The Walking Dead mastermind Robert Kirkman talks us through his new star-studded animated action series Invincible…
Before Robert Kirkman was gnawing at our nerves with The Walking Dead, he was busy subverting another comic-book genre that was ripe for a post-modern twist. Released by Image Comics in 2002, Invincible saw him tackle the world of heroes and villains in a superhero story with a difference. Through Cory Walker’s vibrant artwork, he introduced us to Mark Grayson, an average teenager who turns out to be anything but normal. As the son of the Superman-esque Omni-Man, he’s destined for his own high-flying future – but while he patiently waits for his powers to arrive, he’s stuck battling the super awkward world of high school instead. It doesn’t take long for his abilities to emerge though – and when they do, Kirkman’s eponymous hero is suddenly plunged into a new world of betrayal, bloodshed and page-turning suspense.
Much like the author’s flesh-eating follow up, Invincible wasn’t afraid of lulling its fans into a false sense of security, only to serve up a violent sucker punch at the very last minute. Running for 144 issues, Kirkman and Walker put their larger-than-life saga to bed back in 2018. However with the arrival of this month’s animated adaptation – led by The Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun, Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson, JK Simmons, and a star-studded supporting cast – Kirkman’s back in Invincible territory, and it feels good. “I couldn’t be happier,” beams the author when we speak to him shortly before the show’s Amazon Prime debut. “Seeing these character’s movements and hearing them speak for the first time is always something that I just never seem to get used to. It’s been really amazing seeing it all come together.”
Don’t be fooled by Invincible’s colourful and preppy aesthetic. Kirkman assures us that the creative team behind the show pulled no punches transferring it from the page to the screen, and those attracted by its spandex and superpowers should buckle up. With gratuitous gore and plenty of did-they-really-just-do-that twists, it’s far from your average hero tale: “I would describe Invincible as everything I’ve ever loved about superheroes,” says Kirkman, detailing the mantra that guided his writing process whilst working on both the comic and the series. “I think any fan of superhero movies, television shows and comic books will see that shining through and hopefully that makes it infinitely more appealing to die-hard superhero fans.”
Despite its near-constant convention-bucking, Invincible is also a story told from a sincere place of love and respect for a genre that’s come to dominate pop-culture. “It’s important to note that Invincible was created by a group of people that absolutely love superhero comics and storytelling,” explains Kirkman. “While we do subvert the genre frequently, it’s mainly a storytelling technique to keep you on your toes.” It’s also something that’s sort of become Kirkman’s thing: “It’s my schtick,” he laughs, commenting on his ability to toy with audience emotions. “It’s something I enjoy doing in The Walking Dead and it’s something that’s present in almost all of my work. I’m a fan first and foremost,” he admits. “I’m consuming as much media as anyone else; I’m reading comics and watching TV and movies and I see all these different things that become tropes that people come to expect. It’s a lot of fun being able to subvert that.”
Joining Kirkman on his new animated adventure is a familiar face – or rather, a familiar voice – that fans will surely recognise from his previous television work. “Very early on into The Walking Dead, Steven and I became friendly. He’s a big comic-book fan and I was always giving him comic-book recommendations,” he smiles, recalling his friendship with Yeun who voices Invincible’s titular hero. “I gave him copies of Invincible during Season Two of The Walking Dead. Aside from being an amazing actor in film and TV projects, he’s also a great voice actor so I knew very early on into the animation process that Steven would be absolutely perfect for Mark,” he adds. “I put in some calls early in the development process and he came in and did some voice work for us, just to help get things off the ground. I always knew he’d be great – and I was right – but that’s more to do with Steven’s greatness than any kind of foresight on my part.”
Starring opposite Yeun is acting powerhouse JK Simmons who voices Mark’s father Nolan and his indestructible alter-ego, Omni-Man. A complex role that juggles both tenderness and terror, it required a star that could effortlessly inhibit both: “JK does volatile characters very well – but what people may not be expecting is the absolute kindness, warmth and family vibes that come from him when he’s portraying Nolan. Especially early on in the series, there’s a warmth and a caring sense that really embodies the character in a great way,” suggests Kirkman. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to go to some heavy places as the series progresses,” he quickly adds. “I know JK can handle that stuff extremely well. I’m excited for fans to go on this journey with JK as we explore the Omni-Man character over, hopefully, many seasons.”
