This one is near and dear to my heart, so we might be in for one of my sentimental essays. Premiering when I was in that oh-so-important developmental stage between child and teenager, Invader Zim was a show that had a profound effect on me as I grew up. It is probably one of the works of fiction that was most influential on me as a writer, and definitely left a large impact on my sense of humor.
For those with only a passing knowledge of the show, it might seem strange that a frikkin’ Nicktoon is in a series of essays about characters from Horror fiction. Rest assured that, despite its supposed primary demographic, Invader Zim was very much a horror story – specifically a very dark horror comedy, one that dove into some very morbid and gruesome subject matter despite being a children’s show. If you doubt me, go watch the episode “Dark Harvest” – one of the earliest episodes, and one that the creators of the show themselves said might have gone a little too far with the grotesque – and come back to this essay.
Zim’s world mostly took trappings from Atomic Horror stories – alien invaders, murderous mutants, violent robot killing machines, etc. – and ratcheted them up for all the nightmare fuel they were worth. It’s sort of a given, of course, since the central premise of the show is that we’re following the adventures of an alien whose job is to conquer the earth and purge all of its inhabitants.
This may sound a little too dark to you at this point, but like I said, this show is a comedy, and how that comedy works is probably best summed up by describing its main character. Zim, the titular alien invader, sounds horrific on paper. He’s a psychopath (not a term I’d throw around loosely, mind you) with a manic disposition whose first, second, and third solutions to any and every conceivable problem is “wanton mayhem” that whole heartedly supports his society’s doctrine of imperialistic genocide. Unlike Wells’ martians, Zim’s people don’t conquer out of need, but rather out of petty wants – the planets we see them conquer have been turned into colossal parking lots, food courts, and other simple things that really don’t need to be made on a planetary scale. Zim, however, believes that forwarding this needless (and often bafflingly stupid) plan of conquest is the highest calling anyone can aspire to. He’s amoral, delusional, violent, and dedicated to the worst kind of stupid evil imaginable.
However, his saving grace – in the eyes of the audience at least – is that he’s also ridiculously incompetent. Despite having an enormous advantage in his superior technology and in the earthling’s near unanimous obliviousness to his goals, Zim’s plans backfire on himself with spectacular regularity. He might be evil, but as one character notes, “he’s so bad at it” that he’s almost never a real threat.
Almost. The show may be a comedy, but it’s also horror.
More than robots, monsters, and even aliens, Invader Zim is a show about idiocy and people dedicating themselves to absurd, doomed causes. You’d be terrified of Zim if the “innocent” bystanders weren’t so ignorant of and unfazed by the many horrific events he causes. You’d pity them if they weren’t so often belligerent, rude, and stubborn in their refusal to acknowledge the threat posed to them by this alien even as it’s stealing their organs or turning them into squids. The people of Earth are presented almost unanimously as selfish morons with even less of a sense of self-preservation or common sense than Zim himself. As Zim notes, “it’s as if these people WANT their planet to be destroyed!”
There’s an old saying about how “tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when someone else falls down a manhole and dies” that Invader Zim takes to heart. You very rarely sympathize with the people who get hurt the worst in this show. Like the majority of victims in a slasher story, they’re designed to be fodder, and often the little bit of characterization they get shows them to be deeply unpleasant. It’s why we as an audience end up rooting for Zim despite ourselves. Sure, he may be a violent idiot, but he’s ultimately only one of many – and unlike most of the others, he’s at least got aspirations to better himself. Flawed, doomed aspirations, sure, but that’s more to latch onto than apathy and petty selfishness.
Zim’s case for sympathy is also helped by the fact that he’s an outcast both on earth AND on his home planet. While his fellow Irkens are just as violent and cruel as he is, they’re also aware that Zim’s incompetence is dangerous. They recognize him as a wild card that’s just as likely to turn a doomsday device on their home planet as he is on the enemies – not out of malice, either, but just through sheer stupidity. Yet Zim is oblivious to their distrust and hatred of him, even as they exile him to the far reaches of space on a snipe hunt for a planet that doesn’t exist. There is pathos in the fact that Zim’s entire life is dedicated to pleasing people who will never accept him, and it kind of explains why he takes such desperate and ill-conceived steps to try to please them. Zim is, ultimately, a person who wants love from people who will never give it to him, and I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t been in those shoes at least once in their lives.
Zim unleashes a vast menagerie of horrors upon the galaxy and, more than anything else, himself in this pursuit, producing some of the most terrifying and grotesque scenes ever animated for a children’s cartoon in the process. But since most of his victims are even worse than he is, and since he ultimately has a pitiable life, we can sort of back him. Zim’s a loser, but he’s a loser in a world run by pettier and crueler tyrants than himself, and you can sort of back that.
Of course, the real appeal of Zim and his show lies in seeing how far the carnage and mayhem can go. The show has more than a few elements of Slasher Horror to it in that regard – in a world run and almost entirely populated by the stupid and corrupt, who wouldn’t want to watch a few explosions go off? There’s an immense catharsis in seeing idiocy punished so spectacularly, both by Zim and to Zim. Everyone’s had moments where they’ve been frustrated by the stupidity of the society they live in, and Zim gives us an outlet for all our fantasies of seeing that stupid social order get turned upside down and torn apart by slaughtering rat people. Sometimes you need that catharsis. Twelve year old me definitely did.