Whether it be Invincible, The Walking Dead, or the multitude of other comics in his profound writing career, Robert Kirkman has spawned some of the most successful franchises of our era. Having navigated the live-action adaption of The Walking Dead on AMC, his creative role was intricate in making it one of the highest watched shows of all time. Kirkman is now looking to pull off the same trick with his aforementioned superhero saga. With an incredible cast backed up by brilliant writing, the opening salvo of episodes were an absolute smash hit for Invincible… and Kirkman’s foundational comic plays a huge role in that.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Robert Kirkman during the official Invincible press tour. He touched on all things from the beloved source material, reuniting with lead actor Steven Yeun, and how his approach to adapting his work into live-action has changed over the years. The following is taken from a press roundtable, questions asked by DiscussingFilm will be labelled.
Steven Yeun does such a fantastic job in this series, what makes him the perfect Invincible and what was it like pairing him with J.K. Simmons?
Robert Kirkman: Having those two guys interacting and working together, they’ve gotten to be pretty good buddies and stuff too. It’s just really great. I mean, anytime you can see two actors at their level working together, it’s a lot of fun. I think Steven, as an actor, is somebody I’ve gotten to know over the years who puts just every ounce of himself into every performance. You can see it in roles like, for example, his character in Minari and all the different things that he’s done.
I think that I’ll always be wanting to work with Steven Yeun. He’s somebody that thinks of every little different aspect of the character that you as a writer would never even consider, and brings just so much to that performance that it really comes through in the roles. I think his Mark Grayson is our revelation. You know, I’m getting to know the character for the first time even though I’ve known him for almost 20 years. It’s really amazing what Steven has been able to do with that character.
DiscussingFilm: Your comic is fantastic in the way that it subverts famous tropes with events such as ‘The Death of Everyone’, or famous jokes you make about the reuse of comic strips. Did you put much thought towards how the show would parody the current trend of superhero movies and TV, the comic-book explosion that has occurred since you originally created Invincible?
Robert Kirkman: I think we do a little bit of that even just in the opening scene of the first episode. I think that’s us trying to show how a premier functioning superhero team would actually operate. The fact that they move in very confidently and focus on evacuation, moving people out of there before they ever start fighting. I wanted to try and show the nuts and bolts of how somebody would really operate in that situation.
Most movies handle it by having a line of dialogue where it’s like, “They evacuated the area, we’re good!” And you’re like, “Wait, who did? Why? How long did that take? When did they know this was happening? How are they able to do that?” I think that’s one little aspect of it. But as the series progresses, we’re really excited about the prospect of doing what we did in comics, where we get to make fun of superhero landings and all the different tropes that have cropped up in live-action storytelling that are very present. So who knows, we’ll have a lot of fun as the series progresses, doing all kinds of different things like that.
We’re wondering about the kind of interactions between Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, and Steven because they all got to perform together versus just being in a booth by themselves. Did you get to see how that all played out and how that shapes their relationships in the show?
Robert Kirkman: I mean, I have recordings of that on my phone, and they’re really cool. Seeing them all together in the booth was a lot of fun. That’s really the core of our show, especially our first season. Those three characters: how they interact, how they relate to each other. Having them in the booth together I think was something really special because they were able to play off each other and draw from their emotions in a way that a lot of voice actors can’t. Because a lot of voice acting is done, you know, by yourself and the performances are kind of cut together after the fact. And we did do a fair amount of that on this show as well, but to see father, mother, and son all working together to craft these scenes was really great. I think it makes the show really special.
With The Walking Dead, we saw how the story in the live-action version differentiates from the comic. So what are aspects of the story that you felt were essential to keep in the animated version of Invincible? And what were some that you felt you could kind of change for this medium?
Robert Kirkman: I think the core relationships are all there, and not just with Mark, Debbie, and Nolan. I think his relationship to the Teen Team, his relationship with Cecil Steadman, and different aspects like that were absolutely essential. But once you establish those, the way the stories play out and the speed and the order in which they play out, I think that is all malleable. That’s where you get to bring some excitement into the show.
For people who are very familiar with the comics: 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, they will 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. Being able to play with all that stuff and add new energy to this story that I’ve told before, and have spent many years working on in comic-book form, just makes the project infinitely more exciting for me.
Was there ever a conversation of whether to do this in live-action versus animation?
Robert Kirkman: No, this was always meant to be animation. We’re working with Universal to develop a live-action Invincible movie. So that’s something we’re doing separately. That’s where we’re having our live-action discussions. When it came to this series, this was always meant to be animation, we knew exactly why we wanted to do it as animation and we knew what benefits we would get from animation. So there was never any consideration to do a live-action version of the show.
With The Walking Dead and now Invincible, what have you learned about the adaptation process over this time? Because you’ve got to be approaching it quite differently now, maybe than you did back when The Walking Dead was first being discussed as an adaptation?
Robert Kirkman: I think with The Walking Dead, I was pushing for more changes – I wanted to really shake things up. I really wanted to surprise people. I was always pushing to kill characters that shouldn’t have been killed. Most of the time, I was talked out of being too crazy. But when I came to do Invincible, I think I had a little bit more respect for the source material than I did when I was younger.
And I recognize that there are storylines and events that absolutely have to be adapted in a very true way to how they were originally told, otherwise you change the core aspect of what it is you’re trying to adapt. So I’ve become a little bit more… I guess, calmer in my old age, to where I’m not trying to push the boundary constantly. I still want to pay tribute to the fans that have supported this comic-book for many years by bringing them what they expect, while also twisting it to keep it as exciting as it needs to be.
DiscussingFilm: We wanted to ask about the fact that Cory Walker is back as lead character designer after being such an influential part of the comic-book. And then on top of that, comic artist Ryan Ottley is on board as a consultant. How important is it for you to have these core creative voices from the comic on the adaptation?
Robert Kirkman: I mean, Invincible wouldn’t be Invincible without those two guys. They’re absolutely essential parts of the process. Being able to bring them into the animated form was great because I felt very at home and confident that what we were doing was very cool having Cory [Walker] handle all the character designs. I knew that we were in a great place, that we had somebody that knew Invincible as intimately as I did also very much in the mix. And aside from being the lead character designer, Cory was working in the office full time with the animators, the supervising director, and the storyboard artists.
They would come to him and be like, “Would this guy punch this way? Would this move this way? How is this supposed to happen? We’re thinking about changing this character this way, what do you think about that?” So he was a very essential part of the production, and was very much present every step of the way – in a way that I wasn’t able to because I was, you know, running around doing all kinds of different projects. So he was an absolutely essential element. It was great having Ryan [Ottley] on board as well to look things over and give his two cents. And his opinion is always valued. But yeah, it’s been a great process. I love having those guys along for the ride.