That escalated quickly

Robert Kirkman’s 'Invincible' drops 'The Walking Dead' into a Saturday morning cartoon

Kill Your Darlings.

Iron Man is dead. Superman died, too. But did they really?

In both cases, these comic book movie casualties either came at the end of a sprawling cinematic saga sketched out across more than a decade worth of films, or as an easily backtracked attempt to raise the stakes for a franchise that went nowhere. (Ease down, Snyder bros. You got your cut.)

For Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s very own superhero epic, the Amazon Studios animated series Invincible, there are no Marvel or DC overlords issuing mandates, no punches he needs to pull.

If Kirkman wants to kill his darlings, he’s going to kill his darlings. As anyone who has weathered Walking Dead will tell you, Kirkman very much kills his darlings, whether you want him to or not.

While the animation style makes it look like a Saturday morning cartoon, Invincible has a lot more in common with The Walking Dead than any 21-minute toy commercial.

In Invincible, Kirkman’s killer instincts are alive and well, for better and for worse. It’s better for the story, but worse for your heart rate. As it happens, that’s exactly what fuels Invincible, and it is the very same thing that has made The Walking Dead such a huge success: a bloody, beating heart.

Shocking, major, violent spoilers from Invincible ahead!

The Invincible origin story

Invincible’s father, the “hero” Omni-Man.Amazon Studios

Based on the comic book series he co-created with Cory Walker in 2003, Kirkman’s Invincible channels The Walking Dead in a few fundamental ways, but there’s one the viewer hears right away: its lead.

Steven Yeun, best known to fans of the AMC zombie juggernaut as the late Glenn Rhee, stars as Mark Grayson, alter ego of Invincible, the budding superhero for which the series is named. He’s the son of a world-famous hero named Omni-Man, voiced by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons. The show follows their relationship, and all the high-flying fighting surrounding it.

That’s the simple log-line. Indeed, it was the log-line, when Kirkman and Walker first conceived of the comic in the first place.

“There hasn’t been a cool new teenage superhero in a while,” Kirkman tells Inverse, remembering his state of mind when crafting the original Invincible origin story. “And I’m nothing if not a big fan of family stories. So we’ll have a teenage superhero who has a family in the superhero world. His dad’s the hero. Cool.”

But not “cool” enough.

As he and Walker kept plugging away at the concept, Kirkman couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t enough separating Invincible from some of his other favorite teenage heroes, like Marvel’s Spider-Man and DC Comics’ Robin.

“There’s really not anything to this yet,” he remembers thinking. “There’s not even any real meat to it yet.”

Kirkman solved this problem with a creative but heart-breaking solution: Omni-Man, the hero’s father and a veritable Superman-with-a-mustache (eat your heart out, Henry Cavill), was actually the villain.

Early on, Omni-Man would commit an act of unspeakable violence against the Invincible universe’s version of the Avengers in over-the-top fashion, making three things painfully clear:

  1. Invincible was not going to be easy to predict.
  2. The heroes’ moral code was not black-and-white.
  3. Invincible itself would be soaked in electric-red gore.
The moment Omni-Man’s attack takes a turn for the worse.Amazon Studios

“That’s really where it jelled for me,” says Kirkman, thinking back on the twist. “This is where it was like, ‘Oh, we might actually have something here.’”

Two decades later, there’s no “might” about it. Thanks in no small part to the Invincible comic book series, Kirkman now sits atop a vast multimedia empire known as Skybound Entertainment. He isn’t so famous that he can’t walk into a Starbucks without anonymity, but certainly, everyone in the world knows his seminal work: The Walking Dead, a full-on global phenomenon.

Kirkman (far right) with cast members of The Walking Dead.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

As far as the comics, Invincible predates Kirkman’s zombie epic by a little less than a year. Now, it’s arrived in televised form more than a decade after Walking Dead became a Sunday night sensation. The best part of the zombie drama is alive and well in this superhero epic. And no, it’s not the guts-and-gore, though that’s absolutely present.

The very first episode of Invincible not only contains the aforementioned Omni-Man scene, it actually makes it worse than its original incarnation. The audience is trapped as Omni-Man wrecks the Guardians of the Globe, smashing skulls, ripping bodies in half, smearing the floor with viscera, and closing it all out by punching the last survivor’s head clean off.

The scene is not, to borrow one of Kirkman’s favorite words, “cool.”

The final blow.Amazon Studios

“You’re not supposed to feel comfortable about this,” says Kirkman. “It’s not something that is a gleeful action sequence that you should enjoy. It’s meant to be absolutely horrific.”

You’re not supposed to feel comfortable about this.

