The basic premise of Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic series Invincible— which is getting the Amazon animated series treatment on March 26, to the tune of eight hour-long episodes—is almost as easy to explain as the “Zombies win, people lose” concept of Kirkman’s other biggest hit, The Walking Dead. To wit: What if you found out one day that your dad was Superman? And that you’re going to grow into a set of top-level superhuman powers all your own? Wouldn’t that kick ass?
Said wish fulfillment premise is exactly what happens to 17-year-old Mark Grayson (voiced, in the series, by Walking Dead vet Steven Yeun) in the opening issues of the comic, which charts his transformation—across 15 years of publication, from its opening issue in January 2003, all the way out to the grand finale in 2018—from rookie flying brick to top-tier hero of his own vast superpowered universe. Created by Kirkman and artists Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, Mark finds out when he’s just 7 years old that his dad, mild-mannered, heavily mustachioed novelist Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons) is actually the superhero Omni-Man, a visitor from the distant planet of Viltrum tasked with protecting the Earth with his powers of super-strength, speed, flight, and regeneration. Despite the cautious guidance of his human mother Deborah (Sandra Oh), Mark spends the intervening decade waiting fervently for super-puberty to finally hit so that he can begin living up to the old man’s legacy. He’s ecstatic when his powers finally kick in—just as he’s throwing out the garbage at his part-time fast-food job, accidentally hurling the bags into orbit.
Every good Superman copy needs his own ersatz Justice League, and Kirkman wasted little time fleshing out Invincible’s universe with a wide array of super teams, with pride of place going to two: The aforementioned Guardians Of The Globe, and the more hometown-focused Teen Team. For their part, The Guardians are, essentially, DC’s premier superhero squad with the serial numbers filed off, with the possible exception of their leader, the unkillable Immortal (Ross Marquand), who has more in common with Marvel’s Wolverine than any specific DC Comics archetype. The rest, though, are pretty clear copies: War Woman (Lauren Cohan) standing in for Wonder Woman, Martian Man (Chad L. Coleman) for the Martian Manhunter, etc. (And, yes, the gag here is that the entire roster has been filled with Yeun’s old Walking Dead co-stars, even if Mark’s low-level superhero-ing keeps him well out of Guardians business for the early run of the comic.)
Of more immediate concern is the Teen Team, which serves as Mark’s first entry into coordinated super-heroing. Led by Robot (Zachary Quinto) who is, well, a robot—the team mastermind whose powers run to planning, scientific devices, and pinpoint accuracy—the team includes the elementally powered Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), bomb-tossing asshole Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), and Dupli-Kate (Malise Jow), who can split off duplicates of herself from her “main” body. (A useful skill in a superhero universe that can go as heavy on bloody body counts as Invincible’s, which hides a truly nasty penchant for violence beneath its brightly colored exterior.) Although Mark never joins the group proper—an isolationist streak he inherits from his dad, who’s an ally of the Guardians, but never a member—he frequently teams up with Teen Team in the early days of his career, fending off foes like the Mauler Twins (two malevolent, super-durable scientists who argue constantly about which one was cloned from the other) and the earthquake-deploying Doc Seismic. All of this is (loosely) coordinated under the oversight of a secretive government organization run by high-level bureaucrat Cecil Stedman (Walton Goggins), which hands out assignments and notifies the planet’s protectors to threats to the world at large.
Although it would eventually get far more epic, and dark, in scope—dropping horrifying familial revelations, and expanding into wars that could consume whole solar systems—Invincible the comic stayed close to home for the first year of its run, mixing a healthy dose of sitcom DNA into its bloody superhero fights. (There’s a reason Mark goes to Reginald VelJohnson high school, complete with a dead ringer for the Family Matters dad himself as the school principal.) That teen comedy vibe includes plenty of relationship drama, secret identity embarrassment (most notably with Mark’s best friend, William), and a lot of “practicalities of superheroing” material that The Incredibles would traffic in the following year—right down to including the same gags about secret tailors whose concerns for crafting supersuits focus on branding as much as battling. By crafting a perfect kids’ power fantasy, Kirkman was able to create a world in which its title character was as free from consequence as his (much-mocked) superhero name would suggest… at least, until the author began steadily drenching his lead’s blue-and-yellow costume in blood red, and the fantasy eventually cracked and shattered under a series of increasingly brutal battles.
But at the center of it all is Mark, a fundamentally Good Kid trying to live up to an impossible legacy. That coming-of-age storytelling remained the book’s hallmark even after its hero had pretty definitively come-of-age, with one of the benefits of being a largely self-contained superhero universe being that Kirkman could actually let time move forward, tracking Mark’s journey into adulthood. Not all of Invincible’s tone or material has aged well—the running joke of carrying someone while flying being described as “gay” comes immediately to mind. But the central hook, with all its attendant freedom, anxieties, and potential for both comedy and tragedy, remains as potent now as it did when Kirkman first debuted the book way back in 2003. At its core, Invincible remains a story about how cool it would be to be a kid with superpowers—with all the hope and horror that idea contains.