Invincible at 50: Robert Kirkman, Part I

In today's comic book marketplace, a 22-page monthly comic is considered a sales success if it can break even over a six-issue arc. Even industry giants DC Comics and Marvel have a tough time sustaining series with well known characters like Aquaman or the Silver Surfer for more than a year or two at a time. So the fact that this week sees the 50th issue of Image Comics' teen superhero title "Invincible" hit the stands is a bit more than surprising. It's a revelation.

Created in 2002 by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Cory Walker -- and drawn since issue #8 by Ryan Ottley with colorist Bill Crabtree sticking in for every installment -- "Invincible" has steadily spun out the story of fledgling hero Mark Grayson, whose flights-and-tights career as the aptly-named Invincible was thrown for a cosmic loop when his seemingly heroic father Omni-Man was revealed as a would-be conqueror of Earth on behalf of the indestructible alien race known as the Viltrumites.

From its humble beginnings as one book in Image's stab at a new superhero line, Kirkman's "Invincible" has earned fan acclaim, multiple trade paperback editions and a dizzying level of twists and turns on the traditional superhero comic. Over six years and 50 issues, the series has remained one of the most popular new comics of the new millennium and shows no signs of slowing down soon.

To celebrate, CBR is checking in with the book's entire creative team starting with a lengthy, two-part talk with Robert Kirkman on the series' early struggles to stay alive, its surprise success and the writer's master plan for the characters and their universe. Be sure to check back later this week for part two, an exclusive sneak peek at issue #51, as well as chats with series artists Ryan Ottley and Bill Crabtree.

CBR: How does it feel to finally get "Invincible" #50 out on the stands?

Kirkman: I'm feeling great. I'm feeling awesome. You know, I'm feeling embarrassed that it's not out yet, but now that it's finally coming out soon, I'm really excited and proud of the issue. It's 48 pages of solid comic book action, and so it should be pretty cool. Hot damn, it's issue #50! That's really exciting. It feels like I've been celebrating issue #50 for a year now. [laughs] Because there was the build up to the solicitation and getting the covers done and writing the thing �" "Oh, I'm writing issue #50!" and "Oh, I'm soliciting issue #50!" and then "Oh, I'm getting pages in from issue #50!" and "Oh, I'm sending it to the printer!" It's a long ordeal. I don't ever want to do an issue 50 ever again. I'm through with that business.

Well, luckily you're not re-launching with a new #1 every two years.

No, we don't do that crap! And when "The Astounding Wolf-Man" reaches #50, we're just going to skip from #49 to #51.

"Invincible" started out with idea that there was going to be a renewed line of superhero books at Image, and some are still around in one form or another and some are dead. You obviously had a long term plan for this series from the very start, but did you ever expect that you'd see it come out for so long?

Of course not! No! Lord, no! I certainly hoped that I would, and when we started the series, one of my dreams in comics �" because my career was just starting out when I started "Invincible" �" all I really wanted in comics besides being able to make a living, which is kind of a general wish, was to be able to do a series, any series I enjoyed, for a good long time. To be able to tell my stories and keep things continuing and do all the twists and turns that I liked in all the comics that I had read and just get to do that without worrying that my book was going to get canned at any moment.

When "Invincible" started out, it was on pretty shaky ground, and when we hit issue #6, I was like, "Wow! This is issue #6 and it's not the last one!" I think that was a first for me. I'd done "Battle Pope," and that lasted for 14 issues, but that was a bunch of miniseries, so we were constantly restarting and doing specials and what not. I'd done "Tech Jacket" shortly before "Invincible," and it ended at issue #6, and so "Invincible" was my first issue #7, my first issue #8, my first issue #9, and when we hit any kind of landmark �" issue #12, issue #25 �" it was always like, "Ah! Look at that!" And by the time #25 came around, we were doing pretty well, and the series was looking pretty strong, and that's when I was finally like, "Look at this. This might be going for a while." So when it first started out, I had no idea that we would end up being so successful and having this long running series.

Is there something you attribute to "Invincible's" success in the marketplace? "Invincible" and "The Walking Dead" have been your longstanding hits, and "The Walking Dead" really seemed to strike just before there was a massive resurgent interest in zombie stuff. But what was it with "Invincible" that made this book connect with folks when "Tech Jacket" or "Capes" didn't seem to have the same draw?

