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Happy 10th Anniversary — Now Bow Down Before Zim!

posted Jul 30, 2012, 1:05 PM by Douglas Sun   [ updated Aug 1, 2012, 11:39 AM ]
Originally posted: April 2, 2011

One of the consequences of declaring in my Facebook profile that devotion to “Invader Zim” is a guiding principle of my life is that wandering through Facebook links last week led me to the page for Invader Con, which took place in Atlanta last weekend. I had heard about Invader Con last year, through flyers distributed at GenCon and NeonCon. Apparently, the idea was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Zim”’s debut on Nickelodeon, and the organizers, Green Mustard Entertainment, had rounded up voice cast members Richard Horvitz (Zim), Andy Berman (Dib), Melissa Fahn (Gaz) and Rikki Simons (Gir, Mini-Moose) and writer Eric Truehart for the purpose. I thought briefly about attending in spite of my already overbooked convention schedule, but ultimately set it aside and had largely forgotten about it. But, spurred on by comments left by the true, hardcore faithful, I decided to make up for my absence by setting aside Wednesday evening — the actual anniversary date of the premiere is March 30 — for enjoying the Doom-laden company of my complete “Zim” DVD set.

I won’t attempt any grand summation of why “Invader Zim” is one of the landmark achievements of American TV animation. I probably can’t add much that hasn’t already been said or written about the show and why it continues to maintain such a strong fan base even eight years after it was cancelled. But I will share a few reflections that come at the subject tangentially.

The comments left on the main “Invader Zim” fan page on Facebook fall into two basic categories: quotations from the show, and strident pleas for Nickelodeon to revive the show. I left my own contribution to the former, but as regards the latter, I’m not entirely sure that I agree.

It’s natural for people to want more of what brings them pleasure, and the periodical nature of series television lulls you into taking that pleasure for granted. But a spark of genius exists only within a moment, and it’s not always possible to generate the exact same spark in the exact same way over and over again. I recall that one of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe — I think it was John Cleese — was asked about the group re-uniting for more than the occasional concert performance, and he discounted it by saying that Python belonged to a certain phase of their lives, and now that that time had passed for all of them, it would be impossible to recreate the old chemistry. And this was before Graham Chapman’s death, when such a thing was still thinkable. To my mind, there is no guarantee that, even if Jhonen Vasquez could reunite the key people in the “Zim” creative team — the voice cast, the writers, the artists he most trusted — that new episodes would stand the burden of living up to the first two seasons. I hear that there is a movement underway to complete one of the episodes for which the voice tracks were recorded, and I’d love to see that. But producing whole new episodes after eight years? Even if it was practical, I’d regard it with trepidation.

The folks at Cartoon Network these days tend to limit even their best series to three seasons, feeling that that’s about as far as most creative teams can go without losing steam. And indeed, you see even ingenious series like “Ed, Edd and Eddy” and “Chowder” getting self-referential — decadent in the most literal sense of the term — before that point. Personally, I feel better about re-watching the two, near-perfect seasons of Zimmy goodness that we do have than I would about bringing the show back only to push it beyond its limit of optimal return.

One even senses some hostility toward Nickelodeon in some of the fan pleas, as if the network was being mean or ignorant in withholding the greatness of “Zim” from its adoring fans. I take a more nuanced view. “Invader Zim” was never a good fit for Nick, and I’m still amazed that they took it on at all. Its history with “Ren and Stimpy” notwithstanding, Nickelodeon at the time was staking its brand to more wholesome fare, like “Rugrats,” and “Spongebob Squarepants.” In the DVD commentary tracks, Vasquez mentions that their episode “Dark Harvest” (the one in which Zim steals organs from his classmates to make himself appear human for a nurse’s checkup) was met with stunned silence as part of a screening for Nick employees that also included “Oswald” and “Dora the Explorer.” It seems to me miraculous that the show lasted even two seasons. In fact, Nickelodeon seems to have thought so little of the value of the “Zim” franchise that Media Blasters held the DVD publishing rights for a while — and if you’ve ever seen Media Blasters’ catalogue, it’s impossible to believe that they paid much for those rights. On my copy of the DVD set, it’s the Anime Works splash screen that you see, not Nickelodeon’s.

