Review – Invincible series

"Read, Mark, Read!"

Invincible Cover

Overview

Synopsis When Mark Grayson learns he's inherited his father's superpowers, he becomes the superhero Invincible. As he grows, he encounters love, death, betrayal, consequences, and choices which will define him, his family, and even entire planets.

Author Robert Kirkman

Artist Cory Walker, Ryan Ottley
Publisher Image Comics
Genre Superhero

Length 144 issues (about 3300 pages total)

Release Date January 2003 – February 2018

Mark Grayson seems unfazed when his dad, Nolan, tells him that Nolan’s an alien from the distant planet Viltrum, sent to Earth to study its potential for Viltrumite assistance. Mark’s more interested in the fact his dad has, for years, protected the world as the superhero Omni-Man and that Mark himself could one day inherit his father’s abilities. Speed. Enhanced durability. Incredible strength. And flight.

Especially flight.

On the much-anticipated day he receives his powers, Mark is rapturous. There’s a steep learning curve in becoming comfortable with flying — how do you steer yourself through the air anyway? — and deep reflection on how to use his abilities. Should Mark don a colorful costume and protect the world alongside other heroes? Join Robot, Atom Eve, Rexplode, and Dupli-Kate on the Teen Team? Embrace his true heritage and help his dad prepare Earth for Viltrumite conquest and enslavement?

Hold up, what?

Mark soon discovers that not everything his father told him is true… and these revelations are only the first stepping stones on a path Mark could never have dreamed of following.

Invincible flies
You’ll believe a (young) man can fly…

Content Guide

Violence: Fights between superhuman characters take up a majority of the narrative. Several of these feel like your standard dust-ups — punches, kicks, headbutts, slaps. People are slammed, backhanded, thrown around, or knocked back by explosions. As the series progresses, battles start leaving combatants as bloody messes, beaten within inches of their lives or murdered in increasingly gratuitous ways. Characters are punched through, stabbed, decapitated, burned, crushed, impaled, torn in half, shot, electrocuted, suffocated. Injuries include gouged or removed eyes, broken and severed limbs, gashes, broken jaws, lacerated throats. Story arcs see robots (and people) explode, buildings topple, vehicles explode, cities demolished, even planets obliterated. We’re told, in the aftermath of some conflicts that hundreds, if not thousands or millions, are killed. We see various corpses, some of which are fed on.

Sexual Content: Several characters kiss, both hetero- and homosexual couples. Couples are seen in bed together, often undressed but covered by sheets. Several scenes imply couples sleep together, including once in public, and we’re told a few people have children out of wedlock. A male character impregnates several women. A few characters are caught having affairs, accused of cheating, or admit to cheating. Unmarried couples cohabitate. A married man takes a second wife. Some dialogue is laced with innuendo. Several female characters sport revealing outfits, costumes, or swimsuits. Male characters are occasionally seen shirtless. Someone references “the birds and the bees.” A young female character makes unwanted advances on her male counterparts. A few male characters hit on or leer at some female characters. A male character is sexually assaulted. Physical abuse is occasionally implied. A female character’s powers include turning into a male creature, who later sleeps with a female alien.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A few characters drink recreationally or reference alcohol. Someone asks for a cigarette and later smokes. A few other characters smoke. We’re told a government agency laces tap water with chemicals. Someone finds a parent’s empty wine bottles. Someone believes a friend deals drugs; a criminal actually deals drugs. A hero’s powers come from chemical alterations. A biological weapon threatens an alien race.

Invincible fights zombie
The Walking Undead

Spiritual Content: References to magic, mystical creatures, and gods pop up occasionally. A minor character stylizes himself as a “demon detective.” A few characters are seemingly resurrected, and some folks reference praying. A primary plot point revolves around reanimated corpses. Someone makes a shrine to a “sky god.” A character receives their abilities from a witch’s curse. Reference is made to a prophecy. A Wonder Woman-esque character fights a god. Some characters are worshiped.

Language/Crude Humor: Over 200 uses of God and Jesus’ names taken in vain, combined across the 144-issue series. Over 75 uses of h*** and d***, plus several uses of a**, b****, b******, and s***, plus a single f-bomb. A few curses go unfinished. Other offensive words include multiple uses of p****d and a few uses of “retarded,” d**k, p***k, and p***y when referring to other characters. A few characters make crude jokes, gestures, or insinuations.

Other Negative Content: A government agency employs some questionable and manipulative practices. Characters argue, yell, steal, threaten, insult, lie, act arrogantly, betray each other, and disrespect authority. A few characters vomit. Someone disrespects a grave. A few people reference suicide. We learn a female character had an abortion.

