Invader Zim, one of Nickelodeon’s most bizarre and beloved animated series from the early 2000s, is back with a new Netflix special: Enter the Florpus. The series holds a special place in the cartoon canon as the one of the weirdest, most horrific, and arguably most beloved series of the early millennium. In the years since it was last on the air in 2006, the series’ infamy hasn’t faded.
Nickelodeon brought back series creator Jhonen Vasquez for Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus nearly 20 years after the original cartoon aired on Nickelodeon. After catching up with him last year during San Diego Comic-Con, Polygon picked Vasquez’s brain over email about returning to the series, maintaining its characteristic flavor, and the ironic proliferation of Zim merch across the past decade.
Polygon: Invader Zim is back. How are you feeling as you finally bring the project to a conclusion — and to go back on all those years of teasing?
Jhonen Vasquez: What do you mean “go back”? I swore the Zim movie was just a huge hoax and I stand by it. Just because SOMEONE made a movie to make me look like a liar doesn’t mean I will back down. I just hope people like this movie someone made or that, if they hate it, they hate it so much they die.
You’ve said that Nickelodeon was after you for years to do more Zim. What convinced you to do it, or did something keep you from doing it before now?
My mind was on other matters, really! In the recent years leading up to production on the Zim movie I was elsewhere developing other things that just didn’t fly. Heartbreaking stuff sinking years of your life into something people will never see and then seeing generic stuff churned out in place of what you were trying to do. Those years are just sorta buried with no real proof of your existence.
I hadn’t planned on doing more animated Zim, but Nick’s latest approach just happened to sync up with me wanting to work on something with a greater chance of actually happening. Even then I knew I wouldn’t work on anything until I had an idea that justified the work beyond simply providing something because people wanted it. I had to think it sounded fun.
Nickelodeon has been no stranger to bizarre animated programming over the years, but in the era that Invader Zim aired, I think it’s safe to say that its tone was uniquely creepy, pessimistic, and counterculture. Nickelodeon has said it was canceled in part because of low ratings, so what changed the network’s mind?
Some Eternal Sunshine stuff went down. Mainly I think that Nickelodeon, like most places, isn’t a person so much as a collective with a makeup that changes as people come and go. The Nick I dealt with back during the series isn’t the Nick I dealt with to work on that TMNT short or Enter the Florpus — it was a whole new bunch of people who, in many cases, were people who worked under the people of old, and they maybe just got it a bit more than those people of old. They had time to see what Zim turned into and how it was still creating interest no matter how much time passed.
The tricky thing about returning was making it clear to the new Nick that inviting Zim back meant inviting Zim back, a thing that wasn’t going to be something else, they were still inviting a pulsating garbage bag of filth encrusted rabid weasels into their studio. For the most part everyone understood what they were signing on for.
From what I understand, Nick producer Mary Harrington originally approached you about pitching a show to the network, after she discovered Squee! and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (both books I think I picked up at an indie comic convention and devoured when I was probably too young to be reading them). As a fan of both, I still think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t expect a studio exec to draw a line from JTHM to “let’s give this guy a show for kids.” Were you surprised to be approached by Nickelodeon? Did you have a sense of what it was about your comics that they wanted to bring to TV?
I wasn’t surprised at all. I don’t think from a single place that can’t process stuff coming from other directions. Yeah, I love horror movies and things that come from nightmares, but I love fantasy and adventure and kids shows and musicals and all kinds of things that make up a person that exists beyond a two-dimensional projection of “that guy who draws murdery stuff.”
The chance to make a show for kids also didn’t mean I had to narrow my ideas down to “What do kids like?”, it only meant another opportunity to ask “What do I like?”, and there’s plenty of crossover there.
Invader Zim is a zany cartoon show full of screams and body horror — and it’s also chock full of anti-corporate, anti-conformist, anti-consumption, dare I say … anti-capitalist … themes. And I think it’s safe to say many of those themes are also present in JTHM. You made a kids show where Santa was a scam, corporations were capricious monolithic edifices constructed only for greed, public schools failed their students in every conceivable way, and everyone turned a willful blind eye to Earth’s existential threats. I’m not going to tell you it was an inaccurate depiction, but I would like to hear about why you and the rest of the team integrated those ideas so deeply into the show’s world-building. Do you find an irony in the proliferation of Invader Zim merch given the show’s own sendup of mass media and cultures of consumption?
I’m not sure just how much stuff is out there, really. I’ve always been very disconnected from what gets made and where it gets sold. There’s this whole other universe of what Zim is presented AS versus what it is to me and the people who make it. The show is preoccupied with mindlessness in general, an obliviousness to horror that allows for horror to be normal. I love getting my hands on certain kinds of merch, but I’m more the kind of person who likes having replicas or things that ARE in our world what they are in the world of the show, like having Gaz’s shirt or Dib’s briefcase more so than shorts with drawings of the characters on them. Who wouldn’t love a Bloaty suit of their own?
Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus premieres Aug. 16 on Netflix.