Yeah, It's Better Being a Teen: Robert Kirkman talks 'Invincible'

At the start of 2003, Image Comics released their new line of superhero comics and while all of them have attracted their own set of audiences, one of them has proven to be quite attractive to fans: Robert Kirkman's "Invincible." The first two issues have sold-out completely, prompting Image to post the first issue in it's entirety on their Web site. CBR News caught up with series writer Robert Kirkman to learn more about the genesis of the series and help readers who missed out on early issues of the series get caught up on what's happened so far.

"'Invincible' tells the story of mild-mannered teenager Mark Grayson and his extraordinary life as the son of the most powerful superhero on the planet," explains Kirkman. "Issue 1 began with Mark beginning to develop some of his father's superpowers and ultimately deciding to follow in his father's footsteps. It's a fun 'get-in-on-the-ground-floor' take on the teen superhero and I think we're doing things that haven't really been done before. Our next issue is #3 and it'll be in stores on March 26th. It features Mark's first team up with his father, and delves into their relationship a little bit. Mark and his father are very close, but Mark really doesn't get to spend much time with him because he spends just about every minute of every day traveling the globe, keeping people safe. Right now in the book there's a small mystery involving some students getting turned into human bombs that we'll be dealing with in-depth in issue 4. The majority of our first story arc has been spent establishing characters and setting up the supporting cast. Things really kick into high gear on issue 5 and beyond. Cory [Walker, artist on the series] and I are really looking forward to what's coming up."

While some may look at the series and assume it was automatically conceived as Kirkman's take on the "son of Superman" concept, the writer explains that "Invincible" came about as a project about some broader life themes. "I guess I just thought it would be fun to really explore the family aspect in a superhero book," says Kirkman. "I wanted to play around with the notion of what's normal for some isn't normal for others, and how a child would behave when he had grown up all his life around all kinds of superhero craziness. I always enjoy dealing with father/son relationships and I think it's something that hasn't really been dealt with a great deal in comics... up until now, that is. Cory and I were scrambling to come up with something to do after we finished last summers 'SuperPatriot' mini-series. While I was working on that, I came up with the concept behind 'Invincible.' Cory and I talked it over a bit, and he started coming up with designs for the characters and we just went from there."

There's also been some comparison early on to the popular "Ultimate Spider-Man" series, which also features a teenage protagonist, but Kirkman says that readers who look at both books will see the difference. "All I can really say is that we're trying to do our own thing. If they go left, we'll go right... and so on. But on top of that Cory and I (and E.J. Su and I on 'Tech Jacket') are trying to fill a gap that has come up in this industry for fun superhero books. Don't mistake 'fun' for 'overly lighthearted.' There will be drama, suspense, and all that stuff in 'Invincible,' but for the most part this is a book that should leave a smile on your face. I think Image has described it as having a Silver Age feel with Modern sensibilities, I think that works."

One big reason for the comparison of the two series is the ability of both "USM" writer Brian Bendis and Kirkman to be able to write convincing teenage characters, an ability the latter attributes to his own age. "I like to tell myself that I'm not too far off from High School age, so I think that helps. At the very least I haven't forgotten what high school was like for me. I remember what my thought processes were and for the most part, how I would've reacted to certain situations then versus how I would now... and I think that's a big help. My wife and I also have younger siblings that are still around that age so it helps to be around them every now and then. My safety net in all this is that most of the people reading comics these days are around my age or older than I am, so I don't really have to worry about getting called on my teen dialogue. I'm using our shrinking readership to my advantage!"

