In 2001, Nickelodeon added a curious science-fiction series, Jhonen Vasquez’s Invader Zim, to its cartoon line-up. Fans of its creator were more than a little surprised. See, comic book writer and illustrator Vasquez had up until then been best known for his wildly violent and deeply dark comedy comic Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, which focused mainly on graphic murder and its anti-hero’s anti-social behavior and total mental collapse. So what would a kids’ cartoon from Vasquez even look like? As it turns out, the silliest and strangest thing to ever hit the family-friendly network.
Invader Zim was a two-hander series that not only followed the titular alien driven by a thirst for world domination, but also the Dib, the misfit grade-schooler dedicated to thwarting his invasion. Whether facing off at their spooky “Skool,” the quirky streets of suburbia, or the occasional space-set adventure, these two funny foes were endlessly entertaining, and always a perfect match when it came to ineptitude.
Before Invader Zim returns with a 90-minute movie by creator Jhonen Vasquez ( more info here), we celebrate its quintessential episodes, the ones that relished in weird, pushed boundaries, and dared to be unapologetically stupid.
“The Nightmare Begins”
Irken invaders are preparing for Operation: Impending Doom II, when the banished Zim–who singlehandedly ruined Operation: Impending Doom I–gatecrashes, demanding a chance at redemption. To keep him far from their plans of galactic domination, the Almighty Tallest send this oblivious underachiever to a far-flung and forgotten planet called Earth. There, this alone invader and his junk-based robot sidekick GIR (what does the G stand for?) attempt to blend in, donning ludicrously bad disguises that nonetheless fool most of Zim’s classmates, save for one. Son of a mad scientist, Dib believes in aliens and ghosts and that Bigfoot once borrowed his belt sander. But no one ever believes him. So even though Zim causes mayhem and clearly has no ears (no ears!), it’s on Dib alone to expose this nefarious extraterrestrial and stop an invasion of the Irken Armada.
The two-parter lays down a lot of groundwork, establishing not only Zim and Dib, but also the weird sense of humor Vasquez gleefully brought to this Nickelodeon series. Whether its Zim’s referring to his human alter ego as a “perfectly normal human worm baby,” the hissing homeroom teacher Ms. Bitters calling the new student a “hopeless appendage of the student body,” or an ice cream van that pronounces from its intercom the all-too-true adage, “Your existence is meaningless without ice cream,” this premiere promised audiences a dedicatedly dark and bizarre cartoon series unlike any they’d ever seen before.
Undercover as a “normal” kid, Zim is subjected to the all-too-human indignities of a grade schooler. To prep his robotic “parent decoys” for the mandatory Skool event, Zim plugs them into a tutorial program on proper parenting. But when a TV-obsessed GIR overrides the system to watch his favorite TV commercials (“I love this show!”), the results skew less sentimental and more schizophrenic.
First off, pompadour plus overalls plus tutu equals style goals. But more impressively, this early episode doubled as a scathing satire of both parenting tropes (like the smothering mom and the distant dad) and the asinine behaviors casually displayed in TV commercials. (“I’ve got diarrhea!”) It also taught us that yelling about your ailing spine is the best way to get out of an awkward social situation.
Convinced he must seem human inside and out, Zim stalks his classmates to harvest their defenseless child organs, replacing these bits with odds and ends like an exploding hall pass, a mewling kitten, and a full-sized radiator. Because “more organs means more human,” Zim snatches multiple hearts, spleens and intestines, leaving the cafeteria awash with wailing children. Half-way through this sprint of an episode, it goes full on Alien-styled horror with Zim skittering through the Skool’s air ducts, a harrowing chase scene with falling ceiling tiles, and Dib trying desperately to protect the fully organed Torque Smackey, to no avail. (TORQUE SMACKEY!)
This has to be Invader Zim’s most twisted episode. It might even be the most bizarre 12-minutes of children’s television ever made. Not only did it go full-on nightmare fuel by minute eight, but also Dib stumbled into a storage room that hid barrels of toxic waste, jars upon jars of morbid anatomy, and a child’s skeleton. With its Skool secrets and helpless child victims, this ep played like Tales For The Crypt for tweens. It may have scarred us for life and left us eyeballing our own schools’ janitorial closets with suspicion, but it was exactly this brand of brazen WTF-ery that stunned fans and kept them coming back for more.
“Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy”
In some of its best episodes, Invader Zim actually dug deep into science-fiction tropes. After Professor Membrane (Invader Zim’s answer to Bill Nye) lectures his TV audience about the dangers of messing with the space-time continuum, moron Zim opts to do exactly that. The plan is to send a giant destructive robot back in time to annihilate Dib. But when that fails, Zim settles on chucking rubber piggy toys into Dib’s timeline, each one more damaging than the last. Naturally there’s a tipping point that turns the tables, with the force of gigantic, laser-quipped cyborg arms.
This is peak Invader Zim stupidity, and it’s a thing of brilliance. The first scenes deftly address the paradoxes of time travel, and then the episode happily pitches them aside to tell an insane tale of revenge and pink piggies. Colliding the sublimely silly with the cerebral, Invader Zim played as seminal precursor to subversive sci-fi shows like Rick and Morty.
