Robert Kirkman’s ‘Invincible’ adaptation was ‘a match made in heaven’

Co-hosted by Eric Deggans, written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“Invincible” season 2 official trailer. Photo courtesy of Prime Video via YouTube

For a while, Robert Kirkman thought he was content to be a print guy, spending the last couple of decades creating, writing, and releasing series after series of successful comic book franchises like The Walking Dead and Outcast. Or, as he puts it, “playing in a world that I absolutely love.” 

Then Kirkman became a Hollywood household name. In 2010, The Walking Dead — his post-apocalyptic horror drama comic created with writer/illustrator Tony Moore and then-artist Charlie Adlard – was adapted into a live-action television series by the same name.

The television version smashed through cable viewing records, becoming a monster hit and a cash cow for AMC, which milked it for a whopping 11 seasons. And then came the spinoffs: Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, Tales of the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: Dead City and The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live, as well as several webisodes and video games. 

For Kirkman, success has been an exercise in adaptation. As the franchise’s battles continued on-screen, Kirman and fellow executive producers waged their own, suing AMC for a $200 million breach of contract, and recently calling a semi-truce in another profit battle suit against the network.

All the while, Kirkman kept writing, navigating the balancing act of penning new TWD comic editions while also producing the series. 

“I think it was kind of a weird, unique situation…[but] I tried to make sure that the existence of the show didn't dictate what happened in the comics,” he says.  

Internal arguments ensued. 

“I'm writing the comics and I'm working on the show, and then I start having ideas where it's like, ‘Oh, maybe this guy has a pet tiger,’ and in the back of my mind, I go, ‘Well, that's gonna be hard to do in the show,’” he says. “Then I go, ‘You're a sellout, Kirkman. You have to do the tiger now.’ So then the tiger ends up being in the comics.” 

And, he reflects, “If the show hadn't existed, I may have thought, ‘Maybe it doesn't make a lot of sense for this guy to have a pet tiger,’ and not done it.” 

"I forgot to mention, the tiger," scene from The Walking Dead. Courtesy from The Walking Dead via YouTube

More: Robert Kirkman and Steven Yeun on 'The Walking Dead'

While working on The Walking Dead projects, Kirkman continued releasing his other hit comic, Invincible, an updated take on classic superhero stories that he created in 2004 with artists Ryan Ottley and John Rauch

In 2005, he decided to write a script for the superhero book series, which he, Ottley, and Cory Walker took to Paramount Pictures. 

“There was some talk along the way… with some screenwriters behind the scenes and trying to get things off the ground, but it just never really took [off],” he recalls. “Hollywood is a fickle beast, so there's tons of things out there that just don't happen.”

In the meantime, Kirkman began to dabble more in animation. His entertainment company Skybound partnered with the toy company Spin Master to develop an animated series based on another of his comics, Super Dinosaur. The latter debuted on a Canadian animation network, and later on Amazon’s Prime Video in the United States. That’s when Kirkman learned that Amazon was looking to develop more superhero content. 

In 2021, the first season of Invincible premiered on Prime Video to critical acclaim.  

“I have to say, where we are now, I couldn't be more thankful that things aligned the way that they did,” he says.

Invincible tells the story of Mark Grayson (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a teenage superhero who looks up to his superhero father, Nolan (J.K. Simmons). As Mark grows up in his father’s shadow, he starts to develop his powers, and learns, in a dramatic way, that his father isn't perfect. Sandra Oh voices Mark’s mother, while Debbie and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg serve as executive producers.

“Invincible” season 1 official trailer. Courtesy of Prime Video 

After a pandemic-induced delay, Invincible returns to Prime for its long-awaited second season on Nov. 3. Kirkman sits down to discuss making the new season, modernizing the superhero genre, and why he’s not worried about adaptation fatigue.

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: The first season of Invincibles aired in March of 2021. The second season doesn't air until November. What happened? You had us on the edge of our seats for a couple of years now.

Robert Kirkman: It's an unfortunate situation, [but] I could not be more thankful of the fanbase for really hanging in there, rewatching the show, hounding me about season two, just really showing us that they care and the interest has remained high. So I'm very grateful that this drought of Invincible that we've almost gotten completely through. We haven't completely lost the fanbase, or at least it doesn't seem that way. So that's great. 

But making animation is all about building a factory, keeping that factory running. With the pandemic, things had to shut down after the first season, so it became this time where we had to start from square one and kind of rebuild the machine that had made season one in order to make season two. In a lot of ways, it was like starting from the ground up, And Season too almost felt like season one because we lost a lot of momentum. So that just killed us timewise.

How Invincible evolved from being a comic to being an animated series?

I had been doing animated series, and I really liked how comic books adapt into animation. I think that there's just a lot of freedom that you have in comics that you kind of lose when you move to live action. There's a lot of restrictions that you have to plan for and a lot of those restrictions just don't exist in the animation world. So I think it's a match made in heaven to be able to do an Invincible animated series. I think that if it was an Invincible live action series, there would definitely have to be a different take on it and a different structure, and by doing it in animated form, we're able to adapt the comic fairly closely. We're able to translate that on a yielding scale that we're able to accomplish in comics, in animation form.