Another reason for comparison is the upbeat tone of both series, though Kirkman says he'll be going for even brighter and zanier stories than seen in many teen superhero comics on the market today. "…many other contemporary creators are already doing darker stories. Why throw my name in that hat when I can create my own? I like to think that all my work is about filling gaps in the market, whether they are actually there or even need to be filled to begin with isn't really up to me. I'm just trying to give readers an option... one that I hope they take. There's enough dark, and depressing stuff in this world without me going in and telling another dark story. Comics to me are about escapism, and sheer zaniness. There seems to be a big movement these days to make our 'icons' more believable and real... and while I think it does make for some very interesting stories, I don't think every book should be like that. So I'm saying to the comic buying public 'Do you miss alternate dimensions, and alien invasions, and ray guns, and robots, and costumes, and superheroes that do less talking and more superheroing? Well then come on over... we saved you a seat.'"

The not-so-subtle homage's to Superman have not gone unnoticed by fans and while many have got a chuckle, some wonder if Kirkman will keep them up during the series or if he'll tire of them. "Well, I think as long as it's not derivative, we'll be fine," reveals the writer. "Aside from Nolan having a slightly similar origin, they really aren't that alike. They look completely different, and don't really have the same powers. Nolan operates on a more global scale; he rarely operates in the city he lives in. I know the easiest way to describe 'Invincible' is with the phrase 'Son of Superman,' but we're not really out to throw too many parallels in this book. To be honest, I think that would limit us too much. We'll be well beyond any comparison to Superman in a few issues."

In the first two issues of "Invincible" our hero Mark has met a lot of people, including the Teen Team, a group of teenage heroes that fight crime. One of the female members in particular is one of Mark's classmates and issue #2 would seem to indicate that Mark will be joining the team pretty soon. "They'll be around in the book most of the time, not every issue, but in more than a few," says Kirkman of the youthful heroes. "They're going to be Mark's other sphere of influence. He can only learn so much from his father, and having this group of teenage superheroes there for him to get advice and support from is going to be a big help. I don't think there are any plans for spin-offs for a while. I mean, we don't even have our third issue out yet. It would certainly be fun to do, but our main focus right now is the book."

It's hard to mention the supporting cast of this series without mentioning Mark's dad, Omni-Man, a hero from a planet far away and who's chosen to protect this planet from harm. While the two have shared some panel time together, it's mostly been flashbacks and as Kirkman explains, they'll soon explore their family powers…together. "They'll be teaming up for the first time in issue three, on sale March 26th. They'll be spending time together quite a bit over the course of the series. I'm sure they'll be teaming up every now and then. Mark is the main character though, and Nolan is very busy protecting the world... so they won't be working together too often. There aren't any plans for them to fight each other in the immediate future... Mrs. Grayson wouldn't allow that."

There are plans, however, to take the book from it's relative grounded state and shift things into overdrive, with over the top battles, Robert Kirkman style. "Heh... we're just sort of easing into it," smiles Kirkman. "We've got aliens from another dimension trying to invade Saudi Arabia in issue 3. There will be tons more stuff like that in the future. That's really what interests me about this book. I can't wait to get to the really epic superhero stuff."

An aspect of this series that has been constantly praised is the art by Cory Walker, co-creator of the series, and Kirkman can't stop talking about how great it is to work with the talented artist. "Cory is responsible for everything you see. I did a rough character design on one of the side characters 'Rex-Splode' and fought for Nolan's mustache early on but other than that, every character design is Cory's, from Invincible's costume to all the cars and machines you see. He's the one that came up with the name 'Atom Eve' and the idea for the 'Robot' character in the Teen Team. He also does a swell job of reining me in if I try to do something too goofy. Any time I'm worried that I'm going off the deep end with a joke in the book I'll run it by him first. I really like to pack humor into my comics but I know that there has to be a good balance or the book will come off like a comedy book, and I really don't want that to happen. Cory was involved with this book before it even existed. There was 'Cory and Robert are doing a book together' well before there was 'Invincible.' We were working on 'SuperPatriot' for Erik Larsen and needed something else to do after it ended.

