Silly. Weird. Cool. Disturbing. Bizarre.
In mind-picking five words to describe Invader Zim, I don’t think I could choose any better. Yet they still feel inadequate, empty descriptors that don’t do the slightest in preparing you for the mind-boggling otherness that creator Jhonen Vasquez brought to life in his short-lived Nickelodeon series.
Not that I watch a lot of the Nickelodeon channel, but I’m pretty sure Invader Zim was the most accidentally horrifying thing they ever broadcast. And considering that the network quickly canceled it after one season (even though they made two seasons’ worth), somebody in the upstairs office must’ve been mortified too.
We’re talking about a show that was a glimpse into pure, uncut insanity — a Pablo Picasso technicolor nightmare. Characters spent good portions of the show screaming, displaying exposed guts and morbid obesity, taking subversive swipes at everything from law enforcement to public schools to fast food, and running with post-modern stream of consciousness plots. Also, meat. Lots and lots of meat.
This is all to say that Invader Zim is pretty cool all around, and Hot Topic still cleans up on Invader Zim merchandise several years after the show’s canning.
Jhonen Vasquez, a cartoonist best known for works like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, was given the opportunity to design and write a show for the network, the result of which struggled in ratings but eventually found firm footing in the cult DVD market. Vasquez’s unique visual style and off-kilter-to-the-extreme topics pushed the boundaries of good taste and understandable entertainment – and people responded to that.
The series revolves around Zim, an Irken alien (the Irken are all planetary invaders resembling green cockroach-people). Annoying even to his own leaders, Zim is exiled to Earth under the pretense of planning our planet’s coming invasion. He takes on a flimsy human disguise (which fools most everyone – people in Invader Zim are dimwitted and cowlike to the point of brain death), and concocts odd plans with the help of his malfunctioning robot Gir. The girls, by the way, absolutely adore Gir; he’s become far more popular than any other character from the show.
Zim’s sole opposition often comes from Dib, a large-headed conspiracy freak who attends the same school and class as his alien foe. Dib and Zim struggle back and forth, yet often the status quo remains even when one appears to get the upper hand. Dib’s sister Gaz, a perpetually angry goth gamer, knows about Zim but couldn’t care less, and Dib’s father, Professor Membrane, is too consumed in his work to even notice (he invents stuff like “Supertoast”).
Most Invader Zim episodes were broken down into two 15-minute stories, which is about the length of time that the writers could keep up the shaky silliness before the whole house collapsed. Stories ran the gambit from a hive queen living under the school (or “Skool”) to Zim’s abduction of other kids’ organs to pass a nurse’s exam. Also, A ROOM WITH A MOOSE! Along the way, non-sequitirs and screaming prevails in the dialogue, especially with Zim and his maniacal tangants. It’s an incredibly quotable series, just made for t-shirt logos and whatnot.
Much can and has been said about Invader Zim’s visual style, which is both beautiful, off-putting and geektastic. Often the show marries cel animation with computer animation, coming up with fantastic-looking technology and motion. Whenever an episode gets into an action sequence, you can be guaranteed for a visual feast – it’s just that good. Everything in this alternate world is exaggerated and a bit hellish, the sort of thing that might make a teenager coo and a baby cry nonstop to witness.
And I would be amiss if I failed to mention Zim’s score. From the opening theme music (one of my all-time favorite theme songs) to the techno riffs that thump during any action scene, I’ve yet to witness a cartoon with such audio powerhouse, other than perhaps the Simpsons.
This all said, even to this day I can only take Invader Zim in small doses — an episode here, a passing quote there. It’s hard to put my finger on why I like the show but can’t really watch a lot of it. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little too much like an unhinged toddler who keeps babbling about this and that and the other thing that you GOTTA see, and even though you like the kid, you lost interest about 20 minutes ago. But hey, at least it has monkeys.
Evil, bad, naughty monkeys.