Oliver #1 from Image Comics hits your local comic book store on January 23, but this creator-owned project is much more than a post-apocalyptic version of the Charles Dickens’ classic. The creative team of Gary Whitta and Darick Robertson have had quite an incredible creative journey getting to this point.
Whitta is an accomplished journalist, screenwriter, and video game designer. In 2001, he wrote the script for Oliver, and his writing earned him a foot in the door with Hollywood. In 2010, Whitta impressed nerds around the world with his screenplay for Book of Eli. He then took a throwaway line from A New Hope and wrote the story for Rogue One. But that original script that got him an agent and manager was never picked up. So, 15 years ago Whitta started having conversations with Robertson to turn his screenplay into a comic book. Roberston is most famous for his work on The Boys, Transmetropolitan, and HAPPY!. The artist has also had quality runs with Wolverine and several books under Marvel’s MAX imprint. Due to both creators’ successes, it took time for Oliver to come together and find a home with a publisher.
Monkeys Fighting Robots spoke with Whitta and Robertson about Oliver and the fundamentals of storytelling.
MFR: Gary, Oliver is 15 years in the making, and in a previous interview you called it a passion project. Did you need to publish Oliver, or did you want to publish Oliver?
WHITTA: I think every writer has a story or stories that really feel like they need to be told, and for me Oliver is one of those. That’s why I never gave up on it, even though it’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey. It started as an unmade movie screenplay, and as a screenwriter, I certainly have plenty of those, but Oliver was one that continued to nag away at me long after I had written it. I just knew deep down that it was cool and was never going to be satisfied to have it end its life as an unproduced script that maybe only twenty or so people ever read. So I was determined to find a way to tell the story in one form or another, and in going back over it, it struck me that it might work very well as a comic series. And now here we are! After Darick came aboard I knew we’d have a version of Oliver that looked phenomenal because all of his work is, but it still took a very long time both to find a publisher we were comfortable with and for Darick to find the time in his busy schedule to really give it the attention it deserved. The good news is, it’s all been worth the wait, I couldn’t be happier with the way the comic has turned out.
MFR: With the first issue, as a writer, how do you balance revealing enough to engage the reader and leaving enough mystery that the reader wants issue two immediately?
WHITTA: Figuring out how to keep the reader turning the pages is one of the age-old challenges for any writer, and I’m proud to say that I think Oliver does it better than anything else I’ve written, the whole story is structured to be littered with little mysteries and clues throughout like a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow.
MFR: Darick, Oliver #1 is a beautiful book. One aspect of your art that stands out is how detailed the world around the characters is. Why is that important to you?
ROBERTSON: Thank you! I like to create an environment for the characters to perform within that is as much a character as the people interacting within it, so that the reader feels grounded and enmeshed in the world. I think it makes the story stronger and more relatable. Growing up, Star Wars was always a huge influence on me and in my formative years as an artist. I loved how distinct all those sets were: Hoth, the Death Star, Tatooine, Dagobah, all those places were distinct to the characters and the scenes that happened within them. So I like to bring that sense of place and time as best I can.
MFR: The first issue opens with a very cinematic look. As an artist, can you talk about your use of camera angles and do you have a favorite page in the first issue when it comes to camera angles?
ROBERTSON: Being that Gary envisioned this as a film, I wanted to bring a cinematic sense to the storytelling and atmosphere. As we get deeper into it as a comic, I want to move more toward playing with the material as a comic, but in the opening chapters, I wanted to it to feel cinematic. As far as a favorite page goes, I like the scene where Prospero is showing Oliver destroyed London and explaining the past. I used my son, who was 10 at the time, as a model and having all these little portraits of him, brings back fond memories (as he’s taller than I am now!) Capturing the scope of the destruction was a challenge, and I’m pleased with how it all came together.
MFR: Darick has emotionally scarred me several times when it comes to his work on The Boys. How dark do you and Darick take OLIVER?
WHITTA: It starts out pretty dark, and it gets darker as it goes along. As in the Dickens original, Oliver is born into a very hard world that doesn’t really want him or have a place for him; it’s up to him to make that place for himself. Certainly the comic is violent, but hopefully never for violence’s sake, and later in the story, there are what I think are some genuinely shocking moments.
