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Speaking For Zimself: A Conversation With Jhonen Vasquez

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman invades the mind of Jhonen Vasquez, the creator of Invader Zim, to discuss Zim, Jhonen's ideas and inspirations, and the ups and downs of producing his first animated series.

Zimself: A self portrait.

Earth has been invaded by a hostile alien but don't lose any sleep; the invader in question is Zim, the most hapless would-be conqueror in the universe. Although Zim is supremely confident that the world will fall at his tiny green feet, neither he nor his malfunctioning robot GIR can get through a typical day without inflicting disasters of galactic proportions upon themselves. Invader Zim is one of Nickelodeon's hottest new series and it originates from the wickedly fertile mind of writer/artist Jhonen Vasquez, best known for his comic book series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE! (rightfully the world's most phobic little boy). Jhonen recently spoke with me about Zim, his ideas and inspirations, and the ups and downs of producing his first animated series.

Dr. Toon: Let's start out with how Invader Zim came to Nickelodeon. Mary Harrington contacted you after checking out SQUEE! What did Ms. Harrington tell you she liked about the SQUEE! series?

Jhonen Vasquez: I think she saw a certain amount of "kid relatability," mainly in the way I handled the kids and the way Squee's behavior was an overall mood. I don't think anyone would ever want to make SQUEE! into a kids' show -- I don't think anyone would be that insane -- but I think she liked the way I handled the characters and the way there was actual character as opposed to just sick humor. Something in that made her take a chance on coming to me and asking me to come up with the idea for a show. I'm not certain whether it was with the intention of converting SQUEE! into a series -- I like to think it wasn't.

Dr. T: I understand that you came up with the idea for Invader Zim for Harrington on the spot.

JV: Pretty much, yeah. At the time, when I was asked if I had any ideas for a show I had been working on SQUEE! and had done seven Johnnys [the Homicidal Manic]. I was about to finish up SQUEE! and figured, "Yeah, it's time to do something different." That night after I had the initial conversation where I had said, "Sure, I'll try to think up something," I just sat there in bed -- didn't sleep, just sat there thinking -- and came up with the basic idea for the show; Zim being the outcast alien who just doesn't see himself as anything but the greatest creature ever to exist. Zim, Dib and Gaz pretty much came full-formed and the rest of the show just built around it. The whole idea came that one night, in just about an hour or so.

Dr. T: I notice that in SQUEE! there are a few stories featuring malevolent but totally incompetent aliens. Was that sort of the jumping-off point for you?

The books that started it all: SQUEE! and Johnny the Homicidal Manic. © Slave Labor Graphics.

JV: Oh, yeah, I love that! I love the idea of anything that's considered to be a superior being -- they've got all this amazing technology -- and yet ultimately they're still just idiots! They're just guys piloting this gigantic spaceship. You get the idea that they stole it rather than built it themselves. They haven't evolved beyond being driven by their personalities. That's what Zim is. He's got this incredible arsenal at his hand and the only thing that's stopping him from destroying the Earth is the fact that he's a moron! Anyone else in that position, there would be no show because Earth would be destroyed in the first episode! It's more fun working with Zim as an idiot.

Dr. T: In one of the SQUEE! stories -- the one in which his teddy bear Shmee is explaining his purpose to Squee -- it looks like you've drawn an early prototype of Zim. Was that drawing the basis for your character design? He doesn't look like the other aliens in your stories.

JV: Zim? He's just really simple. Almost as simple as that classic idea of what an alien looks like. I don't think Zim is based on any other character. He's essentially sort of stripped down to what my other characters are but without any of the detail. He's so basic he's almost the building block for every other character in the show. There's a certain level of the sinister in his face that I like to pull off, it's kind of common in a lot of the work that I do now.

An early Zim? A panel from Squee's Wonderful Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Squee  and © 2001 Jhonen Vasquez. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Dr. T: How about that panel where Shmee is explaining to Squee all the things there are to be afraid of, and one of them is aliens. That alien kind of looks like Zim.

JV: Probably was a Zim. At the time I was coming up with conceptual stuff for Zim, and stuff that I didn't use or just seemed a little off, I like throwing it in the back of the books. You'll see Zim prototypes in posters on Squee's wall, or here and there. People have written to me saying, "Hey, is that Zim?" in the fan mail and it's kind of cool that people pay that much attention. It's kind of weird looking at those books because I did them so long ago, and it's cool to see the early stages of what I'm working on now. Yeah, you probably are picking up on some Zim prototypes in there.

Dr. T: You've said that any person that's writing a character is either basing it on themselves or someone that they think is a completely different person from themselves. So, where does Zim stand in relation to you?

