Robert Kirkman built an empire on the art of the twist. For 20-plus years, the Kentucky native constructed worlds where the blood never stopped flowing, death was inevitable, and subverting audience expectations was part of the overarching strategy. But before the success of Kirkman’s gory soap opera, The Walking Dead, his superhero comic Invincible introduced readers to his signature flare for last-minute gut punches.
Created by Kirkman and Cory Walker in the early 2000s, Invincible was ostensibly a Superman pastiche that followed Mark Grayson—the son of the world’s greatest hero, Omni-Man—on his quest to become a hero in his own right. Then, on the brink of being canceled by its publisher, Invincible revealed their hand. Omni-Man was evil, he was here to take over Earth, and he’d beat his son to the brink of death to do it. From there, everything began to turn around for the fledgling series.
“I actually thought that Issue 13 was going to be the final issue for a while,” Kirkman says over the phone. “But as we got closer to Issue 13, sales started turning around, and it was like, ‘Oh, you know, we’ll hold on for a little bit longer and see what happens.’ Then things really took off. But to have this series that was struggling so early on not only grow to be a successful series that ended up lasting for 16 years, [but to] have it now becoming a TV series was, it was kind of insane when you look back on it.”
In retrospect, the last-minute reveal seems quaint. Over its run, Invincible became part of a new wave (e.g., Mark Millar’s Wanted, Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, Garth Ennis’s The Boys) of superhero stories skewering superhero stories. For Kirkman, no comic book trope—reboots, costume changes, time travel, dimension-hopping—was safe. So when he signed a two-year production deal with Amazon in 2019 to develop the 144-issue comic into an animated series, it made sense. After two decades of studios figuring out how to adapt normal superhero stories for the screen, audience appetite began to shift to the same type of stories about evil supermen, multiverse shenanigans, and lovable villains Kirkman made his name telling. Kirkman spoke to The Ringer earlier this month about the new series, which debuted on Amazon last Friday.
What are some of the challenges of turning a sprawling comic like Invincible into a television series?
The comics medium and television really work well in tandem, because they’re both long-form storytelling that is serialized. If we were to try and take 144 issues of Invincible and cram them into one season, that would be extremely challenging. But, we’re taking a very bite-sized chunk of the story and telling it over the course of our first season. By doing that we’re keeping things fairly manageable and giving things room to breathe. That has made for a somewhat streamlined adaptation process.
The Invincible comics are a slow burn. It takes a couple of issues to get to the big Omni-Man twist. Did you know that you couldn’t necessarily wait that long in television to present a twist?
There’s definitely some needs that arise when you move into the television structure—especially in the world of streaming and binge-watching. There’s definitely some considerations that were taken into account as we were adapting the story. The Invincible comic book series is definitely somewhat of a slow burn. I would hint that the television series is significantly less of a slow burn, but that’s all I’ll say about that.
What was the daily routine of being an executive producer? How does it differ from comic book writing?
Comic book writing is a little bit more focused and a little bit more solitary. I’m sending scripts. I’m getting art back from artists. There’s a little less back and forth. When it comes to producing the television series, especially early on, there’s a lot of things happening at once. So, any day I could be reading and giving notes on a script, going to a voice-record session, looking over animatics, or approving character designs. And I was just one of many producers. So it’s not like all those things kind of fell on my shoulders. Just watching the project come together, it’s great being fortunate enough to have a hand in every aspect of it. I got to say, “Oh, this background could use a little bit more color.” Everything from the biggest note to the smallest note, I at least had the opportunity to chime in on.
What was the funniest part of working in the writer’s room?
The funniest part for me of always being in a writer’s room, especially when I’m adapting my own comic, is having a bunch of professional television writers awkwardly point out how certain things that you did didn’t work and seeing how uncomfortable they are about it. It’s something I’ve really gotten used to. It’s a process I actually quite enjoy, because you can’t improve as a writer unless you’re made aware of your deficiencies.
And so anytime they’re like, “Yeah, that one story didn’t really work,” and you’re like, “Yeah, you’re right. It totally didn’t, let’s fix it,” it’s a lot of fun. You get some moments to kind of make them squirm or you can act like you’re offended and things like that.
Many of your protagonists—Mark Grayson, Rick Grimes, Owen Johnson—always seem to be cut from a similar cloth. They’re family men who have to take power into their own hands and fight against corrupt systems. Why do you think you’re attracted to that type of protagonist and lead?
Geez. I mean, I don’t know. I think that, you know, your average everyday, mundane, family-oriented person is kind of who I am at my core. So that’s kind of a “write what you know” situation. As far as battling a corrupt system, I think anyone who grows up on a steady diet of comic books, which is very much a black-and-white, good-versus-evil kind of thing, kind of entered into the world of gray with a hardy sense of frustration that things aren’t a little bit more clear-cut and plainly handled. So that’s possibly a little by-product of my upbringing, but there are systems that I think could be better.
