Invincible creator Robert Kirkman on translating the gory superhero comic to animation, and incorporating diversity
'It was good to have the opportunity to bring diversity into the series that, frankly, should have been there from the very beginning,' says Kirkman.
Invincible is not like other animated superhero series.
For one thing, the episodes are over 40 minutes long, a departure from the shorter running times of most superhero cartoons. It is also extremely violent and explicitly gory. An early scene in the first episode includes a gruesome eye injury that nevertheless seems almost innocent compared with the bone-pulverising, blood-drenched battle that comes in the closing moments of the premiere.
The mayhem, brutality, and macabre battles are true to the “anything goes” comic-book roots of the show, which premiered Friday on Amazon Prime Video. Invincible is based on the comic of the same name, which was created by The Walking Dead mastermind Robert Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, and was published by Image Comics from 2003-18.
“Invincible doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of massively powered superbeings going toe to toe with each other,” said Kirkman, who also created the series. “The fact that we show, in a somewhat realistic way, just how dire these consequences are, and just how savage these beings can be is very important.”
Some characters, though, have been reimagined. Teenage idealist Mark Grayson, who becomes the title hero, and learns the burden and responsibility of having powers, is now of Korean descent to match the star of the show, Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead veteran who was just nominated for a best actor Oscar for Minari. The main cast is rounded out by Sandra Oh, who voices Mark’s mother, Debbie, and JK Simmons as his father, Omni-Man.
“Especially in my early days, as a dumb white person, you find that your default state is ‘This character starts as white,’” Kirkman said.
“So it was good to be more mindful of that, and to have the opportunity to bring the diversity into the series that, frankly, should have been there from the very beginning.”
Invincible began with three episodes Friday, and will follow with five weekly instalments to complete its inaugural season. And there is even more Invincible ahead: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are developing a live-action film for Universal Pictures. Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment is one of the producers.
In a phone interview this month, Kirkman, who wrote the first and last episodes of Season 1 of Invincible, discussed the voice cast, the toll of special effects, and a possible return to the Invincible comic. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Was adapting the Invincible comic book for TV easier or harder than adapting The Walking Dead?
It’s in some ways a little bit easier than The Walking Dead just because the comic had concluded, so we had a much more definitive road map for where to go, and how to get there. It was great to sit down and go, “OK, well, you know, if this is a success, this is a seven-season structure, this is a five-season structure.”
Did you think ever about handing the show over to someone else?
I definitely wanted to be involved. I worked very closely with Simon Racioppa, our head writer, to map out what parts of the book would be covered this season, and how we would rearrange things. Writing the pilot and the season finale was very important for me because there was some material in those episodes that I really wanted to tackle. Also, I really love animation. I was not going to pass up the opportunity to be pretty hands-on in bringing Invincible to the animation world.
Were there worries about bringing the level of violence in the comic to the screen?
My main concern was possibly that we would be limited on what we were able to do. The gore that exists in the Invincible comic is nothing if not extreme, but at the same time, I think it is absolutely essential to making Invincible what it is.
Comics creators often say they have an unlimited special-effects budget. How different is that in animation or live action?
Any time someone says in comics you work with an unlimited budget, you’re kind of pissing off an artist. That is technically true, but that falls on the shoulders of the artist. This amazing alien invasion that you’re spending 12 pages writing that takes a little bit of time, the artist has to do a monumental level of work to achieve.
I would say animation is the same. You’re not renting out sets, but it’s really a labour cost. We were going to be able to do all these crazy things on this show that we wouldn’t have been able to do in a live-action TV show, but that was going to be an extreme strain on our animation studio Maven Image Platform. We had to do a lot of negotiating with them on how that was going to be handled.
Can you talk about the changes to the race or ethnicity of some of the characters?
Well, the Invincible comic book was done by white guys in the early 2000s. From time to time, you think, “Oh, yeah, we need to put some more diversity into this,” but at the end of the day, you don’t really have a book that necessarily represents the population of the country or the world.
The actual race of Mark and Debbie in the comic books was somewhat ambiguous. But I knew I wanted to cast Steven Yeun, and that made it really easy to say these characters are of Korean descent. And we’re very careful with our voice casting to make sure that all ethnicities of the characters match the actor that was cast.
Invincible’s mother seems to have a bigger role on the show than in the comic. Why is that?
I think the main reason for that, aside from the casting of Sandra Oh, is that Debbie becomes a much bigger character as the series progresses. In the comics, early on, I don’t think we had a real grasp on what we wanted. So it’s definitely a byproduct of coming in with hindsight and saying, “We’re going to take a character in these different directions; let’s go ahead and start building that in now, and make this a more well-rounded character from the get-go.” And then you get Sandra, and she’s going to improve it a thousand times with her performance. So that just makes it an even more rich, more robust character to play with.
You have quite the distinguished voice cast, including Jon Hamm.
I spent a lot of time with Jon Hamm at various AMC functions. It’s nice to be able to beg a guy to do a role every now and then.
COVID-19 did not affect animated productions as profoundly as it did live-action ones, but did it create challenges for Invincible?
It definitely cost us some time because we had a team in Los Angeles, a team in Vancouver (British Columbia), and a team in South Korea, and they were all working together in offices. Everyone had to stop and make sure that they had the technology available to shift from working in the office to working from home. So you have, I don’t know, a thousand different people trying to rebuild their office setup at home and get up to speed. But after that transition process, it seemed fairly seamless.
Is it strange to have the animated series going on with the live-action film in development?
No, if anything, it’s just more market research. We have the comic that accomplished certain things, and now we have the animated series that accomplished certain things. The film version is going to be a somewhat different experience — those differences keep things from overlapping.
Does working on the show make you want to return to the comic?
I’m definitely tempted. I think a lot about where the story ended and different possibilities to do little things. For now, I’m comfortable having comics completed and having the animation running, but who knows what the future will hold?
George Gene Gustines c.2021 The New York Times Company
Invincible is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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