‘Walking Dead’ Creator Robert Kirkman Is Bringing ‘Violence and Gore’ to the Superhero World
The creator of ‘The Walking Dead’ is re-teaming with Steven Yeun to bring an animated world of superheroes to the small screen—and this time, the possibilities are endless.
For Robert Kirkman, Invincible was always going to be an animated series. The new adult superhero show, out March 26 on Amazon Prime Video, is the third of Kirkman’s iconic comic book series to be adapted for the small screen, but it’s the first time he’s strayed from live-action.
“The Walking Dead and Outcast are very good examples of very producible shows,” Kirkman tells The Daily Beast in a phone interview. Although the two previous series grapple with a zombie apocalypse and demonic possession, they’re still fundamentally straightforward in production.
“For the most part, it’s just people in plainclothes in dark rooms talking to other people who are acting weird,” he says. “Invincible is very much not like that. Invincible is a cast of thousands. Invincible is a massive world. Invincible has insane scope and scale.”
The series follows 17-year-old Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), whose dad just happens to be Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), the greatest superhero on Earth. Mark is elated when he finally develops his own powers, but also begins to notice inconsistencies in his father’s actions. When he’s not fighting bullies in school or talking to his mom (Sandra Oh) at home, Mark can be found fighting supervillains at the bottom of the ocean or on another planet.
In addition to the intense interplanetary action sequences, animation also allowed for Kirkman to dig into some of the idiosyncrasies of everyday superhero life. In the first episode, Mark and his dad play catch outside. Instead of tossing the baseball back and forth in their backyard, they play back-to-back thousands of feet in the air, throwing the ball to one another across the globe. Kirkman is particularly fond of a conversation that Mark and his dad have over Mount Everest.
“They're just having this casual conversation that just happens to be in this very exotic, insane, crazy locale,” Kirkman explains. “If we were shooting this in live-action, a line producer would say, ‘Hey, you know, can’t this be on the porch?’”
“This is a superhero show,” he adds. “We want to show [that] this is how superheroes live. A superhero would have this conversation on the top of Mount Everest, because that requires no effort.”
Animation also helps set Invincible apart from the onslaught of other superhero productions, which Kirkman calls “a hugely crowded landscape.”
While Marvel and Disney+’s WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and forthcoming Loki series have dominated the 2021 television scene, DC and The CW have been on the live-action superhero series beat for years. Since the premiere of Arrow nine years ago, The CW has developed The Flash, Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning, Batwoman, and Superman & Lois.
Even Amazon Prime Video got in on the trend with The Boys, the dark and satirical live-action take on superheroes that began filming its third season last month. Kirkman calls The Boys “super amazing and creative and fantastic,” but says that he didn’t want to go head-to-head with the show.
“I think that one way that we're able to stand apart is by being animated,” he explains. “I think that when people see the elements of violence and gore that are incorporated, that kind of stuff works really well in animation.”
Invincible, first printed in 2002 with illustrations by Cory Walker, rivals Kirkman’s other comics in terms of bloodshed. The screen adaptation is no exception. The comic, which ran for 15 years with contributions from Ryan Ottley, is the first of Kirkman’s TV adaptations to be based on a story that is already finished. Kirkman said that working on two different versions of the stories, which were years apart in the timeline, often created a hectic process.
“It was nice to be able to just kind of go, ‘OK, well, Invincible now lives in this form in my brain,’” Kirkman says. “I didn't have to keep two forms of Invincible going concurrently.”
Working from a completed storyline also gave Kirkman and writer Simon Racioppa a blueprint when they started mapping the series, which Kirkman enjoyed and likened to “assembling a puzzle.” Mark and his family have a precise trajectory for the series, so every choice the writers made in an episode was about getting the three Graysons closer to their inevitable developmental conclusion.
“Mark is a character that over the course of this series will evolve more than I think any character I've ever created,” Kirkman says. “I think that he goes through so much, and learns and changes so much over time, that by the end of the series he’s a completely different person.”
Kirkman was looking for someone with the range, who could play both a naive kid and a fully mature adult, and Yeun was the ideal fit. Kirkman has watched him evolve since his early days on The Walking Dead as fan-favorite Glenn into the Oscar-nominated actor he is today.
“You've seen him grow as an actor into somebody that is absolutely at the top of everyone's list,” he says. “He’s head and shoulders grown more than almost anyone and I felt that he would be perfect to portray Mark.”
One of the most challenging characters in the series is also the most human, Debbie Grayson.
“She is an everyday, normal, powerless human being that’s in this world surrounded by Titans, and she has to hold her own,” Kirkman says. “She has to be, in a sense, the strongest character in this show, because her strength comes from her personality and comes from her will. And that's something that we needed somebody to be able to portray with their voice, which is extremely difficult to do. And Sandra is someone that just [comes] in and does what she does almost effortlessly. Every recording session with her was an absolute masterclass in voice acting.”
Kirkman notes that animated productions provide a bit of a reprieve for actors, since their contributions can be done from within a sound booth. It’s especially alluring now, as many live-action productions continue to face pandemic-related setbacks. Animation provided some of the only network productions that were able to maintain regularly scheduled programming for the 2020-2021 TV season, and a few of the most enticing films to come out of Sundance this year.
“As it becomes more prevalent and more accepted by mainstream audiences, as people see more and more that these [shows] aren't just material produced for kids and you can actually do some really cool groundbreaking things with it, you will see more and more of it,” Kirkman says. “And I couldn't be more excited about that.”