Feeling Invincible

Feeling Invincible

By Michael Pickard
March 7, 2024


Prime Video’s Invincible is flipping the script on animated series – and superhero adventures. Executive producers Robert Kirkman and Margaret M Dean tell DQ about adapting the original comics, breaking animation boundaries and why the series doesn’t shy away from ultra-violence.

When billionaire playboy Tony Stark announced himself as Iron Man in the 2008 film of the same name, it heralded the start of an unprecedented run of captivating superhero movies. But after a string of underwhelming projects on both the big and small screens as the demand for quantity eventually overtook quality, studios such as Marvel and DC have been left to reassess their plans as audiences suffer from superhero fatigue.

Yet one masked avenger is bucking the trend. Born on the pages of the title character’s own comic book in 2003, Invincible is the coming-of-age story of Mark Grayson, whose father Nolan also happens to be Omni-Man, the world’s most powerful superhero.

Written by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) and illustrated by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, the comic only had 144 issues, completing its run in 2018. But an animated adaptation debuted on Prime Video in 2021 to widespread acclaim and had already been renewed for a third season ahead of the launch of the second half of its eight-episode second season on March 14.

Coproduced by Skybound Animation and Amazon MGM Studios, the series follows the pages of the book to introduce 18-year-old Mark, who is living in the shadow of his father, an extraterrestrial from the planet Viltrum. When he gains his own powers, he becomes Invincible, but he is also dealt a huge blow when he is betrayed by his father in season one.

Robert Kirkman

As season two heads towards its conclusion, Mark struggles to rebuild his life as he faces a host of new threats while battling his greatest fear – that he might become his father.

An all-star cast featuring Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, Zazie Beetz, Grey DeLisle, Chris Diamantopoulos, Walton Goggins, Gillian Jacobs, Jason Mantzoukas and JK Simmons provide the voices for the show, which stands out among other animated series for its bloody, ultra-violent fight sequences, family drama and an episodic running time that clocks in at around 50 minutes, twice the standard for the genre.

And if superhero fans are feeling a little lethargic right now, they’re exactly who Invincible was created for.

“One thing that works in the comic’s favour is that it was created by three deeply entrenched superhero fans. But we were also a little jaded and a little tired of the tropes,” Kirkman tells DQ. “Invincible as a comic was always designed to be the alternative to Marvel and DC for people who love Marvel and DC. It’s not the alternative for people who don’t like those things.

“We accurately depict what these punches would be like and how these stories would roll out. There’s also a lot of very heartfelt drama that sometimes gets glossed over in those things. So I feel like we became the same alternative for the people that enjoy [superhero] television and movies, that we were for diehard comic book fans.”

Executive producer Margaret M Dean, head of Skybound Animation, admits she’s not a fan of superheroes, but what she loves about Invincible is its real-world setting and its deep family drama, which is most notable in the series-spanning father-son struggle between Nolan and Mark.

“I feel like every step of the way, all of the people involved in creating this have thought about what it would really be like if this were the real world, not just how the punches will really hit and how much blood would actually spurt out, but what are the deep emotional scars people have?” she explains. “Every character is very rich, with those scars and with the drama and trauma they’re experiencing in this world. To me, it measures up there with anything that’s on the air now, any of the big dramatic shows. The sophistication and maturity of the storyline is way beyond anything anybody’s seen in animation before.”

Invincible’s voice cast is led by Steven Yeun as the title character (right)

That’s because to Dean and Kirkman, animation is less of a genre than a medium to tell stories that, in the case of Invincible, explore mature themes against an interplanetary backdrop without the barriers or obstacles of making a live-action series. They also rank it alongside shows including Blue Eye Samurai, Arcane and The Legend of Vox Machina where “animation is just an art form.”

“An animated series can have the same appeal as a Sopranos or a Game of Thrones – these shows are really proving that, so it’s a really great time to be doing Invincible and to be considered on the same list as some of those other shows that are being produced right now,” Kirkman says. “It’s a great time to be in animation.”

That Invincible is an animated series also means there is a natural “buffer” between the audience and what they are watching, meaning the series can get away with its more “unbelievably violent, gross or upsetting” moments that viewers might shy away from if it were live action. “Not only can you go to lots of places, and you can do a very broad big scope project or story for less money, but you can also just expand how far you go emotionally, how far you go physically and violently,” Dean notes, “and you keep your audience. You don’t lose them.”

“The only limitation we have is that we always want to be able to top ourselves,” Kirkman adds. “We’re always trying to push the envelope to go as far as possible, to be innovative and new and intriguing and different. It’s really just trying to break new ground and give people something exciting or unexpected.”

