It’s nearing the end of San Diego Comic Con when I cross the exhaustingly crowded convention floor, arrive at the Oni Press booth and catch sight of Jhonen Vasquez. I allow myself one maniacal fannish grin before composing my maniacal reporter face. Since the 90s, I’ve counted myself among the many fans of Vasquez’s dark comedies like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee. Following the announcement of his impending cartoon series, I distinctly remember musing over how in the world this particular creator would bring his voice and style to Nickeodeon.
The world of Invader Zim indeed proved an unlikely bedfellow for the network. Starring the titular, ineptly disguised alien–Zim’s elaborately bad attempts to conquer Earth on behalf of his race were short-lived. The show was snuffed out just as the series seemed to hit it’s stride, leaving episodes unaired, and plans for a rumored series finale TV movie scrapped. But even in a world without DVR and streaming services, Invader Zim managed to almost instantly become a cult favorite, earning critical acclaim, awards and launching thousands of t-shirts. Now, it’s back: as a series of comics published by Oni.
As I cross into the Oni booth, Vasquez is wrapping up a signing for the newly released second volume of Invader Zim‘s comic adventures. I’m greeted by Rachel Reed, Oni’s publicity coordinator, who smiles brightly and informs me that I’m getting four interviews for the price of one: Eric Trueheart, Aaron Alexovich and Dave Crosland will also be joining us. Trueheart is one of the most prominent writers on the series (both television and comic), while Alexovich served as character designer on the television series, and is one of the main penciller’s on the comics–Crosland is the other.
It’s the first time all four have ever been interviewed together, I’m told. Possibly even the first time cartoon series masterminds Trueheart, Alexovich and Vasquez have been interviewed at once. I calm myself by sipping some water and eating some chocolate lurking in the break area of the booth before the four horsemen of Zim’s ineffectual apocalypse join me.
Though unexpected, what follows is a look at a tight team of creatives who are all incredibly dedicated to, and invested in, their product. I often had the sense that I’d just crashed their writer’s room-their patter will be immediately familiar to any fan of the series.
Strap in for this wide-ranging chat that covers both the Invader Zim television series and comics in great detail. We also discuss Donald Trump, how comics shouldn’t be a fall-back position, and even Zack Snyder.
Edie Nugent: Jhonen you’re credited as control brain on this volume of Zim. So how does your control brain interface with the sub brains around us?
[Alexovich, Crosland and Trueheart emit cries of “Aw, no!” and “Aw, Man!”]
Nugent: See you guys weren’t supposed to be here!
[Laughter; the assembled make growling noises, banging on the table in Neanderthal fashion]
Aaron Alexovich: I’m fed up with this unfair treatment!
Eric Trueheart: I’m a sub-brain! I’m important too!
Jhonen Vasquez: Well as the superior brain, most everything at some point or another goes through me. Like an idea…
Alexovich: It goes through his body. He devours it.
Vasquez: It passes through me, and like a worm I cultivate the earth. No–it’s a non-stop stream of very casual information like art and story all that stuff. Eric will pitch ideas, and we’ll meet up. It’s generally more like an approval process. In terms of the writing on Invader Zim, I’ll do a pass on almost every script. Especially when it’s not Eric, to a lesser extent for Eric. We have guest writers that come in who have never written anything for Zim before, and it doesn’t quite sound right, characters don’t speak right. It’s awkward.
Trueheart: Someone drops a lot of F-bombs.
Vasquez: So in general I take the stuff and make it so it sounds like I would have made them say these things. It’s usually dialogue.
Nugent: It’s very consistent. As I was reading through it I was hearing the character voices, the cadences, the rhythm of it. True to the series, I think.
Vasquez: That’s good. I think if there’s anything that I do, that’s my main goal, is that it has to sound like the stuff. We have plenty of artists, we have Dave and Aaron, now we’ve got Warren [Wucinich] who–they keep it looking good. And it doesn’t necessarily look exactly like the cartoon, but it looks better. It’s as if the cartoon had time to evolve and get refined. For the most part I trust these guys to just do whatever. But every now and then, if it doesn’t look right or feel right, I’ll change an expression or do a drawing. But for the most part it’s story.
Trueheart: He writes “you’re doing it wrong” over everything.