The element Omni-Man’s act of violence has in common with Walking Dead, then, isn’t only the violence — it’s the feeling of a family falling apart. It’s the bone-chilling realization that someone is not who you thought he was. If Kirkman’s story works as designed, then the audience finds itself in Omni-Man’s teenage son’s super-boots.

“I want you to be as unsettled as the viewer as Mark would be were he seeing his father do this,” says Kirkman. “I want you to spend time with Omni-Man [as a father], so that you get to know him, and you have a sense of who he is, and then for it all to be very unrecognizable in that final sequence. It should raise that question of ‘what’s really going on here? Why would he do that? Why has this happened?’ The sheer brutality of it is just there to heighten the moment.”

The hard-hitting heart of Robert Kirkman

A family-focused dream sequence on the other side of the most upsetting scene in Walking Dead history.AMC

There isn’t one single secret ingredient for Kirkman’s success. Sure, when studying the recipe, the overpowering note is the violence. It’s hard to look past the brutality of Kirkman’s storytelling when thinking about, say, how Steven Yeun’s Glenn died in The Walking Dead: brains bashed in with a baseball bat, right in front of his helpless loved ones, including his pregnant wife.

Yeah. It’s really hard to look past the brutality.

But there’s more to Kirkman’s stories than the blood on the ground, according to his creative partners. Many of them can look past the brutality and see something else — something that was always at the core of the Invincible pitch.

“Robert Kirkman’s stories are always about family,” actor Khary Payton, who stars on both The Walking Dead as King Ezekiel and as Black Samson on Invincible, tells Inverse. “If you drain it of the supernatural, super-human aspects — if you pull those out of it — at the end of the day, he’s telling a story about the families you’re born into and the families you find.”

Another Kirkman collaborator shares Payton’s point of view: Scott M. Gimple, the longtime Walking Dead showrunner who now serves as chief content officer of the entire AMC zombie drama empire. Gimple has a unique vantage point on Kirkman not just through Walking Dead, but also through the paneled page; together, they co-created the comic book series DIE! DIE! DIE!, yet another family drama draped in hyper-violence.

“I think Robert has been writing bingeable stories before bingeing was so omnipresent,” Gimple tells Inverse. “Reading Walking Dead as a monthly book was fun... but reading the collections and compendiums, you could lose yourself in the twists and characters for whole afternoons, whole days — even if you did originally read the book month to month.

“Robert has perfected this very singular storytelling cocktail of twists, urgency, stakes, character, world building that keeps you hooked.”

After meeting on The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman and Scott M. Gimple teamed together for Die! Die! Die! with artist Chris Burnham.Skybound / Image Comics

Like any good writer, Kirkman kills his darlings. He takes the writing cliché a little past the line of common decency, sometimes, with inventively violent death scenes that would make Red Wedding architect George R.R. Martin blush. But where so many focus on the word “kill,” the pain packed into these deaths all owes origin to the other part of the equation: “darlings.”

Kirkman’s not just “a big fan of family stories,” as he puts it, which is a hilarious sentence in isolation. For Kirkman, these characters are family, and so is the audience — an audience he’s always trying to grow by upping the stakes and strengthening the bonds of his creative community.

“It’s the most exciting part of this,” he says. “Comics are a great medium. Invincible has a tremendous fan base that is very invested in this character. But at the end of the day, it’s a niche medium, and there are a great many thousands of people out there who have never heard of Invincible and are now hearing about it as we ramp up the series. They’re going to get introduced to these characters and this world and go on the same journey the comic readers did.”

The journey won’t stop with Invincible, either. Steeped in animation thanks to this recent Amazon effort, Kirkman hopes to apply the medium to some of his other comics.

“There’s Astounding Wolf-Man, there’s Tech Jacket, there’s Brit,” says Kirkman, rattling off various titles from his catalog. “There are a lot of opportunities even beyond Invincible. There’s a really cool opportunity here to do some groundbreaking television.”

When it’s not about fatalities, Invincible is about family.Amazon Studios

If there’s anything Kirkman likes more than breaking characters, it’s breaking ground. It’s why he devoted his whole career to creator-owned properties like Walking Dead and Invincible, rather than spinning the wheels with established comic book superheroes.

“The MCU is a great example of a story that is designed to go on forever,” he says. “The characters will change a little bit here and there. But for the most part, everything is all about trying to maintain a status quo so that these stories can continue indefinitely.”

And that’s where Kirkman’s character flies away from the likes of Iron Man and Superman.

“Invincible goes on a journey, he evolves as a character, and his story has a resolution,” Kirkman says. “It’s a story that has a beginning, middle, and end.”

For now, at least, it’s a story that’s only just beginning.

Invincible is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.