Once upon a time, Nickelodeon hired the creator of a comic called “Johnny The Homicidal Maniac” to make a kids cartoon. That time was the late 90s, and to be fair I’m sure the development process wasn’t nearly as simple as I’m making it out to be — Nickelodeon was looking to break into the slightly-older tween space, and Jhonen Vasquez had been generating buzz not only for “JTHM” but for his equally off-color spin-off comic called “Squee!” which at least featured a child protagonist who, notably, was not a murderer. Point is, by 2001 the television landscape was graced with the end result of this unlikely collaboration, Invader Zim — a collaboration that, even looking back on it from today’s standards, is downright baffling and borderline inappropriate. The show was subversive and hysterical and gross, with absurdist zingers ping-ponging back and forth against a distorted version of our world. Frankly, it probably never should have seen the light of day — certainly not on a channel like Nickelodeon, which had already spent years enforcing content restrictions on another cult fave, The Ren & Stimpy Show, and really should have known better (for context, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, a more natural fit for a show like this, launched just a few months after ZIM’s premiere). Unlike Ren & Stimpy, Invader Zim never had the ratings to justify its battles over, like, character deaths and other forms of violence, and the fact that the show lasted for 2 seasons seems like a miracle given that I don’t know a single “kid” who ever watched it.
It was, however, watched obsessively by one particular demographic: MINE.
When the show debuted, I was just months away from graduating high school, and I have come to realize that this weird-ass cartoon is probably the first show I ever tuned into purely on the basis of my own private fandom. By that time, “JTHM” copies were being passed around like goth contraband amongst my friends, and the news that THIS writer — the guy who wrote about a delusional killer with a dead bunny and two Pillsbury Doughboy statues as his confidants — would have an ACTUAL tv show on an ACTUAL channel (for kids! a kids channel!) was probably the most exciting thing to happen to happen in my misunderstood little corner of the universe. Just like Vasquez’s other works, Invader Zim celebrated outcasts by showing that no matter how weird they were — it’s the society that banished them that is truly bizarre. It followed the adventures of a megalomaniacal-yet-inept alien outcast who was sent on a mission to dominate an unwanted planet (ours) as a way to dispose of him. Once here, Zim hides himself as a green-skinned human child and almost immediately catches the eye of a young conspiracy theorist named Dib. Like a pint-sized Fox Mulder, Dib was constantly trying to reveal to the world all of Zim’s nefarious plans, while Zim himself was trying and failing to enslave the human race — alternately helped and hindered by his cheerfully glitchy robot companion, GIR. It was, essentially, the Rick & Morty of its time: less philosophical and more zany, perhaps, but sharing a common pessimistic view of humanity.
Though the show has been off the air for 15 years now, its status as a cult phenomenon is alive and well. Attend any Comic-Con and you’ll surely see people (all roughly my age) wearing ZIM pins or GIR t-shirts. Still, I suppose I’d unconsciously written the series off as a product of the past. Of all the nostalgic properties that are ripe for a revival in the era of retreads, surely we’d never be so lucky as to see a new Invader Zim joint. Our luck began and ended when we got it the first time around! But as unfathomable as it may seem, Nickelodeon itself wasn’t done with the show, and somehow they convinced Vasquez to bring it back. The result of this SECOND unlikely collaboration is the film event, Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus. And just like this month’s other Nickelodeon revival, Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling… it ended up ultimately being acquired and released by Netflix instead. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Why am I going through all of this preamble? Because as good as Enter the Florpus is — and it IS good, I swear! — the most remarkable thing about it is that it exists at all. In nearly every other respect, it is a seamless continuation of the original series (including the return of all of the principal voice cast), which means its appeal is targeted almost solely at
me people born between, like, 1982-1985. And maybe their children, if they’ve already started showing the original cartoon to them like good parents should. Sure, the animation is a little spiffier, and the runtime is a little longer, and the events are a little grander, but… this is just more of the show you remember. If you remember it all. Which you should, dammit!
Take the premise, which wastes no time explaining away the passage of an indeterminate amount of time in-continuity by revealing that Dib has turned into a desk chair-bound recluse, unable to tear himself away from the security cam feeds he has set up to monitor Zim’s house. Why? Because Zim has disappeared! Why? Glad you asked! Zim went into hiding in order to trick Dib, expecting his nemesis to become frail and incapacitated as he kept a predictably paranoid vigil. But where has Zim been hiding all that time?
Duh. In a toilet.
If you want to know what kind of show Invader Zim is, there’s your answer: It’s the kind of show that’ll wave away a 15-year production gap by claiming the main character was just sitting in a toilet bowl, laughing maniacally to himself the whole time. Anyway, the rest of Enter the Florpus proceeds semi-normally before it takes a pretty giant leap sideways, even for this show. Zim finally realized that his Irken overlords, the Almighty Tallest, have no interest in him or in the planet they sent him to, and certainly aren’t coming with their armada to blow everything up. So instead, Zim hijacks some tech and teleports the Earth straight into the Irken Armada’s warpath. Unfortunately, this opens a rift in space/time/reality called a “florpus,” which is basically a black hole only instead of swallowing matter and destroying it, it swallows matter and destroys it by merging it with alternate reality versions of itself. This offers up not only a nifty animation gimmick (as the show uses different styles to represent the multiversal shenanigans) but also probably the most direct Rick & Morty-style development this side of the decision to hire Justin Roiland to provide voice-work in the movie (he’s the food robot, FYI).
There are some unique touches to this incarnation of the show, as we get more involvement from Dib’s father Dr. Membrane and some hero moments from his sister Gaz, and also some blissfully familiar elements, like GIR’s repeated determination to roll around on a pile of pizzas or the Tallest’s complete aversion to anything Zim-related. What it all adds up to is a movie that certainly could stand on its own as an introduction to the series for new viewers, but won’t carry nearly the same weight as it will for longtime fans. The reality is, Invader Zim was never a complex concept, and new viewers could pick up basically ANY episode and make a snap determination on whether they liked it or not. What makes the show unique isn’t the sci-fi plot but the style and the humor, and that’s why this revival is so satisfying. It hasn’t matured, and it’s not trying to remake itself for a new era. It’s literally just… more of the same.
More of the same weird, wonderful thing I liked when I was 18, and that apparently I still like now. Because I guess the thing that’s been stuck in a toilet laughing to itself for 15 years is my taste in television.
Header Image Source: Netflix