The Dark and Curious Case of ‘Invader Zim’

With a Netflix movie on the horizon, we look back at the short-lived Nickelodeon cartoon which pushed the envelope when it came to acceptable children’s entertainment.
By  · Published on May 29th, 2019

Invader Zim is making its way back to our screens soon as a Netflix movie. That’s great news. However, it’s still weird to think that the original Nickelodeon series was greenlit in the first place. The short-lived cartoon, which originally ran from 2001 to 2002, remains one of the darkest shows to ever air on a network geared at kids. Of course, that’s what makes Invader Zim one of the greatest cartoons to ever grace the small screen.

Invader Zim was conceived during an interesting time for Nickelodeon. In the early 2000s, the network was hunting for a fresh series that would attract an older demographic — the kids who had outgrown shows like Rugrats, basically. This led to indie comics creator Jhonen Vasquez being invited to the office to pitch an idea for a series. Vasquez threw the idea for Invader Zim at them right away, and the rest is history.

But what made this show so dark and weird for Nickelodeon’s desired demographic?

For a start, unlike the majority of children’s cartoons, Invader Zim revolves a villainous protagonist. The story follows the titular evil extraterrestrial and his robot sidekick as they infiltrate an Earth elementary school and try to take over the world. Unfortunately for the authoritarian alien, though, he’s completely inept at his job. It also doesn’t help that Zim’s classmate Dib, a paranormal investigator, wants to get rid of the alien invader.

An alien trying to enslave humanity isn’t the most child-friendly concept for a show. However, before the network came calling, Vasquez wasn’t exactly known for creating children’s entertainment. Before launching Invader Zim, he wrote psychological horror stories like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and its spinoff, Squee!. Without going into spoiler territory, just know that these comics live up to their gruesome titles and contain some bizarre, pitch-black humor.

That said, Vasquez didn’t abandon his penchant for horror, weirdness, and dark comedy for the sake of younger audiences. He merely toned it down. Invader Zim contains a surreal, nihilistic streak that really pushed the envelope for what was considered acceptable children’s television back then. For example, the feud between Dib and Zim wasn’t exactly based on playground bickering; the human child really wanted to kill his nemesis.

Some of the episodes explored horrific ideas, too. In “Dark Harvest” episode, Zim steals children’s organs because he wants them for his own body. This episode was especially controversial as murderer Scott Dyleski, who was tried and convicted for killing his neighbor in 2005, allegedly claimed it made him want to collect body parts. While this atrocity happened after the series ended, kids’ shows are rarely ever cited as inspirations for real-life murders. Stories like this only add to the show’s controversial legacy.

The shocking moments didn’t end there, either. In the episode “Bestest Friend,” Zim rips out a child’s eyeballs and replaces them with artificial ones. Furthermore, in this episode, Zim also makes the school’s social outcasts audition to be his friend because he wants to use one of them as a commodity. That’s hardly a positive message to send to impressionable kids who are still learning how to be kind to their peers.

Still, Invader Zim is rife with bleak messages, and that’s what makes the satire so compelling. In this world, life is a cruel mistress, and the world is a horrible place. The best example of this negative outlook appears in “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom” when Dib finds himself experiencing horrifying visions. When he informs his teacher of these terrifying hallucinations, she informs him that life is a nightmare and tells him to sit down. Deal with it, Dib. We all suffer.

Elsewhere in the series, we’re introduced to a female invader from Zim’s home planet who must prove herself worthy to their leaders, despite being more competent than Zim. Even though Zim is essentially a failure, he still gets treated with more respect than a woman who’s more fit for the job. If the show was trying to say anything here, it’s that men fail upward while women are forced to fight and scrape for every opportunity. You only need to look at the state of Hollywood to understand how this isn’t a far-fetched theory.

Invader Zim spoke some cold, hard truths about life. However, despite being critically acclaimed and a winner of several prestigious awards (including an Emmy), a long run wasn’t to be. According to the voice of Zim himself, Richard Horvitz, a couple of unfortunate factors led to the show’s cancellation after two seasons.

“Our ratings never really got off the ground. One other thing that people often forget, is that the show premiered in March of 2001. By September of 2001, we had the horrible downing of the twin towers. Given the mood of the country at the time, I don’t think people wanted to see shows that were about any kind of destruction or anything that had to do with someone trying to conquer the Earth.”

Following Invader Zim’s cancellation, merchandise sales have remained profitable. During the 2000s, Hot Topic kept Zim’s name and dark sensibilities in fashion, which led to the franchise being further explored in comic book form. As such, more people have discovered the show and its cult has expanded throughout the years. That’s quite an impressive legacy for a weird Nickelodeon cartoon with a depressing worldview that no one watched when it counted.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.