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June 18
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

FORGING A PARTNERSHIP – AND AN ADULT ANIMATED SERIES – THAT’S INVINCIBLE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Skybound Entertainment and Prime Video.

Subverting genres is something that American comic book writer, screenwriter and producer Robert Kirkman has done so well, whether it be zombies in The Walking Dead or superheroes in Invincible. The latter, which has been turned into an animated series for Prime Video. revolves around teenager Mark Grayson coming into his supernatural powers and having to deal with the revelation that his extraterrestrial father was sent not to protect but conquer Earth. The second season consisting of eight episodes was divided into half with Part 1 released in November 2023 and Part 2 in March and April 2024.

“To a certain extent I admit it is somewhat a detriment to my career that everything I do is different because a fanbase cannot go, ‘I like A from that guy so I’m going to like all of this other stuff,’” states Kirkman, Co-Creator, Co-Showrunner, Executive Producer. “But I would be bored if I was doing things that were so similar to each other.”

Exploring the poses and colors for Angstrom Levy before and after his accident.

Exploring the poses and colors for Angstrom Levy before and after his accident.

Exploring the poses and colors for Angstrom Levy before and after his accident.

“We have the benefit of the series being completed and a 144-issue roadmap. We’re able to say, ‘This story is more important because it comes into play in seven different issues.’ We can spend a little time on that scene and put more foreshadowing to certain things that are going to come. I didn’t have that when I was writing the comic book series. There were far reaching plans, but for the most part it was put together as I went along. It has turned the show into a second draft.”

—Robert Kirkman, Co-Creator, Co-Showrunner, Executive Producer

Invincible is not the typical production in terms of size and scope. “I’ve never worked on a project that is this big,” remarks Marge Dean, Head of Animation for Skybound Entertainment. “It’s 45 to 50-minute episodes as opposed to a 22-minute episode, so it’s twice the amount of content. But also, the nature of Invincible is that in every episode there is a big fight scene, lots of destruction, a high body count, even the main characters are constantly in flux in how they look because they get beat up or shot. What that translates into is an awful lot of pencil mileage. We have to draw all of those things. A major lesson was learned by Dean. With the  scope and the way story is, it’s more like three times the [average] episode.”

Outsourcing animation to Korea has been going on since 1980s, so the industry pipeline has been refined. “We have 70 people working on the show, and that’s not counting the folks in Korea,” Dean explains. “You figure out the whole season and decide how each episode fits in there. Then you have those written, and that’s given to the team. The directors are responsible for keeping the whole thing intact and on track. Once it gets to Korea, they’re replicating what we created. We have done a refined [version] and worked out a map for them of what we want the main animation to be, and this is in the form of our storyboards, animatics and model packs. All of the information that they need is there. Then we have conversations with them. When they send us the show, if there are things that do not fit the continuity or story or is not what we instructed them to do. we call retakes and make them do it again. When we make a mistake and do a creative retake, they’re given extra compensation.”

Experimenting with various facial expressions for Debbie Grayson.

Experimenting with various facial expressions for Debbie Grayson.

What has changed is the acceptance and popularity of adult animation around the world which has made shows like Invincible possible. “In North America and Europe, people believed that animation was for comedy or kids,” Dean notes. “Then as anime started working its way out of Japan, and we have Millennials and Generation Zs who have grown-up with 24/7 animation on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and have a broader understanding of animation as a medium not a genre. Then ‘Adult Swim’ launched Toonami, which introduced anime to the general public, definitely in the U.S. and other parts of the world, and that blew the lid off because in Japan, they totally get that you can do animation for all of the different forms of audiences that you have. It’s okay to make stuff for people who have a specific interest. There can be mature themes and stakes, and the characters don’t have to be cute little kids but can be grungier older people or people starting their professional life.”           

A mouth chart for Debbie Grayson to illustrate how various spoken letters are to be animated.

A mouth chart for Debbie Grayson to illustrate how various spoken letters are to be animated.

“Quite a lot [of CG animation] was used in Season 1. We still use an element of CG, such as to build our backgrounds that are sent to the overseas studio, but,  ultimately, the background is drawn into the animation. The overseas studio usually has a CG team, and they may decide on their own to turn some vehicles into CG and blend them into the scene. We allow that to happen. That’s the extent of the CG.”

