Adam Tierney interviewed Jhonen Vasquez and Rikki Simons in September 1, 2004 for IGN.
The two demented minds behind Zim talk to IGN. How apt. by Adam Tierney
It's amazing how far a little cult following will go. Post-cancellation interest and strong DVD sales brought Futurama back into popularity and Family Guy back into production. DVD has become the haven for underappreciated shows, and one of the prime examples is Jhonen Vasquez' Nicktoon Invader Zim.
A dark and funny cartoon on par with anything Adult Swim is producing, Zim was unfortunately sandwiched between adorable children's programming and shuffled around Nick's schedule for one season before it got the ax. But thanks to continued interest from the fans (made up of, surprise, not many kids) the show's getting a second life on DVD.
We reviewed the first Invader Zim volume from Media Blasters last May. Debuting this week in stores is volume 2 and for the occasion, we were lucky enough to get a hold of the show's creators for an interview on all things alien and green.
To coincide with our review of Invader Zim: Progressive Stupidity (Volume 2), we decided to track down two of the guys behind the show - creator / writer Jhonen Vasquez and color-designer Rikki Simons (who also provides the voice of Gir the robot) - to get their opinions on the success of the DVDs, what went wrong with Nick and why children flying from elevator wreckage is okay. It took a pair of monkey traps and two pounds cherry Jolly Ranchers, but after successfully locking the two in our offices, our interview was ready to begin.
IGN DVD: How did you guys approach the art and color design on the show? Was it strange working with other artists instead of handling everything yourselves?
Rikki: I was a little disoriented about leaving my house to go work with strangers, yes. I usually spend all of my time making graphic novels with my wife, Tavisha, and the idea of leaving my house for any longer than it takes to shake my fist angrily at the blazing Los Angeles sun strikes sickness into my agoraphobic heart. I'm hoping to become like that Florida woman who stayed on her couch for five years and eventually become grafted to it, you see.
Jhonen: I had worked with Rikki on I Feel Sick, which, palette-wise, was a sort of test run for ZIM's look. I tend to use a lot of purples and greens, and especially bloody reds in my work, and we pretty much went into ZIM knowing that the world would take on those elements.
Rikki: Color design on ZIM was supervised by Jay Bondy, with whom I shared a dark, aggro-tempered room. We built the color model around work I had previously finished for Jhonen and used a Photoshop coloring technique that involved painting with brightness/contrast adjustment layers over flat colors.
Jhonen: I was just blown away by how much I could come to trust that color team to do what I wanted, or do something better than what I had in my head. Amazing stuff.
IGN DVD: How big an issue was censorship on the show? Were there any storylines you couldn't sell Nick on?
Jhonen: It wasn't much of an issue at all, really. I never had the overt sense that ideas were being shot down for their graphic content and such. I mean, we had episodes with kids having their eyes torn from their skulls, complete with scary music and pained shrieks. We suffered creatively, just like every other show, after 9/11, thanks to the blanket fears that anything remotely violent would be received as being in poor taste. Before that it was Columbine making the pilot episode somewhat of a hassle because of Dib's black trench coat and the apocalyptic school food fight.
The real trouble was not in getting violent, scary stuff through, but just trying to get the right kind of humor. I'm of the mind that if it's not killing anyone, and there's no scientific method to prove an idea I like is not gonna work out, then I'm gonna try it. I'd rather fail because I fell on my own face than fall because someone tripped me up. ZIM could have been a children's' television version of Mork and Mindy, with zany misunderstandings of Earth customs and a moral at the end, but that's not at all what I wanted to make (even though a show like that would have likely been a monstrous hit, spawning hoards of negligible Gameboy games).
I love telling stories, but I don't like knowing I have to fight to the edge of insanity to convince someone that a little bit of the bizarre is really worth it. The best example is Iggins flying away from the crashed elevator at the end of Gameslave 2. We could not just end the episode and have it implied that Iggins died in the crash because that would be bad, and killing children is bad, and bad things... are bad.
We had a taste of that in Bestest Friend, where Keef falls off the roof and explodes. Our quick fix was just adding some dialogue offscreen so that you know he's okay, but then instead of a simple "Oh dear, that annoying child exploded" you get "Oh dear, that child exploded and is asking if anyone wants waffles and now there's Gir stirring batter like some evil puppet master."