ROBERTSON: You’re welcome! I don’t like to put everything into the same bucket, as much as I try to hew what I do to fit the project I’m currently creating.
It’s dark in a different sense in that Oliver becomes a symbol of hope in an already dark world that he’s born into. It’s not anywhere near The Boys by means of depravity, but The Boys had a great heart at the center of the story. It wasn’t just shenanigans for the sake of filthy shenanigans, there was always a purpose; a point. But Oliver is a very different story. There’s blood and violence. I don’t like to tame stuff when it comes to war scenes, so it’s visceral and full of pain, but where it evolves to is such a good arc. We set out to make a book for Harry Potter and Star Wars fans, like Gary and I are. Something my kids can read, but I think Boys fans will enjoy just as much.
MFR: In previous interviews, you both mentioned how the book has evolved over the past 15 years. What have been some of the biggest influences on that evolution?
WHITTA: So much has changed since I first wrote Oliver. I became a parent — my daughter is now almost seven years old — and on a larger scale we’re seeing my country of birth go down a potentially disastrous road with Brexit. So as I rewrite the story for each issue I think there’s a greater degree of empathy for the characters than was maybe evident in the original script, and it’s possible that the vision of a ruined futuristic England will seem more prescient now.
ROBERTSON: I’ve been dedicated to seeing it through in the style and design we set out to do, and we dodged a few well-meaning publishers along the way that had other ideas for what they would require to put their label on it, but we ultimately wanted to keep the rights as ours and see it through, as what it was always meant to be. So far that is exactly the book we’re making. My influences have always been a love for a Frank Miller/Will Eisner style of storytelling and just wanting to make great comics, and as I mentioned before, a love for Star Wars and fantasy films like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc… Gary and I bonded over this stuff when we met and in the 15 years since we decided to create this together, I co-created The Boys, and HAPPY!, and Gary wrote two hit films, so we’ve only gained in creative strength for our vision as we have put Oliver together as a comic.
MFR: Darick, this past year the wildfires surrounded the San Franciso Bay Area, and you were told to stay inside. During any of those smoke-filled days were you drawing Oliver and if so did the post-apocalypse get a little too close to home for you?
ROBERTSON: Well as harrowing the Paradise Camp Fires were, and especially for the people of Paradise who tragically lost everything, what it was for where I live in Northern California was a reminder of the fires in Napa and Sonoma that forced us to evacuate our home back in 2017. Seeing the smoke-filled sky and that red sun worthy of life on Krypton, was a painful reminder of the genuine fear that we might lose our home. I’m so grateful that we didn’t and deeply sympathetic to those that have. So that fear and vulnerability is something I see in Oliver. He comes from a fragile, precarious world where even food and water aren’t guaranteed and emerges from that a hero.
MFR: Each issue of Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD is the perfect example of the last page cliffhanger and or gotcha moment. As you transitioned your film script to a comic book script, did you think about how to end each issue and how much rewriting was involved?
WHITTA: One of the areas where I think we got very lucky with Oliver was how the story was originally structured. As I mentioned earlier there were lots of little cliffhanger moments built into the story from the beginning, and as it turned out when the time came to revise the story for a serialized format many of those cliffhangers just happened to fall exactly where they needed to, right on the issue breaks, or close enough to them that I was able to make them land where I needed them to with very little revision. Certainly, the first issue ends on a big mystery moment that is designed to get the reader wondering what happens next, and that’s true of pretty much every issue.
MFR: Independent publishing is a tough business. How will you measure success with Oliver?
ROBERTSON: I will take a great deal of satisfaction if we get our full 12 issue run and people enjoy it. That’s success. It’s been such a long road to get to where we finally are, just seeing it published, at last, will feel like a triumph.
WHITTA: I’ll just be glad to see the story told from beginning to end. We have 12 issues planned, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope that we can retain enough reader interest to stick to that plan.
MFR: You’ve mentioned Oliver is a good old-fashioned revenge story. What is your favorite revenge film and why?
ROBERTSON: Unforgiven is my all-time favorite revenge movie as it shows the futility of it, and at the same time, it’s so satisfying to watch.
WHITTA: One word: GLADIATOR.
What did you think of the interview, are you going to add Oliver to your pull list? Comment below with your thoughts.