In fairness to Nick, the “Zim” fan base appears to be deeper than it is broad, and it’s often difficult to know what to do in such cases. What “Zim” fans there are are crazy into it, almost as if under the spell of Pustulio, Zim’s hypnotic pimple from “The Rise of Zitboy.” It’s almost like, if you were to strip away the Star Wars fan base until you were left with the just the people who list “Jedi” as their religious affiliation — that’s the “Invader Zim” fan base. That’s your quandary: You know that the people who have that scary glint in the eye who tell you to, “Obey the fist!” and bring back “Invader Zim” will watch, but are there enough of them out there to make it worthwhile? You know the franchise is too valuable to give up — you saw that when Media Blasters sold all those DVD sets — but is it worth it to make a whole-hog investment in it at this point and produce new episodes, fit them into your schedule and possibly have to re-orient your brand?

I wonder if part of the reason that “Invader Zim” remains a cult taste is the fact that it is very much a writer’s series. The visuals are striking and original, and the voice acting is first-rate, true enough. But creating Zim-speak requires an exquisitely fine feeling for the sound and sense of the English language. Writing such idiosyncratic dialogue for all of the characters in the show — Zim in particular, but not only him — required writers who knew just how hard they could knead and stretch the English language without utterly destroying its cohesion. Just as writers like Michael Maltese and Warren Foster were the unsung heroes of so many classic Warner Brothers cartoons, “Invader Zim” would lack much of its distinctive loopiness without the contributions of writers like Rob Hummel and Eric Truehart — in the DVD commentary track for “A Room With a Moose,” Vasquez credits Hummel with one of my very favorite Zim lines, “Prepare your bladder for imminent release!” But I also suspect that limits “Zim”’s appeal to an audience that truly appreciates such bending, folding and spindling of English.

For fans who are truly downcast that there will likely be no new “Zim” content forthcoming, I would point you to the extensive commentary tracks that are part of the DVD boxed set as at least some consolation. There are tracks for most of the episodes, and a couple of episodes even have two different tracks, just because Jhonen Vasquez wanted to give composer Kevin Manthei a chance to talk about his background music. The commentary encompasses a broad range of people involved with show, including the all of the principal voice cast, several of the writers, and representatives of the art and production staff, with Vasquez acting as host and ringmaster throughout. With such a large reunion, it was inevitable that the commentaries would fill up with interesting tales from behind the scenes and other anecdotes, like Writer/Script Coordinator Danielle Koenig relating that Harlan Ellison was such a fan of the show that he told her that she was now, in his estimation, the coolest member of her family — which is significant because her father is Walter Koenig, of “Star Trek” TOS fame.

More keenly than anything else, one senses on the commentary tracks Vasquez’s sheer enthusiasm for the entire project — not just his own work, but the work of others. It comes filtered through his curdled, slightly sadistic sense of humor, but it’s palpably there. He may take great pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation on his characters, but he is always quick to give praise and credit to others, down to the bit voice actors who probably spent no more than a day or two in the studio, and everyone’s glee at gathering around a monitor and watching their own work seems to flow directly from him. It’s whole new way of savoring “Invader Zim.”

If that isn’t enough to keep you happy, well... I don’t know what to say. Except perhaps that it’s worth keeping an eye on the Invader Con website, because they’ll eventually post more pictures from the convention.

And, in the meantime, videos of Richard Horvitz, Andy Berman, Melissa Fahn, Rikki Simons and Eric Truehart doing table readings of two unproduced “Zim” scripts are already up on YouTube.

There’s “Mopiness of Doom,” written by Danielle Koenig:

And “Day of Da Spookies,” written by Vasquez himself:

If you can get past the hideous interruptive fangirl worm-baby squealing, you won’t want to miss them.