Nugent: He gets out a big red pen, just to shame you? And circle things?
Trueheart: He doesn’t, actually, Jhonen is not invasive. I shouldn’t even be talking about it: you just got the answer from him. It’s all in his mind and working on it is great.
Alexovich: Foolish sub-brain!
Vasquez: Ah, classic sub-brain.
Trueheart: No, I have to say that he actually encourages everybody-except Aaron.
Nugent: So you’ve been telling stories through these characters for quite some time. And I wondered when Zim, Gir, The Tallests, when they all first started speaking to you?
Trueheart: When he went off his medication. [laughs]
Vasquez: Really early on. Pretty much from the day I started thinking…all that stuff, Gir, Zim, Dib, The Tallests, really popped up within the first couple of days of developing the idea.
Nugent: So the idea to do a cartoon series came first, and then they arrived. I wondered if they’d been sort of kicking around–
Vasquez: No, it wasn’t until I was asked to come up with an idea. A lot of the ideas are, at a glance, really generic–
Nugent: In what way?
Vasquez: Zim being a space invader, kind of looking like a classic alien grey.
Alexovich: That’s true of any idea, though, it’s always how you do the idea, not the idea itself.
Vasquez: The thinking was, I’m gonna do a cartoon and it’s probably going to go badly, and I don’t want to give them any of my ideas that I do love already. But then what happens is, you spend a little time with these characters, and you start falling in love with them. And they start speaking and they start having their own personalities.
Trueheart: They start tying you up at night and threatening to murder you…
Vasquez: “Give me life!” “No, I will never give you life!” “Shut up, sub-brain.”
Trueheart: Why were they calling him [Jhonen] sub-brain back then?
Vasquez: Uhhh…I don’t know…what?
Alexovich, Crosland and Trueheart: Hmmmm.
Vasquez: A lot of my stuff, I don’t pursue it. I don’t really circle an idea, it has to be something that comes out very quickly and immediately makes sense as something I want to make more of.
Nugent: in many ways, I feel like our worldview now seems to increasingly mirror this sort of heightened reality of Invader Zim’s “Earth.”
Vasquez: Yeah, oh my god…
Nugent; It used to be this parody of existing tropes, and now I feel like we’ve become the parody. Or we’ve become less parody and it’s more allegorical. And I wondered if that was something you were thinking about in how you tell this story.
Trueheart: We were thinking about *you* thinking that.
Nugent: You hadn’t met me yet.
Trueheart: We didn’t have to. We knew what was what was going to happen. “Nuugent” it said. “Nuuugent!”
Nugent: The sub-brains are way more omniscient than I would’ve thought!
Vasquez: I think at the time we were just having fun being cynical, and–we didn’t *want* that to happen [laughter] so like now, I’m very sad that it did happen? It’s like Idiocracy, you know? [A 2006 Mike Judge film that posited that Trump would become president]. It’s not as on-the-nose as Idiocracy, but it’s sad that that’s not parody, you know?
Crosland: I was just thinking about the election, yeah…
Vasquez: it’s hilarious until you realize–
Trueheart: This isn’t funny anymore.
Vasquez: This isn’t for fun, this is real! I think the world of Zim was always the worst case scenario of people just being dumb, like, we thought it was funny; we thought it was really funny that the humans were just so dumb that they don’t recognize this clear and obvious threat.
Alexovich: Trump might as well have green skin.
Nugent: Yes! The eyeballs are going to come off, they’re going to be purple underneath–
Alexovich: And he’ll just be like, “Nah, it’s fine.”
Vasquez: There was a Patton Oswalt joke about Bush outright eating a baby on stage…like, “What do I have to do?”
Alexovich: And Trump even brags about that. Like, ‘I could shoot somebody and get away with it.’
Vasquez: And he’s not Patton Oswalt! He’s not doing a comedy routine!
Trueheart: Here’s the thing though, I think, I don’t know if the world has gotten that much worse. It’s always been this terrible–okay Trump is extreme–but you watch stuff when you were a kid and you’re like “Ha ha, that’s so funny” and we were having fun being sarcastic, and then the older you get you’re like, “oh no, this is true, the world is this way,” and it’s actually not as funny as we thought, it’s a little bit more horrifying.
