Robert Kirkman on the past, present, and future of ‘Invincible’
Proceed with caution, Invincible fans. Light spoilers ahead in the last section of this story for the comic’s final issue. Read the issue first if you don’t want to ruin any surprises.
In issue 7, Invincible gutted us. And then, in issue 11, it happened again.
The twists never actually stop in this superhero story that defies all known comic book logic. For 144 issues, Invincible journeys through a DC/Marvel-ian universe that weaponizes your sense of familiarity in the name of a compelling story.
Characters die, and they don’t come back (or, when they do, there’s a logical reason for it). Good and evil exists in the moment, never hinging on static ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ labels. But Invincible goes further than simply obliterating familiar tropes.
The story also doesn’t shy away from letting real life intrude on our escapist fantasy. Infidelity, domestic abuse, even rape all drive events at various points. There’s plenty of humor and life-affirming positivity to balance the bad, but all of it — good and bad both — shapes the deep cast of characters. They grow and evolve. Their worldview changes as life plays out around them.
To share any more than the basic setup is to spoil what makes Invincible special. Mark Grayson is an average high school teen who works a shitty fast food job and hides an important family secret: His father Nolan is actually Omni-Man, a Superman-esque alien hero to all.
Mark’s world changes forever on the day that he develops powers of his own. It happens during an otherwise uneventful work shift. He’s taking the trash out, but when a gently tossed bag sails off into the sky instead of landing in the dumpster, Mark grins.
“It’s about time.”
In the beginning
Robert Kirkman never set out to upend all our comic book comfort spaces. Invincible isn’t an idea that sat in his and co-creator Cory Walker’s head for years. The two hatched the pitch together for a simple reason: It’s something Image Comics, the publisher, wanted.
“I think the funny thing about Invincible is it was kind of created on the fly,” Kirkman said during a recent interview.
Founded in 1992, Image had built up an impressive catalog of successful books by the early Aughts, but one particularly popular story category was always underrepresented in the company’s library: superheroes. Co-founder and publisher Jim Valentino wanted to change that, so he set out to line up five superhero books that would all be released under one line.
At the time, Kirkman and Walker were pitching Science Dog, a story about a talking, mystery-solving canine. The character would eventually find life as Invincible‘s comic-within-a-comic — Mark Grayson’s favorite — but Image wasn’t on board with the idea.
“They were like, ‘Nobody really likes talking dogs. We really like you guys, can you please give us a book that does not have a talking dog as its main character,'” Kirkman said, chuckling.
“I maintain to this day that they were wrong, but who knows?” (Author’s note: Everyone likes talking dogs. Come on, Image.)
With Science Dog canned, the two creators started kicking around superhero ideas. Kirkman himself had always been a fan of teen superheroes, and he felt there weren’t enough of them out there at the time. Ultimate Spider-Man had recently launched with a younger Spidey, but mainline Marvel’s Peter Parker was a married adult and DC’s Robin was similarly grown up.
“I think the funny thing about Invincible is it was kind of created on the fly.”
“I thought, hey, there’s an opportunity here to do a teen-based superhero comic,” Kirkman said.
“It was really just Cory and I spitballing and coming up with things we loved about superhero comics and crafting a book that could be everything that we love about superheroes all crammed into one book.”
Still, something was missing. Invincible had its central family, and it started with Mark tapping into his powers. It lacked a hook, though. Kirkman had an idea, but this is where we get into spoilers.
If you’ve never read Invincible, stop here and at least read through the first dozen issues. And if you’re just looking to find out more about the upcoming movie adaptation from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, check out our story here.
The twist (SPOILER ALERT!)
For its first six issues, Invincible lulls you into a comfortable space with the Grayson family. Nolan was waiting for Mark’s powers to develop, and once that happens you get the sense of a father-son super-team in the making. A happy story about family togetherness, filtered through the lens of superhuman antics.
That’s where Invincible veers sharply. In the space of a single issue, the entire roster of Invincible‘s Justice League-esque Guardians of the Globes is brutally murdered, one at a time. But there’s no mystery here. At the end of the issue, the killer is revealed: It’s Nolan.
