In March 2001, six months before 9/11, a peculiar cartoon named Invader Zim aired in Nickelodeon's Nicktoon block. It was the brainchild of 22-year-old Mexican-American underground comics creator Jhonen Vasquez, then best known for his cult comix series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and its maudlin spin-off, Squee.
With its first mention of "slaughtering rat people," Invader Zim announced itself—loudly, proudly—as weird. With no prior experience in animation and a brazen contempt for the corporate censorship and parent groups that had hamstrung pre-Nicktoon shows like Ren and Stimpy and Animaniacs, Vasquez and co. created a cult classic which didn't so much fit the zeitgeist as it did vaporize it.
Invader Zim had a simple premise: The destructively self-assured and "very small" Zim is an alien dead set on conquering Earth in the name of the glorious Irken empire. Unwittingly banished from said empire by his snack-loving leaders The Almighty Tallest, Zim must work with his adorably defective waffle-loving robot GIR ("What does the G stand for?") to assimilate into human society by attending the bleakly dystopian "SKOOL," hoping to learn Earth's ways in order to conquer it. All the while, he has to fend off Dib, his "FILTHY human!" classmate who is also an obsessive paranormal investigator and the son of the world's greatest scientist.
With Netflix's new 70-minute special, Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus, Zim and his cohort return to the little screen after a long hiatus, lifting off from the terrorific Bush era of the show's genesis and crash-landing into a tumultuous Trump timeline. The special opens with Dib as a grotesque caricature of his past self, glued to his computer chair watching a live feed of Zim's front yard, which he has been fixated on for "15 years" (he hasn't aged, and Zim has been sitting (literally) inside his toilet, "plotting.") In its emphasis on Dib's unyielding, deranged pursuit of character perceived as "other," it's a reminder that things haven't changed much since the show's post 9/11 heyday.
In short, Invader Zim was a show about aliens. Not just those from outer space, but those around us, and those within us. Zim, the invader; Dib, the paranoiac; and GIR, the defective —the heroes of Invader Zim were fractured reflections of post-9/11 America's schizoid identity crisis: suspicious, jingoistic, violent, and dumb.
People forget, but conformity was de rigueur in the absurdist Bush years. It was a society obsessed with "freedom fries" and colored threat levels, with questions like "Whose side are you on?" and "Can you point to Afghanistan on a map?" You were in line, or out of step, and being weird equated you with being foreign, which equated you with being a threat. When Zim desperately announces "Delicious! Delicious! I'M NORMAL!!l!" after struggling to eat cafeteria food, he is letting out the barbaric yawp of the times.
Zim is, essentially, a foreign terrorist living in America, making weapons, crashing mechs, and planning the Earth's destruction. He is a Nicktoon avatar of hallucinatory mid-2000s Fox News-style fear. Whereas Dib, the self-appointed champion of Earth's freedom, is overzealous to the point of being self-defeating, like America itself. His quest to expose Zim often puts him in embarrassing situations, and in one case leads him to being shot in the face with a muffin. As Dib's goth sister (and Vasquez stand-in) Gaz puts it, both camps, terrorist and savior, are "dumb."
It seems a trite and hazy memory in the Trump age, but the stupidity of the Bush years cannot be "misunderstimated." Invader Zim made a point of linking said idiocy to the culture at large. Zim's world of greyscale T-shirt logos that read "BAND" and citizens so numbed by TV that they fail to react to the giant mechanical alien cable bursting through their living room was an apt parable for a nation leaning full-tilt into a trauma-fuelled "progressive stupidity," to quote the title of the Season 2 DVD. Vasquez was thorough in his linking of American decline with American consumerism, stuffing one with the other like GIR stuffs his fuel tanks with tuna. The viewer encounters a kaleidoscope of hellish brands: Mac Meaty's, "Drink Poop," and the homunculus mascot Bloaty, of Bloaty's Pizza Hog. Meat—pork products especially—could be called Zim's central motif, as if Vasquez is representing America as abattoir: blood-soaked, greased-up, and gamey.
If television is the window into the American soul, then Zim renders that soul as a tortured one. An ad for aspirin has a man's spine suddenly snap as he froths at the mouth; another commercial is a seeming advertisement for the concept of diarrhea. All play during GIR's "favorite show": an angry monkey staring directly into the camera. "That horrible monkey!" remarks Zim. "Mhmm," replies GIR. And yet, "the angry monkey" is the only show they ever seem to watch.
Of course now, in 2019, when we live in a self-perpetuating Ren & Stimpy sketch that is hellishly inescapable, Invader Zim's hyperbolic Bush era parables seem less "random" than they do prescient.
In the episode "The Girl Who Cried Gnome," a corpulent president with a lobotomy scar gargles broken sentences: "Where's the charts? Where's the pretty pictures? This plan is STOOPID!" In the show's world, truth is as fragmentary as the actors' line deliveries, the cadence of which now rings out as decidedly "presidential." We see this when Zim's maladjusted home AI "Computer" (voiced by Vasquez) offers a statement reminiscent of Trump at his freewheeling best. The FBI was "founded in 1492 by…uhhh…demons," the computer erroneously informs him. "The FBI is a crack law enforcement agency designed to…I don't know…fight aliens?"
In "Voting of the Doomed," Zim runs for class president against Willy, whom the school drones deem to be "leadership material" after they categorize him as a "moron." During the debates, where the candidates' popularity is monitored by brain scan (and a downturn in approval results in a candidate receiving an electric shock), a drooling and incoherent Willy struggles to form sentences. When Zim promises to "ensure that all mankind will have its legs sawed off," the crowd isn't sure about this, so Zim switches tracks: "…and replaced with legs of pure gold! And the power to shoot lasers from your head!" In 2019, the only thing that feels alien about this is Zim's green skin—not him yelling, "The grotesque monster boy avoids the issues!" at a Jeb-like Willy. As Zim's almighty fools erupt in a chorus of "lippy smacky noises," we're reminded that, like Gir, we were the turkeys all along.
The new Netflix special posits hyper-capitalism as the churning nightmare fated to destroy humanity. Zim hijacks Professor Membrane's keynote and uses Membrane's hand-holding powered Membracelets to hurtle Earth towards annihilation. The crowd goes wild for the Membracelets, even when they require people to hold hands above an active volcano. Zim's world-dominating fantasies have always been histrionic and self-serving, but what he shares with a figure like Trump is the inability to admit he failed: When Zim's plan inevitably falls apart, he claims his goal was not to destroy the earth, but in fact just to steal a ceramic statue from Dib's living room. What makes Enter the Florpus feel particularly timely is that it stipulates that the coming of the end will be marked by random, chaotic, dumb acts—like firing a pug into space.
Jhonen Vasquez, a "Mexican American who identifies as non-mariachi" (note: Dib, Gaz, and professor Membrane are also Mexican-American), made a show about aliens for an America bent on alienation. As we find ourselves hurtling towards a universe of pure dookie—or perhaps, ominously, a room with a moose—Vasquez's depiction of his "fellow hideous inferior human pig smellies" seems less and less like a cartoon, and more and more like a missive sent back from an alternate future. A song of doom.