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The Wonderful Horror of "Invader Zim"

The Internet is full of conspiracy theories. About aliens and the JFK assassination; about 9/11 and the Illuminati and the New World Order; about clones and Nazis and faked moon landings. But far and away the most lunatic conspiracy theory I’ve seen has to be the one about Invader Zim.

You see—and don’t roll your eyes too hard when you read what I write next, or they’ll get stuck that way—there are actually people out there who claim that this twisted, misanthropic, and brilliant, brilliant show of brilliant, brilliant misanthropic twistiness was solicited and financed by kiddie network Nickelodeon. They even claim that it ran on Nick for a couple of years. These people—these poor, deluded fools—even claim to have “proof,” citing statements by the show’s producers and the presence of the Nick logo at the end of Zim episodes. As if those aren’t obvious fakes meant to make you believe such craziness! You’re CRAZY if you believe this and I will not listen to people filthy with such CRAZINESS! You will go now!

I ask you, really, to consider the logic. On the one hand we have the show itself (more about that in a moment); on the other we have the testimony of the people who made the show. Is it not obvious that, had the people who made “Dark Harvest,” “Bolognius Maximus,” and “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom” tried pitching their stories to Nickelodeon, they would have been strapped down to hospital gurneys, had electrodes stapled to their gonads, and been shoved into highway traffic? And is it not obvious that the people who made Invader Zim are exactly the type to hoax the world by pretending it was a Nickelodeon production? So what’s the more reasonable supposition: that Nickelodeon actually aired an episode in which an alien makes himself fat with internal organs stolen from classmates, or that we are being lied to?

I don’t pretend to know the motives behind this outrageous conspiracy. But I do know lies when I see them.

Invader Zim justly has a cultish and adoring fan base. In case you are not part of it, here’s the back story: Zim, a soldier in the interstellar Irken Empire, has been sent to scout out the Earth for future conquest. (Actually, his superiors are trying to get the little prick out of their way.) Fortunately, his military/intelligence competencies are more than overmatched by his impatience, his small-mindedness, and his vast, galaxy-filling ego. Unfortunately, his only Earthling enemy is Dib, a paranormal-obsessed classmate who is possibly even more impatient, small-minded, and egotistical than Zim. Their epic battles, naturally, end in a return to zero: Zim and Dib are much more adept at frustrating themselves than at frustrating each other.

So far, this will just sound like normal cartoon mayhem: Coyote vs. Coyote, maybe. But it’s pitched against a dark, surreal, and pitilessly bleak satirical background. The children in Dib’s “Skool” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) are dim, ugly, misshapen lumps, usually with band-aids plastered in weird spots. Dib’s sister, Gaz, is a perfect little blister of anger and hatred who, on at least one occasion, tries to destroy the human race herself. Their teacher, Ms. Bitters, is a cross between a witch, a phantom, and a velociraptor; her lectures are long, morbid disquisitions frequently punctuated by the word “horrible.” The other adults are stupid, obese, decrepit, insane, incompetent, blindingly ugly, or some combination of these. They will joyfully march to their own doom if said doom is endorsed by Santa Claus. Rot and offal are everywhere. Pigs are a constant visual motif. Flies buzz on the soundtrack.

The portrait is of a species—humanity—so blinkered, stupid, and filthy that it is fit only for colonization or extermination. And you’re telling me that this show was supported and broadcast by the network that brought us Rugrats?!

Not that Zim, the Irken, or the other aliens emerge with any more credit. For all their advanced technology they are silly, selfish, and extraordinarily xenophobic. In this universe, Pollyana, that annoying little girl so skilled at finding the good in anything, would shoot herself.

For others (like me) with a much lower opinion of humanity, Invader Zim is heaven-sent. It shouts aloud every dark suspicion that you, in your bleakest moments of misanthropy, ever entertained about the universe and intelligent life. And it says it in the most stylish of ways.

For Zim is one of the best-looking animated shows ever to be produced and aired on American television. The people are ugly, but they are beautifully ugly; exquisite care has gone into making humans and aliens alike as repulsive as possible. There are many CGI shots in the show, but they are well rendered and fit perfectly into the 2D environment. There isn’t a single one that doesn’t work, and many—like an epic space battle in “Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom,” which looks about as good as the opening battle of the armadas in Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith—are magnificent. Best of all are the vehicle, gizmo, and creature designs, each of which are unique and drop-dead stunning without ceasing to be cartoony. Zim is a comedy series, but it also has terrific action sequences and, in episodes like “Dark Harvest” and the “Halloween Spectacular,” storyboarding that could as easily grace a horror movie.

Special mention, of course, has to go to the voice actors, who bring phenomenal energy and precision to their performances. As Zim, Richard Horvitz cannot be excelled. Zim is utterly consumed by his appetite for destruction, and Horvitz delivers most of his dialogue at the top of his lungs. (At least, I hope it’s at the top of his lungs; it would be terrifying if he could yell even louder than he does in this series.) But he delivers each syllable with a staccato gusto that puts accents and stresses in weird places, so that Zim’s gloating is never monotonous. Andy Berman also cranks it up as Dib, though next to Horvitz’s Zim he seems almost subdued. And Rosearik Rikki Simons as Zim’s malfunctioning assistant Gir steals almost every scene. These key actors and their regular support (which includes Melissa Fahn, Lucille Bliss, Roger Bumpass, and Mo Collins, among many others) also have terrific scripts to work from. As lovely as the visuals are, sometimes it’s enough just to close your eyes and listen to the zingy, eccentric dialogue they get to play with. Very little of the dialogue is actually “straight”; in some episodes the writers seem actually to be trying to use nothing but non sequitors, inapposite metaphors, and fetishistic verbal tics.

The series has been out on DVD for awhile now on three DVD collections loaded with commentary tracks and animatics. (There’s another disc out there of nothing but extras, but I’ve not reviewed it.) The commentaries are a bit overwhelming: the commentators are, to be honest, better at on-mic horseplay than in talking about the episode they’re supposedly watching, but their enthusiasm is infectious. The best and funniest stuff comes out of the mouth of the show’s creator, Jhonen Vasquez, whose chirpy, exuberant joyfulness is in stark contrast to the dark and bitter show he conceived and produced.

It’s Vasquez’s exuberance, which erupts in every shot, every scene, every sequence, and every episode, that sustains Invader Zim. I don’t know how he got it made—as I say, I contemptuously dismiss the “Nickelodeon” theory—and there are apparently unfinished and unmade episodes out there. For now, it’s enough to know that, somewhere in the inky depths of the animation industry, this supernova of talent still exists.

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