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A Talk with the ‘Invincible’ Robert Kirkman

The comic book writer, screenwriter, and producer discusses emotions, violence, the challenges of adaptation, and the making of his current hit animated series ‘Invincible,’ now streaming on Prime Video.

For a guy who made his name with such violence-laden properties as The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Oblivion, and Outcast, Robert Kirkman is pretty chill. A comic book writer since 2000, when he co-created the superhero parody Battle Pope, Kirkman has gone on to become a highly successful screenwriter and producer, as well as the co-founder of Skybound Entertainment. Most recently, he has served as an executive producer and writer for the adult animated superhero series Invincible – based on the comic book series he co-created with artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley – which recently concluded its second season on Prime Video and has been renewed for Season 3.

We spoke with Kirkman about the genesis and production of Invincible, the role of violence in popular fiction, and why he has no problem with people characterizing his work as a “soap opera.”

Dan Sarto: When you started working on the comic and were thinking about world-building, stories, narrative arcs and so on, what came first? And how early in the process did the idea that this could be a TV series come up?

Robert Kirkman: It's a fairly organic process. It's all very character-based, so it usually starts with interesting scenes, or an interesting character dynamic, or some kind of very small personal thing. When it came to “Invincible,” it was like, “What would it be like to be the son of the most prominent superhero in the universe?” But also, it was like, when Mark reveals during dinner that he's got powers, his mother Debbie responds, "Oh, great. Pass the potatoes."

At the time “Invincible” came around in 2003, there were already so many comic book universes. And, if you really lived in a world populated by all these superheroes, you might start thinking it wasn’t all that special to have people flying overhead all the time. Big superhero battles were covered like natural disasters, and it was just a normal part of life.

I find world building to be the most fun aspect of storytelling, but the way I prefer to do it is, I like to leave as many corners of the world unexplored for as long as possible, so that there's more potential there. When we go there in the story, that's when things start to get built out. I always try to keep in mind what's going on in the universe and how everything connects, but I love being able to bring in unexpected things that then become a huge part of the story. I like that discovery.

DS: As part of that discovery process, how early did animation, or the idea of a series, come into your thinking?

RK: My focus is very much on what's in front of me at the time. When I started “Invincible” in 2003 with Cory and Ryan, I never thought about doing anything else. I was a comic book writer. The thought of ever having a movie or a TV show or animation or anything was completely impossible to me.

Then, when it got optioned as a live-action film by Paramount in 2005, it was like, “Oh, okay, that's a new thing. That's crazy.” There was also a brief moment, in the early 2010s, where it was being discussed as a kids’ cartoon. We would have to strip out all the mature elements and do a version of the story that was kid appropriate. It died on the vine almost immediately because there was just too much to sanitize. But that was probably the first instance where I started thinking about animation.

But it wasn't until we started actually working on this series that I started to realize just how well suited for animation it was, and how much potential there was for expanding what we did in the comics – really digging in and doing some cool new things with that material. That animation would allow us to do that was really exciting.

DS: Can you say a little more about the specific advantages animation offered you?

RK: Animation was the best way to actually adapt the story, with as little revision as possible. If we were to do a big $300 million movie, we'd be able to do some pretty cool stuff. But to do an Invincible television show in live-action, you would have to change the story fundamentally. You'd have to limit locations. You'd have to limit character introductions. You would have to limit the scale and scope of everything that we're doing. I love The Boys, but The Boys has a lot of scenes where they're talking in boardrooms or they're having a conversation at a gas station, and Invincible is just not that. In Invincible, we have a conversation on the surface of the moon, or hanging out on the deck of a battleship. Animation gave us the freedom to have this massively expansive cast and do these insane action sequences and go to so many different locations.

DS: The show is violent, but there are consequences to the violence. A big part of the narrative is how the characters deal with those consequences. Was that something that you arrived at early on, or was it something that evolved?

RK: I think it's just that I'm a big softie, and I'm just trying to make people feel emotions. A lot of people will criticize The Walking Dead as being “just a soap opera." My response is that, yeah, it is a soap opera. It's all about the drama. It's all about being sad about zombies attacking you or attacking your family. I love action and I love violence in a story sense, but if you're not using it to bring an emotion forward or explore the emotions through the characters, it's just pointless. When you see characters struggling against all odds and you see them persevering, that makes you invested in the character. It makes you want to continue experiencing that story.

Comics are this brutal environment where you get 22 pages to tell a story and, if you don't keep people entertained for those 22 pages and they stop, you die. So you're constantly having to figure out ways to keep people engaged so that you can continue telling your story. I think that's why comic books have become so perfect to adapt in a continuing television format, because these comic writers are like, "Oh, do you like this? Do you like this? Is this good? Are you liking this?"

DS: They're very tight. There's not a lot of wasted motion.

RK: Exactly. They're filled with memorable events and dramatic scenes that make the stories very engaging.

DS: My understanding is that sometime between Season 1 and Season 2, you actually started a new studio. Can you talk a little about that?

RK: Well, I can’t take credit for building the studio – it was [Executive Producer and Skybound Entertainment Head of Animation] Marge Dean who put everything together for that. After making Season 1, when we finally got the greenlight on doing Seasons 2 and 3 back to back, we made an effort to streamline any processes that could be streamlined, and also to build a functioning studio around Invincible that could facilitate its being made for a good long time. So if we are fortunate enough to be able to go on to Season 4 and beyond, Skybound Animation has been built into a studio that's tailor-made to be able to produce this kind of show. It's a very difficult, arduous process to make Invincible, so a lot of effort was made to try and make sure that we could continue producing this show at the level we were producing it at.

DS: People often don’t realize how much goes into making these kinds of 2D animated shows. Yes, you had visual material that you were starting from, but going from graphic novels and comic books to animation is not a trivial task. How long did it take you to get to a point where you were really satisfied with the look and depth of the animation for the show?

RK: It's a crazy process. We don't even really see final animation for two years, so there's a lot of looking at animatics and going, "I hope that turns out okay." For me, there was a huge learning curve coming from comics. I know how to see art, I know how to see unfinished art, I know how to fill in the blanks. But when it comes to the process of animation, looking at an animatic and being able to go, "Okay, that's not complete, and that's okay because they're going to get it on model this way. That background element's just going to be pasted in. I've approved that so I know what that's going to look like." It takes a long time to figure out how what you're looking at is going to get turned into final animation.

That's an important process because I'm working with all the series directors and the art department and the backgrounds, characters, props, all those people. I have to give notes on things. I can be a completely disruptive element if I'm coming in and saying, "No, fix this. No, this has to be this way." I had to learn to shut up and recognize that it's not time to give this note because we're not at that place yet. This part's going to be fine. I should just trust them. It was a huge learning curve to figure out where I can be helpful, when I can be helpful, and when what I'm doing is not helpful at all.

DS: What are your hopes for the show? Where do you want it to go?

RK: I think the ultimate goal for this show would be to adapt the comic series in its entirety, without any kind of truncating or watering down. It was a 144-issue run. We did that comic for 15 years. There's a lot of material to adapt, and I'm constantly thinking, "Oh my gosh, if we were able to get to this, we could do it this way. If we're able to get to this, we can do it this way." I have very far-reaching plans for what I want to do and how I want to do it, and I hope we're lucky enough to get there.

Otherwise, I hope that the show continues to improve from season to season; thus far it looks like that's definitely the case. Everybody on the show is firing on all cylinders, streamlining the processes as they go, and honing their craft. I'm hoping that the Skybound Animation Studio can become a place where people get to expand what they're able to do in their careers, to grow and evolve with the company, and move from project to project and do cool things.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.