Comics-to-screen adaptations are tricky to pull off — and hard-core comic book fans can be exacting — but Robert Kirkman has now been the writer behind two of them.
First, he masterminded the comic book “The Walking Dead,” then helped turn it into one of the most popular TV series of the 21st century. Now Kirkman is executive producer of “Invincible,” an animated Amazon Prime show based on a superhero he created with the illustrator Cory Walker. Loaded with top-shelf voice talent led by Steven Yeun as the title’s teenage superbeing (real name: Mark Grayson) and J.K. Simmons as his father, Omni-Man, the new series is irreverent and dramatic, funny and graphically violent, and never less than gleefully entertaining. The comic book was published from 2003 to 2018 by Skybound, an Image Comics imprint.
In a video call from Los Angeles, Kirkman, 42, discussed some of what inspired him in his work on “Invincible.”
Naturally, a superhero story is going to draw from one of the biggest publishers of the genre, but Kirkman zeroed in on a specific side of Marvel Comics. “Their big innovation in the ’60s was to treat the superhero characters as if they were human beings,” he said. “There were stories dealing with trouble at work and having to make rent. So ‘Invincible’ tries to dig deep on the family aspects and portray inhuman characters as deeply human.”
“When superpowered characters go on dates they can have lunch in Rome or their favorite bistro in France. They’re not constrained by the same realities of time and distance as we are,” Kirkman said. If Mark is falling short as a boyfriend, he added, “it’s not because he forgot to text before he went out with the boys; it’s because he had to do a quick mission on Mars. We’re able to use the fantasy elements of a superhero world to heighten the everyday relatable drama.”
The non-superheroic folks don’t get ignored, either. Invincible’s mother, Debbie (Sandra Oh), for example, has issues of her own. “Her main story line in the first season is a suspicion over her husband doing something that could be potentially very bad,” Kirkman said. “A wife suspicious of her husband is a very real thing that a lot of people deal with — a somewhat grounded conflict in this crazy superhero world.”
DC Comics’ Silver Age
Kirkman is a fan of the lighter aspects of superhero stories, especially as they flourished at DC Comics in the 1950s through 1970s; he singles out Superman’s romance with the mermaid Lori Lemaris, and also mentioned his turning back time by flying around the Earth at super-speed in the Richard Donner film “Superman,” from 1978. “By embracing the sillier aspects of Silver Age comic books, we’re not telling silly stories — I don’t think anyone would ever say that ‘Invincible’ is silly,” Kirkman said. “But holding your breath and speaking telepathically while you fight around the orbit of the planet is goofy, a father and son playing catch by throwing a ball around the curvature of the Earth is ridiculous,” he continued, referring to events in his new show. “Playing those scenes straight shines a spotlight on how unique and how cool the world of superheroes can be.”
‘The Transformers: The Movie’ (1986) by Nelson Shin
Visible behind Kirkman was a poster of this animated feature, which he saw when he was 8. The movie dispatches Optimus Prime, the heroic leader of the Autobots, early on, a storytelling decision that made a big impression on the future writer. “By giving the audience something they would tell you they absolutely don’t want, you can actually give them something that is really fulfilling and better than anything they could have imagined,” he said.
“The Walking Dead” is famous for abruptly killing off fan favorites, and the first episode of “Invincible” ends in a startling massacre. “The stories that come after that are richer because of that loss,” Kirkman said.
‘Dead Alive’ (1993) by Peter Jackson
With its crushed skulls and geysers of blood, “Invincible” does not shy from violence. Kirkman, however, claims that he gets queasy easily.
“I’m not great at realistic gore, but I do enjoy the shockingness and startling aspect of when unrealistic gore happens,” he explained. Once again, a childhood experience proved formative.
He was about 15 when his father came in with a VHS tape, saying, ‘I’m supposed to take this back to the video store, but this movie’s insane, you’ve got to watch it,’” Kirkman said fondly.
It was this delirious low-budget zombie-comedy hybrid by the director who would later deliver the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and Kirkman was not disappointed. “The climax is, there’s a house full of zombies and a guy ties a lawn mower around his neck and runs around hacking people up,” he said.
Kirkman picked Liefeld not because he was one of the founders of Image Comics (which published both the “Invincible” and “The Walking Dead” comic books) but for his storytelling chops. “If you look at how fast-paced ‘Invincible’ is, that is something Rob very much established in his work,” Kirkman said.
He also enjoys Liefeld’s taste for plotting antics, singling out a big reveal in issue 100 of “The New Mutants,” from 1991, in which the villainous Stryfe takes off his helmet, revealing himself to be the gun-toting warrior Cable — or is he?
“Seeing that kind of stuff and how it works in comics has led to some of those bigger cliffhangers and wackier soap-opera moments in ‘Invincible,’” Kirkman continued, mentioning Monster Girl, “who is trapped in a youthful body,” as an example. She turns into a big beast, but each time she transforms, she returns looking even younger, which presents complications — it’s hard to date when you’re a 20-something who looks 12.
‘Savage Dragon’ by Erik Larsen
Kirkman praises this comic book as his favorite of all time, and a big reason is that the title character aged over the years — just like the “Invincible” books introduce a 17-year-old Mark Grayson who eventually grows older, marries, becomes a father. “That’s something that’s definitely pulled from Erik Larsen,” Kirkman said.
While the series has just started, he and Yeun already have Mark’s future in mind. “In the very earliest recording sessions, Steven pulled me aside and said, “I’m trying to play him as very young and naïve because I know where the character goes and I want to be able to change my voice over time,’ ” Kirkman said. “I don’t know exactly how many seasons the show will run at this point, but the goal is to tell that complete story.”