Why Amazon Prime’s Invincible Had to Be Animated

Live-action worked for the AMC adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, but for Amazon Prime’s Invincible, only animation could fully capture the writer’s vision.

Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) in Amazon Prime's Invincible
Photo: Amazon

Invincible comic writer Robert Kirkman has a gentlemanly agreement with Steven Yeun, who appeared in The Walking Dead for six seasons and now stars as the adapted Invincible’s titular hero. 

“Steven and I have a rule that there’s no more popping his eyeballs out. I can live with that – once is enough,” Kirkman tells Den of Geek and other outlets during the series’ press day.

Kirkman’s imagination is as violent as it is vast. Yeun’s character Glenn Rhee on AMC’s The Walking Dead (based on the Kirkman comic of the same name) was a notable unfortunate recipient of that bloodlust when he was beaten to death with a barbed wire baseball bat in the show’s seventh season. 

Now Yeun is providing his voice to Mark Grayson a.k.a. Invincible – the super-powered high schooler at the center of Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Kirkman’s comic. Steven (and Mark’s) eyeballs are safe for now…but very few other body parts are in this sprawling superhero tale.

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Invincible first premiered in a preview as part of Image Comics’ Savage Dragon #102, more than a full year before Kirkman’s black and white zombie blockbuster The Walking Dead debuted. The character graduated to his own regular series in 2003, first illustrated by Cory Walker, and then by the prolific Ryan Ottley. The story of Mark Grayson ran, uninterrupted and with very few side arcs, for 15 years before concluding with issue #144 in 2018. 

The appeal of Invincible can be hard to describe. At first glance, it’s a very conventional comic book story. Mark is the son of Nolan Grayson a.k.a. Omni-Man, an alien from the planet Viltrum and now Earth’s most powerful superhero (of which there are many). The series begins with Mark eagerly anticipating the arrival of his own superpowers and then embarking on an adventure of super self discovery, alongside a host of heroic allies and terrifying villains.

What sets Invincible apart, however, is its dedication to realistic storytelling. Mark is a very likeable, yet believably flawed young man.Kirkman’s sprawling 144-issue narrative meticulously follows Mark’s maturation and the ethical questions raised by a universe fit-to-bursting with invulnerable ubermensches. 

There’s also the violence…oh the sweet, sweet violence. Ryan Ottley’s art in Invincible has a deep, abiding respect for the physics of super powers. Though the images may be colorful, the action depicted within them are shocking in their brutality. Nary does a bone go uncrunched or an intestine un-ripped out in Kirkman and Ottley’s hyper visceral world. 

Naturally, Invincible was always a hot target for adaptation, particularly after AMC hit Kirkman zombie paydirt with The Walking Dead. But how exactly could any TV series fully capture the deliriously gory detail of Ottley’s art? The answer as it turns out is to just go ahead and adapt the art too. 

Amazon Prime’s Invincible, the first season of which will be eight episodes, features animation from Wind Sun Sky Entertainment and Kirkman’s own Skybound. Kirkman himself is on board as a producer, alongside David Alpert, Catherine Winder, and Simon Racioppa (who serves as showrunner). The end result is an animation style that hews closely to the comic’s original art and often seems like Ottley’s illustrations in motion.

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“The action is a little bit more brutal when things are moving. I think it’s going to serve to heighten things in the series,” Kirkman says.

While heightening the violent rhythms of Invincible seems like a wild proposition, the show’s star agrees that the animation does just that. 

“You can go to places that live-action probably isn’t able to go to, even now,” Yeun tells Den of Geek and other outlets. “(Animation) creates a nice separation so that you can examine what the show might be saying without one-to-one comparison. Like that’s an actual arm being ripped off, but it’s a cartoon arm being ripped off. There’s just something different about that.” 

Both Yeun and J.K. Simmons, who plays Nolan, note that the show’s kinetic sequences provide interesting voice acting challenges. 

“What’s really fun is going back over in ADR and tracing back over these action sequences and these emotional moments. A lot of this show lives in those emotional moments that aren’t necessarily mixed in with dialogue, where a breath or a subtle way of gurgling blood in your mouth and trying to breath is its own kind of emotionality,” Yeun says.

“ADR is usually just ‘make this grunt.’ But because of the intensity of the violence and the stakes and the repercussions, it did feel much more emotionally connected doing the fight sequences,” Simmons adds.

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The show’s animation style isn’t all about merely capturing the grunts and gurglings of blood, however. While Mark Grayson’s story begins relatively small, it eventually blossoms into an enormous superhero universe containing countless people, monsters, and worlds. Even in our era of technical sophistication where just about anything seems possible on television, Invincible is a hard sell as live-action.

According to Kirkman, animation was the only way to properly tell this story.

“The main benefit is that we’re going to be able to provide the audience with a scope and scale, more akin to a $200 million blockbuster movie than what you usually get from your average superhero television show,” Kirkman says. “Drawing an army of a thousand people is a little bit easier than hiring a thousand people and putting costumes on them and things like that. If we want to have three different alien invasions in the same episode, we can.”

Kirkman knows the limits of live-action television as well as anyone. Though The Walking Dead remains an enormous success for AMC, it has experienced quite a bit of casting turnover throughout the years with only Norman Reedus’s Daryl Dixon and Melissa McBride’s Carol Peletier remaining of the season 1 main cast in the show’s 11 seasons. Requesting that actors endure grueling television shooting schedules in the humid Atlanta summers for an undetermined number of years is a big ask as it turns out.

If depicted in live-action, the commitments of actors’ times and bodies would be even more brutal for the Invincible cast. And the cast of Invincible is set to be huge. The first season alone will star: Yeun as Mark Grayson, Simmons as Nolan Grayson, Sandra Oh as Debbie Grayson, Seth Rogen as Allen the Alien, Gillian Jacobs as Atom Eve, Andrew Rannells as William Clockwell, Zazie Beetz as Amber Bennett, Walton Goggins as Cecil Stedman, Jason Mantzoukas as Rex Splode, Zachary Quinto as Robot, and many, many more. (Check out the full list over here).

And that’s before the story begins to expand with more heroes and villains in later issues/seasons. The relatively smaller time commitments of voiceover acting in animation allows Kirkman and the series writers to keep the cast as large as needed, though Simmons notes that he, Yeun, and Oh all still get to act together in-studio. 

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Kirkman says the show is able to delve deeper into certain characters than the comics did, with figures like G-man Cecil Stedman and the Rorschach-esque Damien Darkblood getting more screen time. 

“These are characters that I should know intimately, but getting to work with these actors and getting to hear these voices and how these performances come together, it’s like I’m meeting these characters again for the first time and the absolute best way,” Kirkman says. “I’m seeing new aspects to them that didn’t really exist before. It’s really making me more excited about moving forward with this show for many seasons with this cast.”

Yes, Kirkman and the rest of the Invincible cast already have “many seasons” in mind for the show. Whether those seasons will come to pass are up to Amazon and its subscribers. But it seems clear that animation was the right choice for the story’s scope was television was the right choice for its length.

The first three episodes of Invincible will premiere Friday, March 26 on Amazon Prime.