‘Invincible’ Creator Robert Kirkman on Animated Nudity, Keeping Season 2 ‘Weird,’ Beating Superhero Fatigue and More

It’s been 30 months since Season 1 of “Invincible” — the animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s popular comic book series — wrapped up on Prime Video, but don’t expect the show to spend time catching audiences up on the story when it finally returns Nov. 3. “I mean, we live in a modern era where everything is available,” says Kirkman, who also executive produces the show. He adds with a laugh, “Almost no consideration was made on that front.”

Instead, Season 2 plunges viewers right back into the tumultuous life of high school senior and titular superhero Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), as he and his human mother Debbie (Sandra Oh) deal with the fallout from the devastating revelation that Mark’s father, Nolan (J.K. Simmons) — a.k.a. the equally indestructible Omni-Man — is part of fascistic alien race bent on galactic domination. The show also picks up the storylines of its robust supporting cast, including Gillian Jacobs as Mark’s superhero friend Atom Eve; Walton Goggins as the secretive head of the Global Defense Agency, Cecil Stedman; Jason Mantzoukas as the hot-headed member of the Guardians of the Globe, Rex Splode; and Zazie Beetz as Mark’s human girlfriend, Amber.

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Over two dozen actors joined the show for Season 2, led by Sterling K. Brown as the brilliant scientist Angstrom Levy, who is capable of accessing the multiverse. As Kirkman explains to Variety, the sprawling cast, no-holds-barred violence and cutthroat dramatic intrigue are all meant to keep the show distinctive in a superhero-saturated landscape. He also discusses why his show’s multiverse is different from everyone else’s multiverse, and why the show is so comparatively restrained about depicting sex.

What were some of your biggest concerns about adapting “Invincible” for Season 1?

I think some of the violent aspects of it is always a concern. The goal with that is always to up the drama. It’s always for a purpose. And a lot of the stuff in the show is pushed beyond what was in the comic. I like pushing those boundaries. For the most part, I’m just trying to entertain myself. I do consider the audience. But my main driving force is, do I like this? In that respect, I just kind of do what I think is cool, and then hope that people like it. But from everything I’ve heard back, it seemed to be fairly effective. So it’s been kind of full steam ahead on Season 2.

Did anything that the audiences did respond to in Season 1 affect how you approached Season 2?

I think it made me willing to push things further. One of the secret sauces of “Invincible” is that we embrace everything about superhero comics. There’s a distillation that happens with the MCU, where they shave the edges off to make everything as real world as possible. Like, you’re never going to see Robert Downey Jr. having a conversation with a fish person in the MCU. To me, the tradition of comic books is, you know, there was an issue of “Superman” where he had to marry a mermaid. I like the weird stuff, and people seem to respond to that.

The first trailer for Season 2 included a title card with 26 actors joining the show — how did you get people like Sterling K. Brown, Tatiana Maslany and Calista Flockhart to sign up?

Our casting director, Linda Lamontagne, is really great. I feel like we’re very fortunate. The Steven Yeun casting was a cascading effect. I was able to get Steven to play Invincible because we’re buddies and we worked together on “Walking Dead,” and we like each other a significant amount. And he’s been one of the hottest actors in Hollywood for going on, what, five years now? So to be associated with him as a good thing.

How many people are you discovering are themselves a big fan of the comics?

Very little! Jason Mantzoukas actually reread “Invincible” as part of some book group he was in during the pandemic. There are some actors where their son or daughter likes the comics. We got Mahershala Ali on Season 1 because his assistant was a big fan. But, you know, we get actors sometimes who don’t even know it was a comic. I had an actor who was like, “Good luck! I hope it comes back for a second season!” And I was like, “Well, you were recording for Season 3 … but … OK!”

Are there any actors that are showing up in Season 2 that you haven’t announced yet?

At this point? No. But there are so many actors that are in Season 3 that are not in Season 2 that I am terrified to talk about actors in interviews, because Season 3 has already been recorded, and the sessions definitely run together in my head. There are people who were in Season 1 whose characters don’t appear in Season 2, but do appear in Season 3 — that’s a tidbit I’ll give you.

How are you deciding what to keep from the comics, what to change, and what to expand on?

My main goal is to keep the skeleton intact. We have hindsight with “Invincible” that we didn’t have on “The Walking Dead,” because I was writing that while we were doing the show, so we wouldn’t know that one character is important four years later, because I hadn’t written those issues yet. But here, it’s down to the point where it’s like, that line of dialogue is going to have a bigger punch if we tweak it a little bit, because we know what we would theoretically be adapting in Season 6.

But while keeping the skeleton intact, the goal is to take what’s in the comics and enrich and deepen it. Debbie wasn’t the biggest character in the comics, and that’s a unique perspective that’s more relatable to the audience because she has no superpowers. Her story is interesting because of everything that’s happening with her husband and her son and her being at the center of this insane world. And then we also have Sandra Oh, who is spectacular, playing her. So a lot of plots come from, “OK, well, what are we doing with Debbie that we didn’t do in the comics?”

One thing that surprised me is that while “Invincible” is filled with graphic violence, without spoiling anything, there’s an episode in Season 2 where the show gets almost self-consciously chaste about depicting sex. What was your thinking there?