If I have to fix something, I like to fix it in the spirit of whatever I'm working on. So those ZIM fixes, although done begrudgingly, often made me like the end result even more. In the Gameslave 2 case, we were told that Iggins had to be alive. So I decided that Iggins would fly out of the rubble like Superman. This actually resulted in lengthy discussions, meetings, and conference calls with higher-ups from the network, all because Iggins flies at the end. I mean, the kid is SO not dead, so very healthy that he now has the ability to FLY!! How much better can you get than that? They thought we were making fun of them. That's when I blew my head off in frustration and became a crime-fighting ghost.
IGN DVD: Makes sense. What was the original target demographic Nick had for Invader Zim?
Jhonen: The original plan, the one they sold me on, was that they were looking to catch some of that older audience Cartoon Network was getting. Nick's a monstrous network, and they're not hurting for ratings, but nobody really thinks of them in terms of cool shows like Pete N' Pete or Ren and Stimpy anymore. So they wanted something "edgy", and even went so far as to make that wiggly "edgy" gesture with their hands that implies... "edgy."
What ended up happening is that as ZIM got closer to being finished, there were no other shows being worked on that fit in with this 'wiggly finger gesture' block that Nick had seemed so thrilled about. We ended up premiering, sammiched between Fairly Oddparents and Rocket Power - two shows perfect for kids, but not the kind of kids I wanted to make shows for. They created this 30 minute chasm of nightmares that the kids had to cross between musical numbers and extreme sports toddlers on skates.
Rather than change the show into something it wasn't, I just went on giving them the show they didn't quite know they were asking for. Like it or not, they were responsible and helped me make something that I'm proud of, that makes children cry. Go me!
IGN DVD: Why didn't Nick consider shipping the cartoon over to MTV, like they did with Ren and Stimpy?
Jhonen: That I can't say for sure. We asked them to, when it became apparent that Nick was the "place for kids" but not "kids who want their eyes ripped out." As far as I know, Nick was all about burying the show with ever-changing time slots. Any move to a channel where it might get decent attention was not an attractive one to them.
When you're proud of something, working with a crew that enjoys what they're doing, you just want people to appreciate your work. Getting lucky with a network that backs you is a dream. We didn't have that, so we spent a lot of time in a crying huddle.
IGN DVD: You brought fellow comic artist Roman Dirge on as a writer and did many of the voices yourselves. Was there ever any opposition to not using talent exclusively from the animation industry?
Jhonen: Not so much from the higher ups. There were people who had come from very traditional animation backgrounds and most of then were just damned nice and glad to be working on something a little different. There were a few of those rare stereotype guys who were there just to look down on anyone who just didn't have experience (myself included). I came from comics, and there I am in charge of the show, so you learn to expect some difficulty, even from people who are supposed to be working for you, in realizing what's in your head.
There was the opinion that I should relinquish control to someone who comes from the world of animation, who might not actually have the imagination or humor that was right for what I was trying to do. I respect a person for their talent. And some of the guys working with me, though new to animation, were giving me so much more than a lot of the 'seasoned pros' could do. It's the freaks that surprise you, and the show, for the most part, found a nice balance of freak power and technical skill from both types of people.
IGN DVD: Rikki, how did you approach voicing Gir? What were the most important elements of the character for you?
Jhonen: First, I began with....oh wait, I'm not Rikki!
Rikki: I approached the job by pretending (which didn't take much effort) that it wasn't a job. The most important element of doing the voices on the show, whether GIR or Bloaty the Pig, was to have fun. A lot of people comment that I sound like I was just making things up on the spot. That's partly true, but I'm not a voice actor, as Jhonen will tell you with far too much joy. And while I did the voice-actor thing of taking his direction on inflection and I read the lines provided, I was really having the best time ever just yelling and screaming and being stupid. I mean, they were paying me to talk like an idiot, and I didn't even have to run for office. That's pretty cool, you know?
IGN DVD: A few of the episodes involve Zim coming pretty close to his objectives, and in Hobo 13 he's abusive but he gets the job done. Do you consider him a screw-up? And if the show had continued do you think he might've been able to conquer Earth?