Kirkman and his writing team are using the Invincible comics as a “clear roadmap” for the series, taking advantage of the “tremendous gift” of being able to look at all 144 issues and identify where the show will go next. But Kirkman isn’t afraid of tweaking or improving a story that some fans will already know, to ensure they stay as engaged and hyped about the show as he is.

Invincible takes its lead from the 144-issue comic book on which it is based

Season one is a good example of Kirkman’s approach to adaptation, in which events of the first and last episode were taken directly from the source material, but the route taken to reach the end was not be exactly the same. “There’s actually a tremendous amount of work the writing team is doing behind the scenes to make everything fit together in a way that it didn’t necessarily fit together before,” he says.

Of course, Kirkman is no stranger to adapting comic books for television, having created the Walking Dead comics that became a mega-franchise for US cable channel AMC. But as that comic was still being written when the television series went into production, he didn’t have the power of hindsight to adapt and adjust the story as it was repurposed for the screen.

“There were times when we didn’t quite know how important certain things were going to become, because I hadn’t written the comic yet,” Kirkman says of The Walking Dead. “That was a very weird, stressful process for me because I had to turn my comic brain on at night and then go back in time five or six years and work on the show during the day. It led to some things that I may not be all that happy with, so it’s great to have the complete series [of Invincible] to be able to be able to pinpoint what is actually important in issue eight because it comes back up in issue 112.”

Taking up her role at Skybound in January 2022, Dean has worked for numerous animation studios, with credits including Robot Chicken, Teen Titans and What’s New, Scooby-Doo?. Joining season two of Invincible, her role includes scheduling, budgeting, planning the production process and building the animation team.

“The other big role for me is just to keep the production going and on track, which is a series of problem solving, from the small minutia, interpersonal issues to the bigger relationship with Amazon and communicating with them,” she notes. “My goal is to facilitate the realisation of Robert’s vision, so I have to do whatever it takes.”

Atom Eve is voiced by Community star Gillian Jacobs

“Marge does hassle me about turning in scripts faster,” jokes Kirkman, who is chairman of Skybound Entertainment, “but that’s probably less than 1% of her job. Marge is building Skybound Animation from the ground up. This show is very much an in-house production that Skybound is delivering. Everybody in the team that Marge has been able to build recognises what we’re trying to accomplish, and that means everybody is putting in an extra level of effort and care. I think it shows in how the show is put together and what the final result of the show is.”

As the pair talk to DQ, season two is in the can, while they are in the late stages of wrapping season three, barring some final ADR and animation tweaks. “Then we’re also behind the scenes working with Amazon to try and figure out what’s next,” Kirkman says.

With more than two years between the release of the season one finale and the first episode of season two, the writer says managing the release of the show is a “constant struggle,” as viewers’ expectations to see their favourite show return every year butt against the demands of producing an animated series – a wait that was softened with the release of a special standalone episode that served to spotlight the backstory of Invincible’s fellow superhero, and one of the show’s most popular characters, Atom Eve.

“Animation is difficult and it does take time,” Kirkman says. “We’re trying to hopefully accomplish a yearly cadence if we’re fortunate enough to continue after season three. We’ll just have to see. Unfortunately, animation is a constantly moving target.”

“The other thing about Invincible, in particular, is the scope of the show is massive,” Dean says. “When we started season two, the one thing Robert asked us to do was continue to improve the animation. We really pushed the envelope to elevate the visuals even further – and I feel like we’ve succeeded.”

Production has almost wrapped on the third season of the show

“And season three is looking even better,” Kirkman adds. “A lot of people take for granted the fact we’re an hour-long animated drama, but that means our eight-episode season is essentially a 16-episode season. With the number of assets we have to produce for every episode, because of the different locations we go to, the different characters we introduce and the different damaged states of the various characters, the show is a massive undertaking.”

Though comic book fans have widely praised Invincible’s transfer from page to screen, perhaps the show’s greatest achievement is winning over people who might never have watched an animated show.

“I have a lot of friends that have teenage kids who are like, ‘Oh, I saw my son was watching that dumb show you do, and I started watching it and I got hooked.’ We’re definitely hearing no end of stories about people coming to the show who figured they wouldn’t like it,” Kirkman says. The limited audience data released by Prime Video also reveals the series is exceeding its targets.

“If you look at the percentage of the population that doesn’t watch animation, we have way more of those people watching our show,” Dean says. “It’s reaching out beyond the normal animation band, which is why it’s another support for the idea that animation is not niche. It is really a viable artistic expression for any stories to be told, and people will watch it. We’ve proven that.”

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