Waiting For A Superman


How to create a self-contained shared universe.

In 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko revolutionised superhero comics forever with an idea so ground-breaking it is still having reverberations to this day. “What if superheroes had ordinary people problems?” Spider-Man stood out amongst the larger than life superhero landscape at the time for a number of reasons, the main two being; he was a teenage superhero but not a sidekick and he had to juggle being a superhero with being an ordinary person. In 2003, just over forty years later, Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker built on that idea and asked the question “What if Superman had Spider-Man problems?” and Invincible was born.

Spoiler Warning: Invincible debuts on Amazon Prime today as an animated series, but I’m going to be talking about the comic in some specific detail. I’m going to cover stuff from the full 144 issue run but I’d really recommend not reading this if you plan on watching the show but don’t have at least passing knowledge of the first fifteen or so issues and the events therein. I think you’ll thank me for it when you come back to finish the article later.

Cory Walker, Bill Crabtree & Robert Kirkman (Image Comics)

The son of Omni-Man, the world’s greatest hero, Mark Grayson was a regular kid going to school, working a crummy part-time job and worrying about his future when he developed his powers. Mark’s father came to Earth from a race of alien peacekeepers called The Viltrumites and settled into a family life, marrying Mark’s mother and living a comfortable life as a famed science fiction author who turns his real life adventures into novels. When his son developed powers he eagerly took him under his wing and trained him in the ways of the superhero and at first, Invincible is charming superhero comic about a kid trying to live up to his father’s legacy while juggling, as the first issue blurb notes, “girls, acne, homework and supervillains.”

Now, you might say that Invincible wasn’t the first to do a mash-up of Superman and Spider-Man and point to Superboy, specifically Kon-El, as an example. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong and Kon-El is similar to Mark Grayson in a lot of regards; they’re both living in the shadow of a mentor figure to whom they owe their powers and Superboy does deal with a lot of the teenage issues that Mark does, but I think what separates them is their upbringing. Superboy is a clone of Superman and emerged a teenager with powers ready to go, while Mark grew up with all the trappings of a human life before developing his powers in time. Superboy’s great — he’s one of my favourite characters, even — but it’s Mark’s everyday life and upbringing that sets him apart.

Cory Walker, Bill Crabtree & Robert Kirkman (Image Comics)

Over the course of its first year, Invincible is a pretty decent superhero comic with a charming lead character and a really rich world of heroes and villains. There are Justice League analogues like Darkwing and War Woman but Kirkman really shines with original concepts like Rex Splode, Dupli-Kate and Monster Girl. The introduction of fan-favourite Allen The Alien in Invincible #5 is when the series really starts to feel like a living, breathing superhero universe and gives readers an idea of the scope of storytelling that Kirkman and company have for Invincible, but at first it wasn’t the most remarkable or original superhero comic on the stands.

The first few threats Mark faces are fairly standard teen superhero bad guys, like an evil high school teacher and invading aliens from another dimension, but Kirkman and long-time series artist Ryan Ottley completely flip everything we thought we knew about the series on its head when Mark discovers the truth about his father; Omni-Man wasn’t sent to protect Earth, he was sent to conquer it and he expects his son to help. What follows is one of the most violent, knock-down, drag-out brawls in the history of superhero comics that redefines the kind of comic Invincible is and what kind of hero Mark will be going forward, as he is beaten half to death by his own father who then flees Earth in shame rather than kill his own son.

Ryan Ottley, Bill Crabtree & Robert Kirman (Image Comics)

What happens next is really where Invincible goes into high-gear and looking back it was a risky gamble for Kirkman to make with a book that could have been cancelled due to low sales at any point in its first year. As a creator, he had faith in his idea, his collaborators and his readership that everything would fall into place and it would pay off with the big reveal at the end of the first year and it absolutely did. At one time, Invincible was one of the most talked about superhero comics and while Kirkman was kind of floundering with work-for-hire work such as Ultimate X-Men and Marvel Team-Up, he was able to use the freedom Invincible afforded him to tell some radically interesting superhero stories.

What really sets Invincible apart from pretty much every other superhero is over the course of fifteen years and one-hundred and forty four issues, Mark grows from a teenager, to a young adult, to a father and a leader. If there’s one thing Invincible is never beholden to, it’s a status quo and as such, Mark is allowed to evolve in ways that superheroes are not allowed to be. The closest comparison would again be Spider-Man but whether it be through reboots, retcons or relaunches, Spider-Man never quite gets the same permanent character growth that Kirkman, Ottley and Walker are able to achieve with Invincible.

Cory Walker, Nathan Fairbairn & Rus Wooton (Image Comics)

The final thing that really sets Invincible apart from most other superhero stories is that it ended. Kirkman, Ottley and Walker told the story they wanted to tell and said goodbye to Invincible in 2018, which means there’s an expansive, sprawling superhero universe out there for you to discover that has a beginning, middle and an end. There are some spin-offs like The Astonishing Man-Wolf, Tech Jacket and Brit but they’re supplemental, not essential. Invincible stands as one complete story told by the same creative team over the course of fifteen years. Outside of maybe Hellboy, there’s nothing quite like Invincible out there and alongside its unlikely sister title The Walking Dead, it will serve as perhaps the ultimate accomplishment of Robert Kirkman’s career.

By Kieran Shiach

Writes about comics.

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