The Earth is doomed.
Ladies and gentlemen of the world, I would like to introduce you to Jhonen Vasquez. In August 1995, his independent comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (JTHM for short) debuted, to the delight of some and the shock of others. The title character spent equal time slaughtering and philosophizing, making the comic as smart as it was horrific. That, combined with the gritty and intense visuals, quickly gave Vasquez a cult following.
Although JTHM would be far too gruesome to turn into a children’s television series, someone in Hollywood saw potential in Vasquez’s work, especially in some of the dark sci-fi aspects of his other comics, Squee and I Am Sick. Thus, Invader Zim was born. With Vasquez as executive producer, the series premiered in March 2001 on Nickelodeon. The network clearly did not know what to make of such a bizarre series, and never gave it real chance. Its time slot was sporadic, there was little advertising for it, and it ended up cancelled with several episodes unaired. But thanks to DVD, Zim has risen again.
The Irkens are the most feared race in the galaxy. With their seemingly endless armada, the unstoppable Irkens have conquered planet after planet, leaving oppression and destruction in their wake. What is the secret to their success? The invaders. These advance scouts land on an enemy planet, blend in with the locals, and learn their weaknesses. In some cases, the invaders single-handedly wipe out the world themselves.
That brings us to Zim, who longs to be an invader. Unfortunately, he had previously made a mess of Operation Impending Doom One. The Irken leaders, the Almighty Tallest, have to get rid of Zim before he does something stupid and wrecks Operation Impending Doom Two. To get rid of him, the Tallest assign Zim to an unimportant, non-threatening planet out in the middle of nowhere—Earth.
With his robot helper Gir in tow, Zim arrives and disguises himself as an elementary school student, or as he calls it, a “human worm-baby.” Do not be so quick to count Zim out, though, despite his glaring incompetence. He has a gigantic lab filled with unimaginable technological terrors underneath his pink suburban home, where he and Gir secretly plot the downfall of all humanity.
But hope is not lost. Just down the street, an exceptionally large-headed boy named Dib has made it his quest to find proof of alien life. He is the only one who knows Zim’s secret, and he’ll stop at nothing to expose the alien to the media. Dib’s only ally is his sister Gaz, a video game-addicted Goth girl who wants nothing to do with him. Fortunately for him, Dib’s father is the heroic TV scientist Dr. Membrane, so there’s always some high-tech doodad sitting around the house to help save the day. And so the battle for Earth begins.
This two-disc set contains the first 17 episodes, most of which were doubled up to make nine episodes during the series’ original run. Bring forth the episode list!
• “The Nightmare Begins”
This episode provides our introduction to all the characters (naturally), and lets us see how Zim establishes his home base on Earth. His first confrontation with Dib soon follows. Highlights are the extended opening with the Tallest at their best, the creation of Zim’s house, and the doom song.
• “Bestest Friend”
An unfortunately clingy child at school takes an enormous liking to Zim, threatening to blow his cover. Zim goes to great lengths to solve this problem. Although it’s only the second episode, it features one of the series’ great “I can’t believe they got away with that” moments.
Dib manages to sneak into Zim’s hideout and take some photos. To retrieve them, Zim concocts a sinister plan that leads him into battle with both Dib and Gaz. This episode introduces several key themes and elements that ran throughout the series, such as the “Mysterious Mysteries” segments. Highlights are the terrific-looking action scenes and the biology lessons.
• “Parent Teacher Night”
To pass as a human, Zim must reprogram his robot “parental units” so they can interact with other humans. You can imagine how well that works. This was the only episode that gave a starring role to Zim’s “parental units”—one wonders what else could have been done with the characters.
• “Walk of Doom”
Something as simple as taking a walk leads to fear and chaos for Zim and Gir as they navigate their neighborhood in disguise. It’s to the writers’ credit that they can take something so ordinary and turn it into some solid comedy. Highlights are the bus scene and Zim’s eye condition.
Absolute brilliance. Zim learns about Earth’s germs, and becomes a clean-freak on an almost Howard Hughes level. Highlights are Zim screaming in terror while looking around an empty room, and the tragic death scene. This is easily one of the standout episodes of the entire series.
• “Dark Harvest”
The series drifts dangerously close to the horror genre when Dib discovers Zim stealing internal organs from the other children. Another episode loaded with “I can’t believe they got away with airing this” moments.
• “Attack of the Saucer Morons”
A group of UFO enthusiasts comes across one of Zim’s ships, and then Zim himself. It’s up to Gir to save the day. Highlights are Zim losing his contact lens, Gir’s dancing, and the big chase scene.
• “The Wettening”
Dib discovers Zim has an aversion to water, which leads to the usual “two characters trying to get each other wet” cartoon plot. This one, however, takes it to an epic scale. Also, we see for the first time how cool Gaz looks with her hair wet.
• “Career Day”
Dib gets to spend the day with a genuine paranormal investigator, which could be the opportunity he needs to expose Zim for good. Meanwhile, an astronomical event has some strange effects on Zim. This one pokes fun at the fast food industry, which was the butt of many jokes throughout the series.
Dib has to get his father to sign a permission slip. But when your dad is a celebrity scientist, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Although the show is called Invader Zim, the title character doesn’t appear in this one. Future episodes will also allow other characters to have their time in the spotlight. This just shows how creative the writers were—they can branch out side characters into their own stories.