“It wasn’t until I got into the actual writing that I came up with the whole ‘Nolan is a bad guy’ angle,” Kirkman said. “It was something I was initially going to keep secret from everyone just because I thought it’d be funny to surprise people, but I ended up putting it in the pitch because I thought, ‘Hey, this is just a superhero comic that has no hook whatsoever if I don’t put this in the pitch.'”
In the end, Nolan turning out to be a “bad guy” was just the starting point. He’s a much more developed character than that, and his relationship with Mark is central to Invincible‘s story throughout its 144 issue run. But that plot twist was also a declaration: Invincible isn’t like your other superhero comics. Obliterating convention became the norm.
Over the years, Kirkman has cited everyone from Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino as influences on the story. Invincible starts out in the warm comfort of a superhero family but quickly tears that away when Nolan turns on his people. His Guardians of the Globe murders are bloody and graphic, but even those scenes are tame in comparison to what would come later.
It all worked because Kirkman and Walker centered the story around people living in a real world, dealing with real problems. Superhero comics from DC and Marvel tend to lean into fantasy. It’s obvious to us that Clark Kent is really just Superman in glasses, but we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief when literally no one in the DC universe picks up on that obvious resemblance.
“It was something I was initially going to keep secret from everyone.”
Invincible isn’t willing to accept that. Its grounding in reality opened the door for Kirkman to play with common themes and plot devices, turning them on their heads.
“I think that loving superhero comics as much as I do, it gave me the leeway to poke fun at the more ridiculous aspects of it and play into the expectations of a superhero comics reader,” Kirkman said, referring to the type of fan who’s already a Marvel fan and/or a DC fan, but still craves more.
“I was able to play to that audience because that’s who I was as well,” he continued. “I love superhero comics. I was able to do it with a little bit of respect because I did actually enjoy the stories. It wasn’t like some comics where they poke fun at a genre but they don’t really love that genre, so there’s kind of a mean-spirited, off-putting angle to it. This was, ‘Hey, let’s celebrate this goofy stuff we all love.'”
Walker served as Invincible‘s artist sporadically over the course of the series, drawing the first handful of issues and a few others in later years. Ryan Ottley was the comic’s artist for the bulk of its run, and Walker — Kirkman’s friend as well as a colleague — stuck around, somewhat informally, as a sort of story adviser.
“Cory has things that he doesn’t like about certain stories. So every now and then he would be like, ‘Hey can we just not do a dumb love story, because I feel like that ruins some comics,'” Kirkman explained. (Love stories came later, but only after central characters were fully developed.)
“He was an invaluable piece of the puzzle. Every now and then he’d be reading the comic and he’d go, ‘You’re not steering it toward this, are you? Because that would be lame.'”
It was Walker, for instance, who came up with an incredible bit of backstory for Immortal, the lone survivor of Nolan’s hero purge. He told Kirkman one day: “You know, in my mind I think the Immortal was Abraham Lincoln.”
Kirkman loved it, and so it became canon. “There would just be little things that he would throw out that would become big, massive parts of the book,” he said.
Ottley also helped to shape the story, but his motivations were a little different.
“He was very vocal about not doing things he didn’t like drawing,” Kirkman said, laughing. He pointed to the example of Magnattack, a minor villain whose costume consists of metal plates spinning around a black jumpsuit.
“Ryan was like, ‘I hate that guy, that guy looks stupid,'” Kirkman said. He didn’t want to draw the character anymore. “So you’ll see that guy just stops showing up in the book at a certain point,” Kirkman said, laughing again.
Having two collaborators along for Invincible‘s full run also helped in another way: There were three creators providing art and ideas, instead of just one.
“It was great having two different artistic brains that could craft this world. One of the reasons that the Marvel universe is so successful is that it is a ton of different artists visually contributing to it, so you get a lot of different, unique things,” Kirkman explained.
“If one person had designed every character in Invincible there would be some limitations there. But because I was contributing some terrible designs like Magnattack and Cory and Ryan were also designing characters, we actually got a cool, well-rounded universe that has a lot of variation in it.”