Jhonen: I always imagined ZIM as just being utterly unaware of his shortcomings, to a dangerous extent even. He's not really stupid, but he's got some problems getting priorities straight. He's this alien from an incredibly advanced race (technologically anyhow), with access to a universe of power. And yet he stays in school all day, enduring it, hating it, fearing it and freaking out about it. The thought of sneaking out or setting a robot in his place never crosses his mind. He gets so caught up with the most unimportant details, he ends up getting nothing done; He gets a giant robot, and his plan is to go beat Dib up. It was cool to remind people that he really was in control of some impressive stuff, but that his sense of control was so horrible that it didn't matter if his plans were foolproof.
Ultimately, my idea was to take his sights off world domination, as ZIM begins to understand that there is a beauty in human life, an understanding that sets him on his path to becoming a public legal defender. I was very inspired by Ben Affleck's powerful courtroom scenes in Daredevil, and I wanted to move people to tears like those scenes moved me. But the show was canceled before any of that, thus leaving our audience of ten unfulfilled.
IGN DVD: How did the idea of Zim on DVD begin? Did you guys approach Nick and Media Blasters about it or did they come to you?
Jhonen: Having a show killed when you've put so much of yourself into it can be a hard thing to take. But what was great was the amount of noise fans made about keeping it on the air. That's better than making a show that does well, but is forgotten once the TV goes off.
The ZIM fans (or "horrible screaming goblins"), they went nuts and started a petition, and pretty much kept the show alive online through fansites and whatnot. They dressed up as the characters at conventions, and they wrote nightmarishly bad fanfics that creeped us all out. The ZIM awareness was bigger than it ever was when the show was on the air.
Media Blasters probably fell into that fan category. They liked ZIM and approached Nick, who probably blinked and asked why the hell anyone would want to make DVDs of a show that did so poorly and didn't have X-treme kids in it. You gotta hand it to Media Blasters for being smarter than the company that owned the rights to a show it saw no potential for. What's sad is I was never even sent DVD copies of my own show. My next show is called You Ungrateful Bastards and it stars my boot in their damned, blood-splattered groins.
IGN DVD: How far did season 2 get into production? And will we be able to see any of the unaired episodes on the Invader Zim vol. 3 DVD?
Jhonen: Every episode we produced will be on the DVDs, so far as I know. At this point, I'm not sure what has or hasn't aired on Nick. I don't know if they aired Backseat Drivers From Beyond the Stars, but that's my favorite big episode that probably never aired. Everything just sort of came together in a way that was exciting as all hell. That third disc is the one I think I'd be most likely to watch, since the look and feel was really getting so much more defined.
IGN DVD: What happened with the cover of volume 2? The original piece you two created has been floating around on sites like Roomwithamoose.com and Rikki's webpage. It looked phenomenal.
Jhonen: I wanted to do as much work as I could for Media Blasters, since they were super nice and excited about doing anything with ZIM, a feeling I appreciated after years of dealing with people who never seemed to get the show. Knowing ZIM would have a place outside of network airings, where people could actually get decent quality versions of the episodes and watch them anytime was all I ever wanted, so making the DVDs all-in-all nice sets was important to me. We did commentary and interviews and everything, but the covers were the only real problem. The first cover I drew went through fine, since it was a pretty basic presentation of the characters. But the second one...that second one was awesome.
I just had so much fun with the sense of lunacy and motion on that image, with ZIM actually looking really evil and in control of things, swinging all those kids around. I even threw Bloaty the Pig in there, for those people who love revolting pig men. But Nick (who had final say) didn't so much like it, saying it was too scary for kids. They're making these DVDs possible ultimately, but it's like they still don't know WHY anyone watches this show. It was screwed on their network because it was not quite a show for the wee kids, but those wee kids aren't the ones shelling out bucks for the DVDs. It's the fans, the nasty, maniacal, cackling fans who know what the show's about, and it's about crazy aliens bent on world domination / destruction.
I was told they would use my image if I made a few alterations, meaning I was to change the characters' faces so it looked like they were 'having fun'. That's just not my show, and I figured it would be false advertising. Sure, the show IS fun, but not in a 'kids playing and having kooky, giggling adventures at 30,000 feet up in the grip of a crazed alien' way. That all came at a time that I was getting very busy on my own projects, and given the choice of experiencing the old silly notes from Nick, or working on my own stuff (which I had total power over), I opted for my own stuff. I just didn't want to waste any more time on things that would not get used.
The DVDs still look great though. Volume 2 uses an image Bryan Konietzko, my art director, did as general promo art, and the 3rd uses Christmas promo art by Louie Del Carmen. Both are just really nice pieces.
