Cartoons were a part of all of our childhoods. We grew up having Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon play in as we were messing around with our favorite toys and not worrying about things like college and responsibilities. Usually, though, they'd serve as mere background noise, something to fill a corner in our brains that needed occupation. The cartoons that stuck out the most were the ones that we’d stop doing whatever we were doing to pay attention and watch. I remember a fair amount of these particular cartoons coming from Cartoon Network, actually (at least for me). However, none of these shows quite piqued my kid self’s interest, quite like Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim.
Invader Zim was a horrifically beautiful creation from the mind of one Jhonen Vasquez that ran from 2001-2006. The show follows the antics of Zim, an alien of the Irken race, as he disguises himself as a human and attempts to take over Earth alongside his questionably functional robot companion Gir. His schemes typically fall short due to his massive ego or from counter-efforts made by the supernatural-obsessed boy genius Dib Membrane. With a premise like this and Jhonen Vasquez’s endless creative genius, the show can follow pretty much any plot it wants to. One episode would be about Zim piloting the planet Mars (because it’s canonically a planet-sized battleship in this universe) to roll on Earth’s surface, while the next could be about Zim stealing his human classmates’ organs and replacing them with random objects to pass a health check, and the following one would be about Dib slowly turning into bologna—hang on, what was that about organ harvesting? There was also an episode where Zim replaced a boy’s eyeballs with fancy schmancy robot ones, and that happened on-screen, albeit in a shadow silhouette. What gives? Why does this CHILDREN’S CARTOON have such messed up moments?
When discussing art, it’s nearly impossible to leave the artist out of the discussion. This applies twofold to Mr. Vasquez. Growing up in San Jose, California, he lived in the most boring suburban environment one could imagine. His escape from that boring reality was his vivid imagination fueled by television programs about ghosts and aliens (yeah, Dib is his self-insert character). His career as a creative force began with his high school newspaper comic strip, Johnny the Little Homicidal Maniac. This comic would later flesh out into the seven-issue series of the same title. I bring this comic up because someone at Nickelodeon read this comic and presented Vasquez with the opportunity to pitch a show to the network. We may never know why someone saw that book and thought “Yeah, give this guy a kid’s show,” but that’s the confusing reality we live in. This background helps explain why this show becomes downright horrific at times, and when it does, it’s beautiful.
The genius of Invader Zim is its ability to push the limits of what’s acceptable to show on a kid’s network. Production was sometimes a back-and-forth fight between the creative team’s dark ideas and the executives’ desire to keep things a little more sanitary. Originally, it was planned for Dib to die off and have another character replace him, but the executives understandably thought that would not be a very good idea. The aforementioned eyeball-replacement episode ended with the kid falling on a power line at the end of the episode before the execs shot that one down too. What did manage to get past the filters is still gnarly and where half of my enjoyment of the show comes from. The other half comes from it being simply really entertaining. The plots, as mentioned before, are never boring or formulaic; they’re always unique and interesting. The plots of episodes are supported by a cast of cynical (or occasionally overjoyed) characters, dilapidated industrial environments, and plenty of goofy alien gadgets for our green protagonist to do horrible things with. These elements transition smoothly into the aspect of the show I enjoy the most: the art direction. The angular, simplistic yet detailed approach to designing the world of Invader Zim is one I utterly adore. The desaturated colors that paint every wall and person are a breath of fresh air for a medium so chock-full of vibrant hues, something a goth-like yours truly can only take so much of. The only aspects of the show that haven’t aged the best are the characters sometimes being too much to handle and the early 2000 cartoon-budget CGI that was used pretty frequently in the show’s early years. Otherwise, it’s a perfect show for those with great imaginations that have sick and twisted spots just waiting to be itched, and I’m so glad I arbitrarily chose to binge it last year and re-experience the show that both disgusted and interested me as a wee lad.
In a sea of mass-appeal, safe content that floods children’s media nowadays, it’s nice to have a blast from the past and look at a show that took a risk. I sincerely hope that after reading this article, you immediately head to your device of choice and pull up Paramount+, (not sponsored) so you can binge Invader Zim. A fair warning, though: you may become terminally addicted to the show and spend all of your money on Gir plushies. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.