Planning the finale
For many of Invincible‘s 15 years as a comic, Kirkman was clear on one thing: He wanted the story to outlive him. He hoped to one day pass the reins along to a new generation of creators as he assumed a sort of Stan Lee role.
Over time, that feeling changed. Reaching a decision to end the series was a gradual evolution, but there was one point, right around the release of issue 100, where Kirkman put an actual plan into motion.
“And so I thought as an exercise, ‘Maybe I’ll just start writing toward an end.'”
“For the longest time I had been working toward the Viltrumite War [story arc], and I didn’t have that big thing anymore that I was working toward,” he said. “And so I thought as an exercise, ‘Maybe I’ll just start writing toward an end.’ Just arbitrarily.”
He didn’t tell anyone at the time. It was just a thought experiment. Though it became more real a few years later, when Ottley told Kirkman he’d like to move on at some point. Invincible was his first big comic and, as Kirkman put it, “[he didn’t] want to die having only drawn Invincible.”
And so the end became a real thing. Even that was no simple task, however. Kirkman had a strong idea of how he would wrap things up, but the act of creating it led him in other directions.
“Writing the last issue of Invincible, I came up with, like, at least 50 more issues worth of stories,” he said.
Don’t misread that; there aren’t 50 more issues coming. Those ideas fuel the grand wrap-up in the final pages of issue 144, but that’s it.
“The book is done,” Kirkman said. “In the last issue, I made a point to set up a bunch of different storylines that could eventually play out at some point. But the idea there is just to give the readers a sense that this is a world that continues existing, even though you’re not going to see it.”
The movie and beyond
Issue 144 is out on Feb. 14 and that’ll be it for the comic, but Invincible isn’t exactly “over.” There’s a movie coming from Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, which Kirkman is producing.
“I’m going over their story documents and spitballing with them to a certain extent. Giving things my blessing as they ask for it,” he said.
“Thus far it’s just been Evan and Seth and I. We’ll get on the phone and chat about [different directions] and they’ve been very collaborative in that way, which has been very welcome. So I’m very excited about it.”
It’s too early for Goldberg and Rogen to publicly share the scope of their planned movie, but it’s safe to say they’re not cramming all 144 issues of the comic into a two-hour window.
“We are definitely telling the classic story of Invincible, and we are doing some directorial things that will make it more dynamic than just the straight-up story,” Goldberg said during a recent interview. “We’ve come up with some conventions that I think will make it a more cinematic experience that fits in the timeframe more.”
The two are most excited about gutting audiences with Invincible‘s unpredictable plot in the same way Kirkman did again and again in the comics.
“I think it is so rare that there’s twists and plot that actually work,” Rogen said. “It really is one of the best parts of the comic, that there are reveals that actually function as giant reveals that you really don’t see coming. That is something we definitely plan on at least trying to do in the movie.”
It’s not just a movie that’s coming, however. Kirkman wouldn’t share any specifics — it’s just too early — but the end of the comic isn’t the end for Mark Grayson and the Invincible universe.
“I think the future of Invincible is very bright and full of possibilities. The movie is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
“I think the future of Invincible is very bright and full of possibilities.”
“There’s any number of opportunities we’re exploring right now that could be very cool. I would saw my left foot off for there to be a Marvel vs. Capcom-style Invincible fighting game. There’s just a lot of stuff out there that I think Invincible would lend itself really well to.”
Kirkman’s team at Skybound, his personal publishing imprint, is “very committed” to finding other ways to keep the Invincible universe alive. But as for Kirkman himself, he’s in a bittersweet place as he says goodbye to the comic.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of having to write a 20-page script for a concept every month of your life for 15 years,” he said. “It doesn’t even seem like a real thing I did, but as soon as I turned in the last script I was like, ‘God, how the hell did I do that? How am I still doing it on The Walking Dead? This is crazy.'”
Kirkman admitted that turning in the final issue lifted a massive weight off his shoulders. It was a relief, no question. But there’s plenty of sadness to go along with it.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such an optimistic ending,” he said. “I do have a great love for the characters and I wanted to imagine them off having other adventures and doing fun, cool, positive things. But it’s a whole mixed bag. I wanted to start writing 145 as soon as I finished.”