From the violent, adults-only humor of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac to the cult-classic Nickelodeon series Invader Zim, Jhonen Vasquez has brought his unique sense of humor and boundary-pushing sensibilities to all kinds of audiences.
After his dark, once-obscure '90s indie comic became a staple in malls across America, Vasquez found a way to bring his stylistic dark humor into homes throughout the country in a more all-ages format that kept its edge and earned him a new generation of fans.
With Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus set to hit Netflix later this year, CBR is taking a closer loos at Jhonen Vasquez and his unlikely journey to animation icon.
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac
When Jhonen was attending Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose, California, he entered a contest to redesign his school mascot. While he ultimately didn't win, one of his early drawings became the basis for the star of his first indie comic: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. He would publish comic strips in his school paper featuring the character, which allowed him to develop and foster his artistic talent at a young age.
He eventually would publish small one-page strips in Carpe Noctem magazine featuring Johnny, before officially publishing the series in long-form with Slave Labor Graphics. The first series, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, ran for seven issues. It featured the titular character Johnny searching for a place and meaning in the world, only to end up causing the violent and untimely deaths of all those around him. The black-and-white comic became a cult hit, thanks to its ultra-dark, sometimes disturbing humor and his frantic, energetic linework.
Squee! and the Johnny Spin-Offs
Vasquez worked on two spin-offs in the late '90s following the success of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Both featured characters from the main title going on bizarre, dark adventures.
Squee! was a four-issue miniseres series that follows Johnny's adolescent, perpetually put-upon next door neighbor. The series features aliens, zombie classmates, Satan and giant killer dust mites. The deeply weird series was nominated for an Eisner Award and became another bookstore staple.
Following that, Vasquez published his second spin-off series, I Feel Sick, about an artist named Devi who is trying to remain sane despite the world around her being stark-raving mad. This series also showcases Vasquez's cynicism about mainstream society, dark humor and frenzied storytelling. It also won an International Horror Award for Best Illustrated Narrative.
While developing content for older demographics, kids cable giant Nickelodeon contacted Vasques. Nickelodeon producer Mary Harrington was introduced to Vasquez's work with Squee! and believed Vasquez to be the perfect mad genius to create content for 11-15 year olds.
Vasquez pitched them on the idea of a short alien with his adorable robot friend trying to conquer the Earth while still going to school, and that pitch very quickly evolved into Invader Zim.
While Vasquez could only push the language and visual content in a series that was still ostensibly for children so far, very little of his writing was altered. After Invader Zim's pilot was created in 1999, the series aired in 2001 and lasted for two seasons.
Although it had content that was far edgier than what was usually on Nickelodeon, the series was ultimately cancelled due to poor ratings. While the network had originally intended for multiple edgy shows for young teens, changing priorities meant that Invader Zim was the only show developed in that mold, and it didn't fit well into more kid-friendly time slots. While the show eventually found a cult following, that didn't happen until it was too late.
INVADER ZIM: ENTER THE FLORPUS
Before Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus came to fruition, Vasquez worked on a few sporadic projects post-Zim.Vasquez breifly worked as part of the writing team for DC's Beyond the Fringe, a spin-off comic for the TV series Fringe. He pitched the animated series Very Important House with Rick and Morty production designer Jenny Goldberg to Disney, but after years in development hell, Disney passed on the project. Vasquez previously worked with Goldberg on the comic Jellyfish, which was also released after Zim.
Starting in 2015, Vasquez returned to the world of Invader Zim by working on its own spin-off comic, published by Oni Press.
"I'm always confused when people say how much they miss Invader Zim because the show never stopped running in my head," he said when the series launched. "And then I remember everyone else isn't in my head."
While that series is still going strong, Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus! is finally set to be released on Netflix this summer, after a lengthy development process that saw it delayed for years.