I think it's that yellow on the costume, which I'm starting to regret taking away on the new version. [Laughs] I don't know. I can't really pinpoint what it was. We definitely had that cool Omni-Man stuff come in early on, and that's when sales started to tick upwards. Issue #7 had ended with the shock that Omni-Man had killed the Guardians of the Globe, and there was a buildup to the big fight between Invincible and his father in issue #11. That was some pretty cool stuff I never got a chance to do in "Tech Jacket" or "Capes" or anything else. I don't know. Maybe it was the star? I don't have any kind of...whatever. If I knew, I would tell everybody, and everybody would have long-running series. Luck? I'll go with luck.

You joke about the yellow in the costume, but since the book has grown so strongly and steadily in readership, Image has taken the character as a kind of focus. When the publisher redesigned the site, Mark flies across the top of the banner.


But there is that association! In a way, Invincible is Image's Spider-Man. When you and Cory Walker designed the character, did you consciously try to work the Image "I" into his costume, or did that just fall out?

How dare you?!? That is certainly not anything close to the Image "I." The Image "I" is owned by Image Comics, Incorporated and is the only intellectual property that they own. And it would be illegal for me to put that on a character. It's just a lower case "I." It's not even the same! [Laughs]

But, yeah...it was kind of a joke. Cory was actually staying with me when we put "Invincible" together, and we'd stay in the same room doing sketches back and forth and trying to figure out what we were going to make the character look like. And at the same time, I was on the phone regularly with [Image co-founder and current publisher] Erik Larsen, showing him sketches and showing him sketches and chatting about stuff. We'd had a few designs for the character already that we didn't feel too strongly about, and Erik was like, "Yeah, that just looks like a generic dude. You don't want to do that." And so we were sitting around trying to come up with something remotely iconic, and when you're trying to come up with some kind of an iconic superhero, you can't always just put a wolf head on their chest. With a character called "Invincible," you couldn't have bullets bouncing off metal as an icon on his chest.

So the thing we came up with was an "I," and an upper case "I" is not very good for design. It's either a line or a sideways "H," and that looks kind of weird. So when we were doing stuff with the lower case "I" we struck on what we ended up going with. And there was a bit of a concern with how close it was with the Image "I," but the dot on top is a little bit bigger, and we did put a point on it, so it's slightly different. But that's definitely something we were aware of and that we joked about. I think at one point, Cory may have called him "Image Man." So I hope they don't sue us. [Laughs]

As you've gone along, there have been plenty of changes to the book both on the page and off, biggest probably being when Walker realized he couldn't keep the monthly pace. Were there moments where you thought, "I'm going to have to finish this one off like the other series"?

We had a jump in sales for issue #4, and that was the first time that had ever happened. I thought, "This is awesome!" but that was when our schedule started getting a little wrecked, and issue #5 shipped very late, and issue #6 shipped five or six months late �" kind of like issue #50 �" but we didn't have a lot of issues coming out, and that's when our sales started dropping. But because issue #4 had ticked up, I didn't end it as issue #6 like I did "Tech Jacket" because "Tech Jacket" was kind of a straight plummet down kind of thing. I'd like to think that if I kept "Tech Jacket" going for 12 issues it might have ticked up, but who knows? But we decided to hold on [with "Invincible"], but sales kept going down, and there was a point when we were going to end the book at issue #13.

Benito Cereno and Nate Bellegarde were doing back-ups in the book at that time, and they had been talking about doing a continuing backup story for their Hector Plasm character. I had told them, "If you guys want to do that back-up story, you need to start it now because issue #13 may be the last issue!" So I thought I was just going to tell the Omni-Man story and end the series, but then with issue #11 sales started to tick up again, and we were fine. But there was a long time where I didn't think the book was going to go past issue #13.

You've continually surprised people with the ways you've expanded the world and the plots of the series from Allen the Alien and the Coalition of Planets to the arc with the astronaut on Mars. As you write, how often do these plots take over and become the main story you never expected, and how much stuff has been pushed back that you haven't gotten to yet?

