clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Invincible’s racebending makes the whole series deeper and smarter

Mark Grayson’s biracial heritage is a major theme of the story — and now it isn’t just subtext

Nolan Grayson looks at his wife Debbie in the reflection of a window in an episode of Invincible Image: Amazon Studios

Recent iterations of Spider-Man proudly celebrate that “anyone can wear the mask,” with diverse new characters like Miles Morales, Cindy Moon, and Spider-Gwen taking up roles in the Spider-Verse. But the racial identity of original Spider-Man Peter Parker has been set in stone, even as his age, job, and marital and parental status have fluctuated. (At least in the West. A Japanese Spider-Man TV series and Spider-Man: India alter his ethnicity — but they alter his name and origin story to fit their respective cultures as well.) Fans can find comfort in Peter’s unflinching goodness, and relatability in his adolescent struggles to define his responsibility to other people. But even in the ever-evolving language of modern superhero comics, and even across seven films and nearly 60 years of comics, his racial identity has never represented all of those fans. Although my experiences as a social outcast at school and my upbringing in a working-class family reflected Peter’s, whenever I looked into a mirror as a teenager, I still longed for the day Peter would reflect mine.

I found some of what I was looking for recently in Invincible, Amazon’s animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s bloody but loving superhero-genre pastiche series. Invincible follows Mark Grayson, an average teenager whose father is the mighty Omni-Man, the most powerful superhero on Earth. As Mark develops powers of his own, he must juggle his life as an American teenager with living in his father’s shadow. In Kirkman’s comics, Mark and his mother Debbie never had specified racial identities. But in the animated version, Steven Yeun and Sandra Oh were cast to voice them. Using actors of Korean descent for the roles may seem like a subtle change, particularly since the characters’ designs haven’t changed much from the comic to match the new interpretation. But the idea of Mark as the child of two immigrants emphasizes Kirkman’s themes, and creates a perfect case for the value of racebending through subtext that now feels indispensable to the TV series.

[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for season 1 of Invincible.]

A scuffed-up Invincible winds up to punch his dad Omni-Man in Invincible Image: Amazon Studios

The term “racebending” was originally a pejorative, describing the casting of M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show’s characters came from diverse backgrounds, but Shyamalan’s version subbed in white actors in key roles, while coding darker skin as villainous, in keeping with a regressive, historical movie tradition. But the term has taken on a more positive, progressive meaning, in cases where traditionally white characters are re-interpreted in adaptations or reboots, to add diversity where it didn’t exist. Racebending has plenty of potential to enrich existing narratives, particularly from eras where non-white characters barely existed. Recently, though, racebending in movies and TV usually comes from the popularization of “colorblind casting,” where a character isn’t written with any specific race or ethnicity. The idea is to invite actors of all backgrounds to audition, and ideally to cast roles on the basis of performance alone.

While the efforts toward an equal-opportunity entertainment industry are refreshing, colorblind casting often creates its own problems. Changing a character’s racial identity introduces new narrative dynamics that most media doesn’t account for. In many cases, a character’s race is completely irrelevant to the story being told, and the representation only matters to the visual aesthetics. At best, these stories just don’t engage with race. At worst, they reinforce negative stereotypes in thoughtless and misguidedly offensive ways. (These are prevalent conventions in modern media, but even more so in fan works. ) Colorblind casting arguably can’t foster authentic characters of color, because creators aren’t necessarily engaging with their identities.

At first glance, Mark and Debbie Grayson might feel like they fall under this category. The eight episodes of season 1 do not directly mention the characters being Korean-American. Mark never faces obstacles or microaggressions due to the shape of his eyes or the shade of his skin. The Graysons live in suburbia, eating authentic bratwurst flown in from Germany by Omni-Man — aka Mark’s father Nolan Grayson. Debbie and Mark speak fluent English, and there’s no information about their family’s immigrant history, nor any hint about Debbie’s extended family. Robert Kirkman’s stated motivations for racebending his characters in the TV adaptation are positive but vague declarations that “representation matters.” Which leaves Invincible looking like a typical colorblind story — except for its biggest story goals.

The themes of heritage, family legacy, and finding individual personhood between two cultures were already rooted in Invincible’s initial conceit. Though Mark wasn’t originally conceived as Korean-American, he was already a biracial character. His superpowers don’t come from a mad-science accident, a mutation, or a transformative experience like Peter Parker’s — he was born with them. His father is from the planet Viltrum, and while his DNA is compatible with humans, he isn’t human himself. He comes from a different culture, complete with its own traditions and beliefs.