Vasquez: It’s definitely horrifying.
Alexovich: So Zim should be way happier now, right?
Trueheart: When you watched it as a child, you may not have realized the world really was that way. But now you’ve gotten older.
Crosland: I think part of the joy of Zim or any satirical or biting comedy is that it takes the awful stuff from reality and makes fun of it. Just pokes fun at it, and you let people see it from a different light, and even in some ways turn it around and realize, “oh wait, this is really dumb.”
Vasquez: I think most children’s television, not saying that it’s good or bad, it is of the mind of “here’s how to behave. Here’s how to be.” And I think the stuff that I like, a lot of the stuff that I’ve done, Zim especially, isn’t a road map to bad behavior. It’s so absurd, it’s clear: “you should never be like these people.” There’s always some show that’s getting blamed for bad behavior like South Park or Beavis and Butthead. Anyone who watched Beavis and Butthead or watches South Park and thought: “Yeah, that’s how I wanna act!” …there’s a deeper problem there.
Nugent: It would have been something else that triggered that bad behavior if not those shows.
Vasquez: Yeah. The world in Zim is so clearly terrible–It’s anything but an instruction on what to be. I hope everyone gets that, because that makes it funnier. I think we get people who, every now and then will come up and are like, “Dude I totally get what you’re saying!” and I’m like, “I don’t know if you do, because you’re taking it very seriously.”
Nugent: Yeah, like “I’m afraid of what you’re saying to *me* with that…”
Nugent: Your background, Jhonen, is in comics, but despite the popularity of the TV series it took 15 years for Zim to end up in comics. Why make one now?
Vasquez: Honestly, it’s a really boring story. Oni Press asked if I was interested in them doing the comics. We didn’t pursue any Zim stuff that entire time. We never pitched the idea of another show, or comics. We were all doing our own thing. If anything, this has interrupted us. [Laughter]
Alexovich: Yes! This is ruining my career now.
Vasquez: This isn’t good for us.
Alexovich: To be fair, I ruined my career myself. Everyday. Yeah. It’s fine, though. [Laughter]
Crosland: And you continue to do so.
Alexovich: Yeah, I practice.
Vasquez: I like to think that the people that are working on this, myself included, are doing it not because–you know, it’s lucrative or anything. It’s just–it’s nice to make something that you know is good and that you care about. I’ve been lucky enough, like all these all these guys– [indicating Alexovich, Crossland and Trueheart] I’ve been incredibly lucky to have them working on it and making it better than it would ever be if I were doing it on my own. Zim has inspired fans and people that worked on the show and those who work on the comics–it’s inspired people to just care. Which is so not the message of the show! [laughter]
But in terms of putting the work and the time into it, I can’t think of many other things where people aren’t just collecting a paycheck.
Nugent: There’s more of a return you’re all getting.
Vasquez: Despite the paycheck they get! [laughter] They are like, happy to work on it. Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but–
[Neanderthal sub-brain noises of dissension emerge from Alexovich, Crosland and Trueheart]
Trueheart: Murrrrr! Couldn’t be more wrong! [laughter] No, I enjoy working on it more than most things I enjoy working on. To have the opportunity to go back and tell these kinds of stories again is actually, really–it’s a lot of fun. It’s a shocking amount of fun. And the fact that I’ve been writing for cartoons a long time means that I feel like I do a better job on these [comics] than I did on the show, which was when I first started. Jhonen agrees, he says it’s much better than before.
Vasquez: Oh god yeah.
ME: Is that true?
Trueheart: If only he could have fired me.
Vasquez: Eric was an incredible find back in the day. It’s really hard to find people who get the voice of this world. Who get it, you know, to this day. Finding new writers…
Nugent: Because it’s so specific.
Vasquez: It’s very specific.
Nugent: And you know when it isn’t right. I’d imagine getting it wrong is easy and getting it right is hard.
Vasquez: It’s weird to think about but, a lot of this stuff–my stuff, a lot of other people’s work–finding people to come work on it? You’re basically asking them to do an impersonation. And I don’t want it to feel like an impersonation, you want it to feel like it’s either exactly me or it’s enough of them–it’s different enough that people aren’t comparing it. It’s a weird line to walk, it’s never easy.
