Invader Zim and the Damage Done

So. Everything gets its turn to be strapped to the Catherine wheel that is our current pop culture, and now it’s come around to Invader Zim. Again.

I’m not surprised a lot of people are taking this as a joke, another cruel tease. Fans of the series have been hearing all kinds of noises about Zim revival specials and movies for years. Even when the show was still running, as it was limping toward death, we were hearing about “Invader Dib” – in which Dib would go to Irk disguised as an alien, and ‘invade’ it – a grand finale to tie the whole thing together – which was never more than a wispy outline, a rumor at best.

Why I Love Invader Zim – A Digression

In the tail end of the show’s slow death, back in 2004, before the final axe hit, I was working on the Palisades toyline. A friend got me a connection in, and a quick and dirty sketch I did theorizing how Zim’s spidery Pak legs could be converted into physical form got me the gig. Suddenly I was burning the midnight oil around my ‘proper’ job, sending e-mails to the sculptors and decision-makers about this or that tidbit of lore and suggesting accessories and adjustments during the day, then coming home to quickly lock myself into wrestling with Photoshop for hours at night. We worked entirely from 340×240 AVIs  of the show – the only material we had to work with, as there were no DVDs at that point. Nickelodeon gave us almost no support apart from a very dated promotional images pack from season 1. I raided RWAM and suesrock for whatever design boards I could get my hands on, precious scraps.

I argued passionately that Zim needed red transparent eyes instead of matte ones. I did not win the fight about painting highlights on those eyes, which came out bug-eyed; that was a mandate from Nickelodeon nobody wanted. I argued for including Minimoose (then a very new character) into the first figure run. I tried to get lots of prop accessories included, and put great effort into recreating minor props from multiple angles so the sculptors could build them as grey plastic sample sculpts. Then we’d process images of the clay sculpts in Photoshop to make corrections digitally that the sculptors would then incorporate forward into the next version of the sculpt.

I was staring at that stupid moose from A Room With a Moose and redrawing its horrific lazy eyes for like two days. I was also writing tons of fanfic and watching the show with an even more desperate attention to detail, rewinding and fast-forwarding videos we would now consider postage-stamp sized, trying to discern where all the little lines were supposed to go on the back part of a camera gun or what angle the stitches on the Irken bee’s mouth curved. Dib’s scythe and pointy hair were angled that way because I suggested it. His body was narrow and triangular because I argued for it.

I wasn’t paid for any of this, though I got final product and box credit.

None of this means anything. I don’t get to claim any kind of special status or expertise because of this, but it was the strangest feeling to put that crazy level of work in and then have it come back at me one day in a giant cardboard box, stuffed full of little plastic figures, whose edges I could touch, something manifest and real, with the sure knowledge that things I had said made this bit or that bit happen. I felt so bonded to the silly little plastic things, and to what they represented. Zim sat in my brain day and night, a living, squirming thing, for something like four years.

I have never really gotten over from that initial moment of handling those little figures for the first time out of their boxes and being struck by the thought: this is real now. Years later, they still sit close by my desk, and the never-opened alternates are hung in their clamshell packaging on my home office wall. My name is on the box, as is my good friend’s. So I have a significant amount of emotional baggage connected to Invader Zim, and it’s the weirdest goddamn feeling in the world because I have nowhere to really put it. I have no true claim to it – I didn’t really make a damn thing, I just helped to midwife little bits of it from one plane of manifestation to another – and yet I’m deeply attached to that world and those tiny, bobbleheaded little maniacs that lived in it.

So Zim is a thing that goes to sleep in me for a while and then wakes up again, but never entirely disappears, some strange lurking little worm in the back of my head that I can’t shake out, or a shadow on the x-ray. I care about it almost more than I even want to, but it’s not mine. That’s okay, though. Still proud of what we accomplished. Hell, Steve Ressel, the show’s director, flat out told me in an e-mail the designs were never meant to be made into toys at all, but we did it anyway.

All of this is just to say: I have Feelings about Zim.

So when Zim came back as a comic I was pretty psyched. The staff was back, the comic itself was gorgeous, everything was hunky dory. I enjoyed it for a while, but around… issue 7 or so it just struck me that the story just wasn’t really going anywhere.

Is that a problem? Well, yes and no. No, it’s not really a problem with Zim as much as it is a problem with the current media landscape.

