How Invader Zim Taught An Entire Generation To Prepare For Our Bleak Reality

Nickelodeon revolutionized cartoons in the early '90s with shows like "Rugrats" and "Ren and Stimpy," but by the turn of the millennium, the network was in need of some fresh voices with something new to offer that didn't come from Klasky or Csupó. While "SpongeBob SquarePants" was making headlines and exploding in popularity, it was indie comics creator Jhonenh Vasquez who presented one of the most unique, creepy, nihilistic, and hilarious shows Nickelodeon ever saw. Even 20 years later, "Invader Zim" continues to prepare kids for their bleak and doomed futures.

In case you're not familiar, "Invader Zim" revolves around its titular evil alien named Zim, who gets tasked with infiltrating Earth in order to take over the world. Of course, things aren't ever that easy, and Zim is so inept at his job that he ends up barely surviving a terrestrial elementary school and the horrors of human reality. It doesn't help that his classmate Dib is a paranormal investigator and 100% onto Zim, and he would stop at nothing to get rid of his pesky alien classmate.

Invader Zim shows fans a 'phantasmagorical and hellish' world

One of the more obvious ways the show stood out among other Nickelodeon cartoons of the time was the way it followed a villainous protagonist, and it was clearly inspired by horror. Vasquez, who had already made a career out of horror-inspired comic books like "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" (you can guess what it's about), excelled at playing with the small separation between horror and comedy. Vazquez told us in an e-mail:

"Most horror scenarios, when simply related note for note, come off as so ridiculous and outlandish that they could be considered comical. But when you put yourself in those scenarios as reality, suddenly that joke is your living nightmare. Filtering those moments through a kid's imagination without limits creates a world as phantasmagorical and hellish as it is wonderful."

That is the space in which "Invader Zim" thrived, turning the hellish reality Vasquez and other adults were already experiencing in the early 2000s, and translating it as nightmares that kids would find too ridiculous to be afraid of, even as they subconsciously were preparing for that nightmare to become their future reality.

The horror of 'simply being alive'

Take the show's constant reliance on body horror, for instance. For a cartoon aimed at kids, a majority of "Invader Zim" episodes revolved around how grotesque and fragile our bodies really are. For one, humans are constantly referred to as meat sacks that house our consciousnesses, and they are constantly decaying. There is an episode about a lice infection that quickly takes over the entire school and drives the kids mad trying to scratch their disgusting heads; another episode deals with Zim getting a pimple that has psychic abilities and grows exponentially before exploding in a massive wave of pus; one time Zim literally fuses Dib's DNA with bologna, which starts rotting away throughout the day. Watching "Invader Zim" as a kid was hilarious because of its broad and gross humor, and because this was a show airing on the same network as SpongeBob, it was bold to have its protagonist gouge a kid's eyes out in order to implant the idea that he is a squirrel in his brain. As an adult, however, the show is just a grim reminder of what the rest of my life will be like — slowly seeing your meat sack rot and break away. Vazquez said:

"It's just part of being alive. What's more horrifying than being a fragile bubble of blood and organs threatening to fail or be popped at any given moment? The show was influenced by my childhood interpretations of horror movies and books, as well as my innate horror at simply being alive. What's funnier than that?"

Well, finding the fact that one day your organs will fail and you'll suffer a painful death to be hilarious is certainly a take, but there's no denying the way the show so effectively mocks our reality by showing us a somehow even worse one.

No one learns their lesson

The horror also extends beyond just knowing your body will fail and disappear with time. "Invader Zim" is also a generally nihilistic look at the pointlessness of life, how everything just sucks, and that we live in a failed society run by idiots. Schools are basically meaningless prisons, and the teacher is so disinterested in anything going on that when Dib goes to her asking for advice in dealing with horrible nightmares, she replies, "It's called life, Dib, sit down." Fast food chains like MacMeatie's make their food out of recycled napkins, advertisements are rotting kids' brains away, selling them video game consoles called "Game Slave." Yet, we run and fight each other for the opportunity to be first in line to play the latest game while eating a disgusting napkin burger. Even Santa Claus is a total scam.

"Invader Zim" was never subtle about its anti-consumption, anti-corporate themes, but it found a morbid comedic tone about portraying a world where no one ever learns any moral lessons. Everyone in charge of anything is just too stupid and apathetic to care. Many cartoons and kids' movies portray adults as dumber than the kids in order to make them appear more heroic or reflect how kids feel about the parents who just don't understand them. But "Invader Zim" takes a different approach to prepare its audience to enter a world where everything is broken and it's pointless to fight it because everyone is too dumb to listen. As Vazquez said, it's "an awful world where people have gotten so disconnected and focused on the worst, most petty things."

Finding twisted comfort in other people's misery

There is no saving the day in "Invader Zim." Instead there's just delaying the inevitable — and after living through 2020, this has never been more relatable. As Vasquez described the uniquely nihilistic humor of the show, "maybe it has something to do with that very human quality of finding amusement in watching other people be more tormented than yourself."

There is certainly something about "Invader Zim" being so incredibly, unapologetically, horrendously awful that makes it even funnier as an adult because you can laugh at finding other characters being more miserable than you. While "SpongeBob" and "The Fairly OddParents" were dominating the ratings over at Nickelodeon in 2001, and the original Justice League cartoon was introducing a generation to the superhero team, "Invader Zim" was preparing some of us for our impending doom with gross jokes, and lots of tacos.