Nugent: To feel that it’s a natural deviation.
Vasquez: Right. We have a lot of guest artists. I prefer when someone comes in and does their own thing. They write it and they draw it. They bring in–like Dave did a couple of pages in issue 12. And Dave and Aaron were doing work on the four issues leading up to it, but it was still keeping it in the look of the cartoon to a certain extent. But I’m always interested when someone comes in with their own style, where you can recognize the characters but it’s their own thing and it’s their own voice. So I think it translates to the reader, to myself as: they’re not trying to impersonate. They’re doing themselves. They’re bringing themselves to this world. And you’re not comparing it as much. You’re not as like, “Ooh, this is weird,” or “it’s off.”
Nugent: Sort of an uncanny valley effect?
Vasquez: Yeah! Exactly. It’s like, “Oh, I get what it’s supposed to be but something’s *wrong*.” [To Crosland] Those four pages that you did are great.
Crosland: Oh, thanks very much!
Vasquez: And it was more of like a poem? It wasn’t the traditional thing. So it’s harder to be disappointed when it’s it’s own thing, and it’s it’s own great thing.
Crosland: That’s was the great thing about working on the four issues I did in Volume two. I really enjoy just adding to the lexicon of Zim. Adding to that world, and all this existing lore. Because I see kids in my neighborhood all the time rocking Zim gear. So I’m like, “I get to add to that world!” So that was a treat to begin with, and working with these guys [indicates Alexovich, Trueheart and Vasquez] who originated the world. But then when I got to do the four pager, it was great, because I’m like, “oh my god, I can apply my voice to this world.” It was like a playground, I could just jump in and mess around.
Vasquez: Dave’s going to be doing his own issue.
Crosland: Yeah, at some point [laughter].
Alexovich: We’ll see when that happens [laughter].
Nugent: I think there’s something refreshingly pure and uncomplicated about the power-hungry narcissism of Zim and Dib: it’s sort of a struggle between ids, like there’s no super-ego, it’s just id vs. id. And then there’s Gir. But I wondered, is that part of what makes these stories so fun to read after all this time? Because they don’t feel rehashed or get boring.
Alexovich: They both have such clear motivations, the both of them, which makes storytelling a lot easier I think.
Vasquez: There’s that worry in me, as it gets further and further along. Eric and I talk about, “should Dib win? Should he have a happy ending?” [Laughter] Because yeah, I’m aware of how often we end a story or an issue with Dib–even if he’s won–losing somehow. Being sad, and ridiculed. I don’t think it would hurt to change that up every now and then. But it’s still so fun! It’s really fun, and I don’t know what that says about me, or us but–
Trueheart: This is going to get pretentious, but like, the nature of comedy is so much about people always losing and failing. You don’t wanna watch comedy where someone is ‘always successful!’ Because then you hate that person. Unless they’re helping others, like they’re Superman or whatever. And then you kind of hate him, because Zack Synder is making him kill babies in buildings. [Laughter]
Vasquez: [Laughter] I like how we work a Zack Snyder joke in.
Trueheart: Zim and Dib are both funny because they’re both huge narcissists–
Alexovich: They’re both awful.
Vasquez: Dib’s less awful in the comics now, I think he’s somewhat less awful.
Alexovich: Yeah, he’s more oblivious I think.
Trueheart: Well the thing about Dib is that Dib has a noble goal.
Vasquez: He’s genuinely trying to save the Earth.
Trueheart: But he’s just so involved in himself and in his own head, and oblivious to everything.
Alexovich: I don’t think he’d be happy with someone else defeating Zim, though. He’s gotta be the one.
Vasquez: Yeah, see, not only does he want to save the Earth, he wants to be acknowledged for it.
Nugent: He wants to be seen doing it.
Vasquez: And Dib–they’re very similar. Zim wants to have the acknowledgment of his leaders. He wants the Almighty Tallest to go: “you are great, Zim!” because Zim thinks he’s great. He’s like, “when are you going to tell me I’m great? Because I’m great!” And Dib is similar, he’s not saying “I’m great,” but he’s saying: “I’m doing all this, and you’re going to be grateful, because I’ve saved your lives.”