To prove himself to the Almighty Tallest, Zim travels to the bootcamp planet Hobo 13. There, a drill sergeant (voiced by Full Metal Jacket‘s R. Lee Ermey) pushes a pack of misfits and scoundrels to work together to make it through the obstacle course that includes the Molten Pit of Hideous Screaming Pain, the Stinking Canyon of a ravenous hog-beast, and the Fortress of Pain. With much screaming and bullying, Zim survives every challenge by figuratively and literally walking all over his squad.
One of the rare opportunities to see Zim outside of Earth, this adventure also spoofs war movies by having our alien anti-hero make the least noble move imaginable at every opportunity. To top off its shenanigans, this ep offers one of the series’ many throwaway endings: a defining moment that’ll be stricken from canon in the next episode, much like when Zim and Dib devolve into sentient sausages in”Bolognius Maximus.” In this instance, Zim is rewarded with a new spaceship, auto-piloted by the Almighty Tallest to fly this paranormal pest straight into the sun.
“GIR Goes Crazy and Stuff”
Much of GIR’s screen time in this wacky series is spent squealing about television or guzzling junk food. Fed up with his minion’s “behavior glitches,” Zim applies a personality modifier to transform his buddy bot into a battle bot. But the modification turns GIR into an AI so hellbent on world domination that he realizes the greatest obstacle to Irken invasion is Zim himself. (“Stupidity is the enemy! Zim is the enemy!”)
Cute but quirky, GIR was an easy fan favorite. But Vasquez always chaffed at the character’s heralded adorability and was quick to point out that GIR is amoral. “He’d eat a baby!” the creator claimed in one of the ep’s commentary tracks. This episode focused on that unhinged angle of the cuddly kilbot’s personality, reminding audiences that even the cute can be deranged.
Nonetheless, “I require access to all human knowledge” is the only proper way to announce your entry at a public library.
“Dib’s Wonderful Life of Doom”
Things finally seemed to have turned around for Dib. After a pair of mysterious aliens–who look like shoes–grant him superpowers, he’s able to talk Zim into leaving the planet, to prove the existence of ghosts and sea monters, and to become a world-renowned paranormal investigator who single-handedly saves the earth from alien invasion. But no one on Invader Zim gets wins this big. In a final hysterical twist, it’s revealed that Dib’s whole lifetime of successes was an elaborate virtual reality created by Zim to get the big-headed boy to confess that he’d been the one who chucked a muffin at the undercover alien’s head in the Skool cafeteria the day before.
Amid the big stakes of this cartoon centered on world domination, it’s the petty grievances that often prove the most hilarious. When Dib gets his comeuppance of a crumbly muffin between the eyes, you can’t help but cackle.
“Tak: The Hideous New Girl”
On Valentine’s Day, a mysterious new girl arrives. She is quick to shower her classmates in the traditional sausages, and Zim in unwanted attention. After some flirtations and much violence, it’s revealed Tak is actually an Irken who Zim crossed 50 years before, robbing her of an invader assignment. So she’s come for Zim’s! As she’s far more effective than Zim, the flailing alien must team up with a dubious Dib and a reluctant-to-dance Gaz to stop Tak from turning the Earth into a lifeless, snack-stuffed piñata planet. After all, this is Zim’s world to conquer.
The first half pokes fun at the romantic comedy convention of two people who loathe each other romancing nonetheless. Except here, the exchanges of glances turns not to love and marriage, but to skin-singeing BBQ sauce blasts and a showdown over the future of Earth. Better still, with an Irken to battle, this season one finale offered a bevy of thrilling action, from a vicious prank montage, to a dizzying spaceship chase, and lava cannons!
When Dib inadvertently uploads his conscientiousness to Tak’s crashed spaceship, he gives the Irken vessel an identity crisis that briefly pitches it into Zim’s control. Lucky for Dib, the ship recognizes their shared identity before it hurls the boy investigator into the sewage treatment plant’s repellent tanks. But realizing he’s a “loser,” the ship decides it’d rather erase its programming and effectively die rather than go on living as Dib.
There’s some lovely lunacy in the transformation scene where the Irken ship morphs to better resemble Dib. But the real treat is the ship’s final moments, recounting the litany of petty indignities and mundane embarrassments Dib has suffered, all while a still captive human Dib is forced to listen, still held aloft over the sickening and stanky sewage. This episode’s dark humor is the perfect salve to a really rough day, because at least you’re not Dib, right?
“The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever”
In this two-part series finale, Zim comes closer than ever before at dominating Earth. And naturally, he does it by masquerading as the world-adored Santa. But when his robot Santa suit becomes overwhelmed by the Christmas spirit, Zim becomes trapped inside an AI that thinks it really is Santa. The catch: Everyone else thinks he’s the real Santa too. So when Dib saves the day by launching the rampaging Santa bot–but not Zim!–into “the cold void of space,” he’s mercilessly pummeled by a Christmas-loving mob.
With robot elves, a candy-cane tentacled Santa bot, and a musical number about doom and submission to Santa, this holiday special was among the series’ most imaginative and insane. And it was a perfectly weird way for this superbly strange show to draw to a close.
What are some of your favorite episodes of Invader Zim? Let us know!