Nolan Grayson sits with his arm around Debbie on the couch, as Mark perches on the couch arm with his arms folded in Amazon’s Invincible Image: Amazon Studios

As the son of Earth’s strongest protector, Mark has an extraordinary burden to carry. His transformation into the young hero Invincible isn’t just a choice he makes, it’s a cross he’s pressured to bear. And it interferes profoundly with his social life, as his girlfriend Amber and best friend William don’t understand why he isn’t always there for them.

As a Asian-American, I see something inherently compelling and relatable about the push-and-pull between Mark’s imposed duties as a superhero and his desires as a teenager. And it’s significant that his guide through this transitional phase is his white father. Voiced by J.K. Simmons, Nolan is a metatextual play on the character of Superman, positioned as a powerful Western symbol of paternal success — a father not just to his own family, but to mankind. His perceived greatness through accomplishments and individualistic strength are categorically American concepts. When Nolan reveals his true motivations by the end of season 1, they’re arguably even more true to American ideology, and rooted in white supremacy: He’s on Earth to colonize and assimilate it. The reveal destroys Mark’s worldview: Like so many other people of color, he had faith in an American institution, and became disillusioned when he saw the callousness and greed behind it.

I understood Mark’s internal struggle because it is my own. I’m a second-generation immigrant, and my family’s connection to our homeland is far removed. I speak fluent English, but I can’t speak Chinese, nor Khmer. My family ate authentically thanks to my mother’s cooking, but my siblings and I still struggle to describe the flavors or identify the ingredients or even names of those dishes to our American friends. And when I was growing up, I based my identity on Spider-Man, a red, white, and blue symbol of Americana, an idol who featured none of the Asian characteristics that turned me into an “other” among my peers. Peter Parker’s decency and heroism was a foundation for the way I wanted my idealized self to fit into an assimilated society. If I was going to be a teenager at an American high school, I was going to navigate it in the American way. The Viltrumites want to reshape humanity in their image, and the Western world tends to want the same thing, enforcing assimilation and punishing immigrants who don’t comply. When I was younger, I chased whiteness because I thought I needed it to find success and contentment in this Western world, just as Nolan tells Mark that he can only become great by upholding his father’s Viltrumite legacy.

In his most intense moment of vulnerability, Mark remembers that his Viltrumite blood is only half his identity. When Nolan demands he help conquer humanity, Mark holds onto his morals. In spite of everything Nolan hits him with, from insults to punches to a literal train, he resists, and ultimately fights back with compassion. Nolan winds up fleeing Earth, ashamed at how his son challenged his worldview — not as Invincible, but as Mark Grayson.

While many biracial stories strip their characters from their relationships to their ethnic parents, Mark’s unflinching courage and devotion to humanity when fighting Nolan is almost completely grounded by his relationship to his Korean mother, Debbie, who first exposed Nolan to the draws of humanity and Earth culture. The animated adaptation of Invincible doesn’t just racebend Debbie to be Korean-American, it adds new tension in her marriage to Nolan. After Nolan secretly murders the Guardians of the Globe in the first episode, Debbie embarks on her own quest to learn the truth, even if it costs her everything: her marriage, the father of her child, and the man she thought she knew.

Mark and Debbie Grayson share a smile in front of an open window in Invincible Image: Amazon Studios

Debbie’s interrogation of Nolan’s values and his crimes centers her as an excellent foil to Omni-Man. The strain on their relationship that arises from his lies becomes one of ideological differences between them. Though it takes an emotional toll on her, Debbie prevails over her sadness and takes action, even though she loves Nolan. She loves Mark, her home, and humanity even more. Mark inherits this love from her, and weaponizes it when he confronts Nolan. While his father tempts him with world domination, glory and hubris, his mother offers loyalty, connection, and humanity. Nolan gives Invincible his powers, but Debbie gives Mark his moral compass.

Debbie Grayson is a minor character in both versions of Invincible, but in the TV show, she’s also the story’s heart. Her Asian identity informs her human connection to Mark, and draws a dynamic juxtaposition to their relationship with Nolan and his Viltrumite legacy. Sure, on the surface, the Graysons aren’t obviously, traditionally Asian-American, but their racebending in Amazon’s adaptation goes beyond colorblind casting or character design. What matters far more is that the original story’s subtextual complexities about a young man living with two racial identities are now textual. The authenticity of the Asian-American experience isn’t just found through onscreen cultural specificities, it’s in the emotional and thematic honesty of the narrative. Intentional or unintentional, Mark and Debbie’s recently canonized Korean heritage are now an essential aspect of their characters, and it offers them a new depth.

And it also makes Mark more authentic to the biracial experience, and more of a heroic representation of the struggles faced by the children of immigrants. I never got the exact Asian-American Peter Parker I’ve longed for since my childhood. I likely never will. But in a way, that concept has been realized in the racebending of Mark Grayson as an Asian-American teenager. As an adult on a journey toward finding my own pride, he’s given me everything I’ve been searching for and more.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon