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Invader Zim creator on keeping his absurdist humor grounded

Illustration for article titled Invader Zim creator on keeping his absurdist humor grounded

Following a 13-year absence, the unhinged science-fiction universe of Invader Zim is returning in comic book form. Published by Oni Press, the comic debuted on July 8, featuring many of the writers and artists who worked on the original Zim animated series. Among those returning is series creator Jhonen Vasquez, who will be writing the first two issues of the comic (the first as a solo endeavor, and the second in collaboration with Zim veteran Eric Trueheart) and overseeing the production of the remaining issues. On the occasion of Invader Zim’s return, The A.V. Club spoke to Vasquez about what revisiting his old characters is like, what’s changed (and remained the same) since the show’s original run, and how he maintains a coherent comedic voice when creating a fictional world that seems to be governed by complete insanity.

The A.V. Club: Has anything changed between the Jhonen Vasquez-comedy brain of the original Invader Zim and the Jhonen Vasquez-comedy brain of today? Your writing style? Your comedy style?

Jhonen Vasquez: I still find the things that I found funny back then funny. I just think… God, how long ago was that?


AVC: It’s been about 13 years since the end of the show’s original run.

JV: I hope I’ve changed. That would be horrible. It would be really terrible if I looked back at my work and found that I hadn’t gotten better in some way. That’s some of the most fun stuff to do is look back and just kind of, you know… it’s encouraging to look back and feel like what you did back then is kind of terrible. [Laughs.] Not in a bad way, but in a way where you’re like, “I think I’m better now.” I think everyone—hopefully—goes through that, where their older work is something that they think they could do much better now. But, you know, it’s not like we’re going back and trying to revive the show and make it something that it wasn’t. There’s a reason people liked it in the first place. I think I’m more attracted to different ways of telling a story now.

AVC: What would you say some of those are?

JV: [Laughs.] Actually telling a story instead of stringing together a bunch of madness. Like, Zim was just insane, you know? It was just a lot of all these things that we thought were funny, but weren’t necessarily in service of telling a cohesive story. It was just a lot of stuff strung together onto this sort of skeleton of a narrative. Every now and then, I think toward the end of the series, there were things that popped up and embodied the best of everything. There’s an episode we did called “Backseat Drivers [From Beyond The Stars],” and I always pointed out it was my favorite episode. Everything that’s crazy—all the screaming, all the jokes, everything—is hanging on. It never lets the story go, which wasn’t always the case in the series. “Backseat Drivers [From Beyond The Stars]” is a 22-minute episode that just keeps building and building and building. Whenever people ask who haven’t seen the series, if I’m going to do an interview or whatever, I have them watch that one. Because that one to me is… it almost looks like we know what we’re doing. It has a more sophisticated feel to it, even though it’s a sophisticated way of doing really stupid shit. I think that’s the mark we always try to hit, and we still try to hit. It’s doing really dumb stuff, but in a smart way, hopefully smart enough so that people who get it realize that it’s not just dumb, it’s being put together by people who know why this is dumb.

It’s always been my favorite stuff from when I was a kid. It’s always attracted me. There was some part of my brain, even as a kid, that knew these are grownups whose lives are dedicated to making stuff I love. These are the grownups who are doing really silly things, which to me was very inspiring. Like, “Oh, you can be that kind of person.” You don’t have to grow up and be a quote “serious adult.” Like [The] Hitchhiker’s Guide [To The Galaxy], Red Dwarf, all that stuff—a lot of British comedy and science fiction. It crosses science fiction elements with absurdity. But they were very aware—the people making this stuff—of why it was absurd, as opposed to, “Here’s just a bunch of crazy shit, and it’s funny because it’s crazy,” which is not as attractive.


I was what… 20? 22 when I started working on Zim? So, my ability to actually capture that… I knew what I wanted to do, but my ability to actually convey it probably wasn’t as developed as hopefully it is now. So, if anything has changed, hopefully that, because it’s still the kind of thing that I love to do, but I’m glad I’m not just some 22-year-old idiot. I think all of us that are working on the comic are a lot better at it now.

AVC: Is the writing process going to be a collective project where you’re all going to meet and decide what the story is and what the world is going to look like, or will it be a more disjointed process where each issue’s individual writer is in sole control of what happens to the Zim universe and its characters?