Trueheart: You can have Dib win, though, in stories where it’s all about Zim, because we always want to see Zim fail too. When Dib is sort of the antagonist, you can have Dib sort of have a little victory at the end, provided it comes at the expense Zim, if it’s Zim’s story–if Zim’s expectations get punched a little bit.
Vasquez: It’s interesting what you said about comedy– a lot of it being about watching people fail because if you see them win all the time you hate them. But I think on a certain level, watching someone consistently lose–you hate them as well because you’re like, “you’re too pathetic!” There’s a fine line–
Alexovich: Especially when they keep losing to such a failure! [Laughter]
Vasquez: It’s true! You’re losing against Zim!
Nugent: The bar is so low!
[Warning: spoilers ahead for Silicon Valley season two]
Trueheart: It’s like the end of Silicon Valley season two.
Vasquez: Silicon Valley is frustrating, because you want to see them win but it’s this constant uphill battle.
Trueheart: And at the end of season two I’m like, “Oh, is this the show now? Is it about how these guys never get ahead at all?” Because if they never get ahead at all, if they never leave their house, I don’t want to watch anymore.
Vasquez: I think about that when we’re doing Zim stuff. Because in the same way that in Silicon Valley, anytime anything good happens, and you’re like “yay! They finally got a break!” You instantly know: that’s the set-up for here comes the big punch in the nuts. And that’s–anytime anything good happens to Dib, you know something horrible–he’s gonna cry, and he’s gonna be sad, or maybe even be dead.
Trueheart: When he had a small victory, like Megadoomer [episode 17a of the cartoon series] for example, because it was all about Zim.
Trueheart: He didn’t get the picture because the lens cap is on, but he basically caused Zim’s–
Vasquez: He saves the Earth a lot, but even in Megadoomer, he goes to bed. He just like, “I’m going to bed.”
ME: It’s not a punch-the-air freeze frame.
Vasquez: Which is surprising that we were ever allowed to do that. Because so much of kids programming is positive messages, like, kids want to see winners. They don’t want to see losers. And our show was all about losers! [Laughter]
Trueheart: Everyone on the show is on some level horrible. There isn’t a character that–like, Gaz is horrible–
Vasquez: Again, though. more so on the show. Because Membrane was kind of an awful Dad, Gaz is an awful sister. In the comics–
Alexovich: They’re much nicer in the comics.
Vasquez: Much nicer in the comics. They really are. Gaz and Membrane, there’s more of a sense of them spending time as a family, little hints in panels. You see them playing video games and stuff together. We never had that in the show. And that was a very conscious thing. Because it was too much. It gets to be a bit heavy, and we want to have that overwhelming, depressing stuff [in the comics] but it has to be funny. And for it to be funny, it can’t just only be amidst depressing stuff. You see Dib and his family being happy, which only makes the horrible thing that’s in the next panel worse.
Alexovich: Letting a little bit of light in just makes the darkness so much deeper.
Nugent: Zim, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and Squee! are similar in that they all lose their agency and have to take increasingly drastic measures to cope with this world that’s always attacking them. Is that a feeling you all relate to or is it harder to access that as you grow more used to how the world works?
Alexovich: You just get used to it. [Laughter]
Vasquez: For me, there’s endless comedy to be mined from being overwhelmed. Seeing how people react to constantly being dealt too much. Squee, he’s a great example–he handles it. He stays a cute little kid despite it, but in those moments when he’s flipping out, that’s funny to me. Just seeing someone be flipping out amidst overwhelming circumstances. Dib is a little bit more conscious, he’s sadder. Dib is a little bit more egotistical. He sees himself as this suffering martyr kind of a character which is why he’s kind of insufferable sometimes. On the other hand, Squee has none of that, Yeah it’s just funny watching people collapse under overwhelming odds.
Alexovich: It’s funny because Gaz seems to be a character that never collapses.
Vasquez: But she’s irritated, always, because of her brother–being around Zim and Dib, characters that take things way too seriously. That’s why they’re funny. Then you have Gaz who’s just irritated at how much drama is around her.
Nugent: She’s sort of an eye roll of a character. Like eye-rolling personified.
