Our friend, the talented Mark Batalla of PixelDrip Gallery, asked to include a television show that would celebrate its 10th anniversary this week, and so here is his review of why Invader Zim is still totally awesome.
Jhonen Vasquez’s Invader Zim, along with The Fairly OddParents, debuted on Nickelodeon back in March 30, 2001. Invader Zim was significantly more mature and dark than the other Nicktoons airing at the time and since. Despite the inherent death and destruction found in a show about an alien trying to take over the world, it was handled with the same style of anarchic comedy of a Tex Avery cartoon. I also feel that the show was green lit because it came along at the right time.
The American animation scene was very different a decade ago. Cartoon Network was in its prime with a number of original shows on its Cartoon Cartoons block, like Genndy Tartakovsky’s Dexter’s Laboratory, and Craig McCracken’s Powerpuff Girls. Daria was nearing the end of its run on MTV. Disney’s animated features had waned from the iconic recognition level of Aladdin and The Lion King, while Pixar’s success was overshadowing every animated project since its release of Toy Story 2 in 1999. Saturday mornings still had Kid’s WB and Fox Kids. Prime time animation had South Park, Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, The PJs, and Family Guy.
Although that time period contained an excellent amount of diversity in programming, it wasn’t necessarily a good time to be an American animated product. You could tell that the various networks were starting to rely more heavily on importing anime after successes with Dragonball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokémon. Who could blame them? The cost of dubbing is substantially less than creating original programming. Somewhere in the mix, it also came across that when it came to actually making original animated programs, they had to be more anime-like in order to succeed. I feel that the animation quality and the narrative scope of Invader Zim rivaled that of anime, and that helped sell it to Nickelodeon in the same way that Avatar: The Last Airbender would several years later. There’s obviously more to Invader Zim, otherwise I wouldn’t be taking the time to write about it.
Everything you need to know can be found in the first episode, “The Nightmare Begins.” The planet Irk is starting up Operation Impending Doom II and the Irken Invaders are assigned planets by their leaders, The Almighty Tallest. Zim isn’t included among the rest of the Invader class due to him nearly destroying Irk during Operation Impending Doom I. Zim strives to be the best Invader in order to impress The Almighty Tallest, but always fails to see the ineptness of his schemes. The Almighty Tallest tell Zim that he is to go on a high -priority mission. In actuality, they pack Zim with a malfunction robot assistant, GIR, and blast the two off to Earth, a backwater planet that the Irkens have no intention of conquering. In a remarkable moment of competence, Zim decides to disguise himself, GIR, and their base as a typical human household in order to infiltrate the population and destroy it from within. However, he finds himself at odds with Dib, a boy obsessed with the paranormal, who immediately sees Zim for the potential threat that he is.
A lot of the show’s humor comes from Jhonen Vasquez’s mocking of stupidity in all its forms. The world of Invader Zim is populated by morons. Zim and the children attend an underfunded public school straight out of any teacher’s nightmares. The majority of adults are television-obsessed slobs that can barely grasp the English language. GIR often switches back and forth between robotic servitude and full blown insanity. Zim and Dib, despite being incredibly intelligent, are both incompetent due to the tunnel vision they get from constantly trying to one up each other. This is in addition to their extreme awkwardness as social outcasts.
The Zim vs. Dib conflicts make up a majority of the show’s episodes. Zim would misunderstand some aspect of human culture, like selling chocolate as a school fundraiser, and base an entire scheme around said misunderstanding. Dib, in turn, would attempt to come up with a way to sabotage Zim. By episode’s end, both characters’ respective plans spectacularly backfire and there is no clear winner in the conflict.
Gaz, Dib’s younger sister, is the angry voice of reason throughout the show. All she wants is to do is play with her videogames and spend time with her father during the brief moments when he’s available. She quickly becomes hostile against anyone, usually Dib, that keeps her from enjoying those two things. Gaz sadistically tortured a kid because he cut in front of her at the game store. She also single-handedly destroyed Zim’s orbital space station so she can rescue Dib and make it back to family night at Bloaty’s Pizza Hog. My favorite episodes tend to be the ones that focus on her.
Another thing I love about Invader Zim are the references to Vasquez’s other work, implying that they take place within the same continuity. Ms. Bitters, Zim and Dib’s teacher, appears in Squee!, as do the stupid aliens that capture Zim in the “Abducted” episode. Filler Bunny can also be seen in a lab jar during the “Dark Harvest” episode. It somehow gives me hope that Johnny the Homicidal Maniac will somehow be adapted into animation as well.
Invader Zim would win several awards and nominations during its first season. Despite this critical success, Nickelodeon still canceled the show during its second season. The show came along at the right time to be green lit but at the wrong time to have legs. If the show had been made a couple years later and pitched to another network, it would could have found itself a welcome home on Adult Swim or Comedy Central.
Is It Better Or Worse Than I Remember?
It’s better. I own the complete series on DVD and the show still holds up, thanks in no small part to the impressive animation quality and sharp writing. I still laugh even though I know the joke punchlines and the outcomes of Zim and Dib’s respective schemes. Since Invader Zim’s Earth is more technologically advanced than ours, the setting should still feel fresh and contemporary for many more years.
What Make It Better?
Invader Zim is the most accessible of Jhonen Vasquez’s work. Each episode shares the dark tone and demented humor of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Squee!, I Feel Sick, and Filler Bunny, while still working within the constraints of children’s television. It also doesn’t hurt that he was joined by a very talented team of writers like Roman Dirge (Lenore), Rob Hummel, Frank Conniff (Mystery Science Theater 3000), Courtney Lilly, Eric Trueheart, and Danielle Koenig.
While Invader Zim had its moments of ADD and random humor that you would find commonplace in today’s meme-savvy environment, it did so without negatively impacting the narrative flow. The closest on-air animated shows to Invader Zim, in terms of production values and witty content, are Futurama and The Venture Brothers.
– Billy West originally played Zim in the pilot. His voice was too recognizable from Futurama, so Richard Horvitz replaced him in the televised series. Very wise choice.
– GIR was combining cuteness with bad grammar many years before the first lolcat appeared on the Internet!
– The musical score really complements the show. Kevin Manthei is able to capture the tone of the writing with a wide range of compositions, from the industrial feel of the main title theme to the gangsta rap of Poop Doggy Dog to the Philip Glass-like chanting of “Meats of Evil” in the “Bolognius Maximus” episode.
– InvaderCON took place this past weekend to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Invader Zim’s first airing. Programming included a table read of two unproduced episodes with the cast of Andy Berman (Dib),Melissa Fahn (Gaz), Richard Horvitz (Zim), Rosearik Rikki Simons (GIR), and Eric Trueheart (show writer).
– With Futurama and Family Guy being revived from cancellation, does Invader Zim have hope of coming back on the air? I’m doubtful. The writers could possibly continue the stories in another medium, like comics in the case of Gargoyles and Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a web series with The Critic.
– Gainax’s Panty & Stocking With Garterbelt has a character named Chuck that bears a striking resemblance to GIR. Vasquez wasn’t upset with the situation. He commented, “it’s nice seeing him get some work, but I gotta say it’s a bit on the simple side for my tastes, what with the fart and shit jokes, but the ending is pretty ridiculous, and Gainax produces some of the only Japanese animation I can stand without wishing I was the drinking type, so I’m looking forward to more.”