JV: It’s a little bit of both, depending on when we’re working. The first two issues I knew were just going to be me. So, there really wasn’t too much of a need to meet with a bunch of other people. I did meet with one of the other writers, Eric Trueheart, who was a writer on the old series, just to kind of talk jokes and story points. It’s worse than trying to figure out how it’s working out. It’s really strange for me because, [for] the first two issues, I knew where they were going to go. It felt very natural for me to just kind of jump in and write a story. It’s one big story, the first two issues.

After that, there’s no real continuing storyline, maybe callbacks to previous ideas or stories. It’s episodic. In those cases, in the ones that I’m not writing, Eric threw a couple of ideas my way. I picked the one that I thought would work the best, and then we worked together on an outline, and he goes off and writes the script, sends it my way, and I look it over. I do a little bit of a polish to get the voices right. I can always tell when it sounds like my characters and when it doesn’t. Sometimes, I just have to let it go because I don’t want to be completely re-doing someone’s work, but there are certain things that stand out to me as not in the voice of the characters.


We’re only three issues in right now. So I’m sure things will get smoothed out, but I’m not sure how long the core team is going to be doing everything together. I know Aaron Alexovich, who’s doing all the artwork, he’s only up until issue five, and then we lose him, and [then] we’re going to have to find someone else. I don’t know how involved I’m going to be at that point, but the first five issues are going to be, I think, the core team working together. After that, I don’t know—I think I’ll just be overseeing scripts, but not nearly as involved as I am right now, just because I kind of just wanted to get the series started, and hopefully get it to the point of being something we’re all happy with. I’m pretty busy with stuff that was going on even before the comic popped up. The majority of my time goes to my regular work. I’m doing some animation work.

The writing process is still a thing that we’re figuring out. I don’t know where it’s going to go in terms of who is going to be writing stuff once Eric is gone, or once I’m no longer as hands on.


AVC: To that effect, toward the latter episodes of Zim, you guys seemed to be doing a lot of building out the world at a more accelerated pace than you had been in the earlier episodes. When something like that happens, when a new element of this universe is introduced, is that also something that has to go through you the way that a character’s voice has to go through you? Or is it something that can be left up to the writer?

JV: With Eric, he’s used to working with me. He worked on the series. There hasn’t really been a situation where there’s been a writer who has been untested, not since the old days of getting the original team together. There hasn’t been an issue. I think most of that stuff, as it stands right now, does have to go through me. The universe, the characters, the way that they behave with one another, is very specific. Like I said before, I can tell, “That’s not Zim. That’s not Gir. That’s not Gaz.” I read something in a script, even an exclamation—you know, someone’s version of a happy exclamation can go wrong. It can sound right or wrong to me. I’m so close to this universe that I can’t help but say, “I’ve got to change this,” or, “I have to make it sound right.” Like I said, Eric will turn in a script, and there are sections where I’m like, “This doesn’t sound right. Gir shouldn’t be going this. It’s just weird.” I’m kind of curious about when I’m not hawking the project as much, you know, so eyes-on. I really am curious as to where it’s going to go. I’d love to see where people take it. It’s going to take me not being so close to it for it to become something else. Whether that’s good or bad, at least it’ll be interesting.


I’m dealing with that right now with this other animated series I’m working on. It’s been a while since I’ve needed to find new writers. It’s one of the most difficult things for me; it’s exciting, but it’s also uncomfortable. It’s like having someone come in and speak for you in your voice. Hopefully bringing in a voice that adds to what you do. I know how I write, and I know how my characters speak. To have someone come in and have it not feel like an impersonation is the key. That’s been tricky. We’re doing that right now. We’re looking for writers. It’s a bizarre process.

AVC: Was there a particular character that you were excited to get back to?

JV: Oh yeah. [Laughs.] You know what? I think that’s kind of like your previous question, “What’s different about me now, versus the version of me that was writing stuff back then?” I have a lot more fun writing now. I think now I just like writing the characters. There’s a certain element of, especially with the Zim stuff, kind of going, “Okay, I’m not going to completely re-do these characters,” because they are who they are. People like them for a reason. But there’s no reason that I can’t write them better and focus their personalities a bit more so they’re not all just different character designs for the same personality—just an angry, screaming avatar.


But if I had to pick someone that I like writing for more than the others, it’s probably Gaz. I think she got the least love in the series. She just kind of had a role to play. There really wasn’t much room for her to be more of a person. Not to say that the characters in Zim are fully fleshed, believable people. They have to be what they are, and they’re still really silly and very focused in terms of why they do what they do. I’ve done about four issues where I’ve thrown Gaz in. With Eric, that’s probably been by biggest contribution to the third issue. The one that I didn’t write, I re-wrote a lot of Gaz’s interactions. Of all the characters now, I think in Zim, she’s the one I would actually want to spend time with, as opposed to Zim and Dib who are just kind of jokes to one another. They’re just awful, competitive, and that’s not all that fun to be around. Gaz, her whole thing is just being irritated at how awful Zim and Dib are. That’s probably the most relatable thing.