—Marge Dean, Head of Animation, Skybound Entertainment

Given the strengths and needs of animation, the series is not an exact replica of the comic book source material. “Visually, everything has to be animated. We’re a hand-drawn animated program,” Kirkman states. “With comics, everybody is drawing those panels one or two times, so it’s easy to put crazy detail and little flourishes on everything. But there is a streamlining process for animation. Then,  with the story, most of the changes come from hindsight. We have the benefit of the series being completed and a 144-issue roadmap. We’re able to say, ‘This story is more important because it comes into play in seven different issues.’ We can spend a little time on that scene and put more foreshadowing to certain things that are going to come. I didn’t have that when I was writing the comic book series. There were far reaching plans, but for the most part it was put together as I went along. It has turned the show into a second draft.”

Great attention to detail was paid to Mark Grayson down to his eyes.

Great attention to detail was paid to Mark Grayson down to his eyes.

The sensibilities of Kirkman were different when he began writing Invincible. “There are a few off-handed jokes in the old issues where I was like, ‘That doesn’t play so great these days,’” Kirkman notes. “We were able to broom those things out and make everything more modern and updated. There are things that are antiquated as well, like technology, because the comic book series is 20 years old. Another thing is I feel that I’ve improved as a writer, and so there’s a lot of, ‘I don’t like how this dialogue goes.’ Or, ‘I can make this sequence flow better.’ There is also this notion of trying to top myself, so you’ll notice that a lot of the big memorable moments in the Invincible television series are enhanced. An action sequence will go on longer or some sort of gut-wrenching sequence will have an element added to it that makes it more off-putting or nerve-racking, or the tension is heightened more. Some of that comes from the scenes in the comics weren’t moving and didn’t have sound, and the show has that, so there is more latitude you can take in the individual scenes to amp up the emotion, scares and intensity.”

Determining the look of a bruise on the face of Omni-Man.

Determining the look of a bruise on the face of Omni-Man.

Lessons were learned from turning the demonic-exorcism comic Super Dinosaur into an animated series for Teletoon in 2018. “That show was so unsuccessful people might not be aware that it even exists, but we did 26 episodes, a half hour, and it was CGI,” Kirkman recalls. “It takes a lot to build CGI assets because every single character is constructed, and there are a lot of things that go into that. A lot of the budget is adding new characters into the show. I knew that Invincible could never be limited with how many characters that I could introduce per episode because this is such a vast world, and there are sprawling aspects that would be hampered tremendously by a 3D pipeline. There is a rich history in superhero programs having a 2D animation look so we’re playing off of that.” There is CG animation in Invincible, but the amount was purposely reduced for Season 2. “Quite a lot was used in Season 1,” Dean states. “We still use an element of CG, such as to build our backgrounds that are sent to the overseas studio, but,  ultimately, the background is drawn into the animation. The overseas studio usually has a CG team, and they may decide on their own to turn some vehicles into CG and blend them into the scene. We allow that to happen. That’s the extent of the CG.”

“That whole episode [Episode 208] was difficult, if you think about every single trip into the multiverse as almost a completely different show. They’re going to completely different environments, characters, color palettes, and it’s a lot to ask of a team. I don’t remember the actual number of dimensions, but that was monumental. It is great to have a team that is willing to push things and take those risks and put the extra work into accomplishing those kinds of things.”

—Robert Kirkman, Co-Creator, Co-Showrunner, Executive Producer

One of the characters who has a unique set of powers is Atom Even, as she can manipulate matter and energy at the sub-atomic level.

One of the characters who has a unique set of powers is Atom Even, as she can manipulate matter and energy at the sub-atomic level.

The personalities of the Immortal and Bulletproof are what separates them as they essentially have the same abilities in being strong and durable.

The personalities of the Immortal and Bulletproof are what separates them as they essentially have the same abilities in being strong and durable.

The heart of the storytelling is dealing with the trials and tribulations that the various characters experience, in particular Mark Grayson, who is trying to balance his personal life with being a superhero.

The heart of the storytelling is dealing with the trials and tribulations that the various characters experience, in particular Mark Grayson, who is trying to balance his personal life with being a superhero.

