On Fathers, Hard Truths, and the Raw Betrayal at the Heart of Invincible

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On Fathers, Hard Truths, and the Raw Betrayal at the Heart of <i>Invincible</i>

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The evil father is a trope as old as stories, but many times it’s more melodramatic than psychologically complicated. When Luke Skywalker learns who his real father is, he’s famously devastated, but Anakin Skywalker was never really someone Luke knew. Peter Quill knew his planet-sized daddy for all of a few hours before finding out the role he played in his mother’s demise. The Greek gods and the Titans who sired them don’t really have anything that resembles a family as we understand the concept. But these situations serve their purpose as motivations for characters we sympathize with, or add a layer of symbolism.

Down here in the real world, though, I understand why these stories have always been with us. You’re reminded of it every time a father fucks up, which is constantly. A friend of mine—a fellow Millennial—once sat with me as the two of us listed out all of our common acquaintances, and tried to create a comprehensive list of who among them had something approaching a normal relationship with their biological fathers. It was a very short list, and neither of us were on it.

Invincible, both the Amazon series that just had its gory, revelatory season finale and the comic on which it’s based, stands out from most father-child tales in one respect that’s always fascinated me: The father’s heel turn is complicated, deep, and a far truer betrayal than any of the examples above. Omni-Man—Nolan Grayson, father of series lead Invincible—is not a stranger or absentee like so many others who turn out to be evil. He’s a loving, nurturing man who is bringing his son up in the family business.

It just so happens that the family business is not, as Mark Grayson thought, saving the world from supervillains, alien invasions, asteroid strikes, or kaiju. It’s actually conquering the world for Viltrum, the planet his father hails from. The rawness of that betrayal, and how Mark must reckon with it in the face of an impending war, is one of the things that sets the story apart.

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The show’s deft adaptation of the comic starts with J.K. Simmons’ casting as Omni-Man, a move calculated to be no less heart-wrenching for audiences than casting avuncular old Henry Fonda as the gleefully homicidal villain of Once Upon A Time in the West, or Albert Brooks as the soft-spoken but deadly crime boss in Drive. In the world of Invincible, Omni-Man is a clear analog for Superman, the infinitely powerful, always-on-call, smiling benefactor from an alien world. Viltrumites are so powerful and have solved so many of their societal problems, Omni-Man tells his half-human son (Steven Yeun in the show), that they’ve taken to flying around the universe offering to help out other planets like Earth. It’s the reason Omni-Man, or Nolan Grayson when he’s incognito as an Earthling, settled down with Mark’s mother Debbie (Sandra Oh).

The show departs from the comics in one interesting way, which is that the truth (or at least, the most immediate part of it) is revealed in the first episode: Omni-Man is not a benevolent savior. He’s a murderous invader, one sent to Earth to soften its defenses for an eventual takeover by the Viltrumite Empire. The first episode ends with Omni-Man absolutely killing the hell out of the Guardians of the Globe, the story’s stand-ins for the Justice League. This was treated as an abrupt reveal in the comics, whereas it’s a looming, maddening question in the show, the same one gasped by the dying hero Immortal: Why?

The answer to that question is one of the more fascinating things about Invincible’s story, and one of the reasons I believe the comic made such an unforgettable impression.

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My father came out as a gay man shortly after his mother died. By then I was maybe 12 or 13, and it was the beginning of a complete breakdown of our family. Every typically shitty custody dispute and bitter divorce proceeding happened. Eventually my brothers and I were having visitation with him on weekends while adjusting to a completely different truth about his whole being. The revelation about his sexual orientation caused me to question a lot of stuff, but it was secondary to the revelation he’d been cheating basically constantly for years, and that now I would be expected to accept all of this, by court order. 

This is not remotely the same thing, morally, as having a father who is a murderous alien invader, but the aftershock weathered by Mark and his mother Debbie looks much the same. How could he have done this? How could we have not known? What does life look like going forward? The scenes of Mark and Debbie loafing around their dark house, Nolan’s absence weighing on everything, felt to me precisely the same as those following my parents’ divorce.

The hurt from that sort of betrayal never really went away, and it was only later that I repaired my relationship with my father. What was never repaired (in part because he engaged in precisely the same sort of bad behavior, repeatedly, in the ensuing years) was my respect for him. Because of the way it so deftly handles Omni-Man’s betrayal, I’m extremely interested in how future seasons of the show deal with his redemption arc, because (spoiler for the comics) he does eventually make another face turn. Will he again, in this adaptation?

Season 1 of the show has already departed from the comic in ways that demonstrate both a deep enthusiasm for the source material and an acknowledgment that a comic that first debuted almost 20 years ago might need to reexamine some of its sensibilities. (Nobody remarks that taking William along for a flight is “So gay,” in one example of a small thing that is actually quite large.) Also, the characters of Amber and Atom Eve, two of Mark’s love interests, are reaching more important parts of their character arcs sooner. Pair this with a much more active role for Debbie—standing up to a drunk-on-power-and-rebellion Mark, and carefully following up on her suspicions of her own husband, things that absolutely did not happen in the book—and I wonder if major changes are in the offing for Omni-Man’s story.

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In the book, Mark eventually reunites with and reconciles with his father, and it becomes clear that Nolan is a man in conflict between the society that filled him with a sort of universal doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and the love he has for his son and for Earth. In one scene in particular, as Nolan is mourning the death of other characters, he snaps when Mark tells him it’s okay to show that emotion. Why, Nolan demands, choking his own kid (again), why is it better to have feelings? Why is this pain preferable to being could, doctrinal, distant, dutiful?

It’s a look inside the twisted thought process of the man, a glimpse that makes you almost understand where he’s coming from. You remember that, being as he’s hundreds of years old, this is what he’s believed for far longer than he’s been playing supersonic catch with his half-Earthling son.

My father really was a victim of ruthless heteronormativity: A society that shut out any unwilling to submit to it. He would have no partner, have no sons, have no life or job or security, no proud parents or accepting community, if he did not shove himself into the closet. It was violence against him, and it really ruined his life and caused unquantifiable harm to the every life that touched his in one way or another. He died before 65, randomly and suddenly, but not surprisingly.

There are a lot of fathers who do not ever have and do not really deserve redemption arcs. There are numerous aspects of Omni-Man in the comics that haven’t sat completely right with me, mostly because they involve Debbie forgiving the guy, including, um, raising his son by another woman. But the show’s season finale went way over the top with Nolan’s violence and destruction of innocent life, in a way far more graphic than the original comic. As such, I don’t know if the show will commit fully to his redemption, if it will reexamine how that redemption could look, or if it will acknowledge that sometimes the guy with square facial hair who donated half his genetic code to you doesn’t really deserve your forgiveness. However it chooses to adapt the story of the Grayson family though, I’m very eager to see it because of how truthfully it’s managed the feat so far.

Invincible Season 1 is available to stream on Amazon Prime



Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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