IGN DVD: Is there any word on the box set yet? The prototype (shaped like Zim's house) looked pretty slick.
Jhonen: I have no idea. What I saw of it long ago looked pretty cool.
IGN DVD: Is there any chance of a Zim revival in any form (TV / comics / film / videogames)? And if Nick wanted to do something new, would you two be involved?
Rikki: I don't know. Nickelodeon seems to hate it and Jhonen certainly doesn't have any reason to hide his feelings. On the bizarre chance that physicists the world over can finally explain the phenomenon of dark matter and that it turns out to have something to do with invisible Floridian couch women exerting themselves on galaxies, and not the Invader Zim show as Nick feared, and that convinces them to restart it... I would probably only consider going back if Jhonen had something to do with it. Unless, of course, they gave me a lot of money. Man, that'd ****ing rock!
Jhonen: Ultimately, Nick can do whatever it wants with the show, as they hold the rights to it, though I would not be too surprised if the DVD's success results in a hideously mediocre side-scroller on the GBA. I'm not at all excited about doing anything in the name of children any time too soon. It's just not where my mind is. The only ZIM I'd want to work on is one where he can finally start melting the faces off of kids in his class, and one where a kid can fly even if it makes no sense. In the end though, I'd rather do something new.
IGN DVD: How did Zim's association with Hot Topic begin, and are you pleased with how that's turned out?
Jhonen: I hate feet. Hot topic sells ZIM sandals... that people put their disgusting feet in. I hate anything that results in people showing their rotten toes with the help of ZIM brand sandals. I like making merchandise for things that I'd actually want, but we were pretty cut out of it early on. ZIM sandals, man - what the ****?
IGN DVD: What are you guys watching or playing now as far as shows and games are concerned?
Jhonen: City of Heroes, Unreal Tournament 2004, Super Puzzle Fighter (always), Rainbow Six 3, DOOM 3, Painkiller, Full Spectrum Warrior, Riddick, Day of Defeat, Ratchet and Clank 2, Gish, Metal Slug 3, and Rallisport Challenge 2. As for shows, I tend to miss most everything and catch it all on DVD to watch while I'm working. Father Ted, man...it's all about Father Ted and The Office. Old Black Adder, maybe some Red Dwarf. Pretty happy with those Aqua Teen DVDs as well.
'Rikki: I never get a chance to watch anything these nights except my computer monitor (and sites like weirdamerica.com). I'm just too busy for movies and television. I really liked the pilot character on Farscape, but I never found enough time to watch it. I used to enjoy Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, Absolutely Fabulous, Father Ted, Black Adder and Mystery Science Theater 3000. I still watch the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast on DVD whenever the moment seems right. The new Battlestar Galactica might be neat, if they don't turn it into Friends in space'. And I'm hoping the new Doctor Who will be good.
But I'm just so tired of there being nothing new. Why isn't there a new show on television, science fiction or fantasy, supportable by a network (poor Farscape) that isn't based on 30 years of nostalgia? For games, I've just been playing around with City of Heroes and Final Fantasy XI whenever I get the chance, which isn't often. I'm still waiting for Ico II. I'm so sad. Boo hoo hoo...
IGN DVD: There, there. What projects are up next for each of you?
Jhonen: I'm the Puppymaster. I control the puppies.
IGN DVD: Okayyy... Rikki, how about you?
Rikki: I've gone back to writing and painting books. Tavisha and I are creating a six-volume series of graphic novels called ShutterBox. It's intended to be a gothic romance/fantasy and is published by Tokyopop. The first two volumes are available now. I've also written a science fiction melancholically-comedic novel called Ranklechick and His Three-Legged Cat. It's fully illustrated and will be published by Slave labor Graphics next year. Previews and a blog about these books (called the Sad Circus by the Sea) can be found in the 'updates' section at tavicat.com. Oh my God, buy these and make me rich! I'm so tired ...
IGN DVD: Is there anything else you guys would like to say to the Zim fans reading this?
Rikki: Thank you for agreeing to be shot into space. Your mission to populate the universe with people smarter than your planet of origin begins now. Huh? What do you mean you lack proper shelter, food, water and propulsion? I'm not your mom. Go on. Go to space!
Jhonen: Most of all, I would say thanks to those fans that made something like the DVDs even possible. They've been behind the show from day one, spreading it like an infection to the point where the DVDs have actually done incredibly well. The infection is fatal, however.