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Invader Zim’s strange path from cult hit to all-time classic

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This weird Nicktoon’s return is a major victory

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invader zim Nickelodeon Animation Studios

Of every show to get a nostalgic reboot, Invader Zim ranked pretty low on the list. Not because we didn’t want one — we absolutely, 100 percent did. But the Nickelodeon cartoon was always a show tailored for much older audiences, owned by a network that never knew what to do with it.

It took more than 10 years, but it turns out Nickelodeon has finally figured out that years upon years of fan outcry, strong merchandise sales and a comic book revival meant that Invader Zim really was something special. A television movie based on the short-lived series is in the works. To be honest, we still can’t quite believe it.

Invader Zim was the kind of show destined to be loved by a certain niche, a cable TV anomaly that we should just be thankful to have ever gotten any episodes of at all. That was obvious even before it aired to anyone familiar with its creator. Comic book artist Jhonen Vasquez developed the show for Nickelodeon, which was at the time looking for a show that skewed slightly older. Vasquez was a perfect fit for that kind of pitch; his calling card was an alt-comics hit called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

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Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was obviously the kind of thing that a kids’ network wanted on its channel.
Jhonen Vasquez

Vasquez’s work is defined by his pitch-black sense of humor, angular art style and fondness for horror both psychological and corporeal. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac gives most of those elements away with its title, but the creator smartly toned down the violence and metaphysical jokes for kids’ TV. Much of the rest of his “obsessions” followed him from the underground comic book scene to big-budget, major network prestige even so.

“I'm not adapting anything, other than restricting a certain vocabulary and a certain liberty of visuals,'' Vasquez told the New York Times in March 2001, just before Invader Zim’s premiere. ''That's kind of why I went with this. It's interesting being just as bizarre and just as funny, but not using the kind of things I've used before.”

The pilot of Invader Zim was shocking to watch then, as it is now. It aired right after the goofy, lighthearted Fairly Oddparents, a show that had been piloted on Nickelodeon for several years before its official premiere. Invader Zim was its opposite: It starred an alien antihero who wanted to take over the world, with the comedy derived from how boneheadedly bad he was at achieving this goal. For example, one of the main conceits of the show was that Zim felt he must convincingly pose as a human child in service to his goals. But Zim had sci-fi weapons at his disposal, making him a legitimate threat of some kind — and inspiring at least one legitimate enemy on an otherwise apathetic Earth in the form of one of his classmates, a young, amateur paranormal investigator named Dib.

All of this was laid out in a story-focused half-hour unlike anything ever aired on Nickelodeon previously. Invader Zim had a villain at its center, years before Breaking Bad and Mad Men popularized that dramatic convention for adult audiences. As a character, Zim was mostly unlikable; the show’s color palette was narrow and unfriendly, and the entire design of the series — interiors covered in grime, streets covered in garbage, on-screen televisions full of screaming ads — dared viewers to be turned off. While jokes could easily revolve around the high-pitched screams of Zim’s useless robot companion, Gir, the comedy was also often derived from much darker places, like harvesting organs from living children and lice outbreaks and characters slowly turning into a sentient sausage. Dib wanted to kill Zim, after all; that’s not usually the subject of children’s TV.

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Dib and Zim: Mortal enemies.
Nickelodeon Animation Studios

Vasquez sees it differently. Perhaps all classic animation is predicated on something more sinister than we like to think, he told The AV Club in 2013.

“I don’t know that it’s ever explicitly stated in the show, but I think that’s always been the big gag,” he said. “As powerful as you are, you’re still just a kid lobbing explosives at one another. I think that’s classic animation, like Bugs Bunny. It’s incredibly violent, incredibly angry, vindictive, back-and-forth combat.”

Nickelodeon first took to television with some more mature programming in this vein, certainly; the slapstick-y and scatological Ren and Stimpy was decidedly not meant just for kids. Invader Zim was different, though, because it walked that line what’s perceived as appropriate for kids and what’s not far more gracefully. There were some elementary schoolers who fell hard and fast for the show, while their siblings — or parents — found a reason to tune to Nickelodeon again.

All of this sounds positive, right? Well, Invader Zim only lasted one-and-a-half seasons of 27 episodes total, so, spoiler alert: The show was quickly canceled. Nickelodeon aired a Christmas special in December 2002 and shelved the remaining second season episodes indefinitely.

Vasquez gave his idea of what happened years later on his website.

“I could go on and on with variations of the most fantastic reasons for why the show was cancelled, but in the end, even I couldn’t give you the whole and accurate truth for why the show got pulled,” he wrote in a lengthy post from 2010, nearly eight years after the show wrapped. “The most likely culprits are simply ratings and the sheer expense of the show, which was monstrously expensive at the time, especially when compared to more modern, flash-based savings fests.”

The rest of the post — a must-read for fans — gives an alternative reason: that a corpse that accidentally ended up in the Invader Zim animation studio turned off Nickeloden execs. It’s a joke ... a very, very dark joke. Such is the humor of Invader Zim, after all.

These kinds of jokes sat very well with genre-focused Gap subsidiary Hot Topic and its devotees. If there’s anyone to thank for Invader Zim’s revival, it frankly would be Hot Topic. In the early 2000s, Hot Topic was hitting a commercial stride, and Invader Zim became a perfect fit for the store’s racks of black and purple T-shirts, depressive slogans and its customers’ obsessions with mortality and the obscure. Its art style sat well with the heaps of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton merch.

Invader Zim’s afterlife was long and healthy because of Hot Topic’s glut of Gir, Dib and Zim-themed merch. (Gaz, Dib’s disaffected, video game-obsessed sister, was another favorite.) Vasquez has poked fun at his series’ prominence at the retailer many a time.

Vasquez and his fellow creators also reportedly had little to do with the version of Zim beloved by Hot Topic shoppers, likely even ones who were introduced to the franchise before ever seeing an episode. He told IGN in 2004 that they were “pretty cut out of it early on;” Nickelodeon retains rights to the property.

For years, Nickelodeon seemed interested in exercising those rights on a limited basis. Its sister site, Nicktoons, aired the show in reruns for several years; that’s where much of the second season was burned off in 2006, four years after the show’s official cancelation. But Invader Zim has been absent from television for many years now.

People who grew up watching it, people who stumbled upon it during their complicated pubescence, people who happened upon it while flipping through channels — they all continued to hold the show up as a bastion of network television’s most dangerous bet. Invader Zim was both an inspiration and warning to similarly daring cartoon creators that a niche audience may only carry a show so far. Fans mourned this unexpected show for years.

Vasquez, however, returned to his original medium in 2015, penning more Zim stories. The Invader Zim comics from Nickelodeon and Oni Press are released on a semi-frequent basis, and while they don’t have the same adoration that the TV show did, each issue is a high-profile release. Boosting its clout in this familiar space was a smart move, and it seems as though more than three years later, Nickelodeon has come out as willing to again take a chance on the show.

Invader Zim’s return hasn’t been dated. A tiny teaser hints that the production staff will continue to thumb its nose at the idea of conventional children’s programming. Who knows what these harbingers of doom will get up to — if this movie will tie up any loose ends, or simply be an act of fanservice? To many fans, both options sound pretty good after 15 Zim-less years.