When Paste chatted with Aaron Alexovich, co-writer/co-artist of July’s Invader Zim comic from Oni Press, the cartoonist touched on how semi-legal online distribution can keep television shows in the public consciousness well after their cancellations in ways that were impossible in decades past. But, really, there’s more to Zim’s continued appeal than its post-mortem accessibility on YouTube or visibility at a Hot Topic retail outlet near you.
Plenty of other TV shows that ran for a few seasons in 2001 are on the internet, but they aren’t getting revitalized in comic book form this summer. Mainly, because nobody cares. Invader Zim is different. Zim, the 2001 Nickelodeon cartoon is aimed primarily at children, but nonetheless grabbed adult followers of previous NC-17-rated ink-and-paper projects from creator Jhonen Vasquez like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee. How many other cartoons can boast of transcending the limitations of their intended age demographic? Adventure Time? Justice League Unlimited? The Simpsons, arguably?
Not only did Vasquez (who will serve as a creative “brain” and consultant on the comic), Alexovich (who designed characters on the original Zim show) and their co-conspirators know better than to talk down to their pre-teen audience, they understood and embraced unpleasant but undeniable truisms about children—they all see themselves as aliens, and they all want to enslave the human race.
Alexovich—who went on to a substantial career in comics following Zim with projects like Serenity Rose— fielded some questions from Paste amid a break from working on art for the new Invader Zim comic.
Note: publisher Oni Press has clarified that Invader Zim will be age-rated 13+, not 15+ as stated in the dialogue of this interview
Paste: Okay, obviously Nickelodeon isn’t involved with this version of Zim. So are we going to see curse words and graphic violence in the Invader Zim comic book or what?
Aaron Alexovich: Well, Oni is going to do this comic under a 15-plus tag, so whatever that entails. We’re going to see how far we can push that without breaking what Zim is. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of severed heads flying around, although we might try it. It’s definitely not going to be quite as kiddie as it was before. Obviously, without Nickelodeon breathing down our necks, we have a lot more freedom with that. It’s not going to be Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, but we’ll see where the edge is. We’re still playing with that.
Paste: Maybe I Feel Sick levels of mayhem?
Alexovich: We’ll see where it goes. I’m all about seeing how far we can push it. You always had Nickelodeon pushing back, because they did have to approve things. Usually the best way to go was push as far as we could, then let them say, “That’s too much! That’s too horrible!” And then you find the balance there.
Paste: A lot of the gags on Invader Zim are sort of non sequitur-based. Is it difficult writing dialogue that isn’t supposed to sound remotely naturalistic?
Alexovich: I’m not very good at naturalistic dialogue, as you can tell from speaking to me, so non sequiturs work out pretty well for me. Actually, Jhonen’s comics have a lot more of that random feel than the show ever did. We could pull it more in that direction, like, with a pig smashing through a wall for no reason?
Paste: I mean, you can’t just string three random words together and have them come out funny. There’s got to be a skill to it?
Alexovich: Oh, exactly. You have to pick the right three words. ‘Is it funnier in this situation for it to be a monkey or a pig?’ Or, y’know, ‘Which word should we stick in here? Oh, definitely, ‘bee.’ ‘Bee’ is funniest.’ But it only works within the structure of a properly-formed story. To go off on these tangents, you have to have a decent skeleton.
Paste: As far as doing more Zim stuff, why a comic? Why not more cartoons, or a movie, or a straight-to-Netflix live action thing?
Alexovich: A couple of years ago, we actually almost did bring the cartoon back, but it got caught up in some budgetary shenanigans. It was an incredibly expensive show back in the day, especially with all the CG effects, so if we couldn’t get that budget now, the show would look kind of feeble. But there’s always talks going on. It pops up every now and again. This comic book thing came up because Oni has the license to make comics, and they called Jhonen to ask if he wanted to be involved. He gave them my name, and I said, ‘Why not? I’m a comic guy.’
Paste: It’s weird. It used to be, when a show got cancelled, that was pretty much the end of it. There hasn’t been any new Invader Zim in more than a decade, yet here we are.
Alexovich: Nothing ever dies anymore. There will be t-shirts at Hot Topic until long after our sun dies. So we might as well put some content behind those t-shirts. Like, “Oh, GIR isn’t just a character on shirts! He does stuff! And new stuff!” It’s been really cool to see the show kind of grow its audience over the years. I mean, it only lasted a season and a half, but it doesn’t seem like it’s ever died.
Paste: If you were ordered to destroy and/or conquer the world, how would you go about it?
Alexovich: Well, I’d definitely want to get a piece of the Hot Topic corporation. I could probably use the GIR shirts for spreading a disease to destroy humanity, or maybe those GIR hoodies they sell could have some sort of nanotechnology in them that controls people’s minds.
Paste: Doesn’t Hot Topic generate loads of revenue for the Zim franchise? Wouldn’t they be your allies in domination?
Alexovich: You know, I obviously don’t see any of that. But I think that’s probably what’s kept the series alive over the years —all the merchandise. I wasn’t even aware that there were so many toys and things until recently at this Sacramento convention. Somebody came up to me and had me sign a bunch of action figures. I had no idea they had an action figure of Pustulio the giant zit, but there it is! It’s almost like Star Wars, where this guy in the deep background gets an action figure. That’s got to be the mark of some kind of staying power in the culture, right?
Paste: Or at least a mark of plentiful merchandising opportunities.
Alexovich: Yeah, I guess so. They should make some action figures based on whatever new characters we come up with. We’ll make them as grotesque as possible. It’s 15-plus, so we can make them even more loathsome.
Paste: Yeah, something people can put on their desks and totally freak out their moms.
Alexovich: If you’re not freaking out people’s parents and bosses and stuff, you’re really not doing it right.