Writers: Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva
Artist: Emma Vieceli
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Sal Cipriano
Cover Artist: Vanessa Del Ray
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics, Berger Books
The year is 2050, and the world as we know it is no more. In Darin Strauss and Adam Dalva‘s new Berger Books/Dark Horse mini-series, Olivia Twist, elements of classic Dickensian novels are catapulted into the future, about six months before the apocalypse rains destruction down on the characters’ heads.
Like other dystopian and utopian stories, Olivia Twist features past genocides, terrifying assassins, roaming gangs, invasive technology, and a protagonist whose life, until she escapes her workhouse on her 18th birthday and sees London for the first time, has been centered around one thing: work.
In this week’s issue #2, the Olivia Twist creative team dive into what Olivia’s life looks like now that she’s free of the workhouse — and low-key a wanted criminal. Roaming the streets of London with the aid of the Artful Dodger and the rest of her gang, known as the Esthers, Olivia is learning how to steal so she can keep up with her new friends. However, “honor among thieves” is a concept she’s hard-pressed to understand. Indoctrinating her into the Esthers’ way of life is going to be harder than their leader, Fagin, seems to understand — even with the life of a young boy Olivia rescued from her workhouse hanging in the balance between them.
Because this issue is so inwardly focused on introducing Olivia and readers to the Esthers, there’s a lot of room to play with the art and coloring — which Emma Vieceli and Lee Loughridge do beautifully. Every panel pops off the page and each scene and location is clearly distinguishable from the last; plus, each character has a specific pallet that enhances their unique styles and underscores their personalities. During an interview with Strauss and Dalva at New York Comic Con 2018, they both emphasized just how good Loughridge is with color; in Olivia Twist issue #2, that becomes incredibly apparent. Every single panel is stunning, particularly in the “thief training” scenes, where the use of color to drag out tension is beautifully rendered.
Plus, we get to see spotlights on Vieceli’s character designs for each of the Esthers, all of which are utterly perfect. Strauss and Dalva said that they strived to include diverse characters with varying body types, physical abilities, and more in this universe, which is even more apparent in the second issue than in the first.
Although some of what Dodger is capable of was introduced in issue #1, we get to dig deeper into her abilities as a thief in this issue and meet her friends: Mademoiselle Thérèse DeFarge, Little Nell Trent, Nicola (Cola) Nickleby, and Charley. When they teach Olivia how to pick pockets, we see how they move, what they employ to distract their targets, and how they interact as a group, which makes this issue move even faster than issue #1.
Olivia Twist stands out for its inclusion of diverse characters, as well as its treatment of LGBTQ characters. For example: Cola’s non-binary identity is introduced from the get-go with they/them pronouns, rather than a long-winded primer on gender. Their character design, spearheaded by Vieceli, plays with fashion and gender presentation in a way that doesn’t rely on the thin-bodied, male-passing concept of androgyny that is often employed for gender-nonconforming or non-binary characters. Cola is a breath of fresh air, especially in comics, which is a medium that doesn’t traditionally deal well with trans narratives.
Plotwise, Olivia Twist stands out insofar as it deposits classic characters, settings and situations in a brand-new world, but it also fits into the general landscape for other stories of its kind that are being released right now. What makes Olivia Twist stand out is the fact that Strauss and Dalva have not only gender-bent most of the characters from Dickens’ novels, but actively written queerness into the canon of the story. They even land Olivia in the middle of a love triangle between a bad-ass butch woman whose thievery is unparalleled and a homey Minnesota boy who uses the same pick-up line on every woman he meets.
While the love triangle is teased repeatedly in the promotional material, what isn’t teased is how this particular love triangle addresses the issue of compulsory heterosexuality, nor how its set-up gives Olivia space to figure out her sexuality without creating unnecessary commentary on the “coming out” process.
In addition to introducing this personal tension in issue #2, Strauss and Dalva also start to hint at just how much trouble Olivia is in, even if she doesn’t realize it yet. She narrates this comic from a future point with which readers are not yet familiar, giving us insight to how she’s feeling at any given moment as she is introduced to and learns the ways of the Esthers. However, we also get to see moments that Olivia could not have been privy to, which show just how dark the world has become.
Olivia Twist digs its teeth into a version of the future that is bold, colorful, diverse and intriguing, without relying on excessive violence to tell its tale. Two issues into this four issue mini-series, I’m already desperate for more.
Samantha Puc is an essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bustle, The Mary Sue, SheKnows, The Tempest, Rogues Portal, and elsewhere. She mostly writes intersectional pop culture analysis with a particular focus on representation of LGBTQ and fat characters in fiction. Samantha is also the co-creator of Fatventure Mag, an outdoors zine for fat women and non-binary creators who are into being active, but not into toxic weight-loss culture. She lives in Rhode Island with her spouse and cats.