The world is not tired of superhero stories and shows like Amazon Prime Video’s Invincible explain why. A coming-of-age story about a teenage superhero whose father is the most powerful hero on the planet, Invincible is relatable, action-packed, humorous, and horrific all at once.
We had the chance to speak with showrunner Simon Racioppa about his partnership with Robert Kirman and Cory Walker, who wrote and illustrated the comics respectively, and how they transformed the story for the screen.
A dive into Racioppa’s early writing influences foreshadows his work on imaginative sci-fi and fantasy shows (Spliced, Fangbone!, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance). Though Invincible represents a tonal shift from some of that work, Racioppa has long been interested in and inspired by comic book heroes and stories of human drama.
Growing up, he recalls: “I was probably 50/50 comics and 50/50 paperback, sci-fi fantasy novels. I used to buy them from the library. They would sell off old books, and you could buy paperback fantasy for like a quarter, so I would just buy boxes of those.”
“I grew up mostly reading Marvel and some indie titles and stuff like The Tick and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…I was really lucky at that time. One of my cousins actually owned a comic bookstore just outside of Toronto so I would go over there with my friends and hang out.”
In addition to reading stories like the ones he would grow up to write, Racioppa also grew up creating them with his friends.
“No big surprise that a white guy in Hollywood played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid,” he laughs. “I mean, it’s social storytelling, right? And I had a really good group of friends. We used to play, if you want get super nerdy, we also played a lot of the Palladium games like Rifts, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles role playing game, the Robotech role playing game, Call of Cthulhu.”
Even before his involvement with the show, Racioppa had already read half the Invincible comics, and was interested in writing an hour-long sci-fi series in general.
“Almost every writer has a stack of scripts they’ve written that were either optioned, but never made into a show, or were sold that but weren’t ever produced. I’d written another hour-long pilot for Robert for Skybound called Above, which was an adult sci-fi series set on a nuclear submarine. So there’s a lot of other material in the hour-long space that I’ve written that just haven’t been produced. It was always of interest to me, because that was a lot of the shows I was watching as well – great hour-long sci-fi, great hour-long genre shows of the time. A big influential one for me was Spaced, out of the UK, which is Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.”
He reflects, “That show was hugely inspiring to me because I was like, oh my god, you can just do a show like this, which is referential but there’s a lot of heart to it. They were doing Resident Evil stuff, they were doing Simpsons riffs, Scooby Doo riffs. It was great and funny and weird. And I was like, I want to do more stuff like that. That felt great to me.”
Though it’s hard to imagine Invincible as anything other than the beautifully gory animated series it is, some fans have speculated about the show as a live-action production, even fan-casting their favorite characters. But according to Racioppa, Invincible was envisioned as animated almost from the start.
“Live action was discussed really early on, but it was in conflict with wanting to stay true to the books. Unless we were going to be given like $50 million an episode or whatever, some insane feature-level amount of money to do an episode and more time, it just wasn’t possible. You’d have to squeeze the show down. At the time we were talking, it would have had to be something more like The Flash or some of the CW DC shows, which are great, but they’re not the same content as Invincible. You don’t go to the moon, you don’t have fights up in the sky, you don’t destroy an entire city.”
Another decision made early on was the show’s signature Saturday-morning cartoon vibrancy and style, which matches the comics they were based on.
“Early on, we decided we want to match those yellows, those blues. We wanted to be bold, and bright, and colorful,” he said. “There wasn’t even any debate about that. There was debate about, you know, exact saturation, line thicknesses on the backgrounds, and other very technical ways to achieve what we wanted. But the goal was always, let’s do the books. Let’s keep that vibrancy, that color, that very saturated comic book-ness, very Saturday morning look of the of the show. Because it was in the books, not just because we thought it would contrast against the violence.”
The team’s dedication to authenticity and to the comic books shines through in every detail, especially in the show’s many riveting fight scenes.
“[Robert] and I, we’re very specific on the page, where we can be, but with the opportunity for people to take it further. There’s some people who write for animation who are just like, they have a fight. The board artist figures it out. I feel like that’s unfair on the rest of the team. And then there’s people who spell it out, almost every single thing that happens, and I tend to be closer to that side of things, so the board artists and the directors at least have something to work with.”
He recalls the shocking ending of episode one: “That scene was written by Robert. And he was pretty specific. I would say 90% of that is on the page. But then our directors and our storyboard artists took that and elevated it even further, and our sound team. One of the moments that I always loved was War Woman’s mace. When it swings through the air, it’s got this great honing sound to it that our sound team put in there. Everybody else then takes what’s on the page and just elevates it and just makes it better. Seeing that fight for the first time when that started to come back from our studio overseas, I was like, oh yes, this is working.”
“You project forwards in your head. You’re like, once we edit it all together, once we get all the colors done, and we’re going to add sound effects…You’re imagining all these other steps of production and trying to then imagine what it’s going to be like when it’s done on screen,” he explains. “We just need to plug in, dial in all these other things, and it’s going to be great. So that was one of those times when that all came together. The whole team was firing on all cylinders.”
