Talking Invincible with Robert Kirkman, Steven Yeun & J.K. Simmons

Three of the most important voices behind Amazon’s Invincible talk about family dynamics, motivations and keeping the story fresh for a new medium.

 

Amazon Prime has once again brought a violent comic book adaptation to its streaming service and long time fans can’t wait. There is no doubt that The Boys has been a big hit with both fans of the original comic book series as well as viewers who are discovering it for the first time. Amazon is hoping for much the same with Robert Kirkman’s Invincible, but the jury is still out on how well this series has achieved what it set out to do.

Critics of the series point to the ultra-violence of the series, which provided an interesting and satirical look at super-heroes when the comic first hit stands in the early nineties. The argument could be made that super-heroes stories in other media beyond the printed page have evolved beyond that at this point … and yet, I would say to those critics, “How do you explain The Boys?” I have noticed many of those same critical voices praising the live-action series, which has successfully finished airing it’s second season, while criticizing Invincible. It seems a bit incongruous at best and downright hypocritical at worst. Is it simply that one is live-action and one is animated? I don’t have that answer, but I will say that both are superbly acted.

 

Meanwhile, Kirkman, who many associate with the long running and successful AMC zombie series, The Walking Dead, has brought another comic adaptation of his work to homes around the world. That is the strength and advantage of working with Amazon, it is a global platform. The potential to reach a much larger audience than one might have by airing the show on a network is inherent with Amazon. The comic Invincible actually made its debut before The Walking Dead and while the zombie comic series may have ultimately proven more successful, there is no doubt that Invincible has a loyal fan base and many of the creatives involved have expected it to be a success for Amazon Prime.

 

Invincible tells the story of Mark Grayson, a typical teenager in most respects. He deals with high school, relationships, an after school job and the many of the usual aspects of teenage life. However, Marc’s life does differ in one very drastic way, his father Nolan is Omni-Man, the most powerful superman on the planet. I recently had the opportunity to chat with some of the cast of Invincible, as well as Kirkman himself and it was very interesting to hear their thoughts on the series and see the passion which they brought to the series.

Marc learned at a very early age while growing up that his father is a member of a very powerful alien race and as Nolan’s son, Marc is set to inherit many of those powers himself. When you add super-powers to the drama already inherent in the teenage life of Marc Grayson you have the makings of an interesting story. For actor Steven Yeun, who voices Grayson, it is that father son dynamic and his own experiences as a father that is core to his relationship with the character. In a recent interview he said, “For me, I think I’m very lucky that I also am now a father. I think maybe the emerging of perspective wasn’t really fully there until that happened for me. So it was really cool to access that in the middle of it. So yeah, going back to a 17 year old is not fun sometimes, but also it’s very real and in some ways it’s fun to play because there’s a lot of things that perhaps I also wanted to talk to my father about. And so getting to play that out in this way with someone as incredible as JK.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Yeun was asked about the source material, he mentioned he had read it years ago when he was first cast on The Walking Dead and wanted to experience a lot of Kirkman’s work, but it’s clear that for the actor, the father-son dynamic is the key to his portrayal of the younger Grayson, “I had read the comics prior. I actually read them when I was first on Walking Dead, getting to befriend Robert, I just dove into his work and I think he wrote just something true. I think sometimes the journey of a father son relationship is like, you got to try to pin your father down one time or try to beat him in an arm wrestling contest or whatever it is. And I think that journey is always interesting of coming out of the shadow of someone that form you and realizing yourself is a universal journey, I think for all people. And so there wasn’t necessarily a touchstone that I pinned the experience on. I think it was really just knowing what it’s like to be a son and then also now knowing what it’s like to be a father, and the dynamics and the feelings that are all kind of intertwined in that space, that’s kind of what was really fun to rely on.”

 

 

Looking at the other side of this father son dynamic, we have actor J.K. Simmons who also drew on his own experiences as a father when discussing the role, “The father son thing for me was definitely a part of what appealed to me about doing this in the first place and being the father of a 17 year old. I mean, what is it almost two years ago that we were recording this? So, my own son was, 19 or 20 at the time, my daughter was 17. So that aspect of it, and the fact that it was really well written, that aspect of it made it just really accessible to me and something I felt a connection to.” 

Additionally Simmons has portrayed complex characters before, or in the case of Counterpart, the same character over different realities where the person has very distinct personalities. Viewers of the series realize very early on that Omni-Man is not exactly the hero he shows to the world. For any viewer who had not read the comic, the shocking scene at the end of the first episode would come as quite a surprise. When asked about bringing the complexity of his character to life Simmons remarked, “ So with this family dynamic firmly in place for both Marc and Nolan Grayson Kirkman and co-creator Cory Walker, who works as lead designer on the animated series, take it up to the next level with the twists and turns they throw in along the way. Kirkman is keenly aware of his fan base and wants to ensure that even long-time fans are experiencing Invincible in a new way. When asked about what he felt must remain and what could be changed, Kirkman had this to say, “Yeah, I think core relationships are all there and not just with Mark, Debbie and Nolan. I think that his relationship to the Teen Team and his relationship with Cecil Stedman and different aspects like that were absolutely essential. But once you establish those, I think that the way the stories play out and the speed and the order in which they play out, I think that is all malleable and that’s where you get to bring some excitement into the show for people who are very familiar with the comics.”

 

 

 

 

 

If the first few episodes are any indication, it’s very much a more dynamic feel than the comic and there is much more mystery inherent in the characters actions and choices. It’s clear that Kirkman has learned how best to adapt his work to other media and as I mentioned before it is with the fans in mind, but also to keep things fresh for himself. “We’re changing the order of different events, we’re expanding different events, we’re contracting different events and while a lot of the same things will be taking place, there’ll be happening in a much different way. So you’ll be surprised that we did something so soon or surprised that something hasn’t happened yet because it had happened at that point in the comic book series. And I think that being able to play with all that stuff and add an energy of the new to this story that I’ve told before and have spent many many years working on in comic book form, just makes the project infinitely more exciting for me.”

Drawing on the family dynamics inherent in the work for both lead actors and mixing in fresh events and timelines for major developments has certainly brought an energy to the series so far. I understand where the critics are coming from when discussing the darker aspects of the series and whether a comic from the early 2000’s that examines these concepts with a satirical eye can work in 2021. However, the energy of the series is undeniable. The charm with which Yeun brings Mark Grayson to life and the gravitas of Simmons, coupled with the freshness of this rejuvenated story by Kirkman is a big hit with many long-time comic fans. Whether or not it resonates with a larger audience who may not be familiar with the comic series remains to be seen. Invincible on Amazon is certainly violent and dark at times, but it does an incredible job of capturing the spirit of the series as Kirkman originally intended. That series ran for 144 issues to tell the story of Mark Grayson and family, I very much hope the Amazon series gets to complete that journey as well

 

 INVINCIBLE premiered Friday, March 26 with three episodes. New episodes are released each Friday until the Season 1 finale on April 30.

 

*Note: Portions of these interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Jace Milam

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