Positive Content: This being a superhero comic, many people are saved from the jaws of death by costumed do-gooders. Whole ships, cities, and planets are rescued. Characters aid each other, often at the risk of personal injury to themselves, and some end up injured or killed as a result. Characters seek reconciliation and reformation with various villains and former friends, extending mercy and second chances; others ask for forgiveness, conduct personal reflection, and change for the better. Friends and family members comfort, encourage, provide care, and show concern for one another. Fallen characters are honored at funerals.

Omni-Man speaks at Guardian's funeral
Pay no attention to the Blue Man Group in the back…

Review

Published over fifteen years, Invincible is a saga (no, not that Saga) unlike any other. Writer Robert Kirkman, in league with artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, crafts a story that takes nearly everything you love about mainstream superhero comics and shoves them into a 144-issue series that has a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Big brawls rage across cityscapes. Heroes learn how to use their powers responsibly. Earthbound characters explore the cosmos and visit different dimensions and times.

If you’re looking for a healthy dose of common comic book tropes without trawling through decades of continuity, Invincible is a near perfect series to dive into. Easter eggs feel inserted for readers “in-the-know” — the series references or parodies The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, Watchmen, Peanuts, Star Trek, and characters such as the Justice League, Nick Fury, and Galactus, among others — but plenty of running gags should entice new readers. If you’re not amused by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley’s consistent establishing shot of the Pentagon (sometimes whole, sometimes aflame), maybe you’ll find humor in the fate of a garbage bag Mark hurls in issue #1 or an alien race’s repeatedly futile attempts at invading Earth.

Mark throws trash bag into space
That’s one way to take out the trash

For the veteran reader: tired of endless epics that extend for decades with little discernible characterization, wonky retcons, pointless resurrections, paint-by-numbers plots, and a rotating cast of flavor-of-the-month villains? To paraphrase Veggie Tales, “Have we got a comic for you.” Kirkman and Co. develop a series that’s anything but standard. Its appeal is broad, because beneath Invincible’s Saturday-morning-cartoon coating lies a stirring, relatable human adventure.

Mark Grayson may be the closest character to Marvel’s Peter Parker I’ve ever read. Much like Spider-Man, the titular Invincible must find a way to juggle superheroics with the day-to-day of school and homework, budding relationships, college searches, and friendships. As he becomes more comfortable with his powers, Mark finds himself bearing increasingly weighty responsibilities, specifically the burdens placed on him by his genetic heritage. When other Viltrumites come knocking and other alien races enter the picture, Mark becomes embroiled in a conflict spanning the galaxy.

The Teen Team versus aliens
These guys found out the hard way Robot wasn’t the droid they were looking for
World-Building (and World-Wrecking)

Kirkman continuously builds; each smaller narrative is constructed upon prior stories and all somehow wrapped up in an overarching epic. The baby steps taken in issue 1 are full-fledged footprints by issue 144, subplots are introduced and woven well, and characters are given their own arcs fleshed out over dozens of issues. Occasionally, you might have to flip back to recall the last time you saw Allen the Alien, the Mauler Twins, Angstrom Levy, or astronaut Rus Livingston; but even supporting characters are given fairly comprehensive stories. A single issue dedicated to minor villain Powerplex, who blames Invincible for the death of his wife, is as powerful as a series of issues about war-mongering aliens.

Don’t expect Kirkman to lay out his cards from the get-go — he becomes a master of suspense, foreshadowing revelations that are worth the wait. I found myself genuinely blindsided by several major revelations. In an era where you can easily read about the death of Gwen Stacy, the resurrection of Jean Grey, or the true identity of the Winter Soldier or Red Hood online, Invincible remains a comic best read blind. Pro tip: enter as obliviously as you can.

Allen sees army
“Too many” of what, Allen? “Too many” of what?!?

Contrast this with many mainstream series. Marvel has, for a long time, touted itself as “The world outside your window.” Yet theirs is a world which pulls back the curtains only slightly before snapping them shut again. Conflicts rage, but at the end of the day, cities will be rebuilt by the next issue. Jean Grey, Captain America, and Wolverine may die; but before you can pull out the tissues, they’re strutting through Avengers Mansion or Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters again. The status quo is shaken momentarily, just enough to shock you, before settling back to normal and letting you breathe again.