Sometimes I get a little carried away, I'll admit. I still haven't gotten back to the Atlantis stuff I introduced in issue #15, but one of these days, I'll go back to that. There have been times when the book has been a bit of a mess with all the storylines going on, but those are the kinds of comic I enjoyed in the early '90s and late '80s reading books. Claremont's "X-Men" had all kinds of plots running through it, and the Michelinie "Spider-Man" had subplots all over the place until they would actually come back and deal with something. And then Erik Larsen's "Savage Dragon" series, which I was a big fan of, always did that stuff. Those were my favorite comics, and for me, that's what comics were. So I like to have interweaving subplots and what not.

There's been one plot that I forgot, and I feel bad admitting it �" but this is fun. It's like a celebration for issue #50, so it's okay. But there was a page in issue #16 or #17 where a janitor actually saw Mark and Eve go into a dumpster to change into their Invincible and Atom Eve costumes, and it was just a scene where he ran to the dumpster because he thought they were teenagers going to make out, and he opens the doors, and they were gone. I was going to eventually have that janitor hunting them down and trying to figure out what was going on with them and eventually finding out they were superheroes, but when I was writing that scene, I had forgotten that I was going to have Mark graduate from high school in a couple of issues, so that fell by the wayside. But that's not a big deal. That doesn't really count, right? [Laughs]

But for the most part, they are fairly meticulously plotted out. I knew when Mark went to Mars in issue #18 that it was going to lead to a big multi-part Sequid arc with Mark fighting that astronaut that was left behind. I didn't know it was going to take me until the late 30s to do that arc, but I always had that planned out. But for the most part things are meticulously planned out, and I have notes written down for where each plot is going to go. It's just a matter of keeping track of them and not forgetting them.

One could compare your stuff to Claremont's "X-Men" or Michelinie's "Spider-Man" because even though they were Marvel comics, they often felt as if they took place in their own little pocket universes. For a lot of readers, the draw to "Invincible" is that you're able to deliver a whole universe feel in one monthly comic. Does that practice for you come from your complete control of the board and the pieces on it?

Yeah. That's a big part of doing the series. I like superheroes, and I like introducing new characters, and so I'm always introducing new guys. But we always get to follow them in one series. I think for readers that's one of the draws of the book �" being able to have the appeal of a Marvel Universe or a DC Universe but only have to purchase the one three-dollar comic every month or so. I'm trying to keep that going, and that's a fun part of it to me. It keeps me interested in the book. If I ever get bored with Invincible, I can always cut away and focus on The Immortal or Robot or Allen the Alien or any of the other characters that are running through the series.

Have some of those characters developed so much more depth because you can just take them for a spin? Robot, specifically, feels like a character who started with one point of view and then through the subplot with the Maulers, we stumble upon the fact that he is human.

Well, I've always known that he was really a human that was driving that suit. So early on in the series, if you go back and read that dialogue, I purposefully had him continually mention his disdain for humans because I knew that I was going to eventually reveal that he was a human. So every now and then, he'd say, "Oh, you pitiful humans..." and I'd done that specifically to show how odd a person he was and how disassociated with his real body he had actually become. So that was always planned.

But sometimes I have to stop myself. I don't want to do an "Invincible" comic that's 18 pages of Robot and two pages of Invincible. The side characters are very important, and it's a big part of the book, and people do like them, but I'm constantly having to remind myself, "Oh, I need to not focus on The Immortal so much. I need to focus on Invincible because he is the core of the book." It's a balancing act when you have that many characters in a book. You don't want it to feel like it's a cast of thousands and nobody has any importance. I try to strictly deal with important parts of their life that relate to the title character or in ways that will eventually relate. So the subplots with different characters will eventually impact Invincible in some ways. So the bigger stories involving the side characters I'm going to start funneling into mini series like the "Invincible Presents Atom Eve" series that just came out.

Check back with CBR News on Tuesday for part two of this in-depth interview with Robert Kirkman, to be followed by chats with Ryan Ottley, Bill Crabtree and an exclusive preview of "Invincible" #51.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.

Tags: image comics, robert kirkman, invincible, cory walker, ryan ottley

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