• “Planet Jackers”
Zim discovers the entire planet Earth has been stolen, and he’s off to steal it back. After all, no one else should conquer it but him. This is another action-oriented episode, with plenty of outer space heroics. Episodes like this really give the 3D animators a chance to show their stuff.
• “Rise of the Zitboy”
This one’s arguably the most disgusting 11 minutes in animation history. Let’s just leave it at that.
• “Invasion of the Idiot Dog Brain”
Gir’s brain is switched with the computer at Zim’s headquarters. “The madness! The madness!” Can Zim get Gir back where he belongs before all is lost? Highlights are seeing the house in action, the two cops, and how long Zim is able to wait.
• “Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy”
This time we see an interesting take on time travel, in which only objects and not people can go back in time. We also see amazing cruelty against Dib. Highlights are Gir’s take on temporal theory and Dib’s transformations.
• “A Room with a Moose”
Dib falls into another of Zim’s traps, and must think of a solution before time runs out. Highlights include the cool wormhole effect and Zim’s being alone in class with his teacher. The episode does venture into the realm of toilet humor, but fortunately it doesn’t stay there for long.
Somewhere in between Frankenstein and Godzilla lies Ultra Peepi, Zim’s unholy attempt to rule the world through cuteness. Before it’s all over, the army is called in, mass destruction reigns, and Peepi gets one slick theme song.
Bringing Jhonen Vasquez’s work to life on TV must have been a daunting task. Visually, his art is specifically stylized, with thin line work and meticulous attention to detail. Thematically, it contains extreme violence and biting satire. These concepts do not appear to be favored by children’s TV programmers. But somehow, the show’s creators found a way. The visuals in Invader Zim don’t quite have the in-your-face intensity of JHTM, but one look at the characters and the backgrounds reveals them to be suitably Vasquezian. Zim’s spindly arms and legs, Gaz’s angry squint, and Dib’s unimaginably large head are all hallmarks of Vasquez’s designs. This extends to the overall world of Invader Zim, too. The backgrounds, vehicles, and props are almost over-designed. Gigantic pipes and massive iron doors fill the hallways at the elementary school. Ordinary police officers wear battle armor, and their patrol cars are high-tech mini-tanks. In those rare cases when the action moves into outer space, everything becomes even more detailed. From the oppressive claw-like Irken ships to the many snack foods enjoyed by the Tallest, creative thought has gone into every visual element of the series.
But there is more to the series than adapting Vasquez’s style from the printed page into animation. What really makes the series stand out is how the creators are not afraid to take risks. For example, during the high speed chase in “Attack of the Saucer Morons,” there is a moment when Zim discovers he is driving straight for a toddler innocently playing in a sandbox. Instead of swerving out of the way, Zim just smiles and stays his course. The child is pulled out of the way in the nick of time by a teary-eyed adult. This is some frightening stuff played for laughs. There are many more examples, such as the way Zim dispatches his admirer in “Bestest Friend,” or the several nightmarish acts inflicted on Dib in “Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy.” One does not expect to find this level of horrific violence in a children’s cartoon. But it’s not just for shock. The writers’ risks pay off, creating some fine dark comedy.
Another risk is the way in which the characters’ roles are switched around. In some episodes, Dib is the hero, struggling to save the Earth from destruction. But other times, Zim becomes the protagonist, and viewers finds themselves rooting for him to succeed in ruling this little stink-ball planet. The writers also go to great lengths for a laugh, stretching continuity and reality for comedic effect. For example, see the long set-up and the use of expensive looking 3-D animation just for an over-the-top gag in “The Wettening,” or Zim’s impossible patience in “Invasion of the Idiot Dog Brain.” These are gags that would be too much for other shows, but the writers and animators here make it work. The writing staff, by the way, was an eclectic group, including Roman Dirge, creator of the comic book Lenore, Danielle Koenig, daughter of Star Trek actor Walter Koenig, and Frank Conniff, better known as “TV’s Frank” from Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The highly expressive voice acting adds to Invader Zim’s success. Richard Steven Horvitz brings a seemingly unending energy to Zim. He gives it his all here, whether he’s screaming in terror, cackling over evil plans, or saying normal lines like “I’m going to have some punch” with overly elaborate drama. Andy Berman as Dib, Melissa Fahn as Gaz, and Rikki Simons as Gir are also at their best, creating some of the most expressive voice acting you’re likely to find in a cartoon. Also worth praising is Kevin Manthei’s bombastic music, which adds even more character and intensity to the series.
Picture quality here is pristine, with the show’s signature green and purple color scheme looking appropriately vivid and atmospheric. The 2.0 sound is excellent as well, with the acting, sound effects and great music all sounding just as they should. Leading off the extras are 12 commentary tracks with Vasquez, joined by series writers, actors and animators. Although they are light on behind-the-scenes tidbits, they’re very funny, and they point out many small details in the animation that viewers might otherwise miss. A collection of interviews with the voice actors is also comedic, but there is some genuine information about the series here too. The show’s original pilot, with Billy West (Futurama) as the voice of Zim, has been included. It’s not quite up to the standard of the regular episodes—the creators admit as much on its commentary—but for fans, it’s great to see this alternative take on the characters. Also, 12 episodes can be watched in their original animatic form, offering a glimpse at some original artwork. The only subtitles are in the Irken language created for the series, which is amusing; but many viewers might have preferred genuine subtitles.
Invader Zim is an absolutely insane series. It has risky scripts, great acting, and terrific animation. To quote Gir, “I love this show.”