It's Saturday afternoon and nearly 1,000 people are at the Torrance Marriott South Bay celebrating a cartoon that was canceled 10 years ago. Fans of Invader ZIM, the short-lived, sci-fi animated series from famed comic book creator Jhonen Vasquez (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Squee), have traveled from Rhode Island, Texas, Florida and even Alberta, Canada, for InvaderCON II: Doomcon. At 3 p.m., nearly every single person attending the convention is inside a large room on the ground level of the hotel waiting for the “Panel of Ultimate DOOM,” which will bring together the creator of the series with the stars and key creatives from the series.
In the center of the crowd, a group of teenagers stand up to lead an impromptu cheer. “When I say 'Invader,' you say 'ZIM,'” they shout. The crowd is up for this.
“Invader,” the teens cheer.
“ZIM,” the crowd responds.
This continues for a couple minutes as the teens swap in the names of various people who will be appearing at the panel.
Gradually, the cast and crew are introduced to cheers that fill the whole room. When Vasquez and actor Richard Horvitz, who played the show's title character, are announced, the screams become piercing. If a few voices were lost during this panel, it wouldn't come as a surprise.
InvaderCON held its first event last year in Atlanta. It had a smaller group of guests from the show, but still was able to draw about 1,000 people, a strong enough number to convince organizer Green Mustard Entertainment to bring the event to greater Los Angeles. They also brought in Vasquez, who wasn't at the first convention. For two days, fans were able to attend Q&A sessions with the team behind the show, check out a few fan panels, collect autographs and socialize with fellow ZIM diehards.
“InvaderCon isn't a new format,” says Tom Croom of Green Mustard Entertainment. In fact, he adds, it's based on the Star Trek convention model. It's a tried-and-true formula that still works, even in an age where, Croom says, “Geek is now mainstream” and mega-cons like San Diego Comic-Con draw hordes of people for more entertainment than you can consume in one weekend.
Croom estimates that at least 30% of this year's attendees were at the Atlanta event last year. “The weird demographic skew is that they aren't from California,” he adds. Indeed, I only met two people from California at the convention and they were from Northern California.
The other strange demographic, at least in my opinion, was the age group. This crowd was largely under 18 and there were plenty of kids here who weren't even born during Invader ZIM's initial run. They were traveling with parents and other relatives, a big family event surrounding this very odd cartoon. And if you know the backstory, it's a bit more unusual.
In the 1990s, a young comic book artist and writer named Jhonen Vasquez created Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, the title of which should say everything you need to know about the series. It ran in a goth magazine called Carpe Noctem and the books were released through Slave Labor Graphics. The series was popular, extremely so with a specific group of comic book readers, older teens and young adults with a dark sense of humor. Vasquez followed that up with other cult favorites, including Squee, another incredibly dark tale, this time revolving around a little boy. Then Invader ZIM happened.
Invader ZIM wasn't like anything else airing on Nickelodeon in 2001. It was science fiction, a comedy based around the struggle for dominance between a young boy named Dib and an alien named ZIM. Dib had a surly sister named Gaz, whose voice, actor Melissa Fahn noted during the convention, was inspired by Jack Nicholson. ZIM has a wild robot named Gir, who is supposed to be posing as a dog, even though he looks nothing like one. With its color scheme of black, purple and lime green and its unusual character designs, Invader ZIM didn't look like anything on the air. It wasn't written like anything else on television at the time. Plus, it was created by a guy best known for a serial-killer comedy. It's not happy kids TV, but, apparently, it was as popular with the elementary and middle school set then as it is now.
AnnaMaria Bryant, from Texas, was in fourth grade when she first watched Invader ZIM. She was so smitten with the show that she began drawing fan art and making DIY ZIM merchandise for herself. That got her into comic books. “I found out that the creator was a comic book artist and I wanted to be like that,” she says.
Now Bryant is a 20-year-old college student and budding comic book artist and writer with her own web comic, Adler's Watch. She's here as part of the fan group Operation Head Pigeons, who are trying to get new episodes of ZIM on the air. It's a group filled with web-savvy, artistically inclined fans, most of whom are in high school or college. Bryant contributes ZIM art to the project, along with 22-year-old graphic design student Kaitlyn Carr.
OHP was founded by Sarah Touzet, a 15-year-old girl from Florida who traveled to the convention with her grandfather. She launched the group about two years ago and they've become pretty well-known online. Recently, they were invited to be guest judges, along with InvaderCon organizers, for Mighty Fine's Invader ZIM T-shirt design contest. At the convention, they were raising money for the charity Toys for Hope.
Right now, the group is in the midst of Project Massive, a snail mail letter-writing campaign for new episodes of ZIM. They held two letter-writing workshops at the convention. “We know it's going to be successful,” Touzet says.
During the “Panel of DOOM,” Touzet stood up and asked the Invader ZIM team if they would be willing to do the show again. The panelists answered “Yes,” one after the next. Then Vasquez responded. He mentioned W.W. Jacobs' 1902 story “The Monkey's Paw,” about wishes that don't turn out quite right.
“If ZIM came back, it would be a hideous zombie of a thing,” he answered. “Are you OK with that?”
He then talked a little about an attempt to revive the show that happened several years ago and went into some ideas for plots that he had. “It's not going to happen,” he concluded about the failed ZIM talks of 2010. Whether or not that there's absolutely no chance for any kind of ZIM activity in the future remains to be seen. Even after the panel, fans had hope that there could still be a new Invader ZIM series.
In the meantime, there's Soapy Waffles, a group of young, female artists who are painstakingly animating “Mopiness of Doom,” an episode that was written and recorded but never animated. (The cast read the script at the first InvaderCon.) They've been working on the project since January of last year and showed off some of the earliest footage at the first InvaderCon. This year, they were back and ready to premiere “Mopiness of Doom.” It's a passion project for the fans, but it's also good practice for the future. Emily Satterfield, who goes by Tallest Rose and co-founded Soapy Waffles, is a 19-year-old college student who would love to transfer to CalArts. This episode, she says, is going in her portfolio.
Croom often points to the parallels between Invader ZIM and the original Star Trek series. Both shows lived long after their cancellation, thanks to the passion of the fans. But with Star Trek, there were, eventually, continuations of the franchise. Invader ZIM fans simply don't know if that will ever be the case for the show they love. But with the fan groups, fan-made media and InvaderCon, they have something. Even if ZIM remains finished, the fans have succeeded at spreading the word about a show that was canceled way too soon.