Vasquez: More so in the cartoon, I think we try to give her a lot more of a personality in the book, hopefully. Which is another thing we’ve been very conscious of–not having her be the killjoy. You get a lot of killjoy sister characters in shows, and I feel responsible. I feel like I did some of that in the cartoon, and I want to undo–I want her to be a little person. She’s not there just to dump on her brother, although she does dump on her brother [laughter] she’s really fun to use for that.
Nugent: There’s this generation of adults who grew up with these characters–
Trueheart: Yep. That’s unfortunate.
Alexovich: Yeah. We’re sorry. [Laughter]
Me: Who find comfort in this darkly uncomfortable series, and may even be reading these comics to their own children at this point–
Trueheart: That’s even more unfortunate.
Nugent: Is this how Zim finally realizes his plan to rule this Earth? Is this the endgame?
Vasquez: That might be a bit too meta.
Nugent: I couldn’t resist.
Trueheart: Considering we barely cracked number 71 in the top 100 sales, then than no, he’s not there yet. [laughs]
Vasquez: That was for mainstream comics, though. That’s not bad–it was consistently number 1 for the small press stuff.
Nugent: Well, you started your career in comics around the same time that Oni was started.
Vasquez: Oni was always kind of running parallel to the stuff I was doing.
Me: The promise we saw of small press at the end of the nineties seems to be more realized now.
Vasquez: They’ve gotten better at just presenting what they do. They do such a nice job, like this comic that we’re doing, the trade paperbacks–they’re nice, they’re attractive. They make you want to read them. A lot of the stuff back in the nineties–I think part of the appeal is that it was so rough looking? It had this kind of garage band feel.
Nugent: It had an outsider quality. A zine quality.
Alexovich: It all comes from that zine world.
Vasquez: In terms of the Zim stuff, which people are used to being a cartoon, a thing that they got on their TV– they want it to look nice. They want it to look like they remember, and even if we’ve changed enough, people still come up and they’re like: “Oh my god, this feels and ‘sounds’ just like the show,“ and that’s the nicest thing to hear.
Nugent: Do you guys think that you’ll continue to work on comics after you’ve gotten through with this run of Zim?
Alexovich: I got into comics right after my time on Zim, I was developing my first comic while I was on Zim. And I never left, I just do animation jobs to pay the bills. To feed my comics habit.
Vasquez: We weren’t wasn’t kidding when we said this was an interruption in our normal productivity.
Alexovich: It’s been a fun interruption.
Crosland: I’ve been making comics for years.
Alexovich: What about you, Trueheart?
Alexovich: Trueheart’s not from comics! Damn you!
Trueheart: I’ll say this. The thing about it: I’ve loved comics–I don’t want to say since I was a kid, but during college in my weird, alienated years. I discovered Flaming Carrot and all that sort of thing. And I’ve loved comics ever since. The weird thing about being a screenwriter is that you write a lot of stuff that will never see the light of day in any form at all. Every major network takes like 700 pitches for shows a year, they decide to commission maybe 50 of those scripts. They only make twelve pilots and they make four of those that actually get on the network.
So I do like that there is a crossover–It’s it’s a way of taking a story that you’ve created and turning it into a format that where it can be experienced by other people. There’s a lot of screenwriters out there, like “Oh, my screenplay didn’t sell, I’ll just make a comic.” And as someone who loves comics that drives me crazy.
Nugent: It shouldn’t be a fall-back position.
Trueheart: It should not be a fallback position. And one of the things that I love so much about the Zim comics, working with Aaron and Dave, and now Warren is that they have translated this energy and–dare I say, oh god–spirit to this page. Where you look at it–
Alexovich: Oh god. Don’t–
Trueheart: I’m really sorry, you better quote me saying “I’m sorry.”
Nugent: I will.
Trueheart: There’s really a sense of motion in just the stills. And you feel like this is something that, this sense of motion and energy is unique to the comic. You get that if it had been on screen, yeah, it might look like this. But there’s something about the way the page is laid out, I think that the jokes play visually in a way they wouldn’t play just watching it on a screen. So I love that this is a whole different medium. That being said, yeah, I need to do more TV. [Laughter]
Nugent: Gotta keep the light bill paid.
Trueheart: Gotta keep the light bill paid.
Featured image credit: Oni Press/illustrated by Dave Crosland, colored by Warren Wucinich.