JV: I think that Zim is just the part of me that refuses to listen to anybody. It's the only reason I get anywhere! People always telling you this and that, you've got to be careful of this and that -- you know, like, "Learn a trade so that you'll have something to fall back on!" The only thing I enjoy is drawing, making up these horrible little stories. And Zim, the thing that keeps him going, that keeps him so relentless, is the fact that he's oblivious. It's his only strength. In his case, it's absurd. If he realized what an idiot he was he would break down crying. But he doesn't! Everything he does is pure genius! He's unstoppable, and that makes him terrifying really, because there is no greater enemy than an idiot who doesn't understand that he is an idiot.

Dr. T: Ignorance of what other people feel, hurting their feelings, and open contempt for those who are different, seem to be major crimes in your books. Zim really takes those concepts to the limit. I mean, he sees all humanity as worthless except for slavery.

JV: Pretty much. I thought the fun thing about doing a kids' show like that is, you've got all these people rooting for someone who is trying to destroy the audience. The only person who's trying to save the Earth (Zim's arch rival Dib) has as much contempt for his fellow human beings as the person he's trying to stop. Because of his intelligence, he's kind of looked down on by most of the other kids. He's a freak. It's fun that the "alien" is on both sides; Dib is as much an alien to his own people as Zim is. I've always loved the idea of ambiguity between good and evil. What's great is, even though I'm thinking of that stuff on my own and no one's going to pick up on it, they're going to enjoy the show. But I've actually gotten kids who have been talking about that! "Who's the bad guy here?" they say. "I don't care. They're both funny!" And that's really cool.

Dr. T: That's true. Dib is an asshole too. He's got nothing on his mind but Zim as the subject of an alien autopsy.

JV: Well, Dib has gotten to the point where he's not really a bad person, he's just frustrated. He lacks the patience to explain anything to anyone anymore. He's so used to people not believing him that he goes right into screaming at them. He immediately assumes that they're going to be morons and aren't going to believe him -- and normally they don't.

Dr. T: If Zim -- in spite of himself and GIR -- somehow managed to subjugate the entire Earth, what would he do with it?

JV: He'd like to think that he would be so appreciated by his people that he'll be put in charge, but really, the Irken Armada usually just demeans an entire planet to something stupid like a parking structure planet or maybe a giant food court planet. I don't think people think about the fact that the plan is to destroy all human beings; not enslave them so much as to just wipe them all out. Which would be a great episode, ahh! Could you see that? But, I don't think we could actually wipe out the human race on a kids' network.

Dr. T: I guess you'd have to do it off screen.

JV: Yeah, and you know what we'd get? "Uh? Can we hear the human race say they're OK off screen? Just so we know that they didn't die?"

Dr. T: According to you, when you write your books you give yourself only a general storyline to work with, and the actual details don't come out until you sit down and start to work. Did that make writing for a TV series difficult for you?

JV: It made it, I think, more interesting. I kind of was prepared for it. I still have a little bit of looseness in the way I work, but that's mainly when we get to the recording -- you know, adding bits and pieces here and there -- but the overall structure is definitely much more refined than when I did comics. The comics were more a stream-of-consciousness sort of thing; it's how I felt natural with the characters speaking. I figured I didn't want them to feel like they were being scripted: as soon as I thought of it, they would say it. The show is a little different. It's definitely trying to tell a story in the amount of time you've got. I never really knew how long a comic series of mine was going to last; I would just say, "OK, that story's not done yet, I'll have another issue." But with a cartoon series that's a little tougher, because I have eleven minutes and I have to tell the story right then and there. I think it's fun working in a way that I haven't before, but yeah, I don't go as loosely as I used to do on the comics.

Dr. T: In a past interview you were quoted as saying that you saw all your characters as animated shorts, animated features or live-action feature-length films. Some of the film direction "asides" you put into your panels kind of proves that. Do you think, Jhonen, that you were always moving toward the eventual involvement with an animated series?

The Zim family. © Nickelodeon.

JV: I always thought that I would be doing -- in my dreams -- movies or something like that. I never thought I would be having an animated series, just like I never thought of actually having a comic book. It's just that every time the opportunity has presented itself I can't pass it up, because it's another step closer to constructing a reality out of these ideas in my head. You know, the fun of seeing these things move around and, well, it sounds so cliché, come to life. Ultimately it comes down to how cool that is. I grew up loving stuff like this and now I'm making it. And it's still fun. Well, most of this is rather exhausting and hideous, but when I sit down and watch a finished episode, it's worth it, because I don't watch it as something that I made, I watch it as something that I would have enjoyed whether or not I made it and that's the cool part of it.