One of the show’s most distinctive details, the cut to title card whenever someone says the word “invincible” for the first time, was also carefully determined.
“I wish I could take credit for that. That is a Robert Kirkman invention,” Racioppa smiles. “If you had access to the scripts, it’s placed in there, because obviously it has to fit in with the dialogue. In some cases, we’d move it a little bit because it felt artificial where you had to jam the word in there. In some episodes like episode 5, it happens quite late. I think it happens 18 minutes into the episode or something like that, which was great that we had the flexibility to do that. It was about finding where it felt right in the script stage for someone to say ‘invincible’ in a way that hopefully was new from what we had done before.”
But none of these details would matter if the show wasn’t grounded in well-developed and conflicted characters. When asked about his favorite characters to write for, Racioppa had several answers (the Mauler Twins, Cecil), but ultimately chose Nolan.
“Nolan is still one of the best characters to write for just because he’s torn. He has these two extremes. He’s torn between love for his family, and duty and his Viltrum heritage. How do you balance those two? Hopefully you felt like he was pulled back and forth between those two. I hope we left people guessing, how much of each is true?”
Zooming out to speak about characterization in general, Racioppa notes “the only interesting characters are characters who are torn or are on the edge of collapse, or have troubles and problems that they’re trying to work through. I hope most of our characters felt like they had that, because that’s life. That’s what’s interesting about characters, seeing them struggle with things that you can connect back to your real life.”
Another testament to the show’s fantastic writing is its equally impressive voice cast starring Steven Yeun as Mark Grayson aka Invincible, Sandra Oh as Debbie Grayson, and J.K. Simmons as Nolan Grayson aka Omni-Man.
“Robert had worked with Steven for years on The Walking Dead and they’ve talked about this at length. They’re friends. They’ve known each other. So when Robert first started talking about Steven for Mark, that made perfect sense. He’s so good. I loved him. He brought so much humanity to those early seasons of The Walking Dead that it was unbelievable. He was one of the more pure characters in that show. So I was so happy when he said that. He loved the comic books and wanted to sign on.”
Racioppa thinks back to the rest of the casting process. “Once we had him on, that helped with casting everyone else. And we had an incredible casting director, Linda Lamontagne who’s cast the Angry Birds movies, Family Guy. She’s amazing. She was great about having these early conversations with us. We would make our wish lists about who we would like, and she’d be like, let me go talk to this person first. Because I think this person will say yes, and then once we started to get enough yeses, that snowballs, and it makes it easier to get everybody else.”
“People just kept on saying yes, so it was kind of ridiculous. It was amazing. We got almost all our first choices,” said Racioppa.
One of the yeses that shocked him most was Mahershala Ali, who voices Titan.
“I was like, he’s too busy. We’re never gonna get him. He was just blowing up. This was after Moonlight, and a couple other movies. It wasn’t because I thought he would not want to do the show. I just figured he’s getting calls from everybody at this point in his career. There’s no way he’s gonna make time for us. But he read the material, connected with it…So that call when Linda was like, he’s in! I was like, get out of town, are you kidding me?”
Though the tide may be shifting with the rise of shows like Invincible, animated stories and characters can sometimes be dismissed as kid’s shows by mainstream audiences.
Racioppa reflects, “It’s kind of funny because people don’t feel that way about feature animation for the most part, right? Pixar movies are like, universally beloved, as are a lot of the great big Disney movies…But for TV, it’s either prime time like Simpsons, Family Guy kind of stuff, or kid stuff. I think that’s just because we really haven’t had this realm of adult dramatic animation. I’m hoping that things are opening up a bit more in the same way that any superhero movie 30 years ago was kid [stuff], or felt like that, even if that’s not true. And then people started saying, oh wait, these are really good. You can tell a great story in this genre. It doesn’t matter that they’re superheroes, as long as they’re written like real people and they go through real challenges and we see real character moments of emotion and honesty and truth. These are still amazing stories. I’m hoping the same thing will happen for animation, because it’s not as genre. To me, it’s a format.”
Since it premiered on March 25th, Invincible has received overwhelmingly positive attention and has since been renewed for a second and third season. When asked about his reaction to this outpouring of support, Racioppa responded humbly, “I’m just grateful for it to at this point. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you do a show. Great shows get ignored. Terrible shows do really well. That happens. You don’t really know, especially when you’re head down on the show itself, working. When we wrapped it up late last year, I was just hoping that people would like it, that fans of the books would like it. That was the goal. Can we tell great good stories about great characters? And can we stay true to the material that people love? I just don’t want to make it worse than what Robert had done. I didn’t want to diminish it.”
He continued. “To see the response far exceed my wildest dream has been incredibly amazing. I’m very grateful for it, because I don’t take it for granted. It doesn’t often happen. That’s been amazing. When you’re writing, making a show, you just want to make it for other people. So to have other people respond, to hear a bit of an echo back is wonderful.”
Invincible is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. If you’d like to hear the entire interview conducted on The ‘Verse! podcast, including a conversation about who could beat Omni-Man in a fight, click here!