Kirkman, conversely, pulls no punches. Even if you become desensitized to the sheer amount of blood soaking most pages, you’ll no doubt react emotionally at several moments. Cities aren’t always rebuilt. Characters aren’t often resurrected. Injuries remain permanent. Choices have definitive consequences. Kirkman doesn’t have to maintain dozens of different characters because of their money-making capabilities — some folks can be sacrificed for the greater narrative, some pains can resonate with readers longer than others.

Invincible surveys wreckage
Oops
Not All Teenagers are Invincible

Simultaneously, Kirkman is careful to not toy with readers’ emotions for the sake of a brief, strong reaction. When an army of Invincible clones decimates several major world cities, the ramifications of those actions are unpacked. Mark becomes embroiled in a deep debate with a former friend for much of the series’ last third, and the consequences of their differing viewpoints boil over at several points. When trust is broken, it’s not so easily won back. The same for bones, spines, necks, and so on.

What this means for the cautious reader is that, while Kirkman pulls no punches, his characters don’t either. Some Viltrumites can thrust their hands through their opponents’ chests. The common superhuman fistfight is turned into a bloodbath with nearly every conflict after issue 7. Language and promiscuity is ratcheted the deeper you get in the series, as well. While Kirkman handles more serious matters best as he can, the topics of abortion, extramarital affairs, and sexual assault are touched on, with the latter becoming a major plot point for a major character late in the series.

Mark and Eve discuss
The past disrupts an otherwise quiet evening

Invincible is rated “Teen Plus,” but there’s enough content here to give even more mature readers some pause. Again, Kirkman isn’t being manipulative. Even with the material I would have preferred he avoid, I found myself satisfied with the humanity he poured into these issues. Not an easy thing to do. The gloom that hovers over Invincible may deter some readers — and I would still advise caution — but that gloom is meant to showcase a brightness behind it. Characters face these issues admirably; friends and family encircle and defend those who are taken advantage of or hurt.

The darkness showcases a deeper theme carried throughout Invincible: humanity’s propensity for achievement and change. “I don’t like bullies,” Mark tells a character shortly after gaining his powers. That statement shapes his whole outlook and the outlook he wishes others to adopt. It’s not enough to save the world from bullies, because there will always be another bully. Defeat one mob boss or supervillain and a mad scientist or alien warlord will take his place. But if the bully can be shown a better way, be given some kindness or companionship, maybe the bully no longer feels the need to be cruel. Kirkman doesn’t apply a biblical lens, but the ideas of mercy, second chances, and personal transformation guide several of his arcs and become Mark’s deepest philosophy.

Mark versus Nolan
Mark appeals to the “Man” in “Omni-Man”
Leaving a Mark

Invincible isn’t perfect. He trusts some people he shouldn’t, spurns others he should. He loses time from loved ones traveling to different dimensions. He maybe punches some villains a little too hard. But he’s driven by this guiding principle. “I don’t like bullies.” It’s a riff on the classic “With great power comes great responsibility,” but Kirkman probes deeper. Responsibility to who? What form should responsibility take? And what do you do when those responsible act irresponsibly… when the heroes become bullies to stop bullies?

Despite his moniker, Mark isn’t actually invincible, and neither is the series. But Mark’s journey is worth following, start to finish. And there is a finish. Again, the beauty of Invincible is that it isn’t predicated on maintaining decades of continuity. The narrative zigs and zags, adds subplots, wraps up character arcs, shocks and surprises… but it ends definitively. The series is big, bombastic, bloody… and surprisingly poignant, even touching, in its smaller moments. Invincible is compelling and clever (perhaps the most detailed comic I’ve read since Watchmen) with enough long-running stakes to keep you interested in the next chapters of Mark Grayson’s ever-unfolding adventures until the final page.

Positives

+ Moving character growth
+ Densely plotted story arcs
+ Satisfying supporting cast and villains
+ Definitive ending

Negatives

- Consistently gory violence
- Frequent foul language
- Prominent promiscuity

The Bottom Line

Despite the graphic graphics, Kirkman and Co. create a nearly invulnerable series founded on a strong main protagonist, his allies and enemies, and an overarching story that balances high levels of action with deep personal reflection and growth

 

Story/Plot 9.5

Writing 9.5

Editing 9.0

Art 9.5

9.5

Nathan Kiehn

Nathan has loved comic books and graphic novels for as long as he can remember, ever since his father handed him a digest sized volume of "Marvel Age: Spider-Man." He's dedicated a lot of time and effort to exploring the far reaches of the Spider-Verse, but he's also been known to dive into other corners of the Marvel Universe and maybe even stuck his nose in a Batman story arc or two (just don't tell Spidey).

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