(This is part one of my ‘Commentary Mania!’ on Invader Zim)
My first exposure to Invader Zim was obviously as a child. I was watching Nickoledian and it was one of their shows from the early 2000s. Though it was a short lived show, at least in comparison to some of the same series which were aired around the same time, I and many of my generation– I can still remember talking with other kids about it on the playground– fell in love with it.
Invader Zim follows the story of Zim, a invader from the Irken Armada. He is, or was, before he got banished for destroying half of an Irken planet, an invader whose job is to infiltrate planets and weaken their defenses before the final invasion. Though banished, when he hears of ‘The Great Assigning,’ the period where all invaders are given their target planets to infiltrate, he quits being banished and rushes to planet Convententia, a planet sized convention center.
Once there, Zim is humored by the Irken leaders The Tallest. Despised by them and surprised that Zim is even present, The Tallest devise a scheme to once and for all rid them of Zim. They assign him a planet far off on the edges of the galaxy where he is expected to die either in pursuit of said planet or in the attempt to capture a worthless hunk of rock.
Equipping him with a dysfunctional robotic assistant named ‘GIR,’ Zim heads off to the planet (of course, the planet he is assigned turns out to be Earth). Finally arriving there after a six month journey, he settles down in a suburban neighborhood, disguises himself as a human, GIR as a dog, and quickly engineers a comic house accompanied by robotic parents. In short, Zim is just like any other kid. A normal human “worm-baby.”
Before shows like Rick and Morty, Invader Zim was the best we got when it came to galactic horror. Each episode was choppy yet coherent; by this I mean, each episode often seemed like that it contradicted another episode– how did [so and so] escape from that dimension, how did [this person] regain their mind, how come [this transpired] when in [episode X] that happened? But that was part of the hopelessness that any decent piece of galactic horror should convey. For everything that was shown on screen, something happened off which would take a keen eye to notice when it was referenced in another episodes. Together, it united into a slippy whole which depicted a terrifying universe where advertising, capitalism, and the existential were taken to their horrifying logical conclusions.
Invader Zim served as an early forerunner to much of the abstract humor we know today. Characters were over the top, jokes were comically layered with both profound poetic insights as well as mindbogglingly dry metaphorical allusions. The world was a dark parody of our own existence, with everything taking on a sharp, degenerate hue; ice-cream trucks blaring how ‘you cannot live without ice-cream, your life is pointless without ice-cream!’ and announcers looping advertisements for people to ‘visit the gift shop to buy lost of cheap, pointless stuff.’ People in the world of Zim had the Charlie Brown syndrome where everyone aside from the protagonists seemed a bit… off. Like they weren’t all there mentally and were living with a condition which demanded medication that took them ‘out’ of their daily life.
Invader Zim ultimately suffered from being created at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Being released in the early 2000s, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and rampant Islamophobia combined to create a new McCarthyism. With the Right-wing spreading fears of ‘Islamification” and Jihadist infiltration of government and state posts, and worries over how the Iraq invasion would multiply terrorist attacks, a children’s show about an an alien invader– a foreigner– hellbent on infiltrating and taking over society, all while critiquing that society in the process, was probably too much for many parents; I am sure the darkly postmodern inflections and abstract writing did not help either, for if we can say one thing about Invader Zim, it is that it was the de facto representative of the the crude, ‘on high’ show before they gained headway in the mainstream entertainment channels as spearheaded by Adult Swim.
Indeed, what Invader Zim‘s legacy is is exactly that of a cult classic. Something which could only be bought by ‘Media Blasters’ (“The shows that everyone else forgot”). Moreover, Invader Zim is an artifact. It is a sign indexing a specific moment of children’s media. Coming after Spongesbob Squarepants, it was an odd duck during a time where the most popular shows were light hearted and cleverly written with an eye for Pixar quality plot (I.E., a simple story told in a in-depth manner that managed to do original takes on old ideas by virtue of their esoteric material), Invader Zim took the opposite route and opted for the heavy and convoluted; ideas in Invader Zim were, yes, new takes on preexisting ideas, but done so with recourse to an abstraction that pitted narrative against content: In Zim, you would see no thinly disguised musings on self-worth via-a-vie stinky breath.
Whatever the case may have been, though, Invader Zim and its unique take on children’s media, remains an open secret. Some people may hate it while other love it. But the one thing everyone can agree on is that is did something different at a time where many were opting for allegory written as fantasy. Furthermore, it did so unabashed of the consequences, all the while putting a smile on our faces.
So, with all of that being said, I hope you enjoyed my introduction to the show and will stick around for the numerous upcoming parts, each installment critiquing a certain aspect of an episode. I know I have been looking forward to doing this for some time so as to see what may be found hidden in the kernels of the show. So, let’s give this series one last whirl and hope it takes us on a while ride.