There is some level of corruption inherent in most aspects of adult life. And that could be somewhat frustrating. And I think that’s somewhat universal. When you strive to make your storytelling as universal as possible to appeal to as many people as possible these are the kinds of things that you end up with. Or it’s entirely possible I’m just interested in writing the same story over and over again. And I’m very upset that you noticed.
Invincible, especially for the latter part of the run, felt like a comic about subverting comics, whether it was new suits and relaunches or a new character taking over the lead role. How do you inject that same subversive comic book energy into a TV show that’s viewed by a wider audience?
The Invincible series subverted, and to a certain extent poked fun of, some of the tropes that exist in superhero comics. We’ll be able to do the same with the tropes that are growing and becoming more prevalent in superhero movies and television shows, some of which are the same things from comics and some which are completely new and different things. I think that there’s a whole new vernacular and language that we get to play with in the Invincible animated series that will kind of be the same sort of thing that we did in the comic book series.
Invincible is coming about at the exact right time, because we do celebrate what makes heroes great, but at the same time we do subvert it. And it’s the subverting of that that makes the series really entertaining and engaging to someone who’s really invested in superhero storytelling. And if the series had come about maybe 10, 20 years ago, people wouldn’t have been as well-versed in superhero movies and television shows as they would need to be to enjoy the experience of Invincible, but we’re coming in at the right time. And 2021, when everyone is incidentally familiar with how superhero stories are told and what superhero worlds are like, and the different secret identity tropes, and all the fun, little tidbits. So we’re really going to take advantage of that.
The later Invincible stuff is my favorite. Have you begun to think about how you break the story of those later seasons? Because it gets wild from here with the Viltrumite War and all of the twists and turns.
We have a rough road map for how the 144-issue run breaks down season to season. So we know roughly what we would cover and how we would cover it, and you know, how it fits into each season. What’s really cool about this series is that because we have that road map and we have that definitive end point, we’re able to better build to those stories. I had a rough plan for what I was doing when I was writing the comic book series, but it’s impossible to have a 16-year series planned out to the extent that some people think you do.
And so there were times when I was very much making things up as I went along, but now that we know where everything is going and we know how all the stories dovetail into each other and how the different subplots work out, we’re able to work more things into the early seasons to set up those things that we know are coming later.
Were there any challenges with making the show? When I was watching the first three episodes, I was surprised how much more story there was from the comics. These emotional beats last a little longer. So was that challenging or was that refreshing that you had more room to work with?
Everything’s a little challenging, but I would lean a little bit more towards refreshing. I mean, I’m a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser and possibly a lot older, if you look at the grand scheme of things, but also, between Simon Racioppa and the other writers that we were able to bring in for this series, like we were able to sit down in a writer’s room and look at the stories from the comic books and improve upon them, and having that hour-long cable drama format available to us allowed us to take little scenes here and there and expand upon them and really pull as much emotion as possible out of the various scenes. I think that Invincible is a really great example of how to adapt a comic book series, because we are hewing very close to what is set up in the comic book series, but almost every single scene is expanded in an interesting way.
So if we had a very emotional scene for Mark and Debbie that lasted maybe a page in the comics and that scene is there, but there’s so much more to it. Looking back, there’s definitely things from the Invincible comic book series that I would change and update. And now we’re getting the opportunity to do that in this series. I think it’s all the better for it.
What are your thoughts on the future of the physical comic book industry? It seems like there’s a lot of anxiety that various business practices from the big two, DC and Marvel, seem to be pushing physical comics to the wayside. And you early in the pandemic work tried to help with Negan Lives.
You can’t argue that we’re not in a transition period. Physical media is becoming less and less prevalent or less and less the preferred form of entertainment. Digital is taking over and encroaching into the collector market to a certain extent. But I think that we’ve been in this transition period for a very long time. Things are ebbing and flowing, and sometimes we have good years, and sometimes we have great years, and sometimes we have not-so-great years as an industry, but I think the collectability of comics are really going to help us.
There’s an entire fan base out there that loves comics as a physical artifact. And I think that’s going to help us weather this storm a little bit better than the music industry did, where you still have someone who will go out and buy a record album, because they do want that physical artifact. I think that’s the kind of thing that will always be present in the comic book industry as well. But we’ve got an uphill battle ahead of us. I think that there’s enough very intelligent people invested in comics as an art form that will keep things moving along, but who knows what the future holds.
The comic industry tends to go in cycles. I grew up watching writers like you, Mark Millar, and Brian K. Vaughan lead the second independent revolution after the original Image guys. Do you think the market is healthy enough to introduce that next wave of creators who can do what you guys did so many years ago?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely do. I think that this pandemic has had everyone quarantining and longing for the days of going back to a comic shop or going back to a comic book convention. I think that a lot of that has led to a renewed interest in comics as a whole. That’s something that we’re seeing internally, sales wise, at all of the companies—that comic sales have hit a really strong point over the last six or seven months. And I think that’s leading to a renewed excitement into the industry and what comics can bring. So I think that the table is being set for a new generation to come in and do some really exciting things with comics. And I very much see that on the horizon. I can’t wait to see who emerges in this environment and what cool projects they’re able to put together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.