My wife got me Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Volume 4 for my birthday, and of course I’ve already read through the whole thing. I love this comic, though I say that as someone who doesn’t really have a regular comic reading habit. (Mainly I read stuff in collections, often gifted or borrowed from a friend. This has the upside of getting lots of story in big coherent swaths, but it also has the effect of mainlining the entire season of a TV show in two days. You’re simultaneously full up of the good stuff, and empty because there isn’t a similar volume waiting for you on day three.)
Invincible has me from the word go. I know a few folks I’ve recommended the series to found it to come off a little flat, though several others have seemed really jazzed by it. I flippantly described it on Twitter the other day as “what Smallville wanted to be before it succumbed to a fatal case of kryptonite poisoning”, though I suppose that does more to tarnish the appeal of Invincible than elucidate it. (Ah, Smallville, what an acid-trip of a show you were before I took my leave of you.) At its core, Invincible is the story of an alt-Superman’s kid, run through a heavy Peter Parker’s Life Sucks filter. And boy, does it make my I-want-to-play-in-some-supers-genre-games itch flare right the hell up.
But I’m also not sure that I would want to play a straight up “adaptation” of Invincible at my gaming table. So I need to deconstruct this thing, figure out what its basic working parts are, and which of those parts speak to me as a gamer. If only so my friends can get a little closer to running the game I want to play in! (That said, the analysis will not go that deep in the interests of keeping things spoiler-free.)
The Art, Part 1: Dark things might happen, but it’s all brightly colored (I think the colorist has said that folks have called his colors “fruity” before). In a way the colors reflect the exuberance of the supers genre. It’s all a brightly-colored mess sometimes, a rainbow chaos. To read Invincible is to fill up your eyes with the truth of this. It’s a reality like our own, but poppy and bright and a little bit nuts.
The Art, Part 2: Those rubber faces! I’m not talking about some sort of super-deformed cartoony thing; I’m talking about how faces look in Invincible when they take a punch from someone who can bench a couple hundred tons. We are squishy beings, and the art shows that. It gives the bodies a sense of floppy, squishy volume that really serves the presentation of violence in the comic — which can get pretty bloody at times.
The Fights: Like I said, they can be bloody. But they can also be wacky (bad guy has device strapped to chest containing super-strong alien pet that looks like a knot of semi-sentient rubber bands), comical (squid-headed extradimensional freak has speech impediment during villainous rant), dreadful (our hero gets turned into meat paste), and poignant (family issues playing out on the battlefield). Best of all they’re pretty unpredictable. People are fragile, and this is a world where hypersonic fists and explosive power get flung around. Injuries result. Characters you’re sure will be around for a while longer turn up with a sudden case of being dead.
The Relationships: The relationships in Invincible get probably a good 75% of the screen time. You can get multiple pages of a conversation between the hero and his mom. Or his girlfriend. Or that girl who’s had a secret crush on him for years. Or his college dorm-room buddy best friend. Or the government agent guy with a mysterious facial scar. Or his tailor. You get the idea. It’s a story about growing up while shouldering the burden of massive, save-the-world responsibilities, and it never turns away from the chance to dig deep on how it’s affecting his “normal guy” life. It regards all of this as such a priority to the story, in fact, that folks looking more for the pow-bang-zoom part may find the title disappointing. But if you buy in, as I do, it’s eat-this-up-with-a-spoon time. (And this is where the Smallville touchpoint came in for me: that show is also a place where the relationships are meant to shine, but good god the writing of those relationships is just dreadful. Invincible by contrast gets the relationships just right.)
The World, Part 1: The world is new, but recognizable. Looked at from the corner of my eye, Invincible is a DC Universe parody (among other things). The hero’s from-another-planet father is Omni-Man. There’s a big group of superheroes called The Guardians Of The Globe. Etc. But like I said, the world is still new. When they show up, they’re not standard takes on the tropes of other comics — something is askew and bent about it. At the end of the day I dig reinvention. When it’s done right it’s just magnificent — like a great, reinterpretive cover of an original song. That’s what Invincible is pulling off for me with its reinventions and homages. It’s easy to dismiss the comic as “just another Superboy story” — which is both correct and completely off the point.
The World, Part 2: The implicit world of the comic is so much larger than the part that intersects with the hero’s story. This is a big one for me, because in a superhero story the universe itself is one of the stars. Invincible really shines at implying a huge amount of story and setting in a small number of pages. Check out the one-page revelation (I think it was one page) of The Immortal’s back-story as one example. Or the just-around-the-edges bits of alien cultures. Characters that show up seem to be coming out of the middle of something else — and that makes the world feel weightier, bigger, realer.
There’s more I could get into, and specifics I could cite, but the avoidance of spoilers is important to me here. 🙂
For gaming application, my takeaways, none of which are particularly revelatory I’m afraid:
I like pain and consequence, whether it’s in relationships or in physical injury. That just about sums up the first four parts from the above list. Being a hero requires that a price has to be paid. You can either pay it deliberately or let the law of unintended consequences play out. Either way, it’s gonna hurt.
Reinterpretation/reinvention is fun and does a nice job of excusing liberal borrowing from other sources. By enabling that kind of borrowing, you bring along a lot of ideas that exist in the original source, ideas which can be understood quickly by the others at the table without having to front-load a lot of original setting knowledge. That’s a powerful shorthand (and tangentially, a big part of why I think Amber works so well for gaming).
Don’t bring anything into the story without knowing what its story is — even if it’s just to give 15 seconds of added detail. This is really a broad story-telling lesson, when it comes down to it, but is super effective for GMing. (I know that Jim Butcher has plenty of backstory in mind for the supporting cast of the Dresden Files, for example, that will rarely make it into a story, but it’s there to be tapped for his stories when he needs to motivate a character or provide foundation for a quick few paragraphs of dialogue.) Knowing that there’s a story there, even one broadly sketched in two or three sentences on an index card, gives your world volume, weight, and life. While the game’s story might be all about the player characters, the world isn’t all about them, and many players will respond well when it’s clear the world is not a paper-thin mirage existing only to serve them. And by keeping these hidden little stories implicit, you’re free to change the unspoken details if you need to later. The only thing that’s locked down about that particular iceberg is the tip that’s showing above the waterline.
Pacing is a matter of paying attention to player priorities. That’s a fancy way of saying that if your players are showing up with a lot of investment in how their characters’ love lives are falling apart, don’t respond to that by giving them a session-spanning fight scene. Sometimes the fight is just a quick-cut breather between the heavier relationship stuff. Then again, sometimes it’s time to fly off to Mars with a team of heroes to see what you can do about that nasty mind-controlling squid-thing problem. Look where the camera of the players’ attention is pointed, and make things happen there. That’s a choice they’re making, and you should make sure there’s something for those cameras to film there. Combined with the implicit story strategy from my earlier point, this is a pretty easy one to follow. If everything has a little bit of story already going on with it implicitly, then wherever the cameras get pointed there’s going to be something to see.
I think there’s more here, but I’m running out of steam. Share and enjoy.