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Credit: Image Comics

It's high time Robert Kirkman's Invincible got the respect it's always deserved

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Feb 8, 2021, 8:46 PM EST (Updated)

Now that we've gotten our first look at the Invincible animated series on Amazon Prime, it had me remembering a time when the Robert Kirkman comic book that was generating the biggest buzz had nothing to do with zombies.

Invincible, the Image Comics book about a teenaged superhero co-created by Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, debuted in 2003, months before The Walking Dead. 18 years later, it's still hard to overstate just how fresh a take on super-heroics it was. Kirkman's clever subversion of many typical superhero tropes combined with Walker's bombastic art and that of his replacement, Ryan Ottley, gave us the best new hero comics had seen in at least a decade. The book was, in its purest form, a modern take on Superboy; but in many ways, Mark Grayson, the titular hero's alter-ego, seemed to be a spiritual descendant of Peter Parker.

The ongoing narrative had massive twists, great character development, and jaw-dropping violence that readers really weren't used to seeing in a book about a super-powered teenager. As word spread about this new hero with the awesome costume and seat-of-your-pants storytelling, sales increased and the buzz grew. It was a comic that seemed to be a no-brainer for Hollywood, which was then just beginning its long infatuation with comic adaptations. Options were sold, checks were cashed. In fact, during my very first visit to San Diego Comic-Con, I recall interviewing Kirkman at the Image booth for a video feature I did for NBC on comics and the movie business. We talked about how Invincible was on the fast track at Paramount. Not a word was spoken about TWD then.

Fast forward more than a decade and TWD became a television institution while the "fast-tracked" Invincible film got derailed. The comic book series kept rolling until 2018, when Kirkman brought the series to its conclusion with issue #144. It received its share of celebratory send-offs and write-ups that tried to put the series in its proper historical context, but it all seemed to be rather... lacking. Then again, I've always thought Invincible didn't receive the appreciation it deserved for what it achieved. Perhaps it has to do with longevity. It's hard to sustain buzz for a decade and a half, no matter how good your comic book is — and Invincible was remarkably consistent during its run.

But it deserves more praise, even beyond its upcoming Amazon adaptation. It was a legit game-changer for the industry.

Credit: Image Comics; Art: Ryan Ottley

Introducing a new superhero with staying power is hard enough to do at DC or Marvel. Doing it as a creator-owned property is downright monumental. When it debuted, Invincible was the most successful new superhero comic launched since the original Image Comics titles. Out of those books, only Spawn and Savage Dragon remain relevant. Invincible had an uninterrupted 15-year run that could easily have lasted years longer if Kirkman hadn't decided to end it. The success of that comic showed that superhero stories could thrive outside of the Big Two and their library of decades-old heroes. Invincible proved that there is still much gold left to be mined from capes, and future creator-owned titles like The Boys and Jupiter's Legacy are just a few examples to back this up. The creator-owned space allowed Kirkman to take narrative risks you could never do with a DC or Marvel character. That book blew minds on a monthly basis. Actions had consequences in the Invincible universe, and they wouldn't just get reversed in a few months due to storytelling whimsy.

When I watched the very first footage of the animated series a few weeks back, I wore an ear-to-ear smile. Not just because I was in love with the sharp animation or Steven Yeun's voice work as Mark/Invincible, but also because I know what happens in the comics and the unexpected detours the story takes. I envy the people who will watch the series and be completely blindsided by the awesomeness that is fast approaching. Because a lot of folks simply aren't ready.

The Invincible comic at times seemed to be a response to the frustration some comics fans had with some of the routine behaviors that became accepted in comics. In this world, it wasn't always as simple as good versus evil. Sometimes, the shades of gray of a particular situation couldn't be ignored. Kirkman didn't shy away from that. For a comic that had a Silver Age-like reverence for the out-of-costume character beats at times, Invincible had a breathtaking amount of violence. It became such an indelible part of reading Invincible that Ryan Ottley has turned bloodied head sketches of Mark Grayson into a staple of his convention appearances. Kirkman himself summed up the comic in the best way possible during an interview I did with him in 2017 (link at the bottom of the page), when he said, "It's everything I've ever wanted out of a superhero book. But we zig where other superhero books zag."

My hope is that the animated series becomes a huge hit that gives us several seasons to explore classic storylines like The Viltrumite War, the Time Jump, and of course, his relationship with his father Nolan, which is... complicated.

Do I also hope it sparks something in Kirkman that gets him motivated to revisit these characters? Absolutely. If that doesn't happen, though, I'll settle for giving a little more respect on the name of a wild comic book that wasn't afraid to push boundaries and take risks that most superhero stories wouldn't dare attempt.

Got a favorite Invincible story arc? Find me on Twitter/Instagram and tell me about it. Always happy to discuss/debate comics, as long as we keep it civil!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.