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The Art of Invader Zim probes unmade episodes for the taquito-loving Nick series

By Josh Weiss
Invader Zim Enter the Florpus

Why was there bacon in the soap?! SYFY WIRE has your exclusive first look at The Art of Invader Zim, hot off the Irken presses. Going on sale from Abrams Books later this month, it's a comprehensive (and DOOM!-filled) history of one of the strangest cartoons Nickelodeon ever greenlit.

Traveling to the network's animation studio in Burbank, California, author Chris McDonnell (BoJack Horseman: The Art Before the Horse) was given the job of covering the show's two seasons, as well as its recent Netflix film, Enter the Florpus.

"This was a unique project, in that the show was close to 20-years-old when I started producing this book," McDonnell tells SYFY WIRE. "They have archives at Nickelodeon Animation and some kind people working there. They have a director of the archives and people there assisting. They carted out boxes and boxes, gave me a little area to dig, and I went for it. "Then the rest of my days were archive research interspersed with in-person interviews with artists, who were on the series and also on the new made-for-TV movie."

The Art of Invader Zim
The Art of Invader Zim

Each chapter is packed with goodies like concept art, character breakdowns, episode directories, and insights from series creator Jhonen Vasquez.

"I was able to spend multiple interviews, with Jhonen and one of the most fun parts was just letting the phone record and have him, and maybe one or two of his fellow artists, just reminiscing about their time on the series," McDonnell recounts. "I was able to add a question here or there to move along with the interview, but they were largely able to just laugh and reminisce about the production and how wild and difficult it was."

As an added bonus, the book explores episode ideas that were never fully realized due to the show's premature cancellation in 2002. Below, you can check out some character designs for an unmade episode called "The Trial," which would have found Zim (voiced by Richard Horvitz) on the verge of being erased from existence. Ironically, that description sounds like an analogy for the series itself being cut short before its time.

"Jhonen shares some of his thoughts here and there about how Zim never really felt like it fit in and how it was always a surprise that they were allowed to go on and exist for as long as they did," McDonnell says.

The Art of Invader Zim

To prepare for writing the book, McDonnell watched all 27 episodes of Zim (plus the pilot and movie), taking high-res screenshots along the way.

"It was a cruel irony that the show was broadcast in standard definition," he adds. "It’s really exciting to see this artwork blown up on the page for fans to pore over. All the tubes, all the Irken technology, all the ridiculous contraptions and disgusting, part machine, part spinal column, part pulsating brain sack. Every page has something really fascinating to look at if you are an artist. And if you’re a fan of Zim, all the better, because you get to see the artwork in a clarity that you never did when it was in standard definition."

The premise of a bumbling alien trying to conquer Earth with his insane, taquito-munching robot companion, GIR (Rikki Simons), is an inherently funny one. But in the hands of Vasquez and his team of fellow artists/animators, it became a veritable breeding ground for grotesquely jarring imagery with roots in "horror films, science fiction, and bizarre thinking about the near future, being that it was the early days of the internet," McDonnell reveals.

The Art of Invader Zim
The Art of Invader Zim

What really struck McDonnell as memorable during the research process was how interviewees would recall a certain sense of "swagger that they were on this cool show that was doing things differently." That was due to the fact that "they were given a unique amount of artistic freedom," even if it was within a certain set of network parameters.

"They were working really hard to make this show look the way it looks on a TV budget and schedule," he says. "The result was that the show has an incredible amount of visual flavor to it. If you analyze an episode, you’ll see how many different dynamic shots there are. One after another, they don’t reuse similar angles and shots often. It’s actually kind of going against the recommended process on television animation because anytime you can reuse a setup and an angle, you’re saving time and effort …  There's just an evident bravado that was across the board on the team; just an exuberance they put into everything on the show."

The Art of Invader Zim

Here are some storyboards of Dib (Andy Berman) from the pilot. The son of the eccentric Professor Membrane (Rodger Bumpass), Dib constantly tries to prove to the world that his bizarre classmate, Zim, is an alien.

The Art of Invader Zim
The Art of Invader Zim

Netflix revival Enter the Florpus (released last August) was still being made while the art book was coming together, but McDonnell did get to speak with key members of production like art director Jenny Goldberg, supervising producer Breehn Burns, storyboard director Jake Wyatt, and producers Joann Estoesta and Angela Leung.

"The artists share their approach to extending this short format cast of characters that are ideal for just short episodes," he explains. "How do [you] extrapolate that into a feature film? Especially characters who are resistant to having character arcs or development or emotional range? They talk about their theories on how they approached that, which is pretty interesting."

The Art of Invader Zim front cover

Despite a 17-year gap between cancellation and the Netflix premiere, Enter the Florpus proved that Invader Zim was still popular with fans; case in point: the movie holds a rare 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Nick has yet to announce any future plans for the IP, but if it does, Vasquez will be ready, a fact that is optimistically reflected in the book.

"The book does end on a somewhat hopeful note that Jhonen is full of stories. [Him] generally describing his insatiable creation," McDonnell teases. "As long as Jhonen is around spewing these ideas, there’s always gonna be Zim in one form or another. It’s really open-ended."

Featuring a foreword written by Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, The Art of Invader Zim goes on sale Tuesday, July 28. You can pre-order a copy here.