Dr. T: Congratulations on a new season of Invader Zim.

JV: Thank you very much. A few more nightmares for the kids!

Dr. T: You're a former film student and a movie buff that enjoys horror films. I was reviewing the first season of Zim and saw things like organs, weird alien skin diseases, mechanical parts springing out of organic bodies and I was wondering if you were a big fan of David Cronenberg.

JV: Oh my God! That man is one of the people I truly thank for existing. His attitude toward organic existence is so disturbing. It's brilliant. The transmogrification of the human body and all those themes, I've always been into that, always been fascinated by it. When I look back at myself growing up as a little kid I see early signs of me being amazed with certain concepts like those, and he just hits them right on the head every time.

Dr. T: It really comes across nicely in Zim.

JV: It's not so conscious. There is a future episode (of Zim) which is inspired by his take on The Fly called Bolognius Maximus where Dib is slowly becoming bologna! It's a stupid-sounding story, but it's fun because it's handled at the same level of that moment when Brundle finds out he's been fused with a fly. It's like, "Oh my God, I'm becoming..." But it's bologna! It's horrifying, and the music in the episode is horrifying, and the angles make it even more horrifying -- and that just makes it funnier! And the fact that David Cronenberg has a hand in that -- in a kids' show! Very few people point out that he's an inspiration to me. Kurt Vonnegut is another one of them but with a different take. They never handle science-fiction like it's "just" a science-fiction story. There's so much respect and intelligence behind it that I think it helps even a cartoon show. Even though it is silly or funny, there's a level of awareness behind who's making the show that I think it's kind of fun when people pick up on it. If they don't, if they just see freakish, weird stuff, well, that's OK, because that's what it is.

Dr. T: When the series began, Jhonen, some of the things you had to adjust to were having to do more on the management rather than creative end and having other people bring their styles to your characters. Have you been able to find ways to become more creatively involved with the show this season and put more of your personal stamp on it?

JV:

Even from the very beginning I despised all the managerial kind of stuff; can't stand it. I'd rather be sitting there in my room drawing. I'd rather be turning out the character designs. I still do a bunch of character designs, and I do a lot of background work. That first season, even though there was a lot a managerial stuff, it was also compounded with several other full-time jobs in character work. I'm head writer. I'm involved in storyboards and actually going and revising storyboards, and again, doing an obscene amount of character designs. Now all I'm trying to do is keep the amount of creative involvement I have had all this time, but ease off on the managerial side, because now there are people that have shown themselves to be people I can trust to take things over for me. Ultimately I'd like to be able to focus on the writing -- as head writer -- and deal with the overall direction. I do all the voice direction too, and I'd like to stay there. But approving every little background, every design, that's the stuff where I could definitely free a lot of time up and get back to what makes it fun. Which sort of, at this very moment, it is not. It's not as often as I'd like, the amount of actual enjoyment when I'm just sitting there drawing or giggling like a lunatic over some new idea.

Dr. T: Will you eventually be directing episodes yourself?

JV: I don't know. I already do a whole lot in terms of governing what the episode is going to be like; the way the characters act -- that's me, overseeing so much of that. Now the storyboard guys are getting so great that they do all this stuff without me telling them how to do it, but it's still so much fun when I sit down with the script and the board guys. I act out key scenes and I'm telling them, "In this moment, he moves exactly like this!" just to accent that joke. In a way, I am a huge voice in what you actually end up seeing in the episode. Steve Ressel is the animation director and he does a great job of translating all of that. I do so much on the show that I don't know if I need to take on another task.

Dr. T: Steve Ressel has a terrific background in adult animation. He directed on Duckman, God, the Devil, and Bob, and one of my old favorites, Stressed Eric. What has Steve been able to bring to your material?

JV: Well, the coolest thing about Steve is -- a lot of people want to come in on this sort of thing, and they come in from other shows. Some of them are more talented than others, some of them just amazingly talented, but they always want to have a lot more of a voice in my project and what I'm doing. Coming from comics where it's just all me, well, I understand that it's necessary to work with other people but it's also necessary for the show to come as much from my head as possible. Steve does a beautiful job of translating what's in my head into animation. That's the most important thing to me. He treats it so seriously. I say, "I want it to look like a movie; like you're looking at a scene from a movie, not like a flat shot from the Sunday funnies" -- he knows what a dramatic shot is and he knows what a dramatic scene is. I need that for this show because even though it's supposed to be funny, like I always say, the more dramatically it's handled, the funnier it is because it brings a level of absurdity to the joke.

Dr. T: How did you hook up with your writing team?