That’s kind of done for comedic effect. We got the great Paul F. Tompkins in there [as the narrator], you know: “Dear viewer, we must look away!” To a certain extent, I think it’s commentary on the American sensibility. We are a Puritan-founded nation that will allow insane violence on TV, but if you start showing nudity, it’s like, top three quarters of a buttocks and a lot of rotating sexual position so that no one’s in one position for any length of time. Also, I don’t think nudity looks great in animation.

How did you decide upon using Angstrom Levy as the main villain for Season 2?

That’s all about finding that through-line for the season. That’s not how comics work. It’s a continuous month-to-month cycle — there isn’t this group of episodes that have to seem of a piece. The first season was a matter of putting those two big Nolan beats of him fighting the Guardians of the Globe, and him fighting Mark, as the bookends, and filling out the middle. This season was about making it definitively Mark’s story, and Angstrom Levy is definitively a Mark villain that he had to face on his own. It gave us that structure for this season. The same thing is true of Season 3. That’s a lot of fun for me. Anything that’s new and different about the story is where I perk up.

Angstrom Levy is steeped in the concept of multiple universes, which has become the new hotness in superhero storytelling. What do you make of that?

Well, “Invincible” is in this weird situation where it’s being adapted 20 years after its inception. So, like, first season, we were in the barrage of evil Supermen, between “Eternals” and “The Boys,” but when the “Invincible” comic started, there wasn’t a lot of evil Supermen. There was barely anything going on with the multiverse when we did the Angstrom Levy stories in the comics, and now it’s just everywhere.

The draw of the multiverse is that you get to play with different aspects of familiar things. It’s just a really easy button to push: “OK, we can bring in these Fox characters that everybody remembers. We can have a digital cameo of Christopher Reeve. We’re going to take this thing that’s popular because it’s a nostalgia thing and then amp the nostalgia up even more.” I consider myself in that fanbase, so I see why it’s so popular.

The only thing I’ll say is, what we’re doing is a little bit different. We’re using the multiverse to examine Mark’s character and what aspects of him we may not necessarily be aware of yet. It’s much more of a character-based story. I mean, we don’t have the luxury of bringing in the Invincible from the popular 1990s cartoon. If we did, we probably would.

At the same time, there are signs that audience enthusiasm is no longer at a fever pitch for superhero stories. As someone who’s been on all sides of that process, what do you think could be driving that?

From my perspective — which I admit, probably wrong! — is that I don’t get that sense of newness anymore from these movies. For the first 10 years, it was like, Oh my gosh, we’re getting everything we loved about action movies, but instead of watching Bruce Willis climb through ventilation duct, we’re watching a guy punch a planet. It was taking the magic of superhero comics that had existed for decades, and authentically translating it into film in a way that had never really been achieved before. Now that we’re, you know, 100 movies deep, it’s hard to tell an audience, “You’re going to get a new experience out of this.”

How do you see that affecting the show?

Hopefully, it’s arriving at the exact right time. “Invincible” came around in comics when superhero-literate people knew exactly how superhero stories go. “Invincible’s” main goal was to say, “You think you know what superheroes do?” And the comic became very popular because of that. And so “Invincible” [the show] is coming at a time when the general audience is extremely superhero literate. So hopefully [we can re-create] the same thing that happened in comics, where people who had been reading Marvel and DC comics for years were like, “Wait, ‘Invincible’ makes me feel like when I first started reading comics.”

Well, with all that said, what’s the latest on the live-action adaptation of “Invincible”?

Still in the script development stage. I think once we get the script to where it needs to be, I think we’ll be in a good place, and can move fairly quickly after that. But all of the factors that I just discussed are things that we’re thinking about: How does this feel new? How does this feel different? How is this going to feel like something that’s special? Those are very tall orders. We also need to find a way to play off the animated series, but also differentiate ourselves and give the movie a reason for existing. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But we’re hopeful.

You’ve said that the full arc of the comic could run for seven or eight seasons. Now that you’ve got your production rhythms back up from the COVID shutdown, is there hope to have a new season every year?

That is the goal. The realities of animation may make that a little difficult, but what I can guarantee is that the gap between Season 1 and 2 is the longest gap we should ever have, you know, barring some unforeseen catastrophe. It may be every 18 months or 16 months or 13 months or every 12 months. We’re still trying to figure that out.

The standalone “Atom Eve” episode that debuted in July was so much fun. Are you planning on doing more of that kind of thing between seasons?

I mean, there’s a possibility. We don’t want to do anything that distracts from the production of the actual show. But depending on how well Season 2 is received, it would be nice to be able to do that. There is such a large cast, it would be great to be able to focus on individual characters every now and then, just to give people more insight into who these characters are.

Do you have any characters in mind?

I can’t spoil that now! No, I don’t know. You know, there was some Rex Splode exploration in the comics that might be fun to do. Monster Girl is another character that has an interesting backstory. There’s a lot of stuff with Cecil that people don’t necessarily know that would be fun, and it’d be great to work with Walton Goggins. But yeah, I mean, there’s a bunch of different characters out there. We’ll see!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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