If you haven’t already guessed, there’s a large part of Invincible that must be seen first hand to be fully enjoyed. It was part of what made Kirkman’s comic book series so addictive (and successful) – and something the author aims to replicate in new and exciting ways as the series progresses. “It’s one of the hallmarks of the Invincible series,” reasons Kirkman, “that there’s a tonne of cliffhangers and absolutely anything can happen to any character at any time. There are a lot of deaths – and the deaths do matter. This isn’t a superhero story where people are going to be getting brought back to life unless it’s set up from the beginning,” he says. “There are consequences to these stories. Everything that happens matters and we want to keep people guessing. People who read the comics didn’t know what was going to be coming from issue to issue – and that’s something we’re definitely working hard to maintain in the series.”Another major comic-book carryover? Blood – and plenty of it. “It’s an important storytelling tool,” asserts Kirkman. “This is a world where infinitely powerful heroes and villains get into no-holds-barred, high-stakes fights, and if that’s something you want to realistically portray, it’s going to involve extreme levels of graphic violence.” However, much like in The Walking Dead, it’s storytelling – not shock value – that’s at the core of all of Kirkman’s creative decisions: “It’s never done for violence sake. We very much focus on the ramifications and after-effects of what these characters experience having done violence or having violence done to them,” he says.
“It’s something you can’t shy away from. You really have to key in on it so the audience can feel what the characters are feeling and everybody can be on the same page about how high the stakes are.”
Helping to flesh out Kirkman’s world is a voice cast that resembles a who’s-who of science fiction, fantasy and comedy stars. Despite being someone who barely considers what his comic book characters might sound like, even Kirkman was astounded at the level of talent lining up to get involved. “It was kind of an embarrassment of riches,” he admits, reflecting on a supporting cast list that boasts Seth Rogen, Mark Hamill, Sandra Oh, Zachary Quinto, Gillian Jacobs and Walton Gogins – just to name a few. “Our casting director came to us with a list and we were like ‘wait, what? THIS is the list?’ It was like the fake list I would make at home if I was daydreaming who I would cast in these roles,” chuckles Kirkman. “There were a lot of Walking Dead actors – I’d call them and beg. We were rolling up our sleeves to try and get the best people possible.” With so much talent eager to get involved, Kirkman and his team rejigged the recruitment process entirely. “We didn’t do many auditions,” he reveals. “It was basically just ‘do you want to do this?’” he laughs. “We needed the talent that they had and we knew they could handle these roles.”
That said, there was one cast member who had closer ties to Invincible that most. Together with his longtime scriptwriting partner Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen – who voices Mark’s foe-turned-ally Allen the Alien – is currently hard at work bringing Kirkman’s story to the big screen. “The team that’s working on the movie for Universal is very aware that it’s going to have to be different [to the series] and production realities are going to make it somewhat different,” says Kirkman on Rogen and Goldberg’s film adaptation. “Keeping the story to a two-hour movie is going to make it a much more contained affair and there are some creative ways that we’re handling that,” he teases. “I don’t want to spoil anything from the show or from the movie – but I don’t think anyone should be worried about these two projects in any way being too similar.”
When it comes to the series, however, time is no issue. Spread out across eight, one-hour instalments, Amazon’s bite-sized take on Invincible aims to take its time in order to fully replicate the comic’s sprawling, intergalactic storyline. “Amazon allowed us to capture the scope and scale of the comics. This is a series where you can have two alien invasions in one episode, somebody fighting on the moon in another episode and a fight on Mars an episode after that. We go to the centre of the Earth, to deep space and we can have fights that span the entire globe in minutes,” says Kirkman on the flexible nature of animation. “There certainly wasn’t an effort to try and cram 144 issues of story into this first season. We will hopefully be coming back and doing more Invincible for many years to come,” he continues. “By the end of this, it’d be really great if the full story is told in animation form.”
Invincible’s small screen debut could mark the start of a long relationship – but what about those new to the story? Should they rush to read the source material or jump in blind? “I try to take this kind of thing on a case-by-case basis,” smiles Kirkman, offering some level-headed advice. “With The Walking Dead, there’s a great experience that comes with watching the television show and going back to read the source material and seeing they changed it this way or that way. At the same time, if you’ve read the source material, when you watch the show you see ‘oh they’re updating it this way,’” he says. “I think enjoying the two forms together gives you a pretty well-rounded experience. There will be little Easter Eggs, winks and nods in the show to things that only comic book readers will get – and that’s fun. So there’s an extra level of enjoyment that comes from having read the comics,” reveals Kirkman. “But I’m pretty bohemian when it comes to this kind of stuff; watch the show, read the comic, both, neither – it’s fine!” He quickly catches himself: “Actually, don’t choose neither,” he laughs. “I don’t recommend that option!”
The first three episodes of Invincible will launch on 26 March on Prime Video, with new episodes available every Friday.