Invader Zim Breaks My Heart

Zim in its original run was a bracing alternative to a lot of pablum and underwatered, undernourished crap in the landscape – it stuck out like a sore thumb with its vibrant colors, exotic designs, emphasis on stylized linework and motion, and was only rivalled by early Futurama in terms of integrating 3D animation and sci-fi elements. At the time there wasn’t a lot around like it.

But then it went to its early grave, and in the decade that followed, Futurama flourished. The Venture Brothers started in 2003. Avatar launched in 2005, with significant input from Zim staffers. Adult Swim shows like Metalocalypse and Moral Orel dominated 2006. Archer, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Legend of Korra – by this point the US animation landscape had mutated dramatically in terms of what could be said and done, what could be written, what kinds of storylines could be presented. Continuity and character development, previously so hard to find it was like nuggets of gold when you had a hint of persistence of memory in Real Ghostbusters back in 1986, were now taken as standard practice. We’re in a period now where long-form storytelling is now the general rule rather than the exception, unless you’re still in the toy shows or aiming at very small children.

Endless restarts and overwhelming nihilism

Because of this, Zim now reads as badly out of date. Its insistence on cold-rebooting after every episode or issue, so that nobody learns anything and nothing ever changes, didn’t mean anything in 1999 – it wasn’t unusual and it wasn’t unexpected. Now, however, it mostly comes off as frustrating. It further frustrates when the comic insists in repeating plot movements that, in broad, were pounded flat into the ground in the initial series run. I guess some people can still find it endlessly funny to endlessly humiliate Dib (mostly Dib) and occasionally (but less often) Zim, but honestly? The joke has gone stale. With the potential scope of the universe being as broad as it is- all of space, all of time, any race, any crazy thing Irken technology can dredge out – we’re still seeing narrow little stories about narrow little encounters, infused with nihilistic pointlessness that now comes off more grating than funny. Zim hasn’t changed context, but the world around it has, and it’s starting to play like a sour, humorless parody of itself, basically.

Now, there is a place for savage and ruthless nihilism, of course. Nobody says everybody has to learn things and get better or change and grow – nobody sane is going to be that prissy. My argument here isn’t anything to do with wanting to see ‘morally uplifting’ or ‘positive! shiny!’ content. No, my point is that it’s just incredibly hard to sympathize with one note characters like Zim and Dib now when the array of other options on the media table are so appealing. For one thing, we have Rick and Morty now, which manages to combine expansive science fiction, nihilism and a universe of pungent, existential despair – all things that could be considered Zim’s base territory – and still come off as fun, exciting, and even heartbreakingly sincere.

Animation today has to compete against really good material – some of the best-written TV animation we’ve seen in decades.  It has to contend with the intense energy of a Gravity Falls, which has kinetic beauty in its animation, a real commitment to character growth and motion, and an almost fanatic attention to detail. Or with the slow burn soap opera drama of a Venture Brothers, where characters move and realign themselves so extensively between seasons they are unrecognizable from their original forms. Or a rebuilt Samurai Jack, which moves in serene, mannered silence punctuated by bursts of exquisitely timed and choreographed violence. Or the unpredictable alien charm of Star Vs. The Forces of Evil.

When you have a sumptuous banquet in front of you, and someone tells you to eat your vegetables first, even though they’re hard, frozen, and cut you, that’s kind of the experience that Invader Zim is currently providing in the marketplace.

I hate to say it, guys, and I only said all that stuff above this to clarify my point that I DO like Zim, and I want so much more for it – but Zim’s just not much fun any more. Engaging with it feels more like getting into a fight with it, wringing a few mean molecules of pleasure out of a trodden on work. It hates itself, it hates its audience, it definitely hates its characters, and it feels like it doesn’t have much left to actually say. There’s no sense of forward momentum in the comics, only static repetitions, variants on a small handful of themes, teeth grinding their own enamel off.

Will having a movie change that? I don’t know. While I’m excited by what I’m convinced will be a visually superior production, I know that the inner problems of the unchanging universe remain. 90 minutes, one story, is definitely not going to resolve anything. By design, it probably can’t.

I wish I could really love Invader Zim again like I used to. It’ll never go away from me. But right now, I wish it was able to get out of biting its own tail and start taking some real risks.

Zim, in so many ways, was ahead of its time. I hate to see it fallen so far behind now.