***This article originally appeared in the April ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 309)***
If you like your animated superheroes to be complicated characters who wear brightly colored spandex costumes, you are going to love the new adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s popular Invincible series, which arrives on Amazon this Friday, March 26. The show, which was created by Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, is based on the hit comic book published by Kirkman’s own Image imprint between 2003 and 2018.
The great-looking show follows the adventures of Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), a high school student who discovers that he has inherited the superhuman abilities of his powerful extraterrestrial father, Omni-Man (voiced by J.K. Simmons). Kirkman says his new show celebrates the magic of the superhero genre and doesn’t stray away from any of the cool elements that fans of the comic book have fallen for over the years. “It has crazy storylines and offers aspects of the superhero world that haven’t been represented in animation,” he says during a recent phone interview. “We really get to see superheroes in a new light, and hopefully we’ll be expanding the genre.”
Kirkman, who worked closely with Walker, supervising director Jeff Allen and the team at Skybound Entertainment (The Walking Dead), says he was inspired by retelling his dramatic tale in the one-hour animation format. “There was a ton of figuring out how to best approach the story about this young character as he enters this crazy world of superheroes,” he notes. “It was a thrilling journey to watch our hero Mark mature and come to his own throughout the eight hours of the first season.”
Development for the show started about four years ago at the same time that Kirkman began exploring a live-action feature adaptation of the property with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. (The movie version is also moving forward.) He says one of the main challenges of the project was getting an animation studio to commit to a 2D hand-drawn show for that duration. The production found a great partner in Korean studio Maven Image Platform, which has worked on projects such as Harley Quinn and Reign of the Supermen, as well as Japan’s TAP studio (which worked on episode four of the show). Skybound’s Vancouver studio handles the CG effects of the show.
“That was a big undertaking, especially since many of the studios around the world are very busy right now,” explains Kirkman. “So it felt like we set out to do the impossible. I can’t say enough about the hard work that all these great animation teams have done to make this happen. That was a very gratifying sight to see.”
“Cory Walker and I wrapped up our work on the comic books after 16 years and 144 issues and we just had to roll into adapting it into an animated series,” recalls Kirkman. “We revisited this world in a new light and got to watch all these amazing characters come to life. I went through a similar process with The Walking Dead, but here we got to work with voice actors and animation to hone it as closely as possible to the comic book.”
“We were able to have some high-octane scenes with lots of drama and cool violence,” he notes. “I mean, we get to see heads explode and eyeballs flying around. We also have some truly heartbreaking scenes. We strengthened the narrative by moving some events around and reconstructed subplots so that audiences can see the evolution of the story in a clear way. Fans of the comic books will get the scenes they are expecting to see, but there will be lots of twists and turns as we’re expanding on the stories in different ways.”
A Die-Hard Fan at the Helm
Invincible’s supervising director Jeff Allen says he was a huge fan of the comic-book series from the very first issue. “I loved both the writing and the art, and was totally blown away by it,” says Allen, a TV animation biz veteran whose directing credits include Avengers Assemble, Ultimate Spider-Man and Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue. “I collected every issue all the way to the final one, and when they came up with the hardcover volume and compendiums, I bought them, too! I’d keep reading them again and started from the beginning, too. I’ve read parts of it thousands of times!”
Allen says not having to talk down to the younger audiences of the show has been a very liberating experience. “In other animated shows I had worked on, we weren’t allowed to show a character be thrown out of a glass window because that’d be dangerous, so they would have to be thrown out of an open window, for example,” he explains. “We can also point a gun at the camera, which isn’t allowed in other animated shows. The scripts are all well-written and intelligent and there’s a rewarding overarching storyline for the whole show. Not only do I get to work on an adult-themed superhero show, it’s one that is near and dear to my heart.”
The show adheres to what audiences are expected to see in a superhero comic adaptation, but as Allen points out, the grown-up elements definitely push the envelope. “Corey Walker, who co-created the comic-book with Robert, is our character designer — so it looks like he drew the whole show,” he notes. “It’s a brightly colored superhero cartoon, but there’s the juxtaposition with blood and gore. I don’t want to spoil anything, but things get bloodier and darker as the season progresses. Even our title cards get bloodier with each episode!”
Thematically, the show’s subject matter is also deeper and darker. Allen says the heart of Invincible is Mark’s difficult journey as he has to decide what kind of a superhero he wants to be. “We have 140 issues to delve in, and hopefully we can tell a lot of wonderful stuff as we explore every nook and cranny of the comic books,” he says. “It’s a lot different than adapting source material to a movie, which means you have to compact the story down into two hours. We can take our time.”
When asked about the target audience for the series, Allen says it’s definitely PG-13. “My daughter just turned 13 and I ask myself, will she be watching the show with us? Her friends are big Walking Dead fans. But when I think about myself when I was 10, my friends and I would be so happy to watch a show like this!”
From Studio to Bedroom
Of course, like many other TV creatives, Allen and his team had to deal with the COVID pandemic and the adjustments necessary to work from home. But since many of the 220 people working on the show were based in studios in Vancouver, Korea and Japan, it was a smoother transition than most. “I don’t miss commuting to work,” he says. “Editing was a little rough in the beginning, but Evercast [the remote collaboration platform] took care of that. I think it ended up working out better for the production. Everyone was more productive and we got a lot more done. For me, especially, since at home my office is right next to my bed! But I do miss interacting with people and sitting in the edit room.”
Heroes in Spandex
“I love the feeling of this world of superheroes that Robert has created,” Kirkman explains. “I love the brightly colored spandex costumes they wear. Plus, it’s a great coming-of-age story about our main character, and it doesn’t exactly go in the direction you’d expect it to go. Robert wrote the first and the final (eighth) episode of the season, and we really wanted to knock it out of the park. I am really proud of what we did, and I really want to do better in Season Two!”
As a kid, Allen loved reading comic books and watching Tom and Jerry cartoons, Thundarr the Barbarian and The Herculoids on TV. He says he grew up wanting to be a comic-book artist for Marvel and to be a film director. Directing animated shows like Invincible has allowed him to combine both of his dreams. He also mentions that working with a comic-book icon like Kirkman has been a real thrill.
“He is very laid-back, extremely funny and no-nonsense, and he tells you straight out if he doesn’t like something or thinks something is a stupid idea,” admits Allen. “He is always filled with ideas. I remember sitting in a room with him and our composer, and I got a little starstruck. My main goal was to make him and Cory happy. Of course, things go wrong — but when things work, you feel like this weight has been lifted off your shoulders. Do you remember in the movie Interstellar, when Matthew McConaughey is watching the video of his adult daughter and he’s bawling? That’s what I was doing, when everything was right and we didn’t need any retakes!”
Kirkman mentions that shows like The Transformers and G.I. Joe were big touchstones of his childhood, and he recognizes the power animated worlds can have on young minds. “I wasn’t the only one who rushed home from high school to watch Batman: The Animated Series on TV,” he notes. “I also love Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D. and the Akira movie. It’s been absolutely amazing to watch these massive streaming platforms finally recognize the values of storytelling and what adult animation is on the cusp of being able to do. Anime fans have been watching this stuff for years and know what the medium is capable of.”
For Kirkman and his team, Invincible is a harbinger of the next wave of superhero shows on the small screen. “We are going to see insane spectacle and crazy action-packed adult animation dominating the streaming landscape in the near future,” he predicts. “Those movies and adult animation appeal to the same audience, and streaming platforms are recognizing this. It’s a new era.”
Invincible premieres on Amazon Prime on March 26. New episodes arrive weekly on Fridays.