All Hail the Irken Empire: The Return of Invader Zim

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Normally when you hear about great series that were cancelled far too early here on 1Up Culture, your first thought would go to Firefly (thank you Fox…), but there’s another show that deserves some serious recognition despite its relatively short run. In 2001, the iconic kids network Nickelodeon debuted a strange new animated series: Invader Zim. The fever-dream brainchild of comic artist Jhonen Vasquez, Zim made it through one and a half seasons before succumbing to the cutting room floor. But after well over a decade of absence since the show was cancelled, it was announced last week that Zim would return in a special 90 minute television movie.

In reality, it was a series that never should have been conceived. Creator Jhonen Vasquez was a small independent comic author and artist who was noticed by a Nickelodeon executive for one of his books. That book? Johnny the Homicidal Maniac – a title which accurately covers the insanity that exists within the pages. Jumping from that kind of dark material to a children’s cartoon show was always going to be a bold leap, even if the intention was for Vasquez to help create a show targeted at an older teen market than their average show.

Still, the show found legs, gaining critical acclaim and a passionate fanbase. But it was an expensive show to produce, and ultimately the passionate fanbase didn’t translate to the numbers Nickelodeon were after, especially from the primary demographic. It lasted for one season and one episode, with the rest of season two having to wait four years to get airtime. The decision left plans for up to three more seasons of storytelling to fade into non-existence, leaving plans for a showdown between Dib and the Irken Empire to fade away into nothingness, not to mention the death of the titular character.

But, the cream always has a way of rising to the top. Invader Zim lived on, gaining a cult following and being fondly remembered for its dark tone, great writing and wonderful art. Zim’s sidekick, the defective robot GIR, also enjoyed an improbable reign as a Hot Topic icon, which helped keep the show in the public consciousness. There were even talks between Vasquez and Nickelodeon to bring it back in 2011, but unfortunately they couldn’t come to an agreement on the show’s budget. A comic deal with Oni-Press (publishers for my favourite series Scott Pilgrim) came about two years ago, but even with it living on in the minds of the fans, the TV movie announcement came as a real surprise.

Invader Zim wasn’t the network’s first foray into more adult programming. Ren and Stimpy was crude and disgusting, but there was no attempts to pretend that it wasn’t. Invader Zim aimed for a slightly younger audience and felt more accessible, sitting more in line with a show like Rocko’s Modern Life. But while Rocko played around with the ‘disgusting’ and appealed to adult fans more with heavy innuendo meant to fly over the heads of younger audiences, Zim was just straight up dark. Preview screenings of ‘Dark Harvest’ scared a kid out of the cinema and had others visibly shaken – which makes perfect sense since the episode was about Zim harvesting the organs from kids and ingesting them in order to appear human. This was a show that first entered Nickelodeon television after episodes of Fairly Odd Parents mind you.

Zim’s appeal came on two fronts, the atmosphere and the characters, both of which worked in conjunction with the other to hit their stride. Invader Zim is a grim looking world, its colour pallete decidedly muted despite the lead character’s green skin. The artistic visual influence of Johnny the Homicidal maniac can be seen throughout the show, from the sharp jagged edges of its design and the decidedly oversized heads of its cast. Zim looks like nothing else that’s come across Nickelodeon, and that unique art helps to imprint the series into viewer’s memories. Frames and scenes were meticulously planned, taking twice as many pages to storyboard a Zim episode as it would the standard cartoon.

Then there’s the characters. There’s no ‘good guy’ in this series, and in that way Zim feels more like a Mad Men or Breaking Bad than it does Rugrats or Hey Arnold. Zim is a protagonist, not a hero, yet he’s so ridiculous and passionate that you can’t help but love him in spite of his evil ways and straight up incompetence. His main rival – Dib – is equally crazy with a healthy dose of justified paranoia to boot. But as good as the main characters are, it’s the ensemble that solidifies the show. GIR is lovable, Miss Bitters is genuinely frightening, The Almighty Tallest are hilarious (and I can get behind any society that rewards height), Dib’s dad Professor Membrane who can’t help but be memorable as he performs SCIENCE!!! and then there’s the true darkhorse favourite Gaz, the rage filled younger sister of Dib who steals just about every scene she’s in.

If you need any indication for the brilliance of this show, just watch the first episode “The Nightmare Begins”, which encapsulates everything great about the series in just twenty minutes, setting up the world and cast without any of the normally awkward steps that opening episodes have when trying to introduce us to their vision. Throughout the two seasons there is rarely a misstep, and even the weaker episodes have something that makes them worth watching. The humour is eccentric and off the wall, feeling random yet at the same time at home within the unsettling world that houses it.

Invader Zim is a loud, frenetic show that isn’t for everyones tastes, but it’s that in your face abrasiveness that makes the series so fantastic. It makes sense that Invader Zim has maintained the fanbase and was deemed as valuable enough for Nickelodeon to bring it back in some form. Not only is is an unforgettable series, but we live in a golden era for slightly more adult animated series: Rick and Morty and Archer is proof of that. Invader Zim definitely feels more at home alongside those shows than what was popular fifteen years ago, but despite being ahead of its time it never let itself truly burn out. Who knows what could come from the TV movie, but a little more Zim in the world is much appreciated.

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