AVC: You mentioned before that you feel like some of the earlier episodes of Zim have elements of untethered lunacy just for the sake of it, and that as the series went on, you tried to tell more jokes that served the story and building the world. Do you have a litmus test for when you’re writing the sort of absurdist comedy that appear in Zim to help you determine which jokes might be using “randomness” as a kind of crutch, and which are truly solid, funny jokes?


JV: I would say that back on the series, the litmus test was much more general. A lot of stuff got through that I look at it now, and I’m just like, “Uh… [Laughs.] I don’t think I would have let that through now.” I’m very aware of it on the comic. There’s no denying that Zim has been pinned with the whole “random humor” label. For me, it’s never been, “Hey, let’s throw that in there because it’s so random. That’s why it’s funny.” Especially in terms of Gir. Gir does what he does, and there’s no better explanation for what Gir does is the fact he’s made of garbage.

Zim himself doesn’t act like Gir. Gir acts like Gir, and Gir acts like Gir because he’s broken. He’s made of garbage, so anything Gir does makes sense. It’s not random at all. It makes perfect sense in the world of the show because Gir doesn’t make sense. He inherently does not make sense. He’s broken. Sometimes he functions properly, but for the most part, he has a head full of garbage that the Almighty Tallest put in, so he can do whatever he wants. You know? And it’s not random.


Similarly, there’s also an episode that returns from the commercial break and Zim is fighting this Ham Beast that was never mentioned before and never gets mentioned again. That’s not random to us because the joke is clear… to us, anyhow. In between the time it took for the commercial break to start and end, a Ham Beast attacks. [Laughs.] The joke is clearly aware of it. We’re aware that’s just dumb, but that’s the reason. We gave you the reason. The reason is that it happened during the commercial break.

None of that is random to me. Random to me is like a character talking, and suddenly, one of their heads explodes and there’s no explanation or anything like that. It’s just like, “Okay. I guess that happened.” As opposed to, “Ha ha ha.” Whether or not it’s funny, you can tell they made a joke. They’re explaining it by, “It happened while you weren’t looking.” I think there are probably a lot of examples that don’t work, where my argument doesn’t work. Those are examples of things that I don’t know that I would do nowadays. I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure there are many. Even if it is Gir… there are still things that I don’t want Gir to say now, or do now. There’s little bits in some of the comic where I’m rewriting Gir’s dialogue, and I’m like, “Yeah, he’s Gir and he’s broken, but I don’t think this is necessarily funny.”


AVC: Would you say, then, that when you start to tell a story or build these universes, these characters are what come first? Do the characters in Zim predate the basics of the Zim universe, or did you create this specific, absurd science-fiction world and then populate it with characters?

JV: The very first couple of things that popped up when I was coming up with Zim was the dynamic between Zim and Dib. Really, the very first memories of why I thought this would be an idea to develop was the idea of an alien disguised on Earth who was so clearly an alien. The whole show is built around that dumb idea of nobody else knowing that this green kid was an alien, which just sets up the Earth and humans to be the dumbest, dumbest people alive. One kid did, who like you or I would, would be like, “Hey, that kid is green. He’s clearly not human. What the hell is wrong with everybody?” And that, basically, being why the reason Dib has kind of gone mad. It’s the meanest thing in the world. It was just a mean thing to do to a character, to have them be the only person who knows anything about anything, but nobody else believes him because they’re that dumb. It’s a very nasty joke. [Laughs.]


That was what popped up first, that dynamic of Zim and Dib, the constant hounding of one another, kind of alone. No one else really joins in. Gaz knows the truth. She knows Zim is an alien, but she doesn’t really give as much of a shit as Dib does. Everyone else around them is kind of this oblivious idiot, as these two kids are just sort of responsible for incredible destruction around them. I think I just like the idea of highly-advanced beings resorting to childish behavior, regardless of the technology that they wield.

I don’t know that it’s ever explicitly stated in the show, but I think that’s always been the big gag. As powerful as you are, you’re still just a kid lobbing explosives at one another. I think that’s classic animation, like Bugs Bunny. It’s incredibly violent, incredibly angry, vindictive, back-and-forth combat.


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