way that ultimately led to us making the best book possible.

Robertson: We've sat down together a number of times and really thought this through. By issue three, I was clear on what Gary wanted and was able to directly take his screenplay and break it down into panels.

In some cases, I thought to move things around so it flowed better as a comic than it would in a feature film, since the structure, breaks and the pacing are different, while never taking any liberties that would change or demean Gary’s excellent story in any way.

We still keep in close contact and I share work in progress as I’m creating, as his feedback is energizing and essential to the direction I’m taking visually. So the creative freedom I enjoyed collaboratively on projects like Transmetropolitan, is alive and well here, so I feel a lot of artistic freedom to bring this world into focus. 

What (if anything) do you want to draw people’s attention to as they read the preview?

Whitta: There are a lot of clues embedded in the opening pages of the first issue that will come back and pay off later in the story, so while it would be spoiler-y of me to point anyone’s attention in a particular direction, I’ll just recommend that you definitely pay close attention in general.

Robertson: My hope is that the world will feel inviting and the characters are relatable as I’ve portrayed them. I’m doing my level best to bring a cinematic tone to the early issues. Oliver changes physically from issue one to issue four, and physically evolves into a young man in this first arc, so the little boy version is only for the first issue.

Then the real adventure begins.

Oliver No. 1 will be released digitally and in comic book stores Jan 23.