When Invader Zim first began airing on Nickelodeon back in 2001, there really wasn’t anything quite like it in the animation space, particularly when it came to series squarely aimed at a younger audience.
Invader Zim was filthy, and often morbid in the way it depicted a world well on its way to falling apart long before Zim showed up planning to conquer Earth. That grossness was a big part of what ended up endearing the show to fans.
Ahead of Invader Zim’s return to the small screen in Netflix’s upcoming Enter the Florpus special, Gizmodo spoke with series creator Jhonen Vasquez about what it’s been like to watch as the show developed a cult following in the wake of its initial cancellation — and how Invader Zim’s dark, misanthropic ethos feels even more relatable today.
Gizmodo: How has Invader Zim becoming a cult classic with a dedicated fanbase influenced your own relationship to the franchise?
Jhonen Vasquez: Is it horrible to say it doesn’t influence it that much? I’m always happiest working on things when I feel it’s coming from a genuine place driven by my own needs and wants. The audience is an observer with this stuff, not so much a contributor, but an observer that I hope is enjoying what’s happening.
So I guess the process of working on Zim stuff, the show, comics, or this movie, hasn’t changed a whole lot in terms of the audience being in on the creation. I sometimes try to feel it, that whatever it is that is having an audience like that, but it’s not in my makeup. It’s why when I attend conventions or meet fans out in the world, sometimes in the weirdest places, it’s great to actually talk to one who clues me in as to just how my stuff exists in their world. Surreal, flattering, and just forever strange for me to hear about.
Gizmodo: Talk to me a bit about Dib’s relationship with Professor Membrane. Membrane’s always been an absentee father, but Enter the Florpus really centres how his absence has factored into Dib’s sense of self. What were the things about their relationship you wanted to hammer home in the movie?
Vasquez: Yeah, Membrane’s a bigger part of the story here than he was in the series. His inattentiveness to Dib’s mission was always a thing but in the movie, it’s a driving force for everything that happens. It was a way of taking advantage of having more time to tell a story while still pulling from easily graspable concepts like being frustrated by your parents’ seeming inability to recognise your greatness, even if you’re not exactly thinking of the consequences. Dib’s the “hero” of Invader Zim, but he’s also the villain, and he doesn’t just strive to help, he strives to help and be recognised for it.
Gizmodo: It’s really interesting how Zim and Dib end up on these parallel quests for approval from their father figures. What are the aspects of Zim and Dib’s dynamic with one another that you wanted to put front and center with Enter the Florpus?
Vasquez: It’s always been there, but it just happens to be what drives the movie. They’re not exact mirrors of one another, but they have a lot in common, and looking for validation from their respective “dads” is one of the core things. Thing is, neither one of them is approaching the problem from the perspective of “Am I good? Please tell me.” They’re approaching it more as “BEHOLD HOW GOOD I AM! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU THAT YOU’RE NOT SAYING SO?!”
Gizmodo: Where does the filthy aesthetic — the saliva, Gir rolling around in cheese, etc. — that’s always defined Invader Zim come from?
Vasquez: That I’m not entirely sure about. I think it’s probably just the result of my fidgetiness when drawing, this OCD need to fill spaces up with little scratches and shapes. All that grime is hypnotic to throw down and I love how it sits on a page and thus in a background in the show. As for the world itself, it was always a world in decay, a place where people were oblivious to the state of things around them, sitting in squalor but complaining about everything else besides the awfulness of where they were.
Gizmodo: You’ve spoken about how, for you, Invader Zim never really ended in 2006, and it’s true that the story’s continued in the comics based on the series. But why bring Invader Zim back in 2019 as an animated feature? What new kinds of stories did you want to tell given how things have changed since 2006?
Vasquez: The things that informed the series back in the day were general enough that there was no real need to address anything more modern. It really is just more Zim, and it works just as well, or as horribly, now as it did then. The series went off the air in 2002 and since then, a whole lot has gotten more absurd and nightmarish and, if anything, the world of Invader Zim doesn’t seem as outlandish as it did. That’s maybe really sad, right?
Gizmodo: Invader Zim was always meant to be a darker, and relatively more mature show for a slightly older demographic, but the way we think about animation aimed at young people has shifted somewhat since the original series aired on Nickelodeon. How’d that shift influence your storytelling when you began working on Enter the Florpus?
Vasquez: More so than dark subjects, the concern was more for how much friendlier and sensitive shows can be now. Invader Zim doesn’t come from a mentality of showing how open and sensitive people can and should be. I’m not even complaining about shows that tackle the more nuanced, understanding behaviours as some of them are beautiful shows!
It’s just that Invader Zim is designed as a nightmare place, a world of terrible people doing terrible things in a terrible place, and not as a celebration of cruelty but as a celebration of recognising what is messed up and being able to laugh at it. I guess I’ll know if I stayed true to the spirit of my own universe if people tell me what an awful human being I am for putting this nonsense out into the world in this day and age.
Gizmodo: Knowing what you know now about working in the animation space, what (if anything) would you do differently if you were trying to get something like Invader Zim off the ground today?
Vasquez: I don’t know how to do anything any way other than my own. Pitching Invader Zim today would be a lot like pitching it back then, and hoping the person I’m pitching to gets it and knows we’re not trying to ruin the world and that sometimes a kid getting his eyes pulled out of his head is hilarious.
Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus hits Netflix on August 16.