A Twist You Say?: Unless you ditched all of freshman English, you’ll recognize the source material for Olivia Twist forthwith. In this adaptation (for Dark Horse’s Berger Books line), the creative team – co-writers Darin Strauss (Half a Life) and Adam Dalva and artist Emma Vieceli (Dr. Who) – provide a truly modern spin on English lit’s most beloved orphan. America’s long gone, and the wealthy elite have moved to London’s Vertical City, where they enjoy the plush life as the poor struggle to exist. Our heroine, the young Olivia, leaves the workhouses on her 18th birthday, kick-starting a chain of events in near-perfect alignment with the novel. Aside from, you know….
All The Technologies!: On the one hand, the updated timeframe works wonders for the book. There’s something about a dystopian setting – the hyper-rich populace, AR technology, androids, etc. – that expands the original’s musings on the inherent flaws of our class system and how much we tie morality to wealth. And yet all of this tech is still familiar enough to our own world, giving it an immediacy and punch that the 19th century source material might lack. At times, though, it can feel as if the technology gets in the way, over-complicating the crux of the story, which is about the pillars of decency and generosity in a cruel world.
The creative team takes the inherent dynamic between Twist and her family and friends – seeking to expose her true paternity and value within this world – and needlessly layer on a hyper-complicated narrative where lackluster technology eats away at the emotional nougat. Dickens’ tale worked because it struck at ideas people struggled with, like the encroach of technology and our place in an increasingly uncontrollable world. And while the comic does much of the same, it doesn’t feel quite as effective, the story lost in its own world-building. While that world feels fresh and exciting, it’s not always as clear and concise as it could be, and that diminishes the inherent charm and power of the story. It certainly makes Olivia Twist stand out, but not always in a way that has lasting or translatable value.
Progress Is Pretty: Robots aren’t the only contribution of this retelling. For one, Olivia is of mixed race, born to a white father and a Muslim mother. That particular choice is profound – in a world where the poor and POC are third-class citizens, Olivia’s mere existence is another layer of commentary. It never feels like a forced decision, either, and that’s important in not only establishing the comic’s sense of identity, but an identity that feels utterly genuine. And the changes don’t stop there: Artful Dodger and Fagin are both gender-swapped, two higher-ups in the all-female Esthers gang (yes, in reference to the Biblical figure, which is explained wonderfully within the story). Dodger and Olivia also spark up a relationship, which is among the more endearing and effortless “new” elements of the reworking, a true surprise that makes genuine sense.
As with Olivia’s changes, these feel like organic, well-meaning decisions by the team. An opportunity to further ground the story in the sensibilities of the here and now – to show a world that more people can fully relate with. There’s going to be folks who may be uncomfortable with these changes, and that’s dandy. Great literature should be confrontational, and the comic makes changes with a bravery and intensity that is unwavering. These decisions that force readers to confront their own ideas and perceptions about the world. Luckily, many things remain the same – the lovable Charley Bates, the fiendish Monks, etc. – fostering just enough familiarity to create landmarks in the story’s unfurling.
The Beating Heart: It’s important to take a moment to talk about Vieceli’s art. In terms of the issues already touched upon, it’s these visuals that facilitate much of the larger emotional resonance. From the character designs and layout of “new” London to the technology and even the colors and angles, the artwork rides the line between playful and gritty, the real and the cartoonish. It’s the engine of magic and emotion for the book, and while it does plenty of heavy-lifting, that also means it deserves partial blame for derailing the main story’s momentum. Which is to say, the art may facilitate the larger editorial aim, but that’s not always a good thing.
Too Much Gristle: I thoroughly commend the creators for making changes that feel genuine in their intent and ability to make readers think. At the same time, there is a sense that these changes also overshadow or over-complicate the book. Not in the sense that they’re unnecessary, or made just to elicit cheap pops – rather like the updated technology, they can either get in the way or stifle the story’s greater momentum.
As much as I enjoyed the Dodger-Olivia dynamic, it felt a bit rushed, and that hampers its momentum in the story. As if the mission to make this brave new world and have it exist in a certain way stymied the remainder of the story. And there’s other instances, too, like the whole storyline with the lovable Pip, or the underplayed dynamic between Olivia and Monks. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have updated this story, but it’s clear that it affected some of the more important moments or revelations of this book. That could be a simple issue with pacing, or trying to cram a whole novel into four issues. Either way, more could have been done to preserve the heart of Dickens’ tale, to drive home the essence clearly and concisely, and still make it timely.
All’s Well That Ends Well, Gov’na: Olivia Twist certainly deserves a read, but perhaps not by everyone. I see it among the top-tier of YA comics/books – an effective and endearing way to re-contextualize great literature for Gen Z. It’s not perfect, but what it does do (capture real emotions and their stakes, foster tried and true progressiveness) it certainly does well. Within the right demographic, it’ll certainly have folks groveling for seconds.