Invincible was a comic book series that ran for 144 (mostly) monthly issues (collected in 25 trade paperbacks, 12 hardcovers, and three compendium editions). Buy them and love it.
Invincible is now a big-budget animated series airing exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, premiering today with three hour-length episodes. It touts an impressive voice cast. Steven Yeun plays the lead, Mark Grayson / Invincible, with J.K. Simmons as his father, Omni-man, and Gillian Jacobs as his love interest, Atom Eve. Seth Rogen (who also produced the series), Zazie Beetz, Mark Hamill, Walton Goggins and Jason Mantzoukas also play roles. It would be a dream cast in a live-action film, but Invincible would never work as a live-action film.
The new Amazon Prime series — for which I’ve seen those first three episodes — is a gold-standard example of a comic-book series adaptation finding the right home and medium without sacrificing the spirit of the original material by one iota.
The story follows Mark, a teenager whose dad is Omni-man, the Superman-esque protector of Earth. Mark leads the idyllic life of a normal teenager — flipping burgers, reading comics and anxiously awaiting the arrival superpowers that are his birthright. Powers that will make him super-strong, super-fast and basically invulnerable. You could say they make him Invincible.
On the day his powers do arrive, Mark quickly learns he’s nowhere near prepared for the challenges that come with being one of the most powerful man on the planet.
The series is the brainchild of Robert Kirkman, best known in mainstream culture for The Walking Dead and best known in comics circles as the man whose success with The Walking Dead book and show established the creator-owned series model that has shaped the American side of the medium for the past decade. Well, that, and Invincible. For several years of its run, the series touted itself jokingly as “The best superhero comic book in the universe.” It’s not really an exaggeration.
What makes Invincible so special as a comic series is that it tells a fairly standard story about a teenager gaining superpowers but doesn’t spin its wheels in the perpetual second act of most superhero stories.
For the layman: Most superhero stories are perpetual narratives that change but never really end. Characters are always fighting, always changing slightly, but rarely becoming something new. It’s stasis. It is the illusion of change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Superhero stories are special in part because the long-running monthly periodical allows for heroes to change with the times and adapt to new tastes. It also allows different writers and artists to make interesting creative choices with how they acknowledge or incorporate outdated stories and ideas with their personal takes and the commercial restrictions placed upon them. Mainstream superhero writers have to dance between raindrops to tell stories. When they’re good, they’re really fucking good.
This applies to every big-name hero you know: Batman, Spider-Man, Superman.
This doesn’t apply to a big-name hero you don’t know yet: Invincible. He is wholly the creation of Kirkman and series artists Cory Walker & Ryan Ottley. Because they own the character, Invincible experiences all the superhero tropes but is forced to grow and learn from them. Should a hero kill? What if your arch-nemesis makes a good point? What if you and your teenage girlfriend aren’t careful enough and she gets pregnant? And so on and so on and so on. It’s a superhero story like you’ve never seen before, and these are all plotlines that shouldn’t even rear their head in the first season of the show. Amazon sent explicit notes about what parts of the first three episodes we can discuss, and as a good critic and fan, I’ll stray away from those reveals except to say this to those who have read the series:
The big twists at the start that define the series? They’re present, just slightly different. Like Kirkman’s mammoth hit The Walking Dead, Invincible takes some liberties with its initial stories to account for the new medium. However, unlike The Walking Dead, the changes in Invincible don’t harm the story.
Speaking of changes: While re-reading Invincible as a comic series, it was interesting to see Kirkman grow as a writer and a person. The comic is very much a 2000s superhero comic — blindingly white cast, gay jokes and a general insensitivity not uncommon in the superhero sphere up until very, very recently. As the series progressed, Kirkman got a lot better about these things. The show starts out even better. Most of the characters have been diversified, ensuring the cast isn’t just following the drama of a group of rich white teenagers. Even Mark is now a mixed-race character and voiced by Yeun, a Korean actor.
It’s nice to see changes made consciously to fix the errors in an original story rather than seeing someone stand ardently by what originally existed as if it were sacrosanct text.
The voice cast is great, the animation stellar, the violence extreme. Everything about Amazon’s new Invincible series promises that if it gets the long life it deserves, it could end up one of the definitive superhero stories told in animation. Of course if it fails, just buy the damn comics.