Violence is depicted within reason. “I want to stay on a narrow path,” Kirkman states. “If you go too far into different things it can distract from your story. The cool thing is that we have never had any content restrictions placed upon us by Prime Video.” Each season needs to be bigger than the previous one, not only in action but also in emotion, character arcs and the cast interactions with each other. “We have to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves and hitting those same notes. We’re shifting the storytelling and trying to make sure that different things are happening, so when we do huge moments of graphic violence, as we do frequently, we need to have in mind how to maintain that sense of momentum through the show. If someone is watching this show in Season 5 and goes, ‘They’re not reaching the heights of Season 3,’ we’ve failed. We’re always trying to have something new to spring on the viewer to shock and excite them and keep them engaged. In Season 1, the violence that Mark Grayson experiences is at the hands of his father, so you want to show that. In Season 2, it looks at the violence that Mark is capable of. The fact that Angstrom Levy is receiving it isn’t as important as the emotions that Mark is feeling having done it.”

Character designs were simplified to streamline the animation process.

Character designs were simplified to streamline the animation process.

“There is also this notion of trying to top myself, so you’ll notice that a lot of the big memorable moments in the Invincible television series are enhanced. An action sequence will go on longer or some sort of gut-wrenching sequence will have an element added to it that makes it more off-putting or nerve-racking, or the tension is heightened more. Some of that comes from the scenes in the comics weren’t moving and didn’t have sound, and the show has that, so there is more latitude you can take in the individual scenes to amp up the emotion, scares and intensity.”

—Robert Kirkman, Co-Creator, Co-Showrunner, Executive Producer

Co-Creator/Co-Showrunner/Executive Producer Robert Kirkman has a preference for 2D animation, which is the style of choice for Invincible.

Co-Creator/Co-Showrunner/Executive Producer Robert Kirkman has a preference for 2D animation, which is the style of choice for Invincible.

Superpowers do not reflect personality traits. “We’re trying to make these characters feel real and three dimensional; they have hopes, dreams and aspirations,” Kirkman explains. “The superpowers serve the story and keep things moving. If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that a lot of characters have a similar powerset. Every now and then you have an Atom Even, Rex Splode, Duplicate or Robot who have a unique powerset. But Bulletproof, Invincible, Immortal and Omni-Man, these guys have the same powers! What differentiates them is their personalities, and that’s what makes them interesting.” A particular character has benefited from the animated series. “Debbie Grayson [Mark’s mother and wife of Omni-Man] was a major part of the comics and had a lot of big storylines, but there were long periods where the storylines were dealing with superpower, not human level stuff, so she would recede into the background. There is a tremendous opportunity in the show to find ways to keep her present. Then you also know that Sandra Oh is there to embody whatever we do. If we try to put some emotion into something, she takes that nugget and expands it. It’s a good example of an actor’s performance taking over and guiding the character at the writing stage.”

The animation is outsourced to Korea, which is a trend that has been happening in the animation industry since the 1980s.

The animation is outsourced to Korea, which is a trend that has been happening in the animation industry since the 1980s.

One of the reasons that 2D animation was chosen over CG is that Kirkman did not want to be limited by the number of characters he could introduce.

One of the reasons that 2D animation was chosen over CG is that Kirkman did not want to be limited by the number of characters he could introduce.

Serving as the main protagonist for Season 2 is Angstrom Levy, who has ability to open portals from multiple dimensions.

Serving as the main protagonist for Season 2 is Angstrom Levy, who has ability to open portals from multiple dimensions.

A character who has received more story time in the animated series is Debbie Grayson.

A character who has received more story time in the animated series is Debbie Grayson.

The growing popularity of adult animation, due in part by the streaming services, means that Invincible does not have to pull punches when depicting violence.

The growing popularity of adult animation, due in part by the streaming services, means that Invincible does not have to pull punches when depicting violence.

Invincible delves into the multiverse, which runs the danger of being the answer for every narrative problem, thereby negating any sense of peril. “The sweet spot of multiverse storytelling is witnessing other aspects of what could have been or seeing what happened in other dimensions and wringing as much emotion out of it as possible,” Kirkman notes. “We’re also doing our best to keep it as simple as possible. There is one character who accesses the multiverse in Angstrom Levy, and everything that we experience with the multiverse is through that character.” A riddle to solve was the portal sequence in Episode 208. “That whole episode was difficult, if you think about every single trip into the multiverse as almost a completely different show. They’re going to completely different environments, characters, color palettes, and it’s a lot to ask of a team. I don’t remember the actual number of dimensions, but that was monumental. It is great to have a team that is willing to push things and take those risks and put the extra work into accomplishing those kinds of things. For most shows it would be like, ‘You only get six of those.’ Often times, there are no corners to cut and we have to knuckle down and do it.”



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