"Well, the thing about it is... Cory is really damn good. What he brings to this project he would bring to any project, and that's dedication, hard work, and yeah... perfection. Cory is a professional in every sense of the word, and a real treat to work with. I can't imagine this book ever happening with anyone else. To me, a large part of what makes 'Invincible' fun to do is getting to work with Cory and seeing the pages he turns in based on my script. There's an energy to his pages, but on top of that... there's this felling of originality I see in his work... like nobody would draw anything quite like Cory would. I think he's the next superstar of the industry, and the fact that everyone that sees the book comments on how good it looks goes a long way to back that claim up. Of course... Bill Crabtree's colors go a long way towards completing Cory's vision, it would be wrong of me not to mention him. Bill is an innovator when it comes to comic book coloring. With him and Cory together, there's really no way this book can go wrong."

Launching a new comic book series in today's comic book market is always a risky proposition, so it'd be logical to think that Kirkman might have planned out the series short term in case it was cancelled. But as the writer revealed to CBR News, he's got a grand vision for "Invincible" and plans to entertain fans for years to come. "I've got the book roughly planned out for a long time, and I'm coming up with new story arcs all the time. This book will definitely have a long life if everything works out. But there isn't really an end to the story, at least not some grand thing that we're working towards. I think by design this series is about getting to know the characters and watching them change over time. If I had my way... I'd never stop doing this book. For me, that would be a dream come true."

If fan reaction is to be trusted, Kirkman should see his dreams come true- the book has been almost universally embraced by those who read the series. "I would say overwhelmingly positive," adds Kirkman. "It's definitely exceeded my expectations. The first two issues sold out like lightning... and we're talking about a NEAR 50% overprint on issue 1 to begin with. I've been really pleased with how everything is going. The first issue is now available on www.imagecomics.com to read for free... and that's been generating a lot of interest. Kurt Busiek read it online and I caught him saying nice things about it. Other pros like Erik Larsen, Scott Kurtz, and Rob Liefeld have also let me know that they enjoy the book. Image is getting behind this book full steam too. Eric Stephenson has been sending copies of #3 to retailers early to drum up more interest, sales have spiked up for issue 4 and I've just been told that we're going to be doing a TPB in August of the first four issues.

"To be honest I can't really recall any sort of criticism on the book, at least not something I've heard enough to become a common criticism. As far as compliments go... everyone seems to be going out of their way to rave about Cory, and I've gotten a few nods on pacing and dialogue... but really... most people just seem to enjoy the whole package. This is a team effort, Cory, Bill, and I set out every month to produce the best work we can... and luckily people seem to be noticing."

So what else does the future hold for "Invincible?" While Kirkman knows, he doesn't quite want to tell readers too much and doesn't know how to phrase it. "Christ, I'm not good with teasers... I really like to keep stuff on the hush, hush until it's in the books. I'll give it a shot though. Issue 3 has the first team up with Invincible and his father. Issue 4 be the end of the whole "human bomb" subplot. Issue 5 will have Invincible facing his first real heavy hitting villain, his first REAL challenge. Issue 6 is a grab bag of all kinds of goodies. Issue 7 is a big surprise. Throughout those issues we're going to see an invasion, abduction, explosion, a secret identity discovered, some sex, a fistfight on the moon, and a little bit of death."

There are those who will look at "Invincible" on the comic book shelves and think it's just another superhero series, and to those people, Kirkman has words he hopes will make a difference. "Take a minute and read the book in the store. Or swing by imagecomics.com and read it online. It's not what you think, there's much more to this comic. Retailers and fans alike all seem to enjoy it, I recommend giving it a shot. It's a different kind of superhero comic, it's really like nothing else on the shelves. Right now at least, it's the only place to get art by Cory Walker and Bill Crabtree.

"If nothing else, this is a book by a team of dedicated guys who enjoy the work, and are committed to getting the book out on time, and regularly. If you see it in Previews, you're going to see it in your store in the month Previews says it's going to be there. So if you do end up liking it, this book will always be here. It's not going to just fade away, or get cancelled, at least not if we can help it. This is a book that the creators love as much as the fans. I can say with absolute honesty that if you keep reading them, we'll keep making them.

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