Tuesday, 4 January 2011
The vast majority of the cartoons you’ll see on Western television are zany comedies based on quirky characters, be they child geniuses like Dexter or Jimmy Neutron or anthropomorphic angry beavers, cows or chickens. Generally, the success stories are either the simple, recognisable ideas done well (the babies of Rugrats; the everyday life of broadly-characterised kids in Hey Arnold) or the totally crazy (an anthropomorphic sponge, or three bug-eyed kindergarteners with immense powers and a simian nemesis). Anything in the middle, like Fairly Odd Parents or The Wild Thornberries tends to flounder and disappear. However, since the 80s, there have been very few animations with serious, non-episodic storylines – pioneering CG animation Reboot, a few action movie tie-ins, the recent anime-imitating Avatar. What American animation does best is humour.
And sometimes something subversive comes along. There are the prominent adult-oriented cartoons – The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Beavis and Butthead et al – but then there are a select few that get shown on kids’ networks, are ostensibly marketed at kids, but are totally against all the sanitised, predictable moulds cartoons tend to be squeezed from, and get a cult following amongst adults and teenagers. The first and perhaps greatest of these was Ren and Stimpy. But the one that has the most vociferous followers is 2001’s Invader Zim.
Created by Jhonen Vasquez, the mind behind the repetitive but nicely dark Johnny the Homocidal Maniac, Nickelodeon must have known what they were getting themselves into, despite later cancelling the series because 10-year-olds weren’t watching. And Vasquez delivered, with a daft tale about a hapless alien with an insane but adorable robot sidekick GIR, whose plots are usually discovered by Dib, a conspiracy nut hated by his sceptical classmates and his laconic little sister Gaz. I’d say that he usually foiled Zim’s plans, but to be honest most of them don’t really need foiling.
This is as dark and weird as mainstream cartoons get. Ghostly, snake-like schoolteachers, weird machines, little green men from the planet Irken, lots of slime and grotesque fat people, plenty of satire of media culture and a few dollops of out-and-out surrealism (like Pig-Boy, who appears just to undermine Dib’s attack on Zim, cries and jumps out of a classroom window, only to fly off into the sky), not to mention lots and lots of pain for all the major characters; Postman Pat it ain’t. It’s also remarkable in really lacking any identifiable figures. Zim is a crazy megalomaniac, Dib is a pariah and a nutcase and Gaz is violent and antisocial. It’s a cartoon made by outsiders, for outsiders, which is perhaps why it has such a large internet following. But it’s also a slickly-made cartoon, with nice stylised art, great B-movie/techno music and the kind of over-the-top comedic voice acting the Americans do so well. Zim and Gir are just superbly-voiced.
But having watched all the episodes ever produced, I can’t say I’d watch more than one or two of them again. For such a good concept, Zim was rather lacking in laughs. I don’t think there were enough ideas to sustain the entire run, and when a whole double-episode is devoted to Gaz being put under a spell that makes her only able to taste pork, you know Vasquez was scraping the barrel. Most of the real laughs were based on performance, not writing, and Zim’s voice actor has a great way of emphasising random WORDS in a sentence that always made me smile. It was a great concept, and some of the surreal moments work perfectly. Minor characters like the sardonic Almighty Tallest and the dramatic Professor Membrane were extremely well-conceived. Perhaps if it hadn’t been cancelled, the show could have reached its full potential and really been the classic some of its fans would have you believe it is (most of them, I have to suspect, just wanting to impress on you how hiply alternative they are), but as it stands, it was an entertaining diversion, worth watching, but fell short of being something I can wholeheartedly recommend.
(Originally written 16.3.07)