Invader Zim. It was a show that only had 27 episodes, aired for a single year, was cancelled in 2002 and had its leftover episodes dumped on a premium cable network in 2006. This was a show that came and went very quickly and accumulated little content to speak of. But holy cow, ask practically anyone about Invader Zim and they will not only know what show you’re talking about, but they’ll recall it very fondly.
Invader Zim (Nickelodeon)
Invader Zim aired while I was a junior in high school and I remember passively enjoying it during its extremely brief run. I even bought the DVDs when they came out (since at the time it was the only way to see the season 2 episodes that hadn’t been aired as well as the uncut Christmas special). It amused me and then I shelved it for, like, 10 years.
Now there’s a new comic book series coming out this July from Oni Press, so I figured I ought to take a look back at Zim and see how well the show holds up 10 years later.
The basic plot is that Zim (Richard Horvitz) is an incompetent alien invader of the Irkan race. To keep him from screwing up their operation, the Almighty Tallest (Wally Wingert and Kevin McDonald) send him to Earth where he can’t bother them. Along with his defective robot Gir (Rosearik Rikki Simmons), Zim ineptly tries to conquer the planet, though he’s persistently annoyed/thwarted by Dib (Andy Berman), the only person who knows he’s an alien.
When Invader Zim was released, it looked and sounded like no other show on the air. It had a manic energy to it, sometimes to the point of being irritating (the yelling), accompanied by some disarmingly brutal action, perplexingly bizarre comedy, and a weird industrial-techno soundtrack that I’d never heard in a kid’s show before.
I think Zim left a pretty big impression in the field of cable TV animation, pushing certain boundaries in a medium that had gotten pretty sleepy thanks to the patronizing ’90s nanny state (“Spider-Man can’t punch anybody because that’s too violent! This script is good, but what does it say about the state of the Amazon rain forest? The villain can’t say ‘die’ because that word is too scary!”). Since then, cartoons have gotten louder, weirder, more courageous when it comes to humor and action, and more dismissive of the idea that animation is obligated to teach the audience some sort of positive moral or educational lesson in every episode.
Invader Zim didn’t try to teach kids jack shit and I think that’s something those of us emerging from the Captain Planet decade could really appreciate.
What helped Invader Zim look and feel so different was the fact that its creator, Jhonen Vasquez, was not an animator. He’s a cartoonist, most famous for Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and its sequels (Squee and I Feel Sick), so his insights were removed from animation school discipline, drilling into the heads of students “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
If you wonder why cartoons now ‘n days all seem to look the fucking same its because the American animation industry is populated almost exclusively by graduates from the same art school (CalArts), who are all taught the same animation philosophies and fundamentals. For as much change as Invader Zim brought to the landscape of animation, I think the one lesson that went unheeded was the idea of fresh blood bringing fresh perspective.
But Zim looked so different, and not just in terms of Vasquez’s sharp and demented design aesthetic (believe it or not, but in the ’80s there was a movement to remove right angles from cartoons because their sharp corners frightened small children). If you look at the storyboarding for this show, they almost never resort to a dull, three-point perspective “TV sitcom” camera angle.
I’m talking stuff that looks like this:
Like the storyboarders think the characters are on a fucking stage and the camera only has so much freedom to move around them (lest they reveal the studio audience!) and so the depth of field is restricted to “left to right”. It’s a fucking cartoon, people! The “camera” is in your imagination! You can “shoot” from any angle you want! What, didn’t they teach you that at CalArts?
But Zim seems to actively avoid that boring “sitcom” angle. Scenes are shot looking down from the roof, peering out from around corners, peeking from inside a vent with the grill bars obscuring the picture, and so on. If characters do walk from the left to the right, then it’s rendered with a fish eye technique so that the characters seem to walk toward and then away from the audience even if they’re just going straight. The “dullest” shot Invader Zim ever resorted to was a Dutch angle and that’s still more effort than what a lot of cartoons exert.
This is what I mean when I say Zim looked like nothing else at the time. You really didn’t see any American cartoons putting that kind of work in boarding the scenes so no two shots looked the same. Even if the sequence as scripted didn’t call for something so dramatic, they did it ANYWAY and as a result, every second of the show just seemed to pop.
So technically and visually, Invader Zim withstands the test of time like the fucking pyramids. But what about story and characters?
Superficially, the premise seems rather thin. Zim tries to take over the world, Dib tries to stop him, either Dib succeeds or Zim/Gir do something stupid and sabotage themselves. Luckily, for most of the episodes (which range from 15 minutes to a half hour), the writers try to think outside of the box and come up with some really weird conflicts.