JV: Currently, we've got three writers. Myself, Rob (Hummel) and Eric (Trueheart). Rob I've known for years; he's a friend of mine and a writer. I'd worked with him on writing scripts on our own, for ourselves. It seemed like a perfect fit to bring him on because he knows what I go for. He knows what I like and what I don't like. He censors himself when he knows there's something I'm going to take out anyhow; he's that much in tune with what I'm going for. And Eric? Actually, we found him when we were going through hundreds of thousands of billions of scripts when we were looking for another writer. It was just a case of us seeing his work. He had done some Internet shorts and his stuff was funny! He had never worked in animation before and had never worked in anything like television before -- and that, I love. I love the fact that a lot of these guys have never worked on any other kind of cartoon, and I can see that they're not pulling from anything else. They're not being inspired by any other show they've worked on, and there's not another definite style coming into it. It's all new to me.

Dr. T: That's as original as you can get.

JV: Yeah, that's really important to me. Some of the most important people on the show, this is our first job. It's all people who haven't been encrusted with years and years of working on other things -- you know, the ones who "know the ropes" and know what you "can't" do -- they're not afraid to try it. Which is the coolest fucking thing about these people.

Ah, school days. © Nickelodeon.

Dr. T: As a comic book artist of some renown yourself, talk about some of the artists working on the show. Who -- or what -- has really impressed you?

JV: The character designer, Aaron Alexovitch -- who we found right out of school. He was going to Cal Arts, or some nightmare place, and he took the chance to work on the show. He was going to school so that he could break into some kind of animation business, and he was given the opportunity to work on Zim. He took it, and he worked out. Originally he was going to be a clean-up artist and he's made his way up to head character designer now. I can completely trust in what he's going to do. His style is close enough to mine to where he can actually improve upon the look of the show at this point. That's what it's all about, getting better and better. The color crew is great; those people really pick up on how interesting the color schemes are. They are phenomenal in what they do, and in the amount of time they do it. They get a look out of the show that just makes it stand out. It's a dark but colorful look, like I love. They can reproduce it by this point without me telling them anything; they just do it. It's getting to that point where I can leave the building and not lose my mind over what hideous things are happening to my show. It's cool because these people, they love working on the show. Aside from all the nightmarish hours they put into it, you can tell that they actually enjoy it now, as opposed to just having a job.

Dr. T: Would you try this again, Jhonen? Do you see yourself working on a future animated series?

JV: I would have to shoot myself several times in the face to achieve a certain level of brain damage to agree to it again. Which I was planning on doing, but not to get back into animation. I was just going to shoot myself because I could use the rest! I don't want to get stuck working on children's animation, I don't think. Well, maybe I don't think of it as "stuck," but there are so many other ideas I want to work on that are limited by what I can do on a kids' show. I don't want to just have fun with a creepy kids' show, I want to work on something genuinely creepy. I definitely have to, because I have so many ideas I have to get out of my head before I'm dead -- which could be anytime now.

Dr. T: Did you watch cartoons as a kid? What kind of animation did you watch?

JV: The usual garbage you just can't help but like when you're little, like He-Man. I remember when watching He-Man I thought, "Wow, this is garbage!" because they had, you know, five drawings that they used every episode. Stuff that I really, really loved, I didn't find myself being amazed by. It was more just enjoying it in a sort of cartoon haze, a "sitting there, eating your cereal, watching cartoons" kind of level. There wasn't really any appreciation for how amazing the stuff was until I saw stuff like Akira. I always hated Scooby Doo. I couldn't stand how brown everything was! It was like staring at feces for half an hour. Euuh! I think there's a good thing about the fact that I didn't take a lot of this with me, love for these cartoons I saw while growing up, because I don't put a lot of that into what I do now. I don't derive a lot of inspiration from growing up with this stuff. There's a lot of stuff out there that looks like new episodes of a really old show to me. One or two shows, that's OK, but there are a lot of shows on the American side of things that are so retro, so tired-looking to me. It would be cool to see something done on this side that breaks away from that. There's been a cool response to (Invader Zim) just on that level alone, in that people dig the different look of it.

Dr. T: Jhonen, you give a great interview. Is there anything you have never said in an interview that you want to say now? Let it rip!

JV: Daily, I drink about a garbage bag of baby's blood. How's that?

Dr. T: Uh...please don't let Squee hear about it!

Jhonen Vasquez, 26, currently resides in Los Angeles where he plots future horrors from the dark sanctuary of his drawing table. His comic books have been nominated for several Eisner Awards, are produced by Slave Labor Graphics and are kept continually in print to the delight of fans old and new. Jhonen actually prefers Pillsbury crescent rolls to baby's blood, but you won't find him eating Scooby Snacks anytime soon.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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