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‘Invader Zim’ #1 is a triumphant return for the cult cartoon

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Invader Zim #1
Written by Jhonen Vasquez
Art by Aaron Alexovich and Megan Lawton
Colors by Simon “Hutt” Trousselier
Published by Oni Press

In case you didn’t know, Invader Zim is back in comic form and this reviewer and longtime Zim fan has been counting down the days to finally getting what we’ve wanted—new content. It’s been fourteen years since the tragically mis-scheduled cartoon about a little alien named Zim first aired on Nickelodeon. If you’ve never seen the series, don’t worry; there’s a two-page introduction that will tell you all that you need to know in order understand the comic. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t missing out by forgoing the show! Since this is the first issue, allow me to indulge in a bit of history.

In the late 90s, Nickelodeon wanted to attract the kind of audience that Cartoon Network had been drawing in with program blocks, like Toonami. They wanted to bring in the edgier, teen crowd that they had lost when shows that appealed to the older crowd like Ren & Stimpy and The Adventures of Pete & Pete had run their course. Producer Mary Harrington (whose very interesting body of work can be found here) took an interest in alternative comic creator  Jhonen Vasquez after reading Squee!, a spin-off comic about a miserable little boy. He would then pitch his idea about an incompetent member of an imperialist alien race sent to earth by his leaders who wanted to get rid of him. Vasquez, who was then most well-known for his murder-heavy and later, existentialist philosophy-heavy (but still murder-heavy) comic, Johnny the Homicidal Manic, would develop a series that was entirely different from anything on Nick’s current lineup. The pilot was greenlit in 1999, and the first episode aired in 2001. He built a strong, different creative team that would include fellow alternative comics creators, Roman Dirge and Rosearik Rikki Simons. All twenty episodes of the first season aired during the original run and six episodes of the second season had been completed when the series was canceled. The six second season episodes were not aired until 2006, on the Nicktoons network.

During its original run, Invader Zim won an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Storyboarding in an Animated Television Production for the first episode, “The Nightmare Begins” and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation for storyboarding on the same episode. In addition to the awards, it received seven Annie Award nominations and one Golden Reel Award nomination. In 2004 and 2005 the now-defunct Palisades Toys released two series and several Hot Topic exclusives of high quality toys. Fans who realized that Zim wouldn’t be coming back produced fan-made episodes using the scripts of unmade episodes. 2004 also saw the release of the DVD box sets, which would include not only the un-aired second season episodes, but also an audio commentary track for nearly every episode (for anybody who cares, my favorite audio commentary track is for Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom), alternate audio commentary, Irken subtitles, and storyboard art for several episodes that showed ideas that didn’t make it to the final stage of production. The VHS tapes that I had used to record every episode of Zim after I learned of its cancellation were now obsolete. InvaderCon, an entire convention dedicated to the series, started up in 2011, and Hot Topic never stopped selling officially licensed merchandise. So, why did this series have its production terminated, if it’s attracted so much critical acclaim and cult status popularity? Ratings.

Although Nickelodeon wanted to appeal to an older audience, they had failed to produce other series that could have been used to make their very own block to rival Toonami. Invader Zim found itself sammich’d between The Fairly Oddparents and Rocket Power. When the ratings the network demanded were unmet, the show was subjected to erratic timeslot scheduling, leading to the steady fall of its already low ratings. The series was not drawing in enough ratings to make up for how expensive it was to produce—and it was an entirely different production from other Nickelodeon series, incorporating cel-shading CGI into its highly detailed environment.

But the fandom persisted, which leads to the present day and the release of Invader Zim #1, published by Oni Press! Hooray! The comic takes place not too long after the show’s cancellation. Zim has been missing for “what feels like years.” In his absence, Dib, Zim’s persistent nemesis, has been monitoring the entire town from his room via strategically placed cameras and he hasn’t moved. At all. Without spoiling anything, Zim makes his return and has hatched a new evil plan to destroy humanity. Don’t ever change, Zim.

Jhonen Vasquez is the writer for the first issue and the second issue is a collaboration between him and Eric Trueheart, who had worked as a writer on the cartoon. Vasquez says that while he has  more ideas that he would like to write for the comic, after the first two issues, he’ll be taking on less work by reviewing scripts. The comic will be emulating the episodic nature of the cartoon rather than venturing into serial territory. Two other members of the Zim cartoon’s creative team have returned to work on this project: Aaron Alexovich and Rikki Simons and there’s little doubt in my mind that this strengthens the comic’s potential.

The stylized art of the show has transitioned to print so wonderfully that I could easily visualize the characters in motion right down to how their mouths would look while forming words, the bursts of color used to punctuate heightened emotion, and the finer details like the tongues flailing in screaming mouths, the gritting of a frustrated Gaz’s teeth, and twitching eyes. Alexovich and Lawton’s work on the art made me feel like I was reading screencaps of a lost episode whose script I hadn’t read. Gaz is the only character so far with an updated design, but as Vasquez described, her body had been a recycled one from a character in Squee! I agree with him in his elaboration that her new design is a better reflection of Dib’s scary, videogame-loving sister. There’s nothing about the paneling that I disliked; industrial touches brought the stylization of the cartoon to something uniquely comic book in nature and I never found confused about which panel to look at next.

Instead of my own consciousness poorly acting out character dialogue in a voice that’s obviously mine, each written line was vividly imagined using character voices I haven’t heard speak new dialogue in years.  I really believe that if this first issue is any indication of the quality I can expect from the series, then I’ll be continuing to buy this series. Nostalgia can get me to buy a first issue, but only what I feel is going a legitimately great comic will get me to buy the next issue.


Everyone is DOOMED in ‘Invader Zim’ #1

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