One of my favorites is “Megadoomer” in which Zim receives a new unstoppable mech, but no batteries. So in order to pilot the thing to Dib’s house and destroy him, he has to power it with an extension cord which Gir must constantly unplug and re-plug all over the city. Another great one is “Walk for Your Lives”, where Zim sets off a huge explosion, but at the same moment a time-space experiment goes haywire, resulting in the explosion exploding very, very slowly. Zim then has to find a way to discreetly dispose of the gradually expanding ball of explosion which he can’t touch.
Invader Zim, sadly, is another one of those shows that got cancelled just as it was beginning to get more ambitious. Toward the end of the series, the writers began their first story arc involving Dib finding and repairing an Irkan spaceship. New characters that expanded the mythology were also introduced, such as Tak (a disgraced Irkan determined to get revenge on Zim) and the Resisty (rebels trying to take down the Irkans and end their conquest). Along with Dib’s new ship, it looked like the series was heading in a more outer space oriented direction, but we never got there.
Now, I’m very glad I rewatched the whole series before I wrote this review as opposed to relying on my rosy decade-old memories. Why? Because some episodes were pure shit and some characters were obnoxious and terrible. Sorry, but as great as Invader Zim was, it was not immaculate.
The second season is loaded with many of the worst episodes; plots that are incredibly tedious and lined with jokes that fall flat no matter how rapidly they’re launched. I’m talking about episodes such as “Mortos Der Soulstealer”, “Zim Eats Waffles”, “The Girl Who Cried Gnome” and “Gaz, Taster of Pork” (the worst of the half hour stories). I don’t ever want to watch any of those again.
Many of the episodes, even the good ones, rely not so much on a formula, but a rhythm and even when the intervening jokes are funny, you always know what’s going to happen. Dib can’t just lose at the end of an episode, he also has to get beaten up, arrested, laughed at or left to die in some horrible predicament. It’s like the writers couldn’t figure out how to uniquely end episodes, so they just ended them all the same way.
The show also relied too often on “randomness” in place of jokes and scripts can be about as funny as a game of Madlibs. Gir speaks nonsense, but at least in the earliest episodes he could talk in complete sentences and carry on brief conversations. By the end of the series, he’s reduced to screeching non sequiturs and Hot Topic-friendly catchphrases.
The writers also seemed to think that certain words were funny in and of themselves, so characters are constantly looking for excuses to say things like “moose”. Like the word “moose” is so fucking hilarious or something.
While all the characters have a one note quality to them, there’s always a smidgen of depth to give them something more to work with. Dib doesn’t just want to save the Earth, he wants to prove to all the kids who make fun of him that he was right all along. Zim doesn’t just want to destroy the Earth, he wants to prove to the Tallest that despite being short, he’s a worthwhile invader (Irkan hierarchy is determined by height). Even Professor Membrane, the typical weird and funny father character, occasionally betrays his science-hero antics and reveals that he just wants his son (Dib) to follow in his footsteps.
The only completely boring, utterly irredeemable character is Gaz. I just couldn’t find any reason to like her at all during the series. Her gimmick is that she hates Dib and likes video games, but there’s nothing to her beyond that. No glimmer that she cares about anything else or ever feels conflicted. Her reasons for hating Dib are usually petty (he ate the last slice of pizza, he finished the cereal, she doesn’t like the sound of his voice, etc.) and her motivations are equally petty (her desire for a new game system is somehow less frivolous than his desire to watch a TV show). And if she doesn’t get what she wants, she hurts him (and is perfectly happy leaving him to die in several episodes).
She’s never called out on her behavior and usually rains down “vengeance” on all the other characters completely unopposed, as though she were clad in plot armor. Things work out for her, she always gets what she wants and no one can best her. I don’t care how many Hot Topic t-shirts you own with Gaz on them, she’s still boring.
So no, Invader Zim wasn’t without its problems, but what show doesn’t have the occasional shit episode or annoying character? There were far more good episodes than bad and, aside from Gaz, the characters were charming more than they were irritating (though all the screaming could push things).
I’d also be remiss not to mention the music by Kevin Manthei. It’s so good. Look, I’m not really a music guy; I can’t articulate what appeals to me. I just know what I like. And I love the music. It can be weird, it can be loud (like most things in this show), it can be spooky, but it always feels spontaneous and “cool” (however you want to define that word). You’ll REMEMBER this soundtrack, which is perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say.
Invader Zim was a rare show. I don’t know if I’d call it “ahead of its time”, but it definitely should have lasted longer than it did and certainly leaves you wanting more. I’d say it holds up remarkably well and despite being 14 years old (good god), it hasn’t aged in any way that would make it unappealing to contemporary audiences. It was very fun to revisit and I’m suitably excited for the upcoming comic.