I also talk a lot about the different way that I approach adapting The Walking Dead versus adapting invincible. I think that because the invincible series was completed, there's an ending to the series that I like. I like the way that the overall story structure mapped out when you look at the 144 issues of invincible, and because of that there's an ending in place that I feel confident working towards, and there's has to be certain things that are maintained to make sure that we achieve that ending in animation the same way that we did in the comic book. Whereas [with] Walking Dead, the ending was very amorphous and wasn't really like settled on while we were working on the TV show. So there wasn't really this need to make sure that we don't change too much stuff along the way, because we have to reach the exact same endpoint, which frankly, I think, did a disservice to [the show]. It's kind of a bummer, but it's made the adaptation of Invincible a lot cleaner, and I think the fan bases are going to respond to it a little bit better.

Is it fair to say that part of what you do is take these classic genre forms that we're used to – whether it's the zombie story or the Superman story – and modernize them, and tell them in a way that feels more like a contemporary story? Do you think that's what you do? What do you see in the story that invincible is telling that reflects that?

I think that's part of it. What it is, is I'm taking familiar stories that have been told in genres multiple times. So when it comes to zombie storytelling, if you've seen 100 zombie movies, you kind of have a sense of what to expect when certain things happen in a zombie story. The Walking Dead strives to do the opposite, or do something different in those instances, so that you're constantly as a fan of the genre, being lulled into expecting a certain thing and then not getting that, and getting something better, or different, or not as good, or whatever, but it keeps you on your toes. 

With invincible, there's almost 100 years of superhero comic book storytelling and 30-40 years in film and television, and I think we're in a similar situation where people expect superhero stories to go in a certain way. So Invincible is by lovers of superhero fiction, but we're able to take that love of superhero fiction and manipulate [it] into something exciting and new and different. As we're telling stories with Invincible, we know exactly what the fanbase is expecting, or thinks they're going to get, because we're the fanbase. 

I'm always trying to just change things up and make things exciting and new and different for myself, and hopefully, that translates to the fanbase as well.

What do you think about this whole notion that there is superhero fatigue out there? Do you buy into it? And how do you think invincible avoids that challenge?

I think this is a great time for invincible to be out because [it] debuted in 2003 as a comic book series, and at that point, superheroes had been running strong since the 30s. You could say that there was a bit of superhero fatigue in the comics at that time. Invincible is designed to be an off the beaten path superhero story that kind of comments on other superhero stories. When you watch Invincible if you have an understanding of all the DC movies and all the Marvel movies, and if you've watched the DC TV shows and the animated series from the 90s of Batman, Spider Man, X Men and all these shows, you will have a vocabulary that will make the invincible show richer for you because you'll recognize the tropes, you'll see how we're changing them, and you'll see how we are paying tribute to great superhero stuff that has come before, but also telling a new story within that. Invincible is designed to be something almost completely different. That's offering a pretty different experience. 

As far as superhero fatigue? In general, there's probably 50 more superhero movies in the queue that are gonna be coming out in the next  five or six years. I think there's gonna be some good ones in the bunch, and I think it's just a flavor thing [and] that these projects just need to offer something different, and I think people will be just as excited about them as they were a couple years ago. So I'm pretty bullish on superheroes as a genre.

You went from someone who loved comics, to writing comics, to writing TV shows and films that have been successful. How do you balance feeding the fans, making sure that you create something that fans love, but not letting yourself become a prisoner to what they expect, or their view of what your work is? How do you hold on to that inner fanboy, but not let it control what you do too much?

I think the fact that I am such a devoted comic book fan has served me really well. And one of the ways that it's really helped me is, I'm really, for the most part, doing all of my projects for an audience of one. When I first started writing my comics, I was trying to entertain myself and I was trying, above all, to do a comic that would have excited me. That's kind of held true. As I've moved through my career, every issue of The Walking Dead has been written to keep me excited and keep me engaged. Every issue of Invincible, same thing. When I sat down to write the pilot of invincible, my main goal was to write a pilot episode that I feel, as a fan, would excite me. So I think that by continuing to try and entertain the same fan, which is myself, I'm not allowing any of the outside influences from various TV shows existing or things like that, cluttering things up too much. 

I've been fortunate in that, so far, the kinds of things that I find exciting, that keep me engaged in the projects that I'm doing, seem to be things that people like. I will eventually inevitably fall out of touch with society and start doing things that make no sense, that nobody likes. I'm sure that day will come at some point. I'm terrified of it, but prepared for its inevitability. So we'll see. But, so far, I'm still into things that other people are into, so phew!

Invincible season 2 premieres on Prime Video on November 3rd.




Kim Masters


Joshua Farnham