Friday, May 01, 2020

How Jimmy Neutron 'Doomed' an Episode of 'Invader Zim'

Much as we all may love and remember about Invader Zim, there’s so, so much more to the series that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor—because animation, like all creative processes, is a vicious business in which one must sometimes kill their darlings. Just because something doesn’t make it to air doesn’t mean it’s been fully forgotten, though.

Though Eric Trueheart’s The Medium-Sized Book of Zim Scripts is, well, a book filled with Invader Zim scripts, it’s also a deep dive into the larger creative process that went into realizing each of the series’ episodes. Trueheart makes obvious that the madcap energy that defined the show was very much a part of the writers room’s atmosphere, but actually taking an idea and turning it into a fully-fleshed out chunk of presentable process was much more methodical than you might imagine.

Even if you’ve been a diehard Zim fan since the show debuted, there are all kinds of interesting details about the series that you couldn’t know—like the premise behind episodes that never made it to air—unless you were there in the room with the creative team. Take, for example, “Pants!”, an episode in which Zim’s plans to take over Earth are unexpectedly derailed by the arrival of sentient alien pants. The story’s rather convoluted to summarize beyond that, because it becomes a bit more complicated by the very existence of Zim’s contemporary Nickelodeon counterpart, Jimmy Neutron. Your best bet at fully understanding “Pants!” and why you’ve never seen it is to just check out this excerpt from The Medium-Sized Book right here, courtesy of io9.

a.k.a. When Pants Ruled

I have a bad habit of not letting things go.

Like the time I held onto that sandwich even after it was snatched up by a giant Arctic icehawk, and I was carried to its nest in Greenland.

Sometime in the middle of ZIM’s run, I got it in my head that I wanted to do some kind of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers episode. This was in no way because many members of the staff liked to suddenly stop and point at each other with their eyes rolled back into their skulls and their mouths wide open, emitting a horrible screeching sound like Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 movie, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. No way at all.

No, I was more bothered by a recent run of fashion ads that featured people deliriously excited over some of the most boring pants in the world. For those who might only vaguely remember this time, it was a period in history when khaki trousers seemed to have gripped the public’s imagination. Things called “Dockers” graced billboards and TV ads, touted as thought they were something we were meant to care about.

We all know advertising at a certain point is less about creating demand for something and more about reassuring an otherwise numb and dazed public that yes, this product is real, and you can buy it without being weird. Everyone is doing it. Just go into a store and exchange money for it. No one will mock you. You won’t be tackled by security. Really, it will be that easy. The person at the counter will intuitively understand the transaction you’re there for. Then you can take the product home and wear it in public without fear of strangers singling you out for scorn in the streets, pointing with twisted looks of glee on their faces while they scream “Look at the trouser-wearing freakboy! Look at ‘em! Huuuuuh?”

Buy Dockers.

Anyway, an idea drifted slowly into my head for a scenario something like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but the aliens taking over human beings were shaped like pants. They were designed to be worn by their victims, and once they had their alien form wrapped around that poor hapless person’s legs, they would control their mind, slowly convincing them that these alien pants were the height of fashion, and they should track down everyone NOT wearing them and peer pressure them into putting on a pair, thus forwarding their conquest of the host world.

The main character in a story like this would naturally be Dib, and ZIM would have to be somehow in league with these alien pants, siding with them to take over the earth, but for his own gain. Somehow Dib would eventually show these alien pants that ZIM was using them, they’d turn on him, and we’d have a bombastic climax worthy of the sort of things we did on this ridiculous show.

Totally pleased with my vision, I went off to pitch it to Jhonen [Vasquez] in his office.

He was busy altering the DNA of fly larvae to drink blood and survive in the vacuum of space, but he listened with a certain degree of interest. Then he asked me, “And what do the pants look like?”

Stuck on the horror of the kakhi slacksian menace currently ravaging America, I responded, “I dunno, like boring old Docker type things.”

Immediately, his attention drifted away, ostensibly to stop one of the mutant slugs from murdering an intern. But I knew what had happened. The boring pants had lost him. The story just wasn’t... I dunno... visually weird enough.

So I filed the story back into the rusty filing cabinet of my mind and went back to my office to wrap myself in a cocoon of failure and shame, or to just play Diablo until my next assignment or something.

A few weeks later, it occurred to me how to make this idea more appealing, and I subtly began slipping it into the pitches I was submitting. Between the ideas about ZIM opening a diner selling the best durn pies in the county and Dib captaining an 18th century merchant sailing vessel into the heart of pirate waters to rescue the princess of Portugal, I slipped in “Oh hey, remember that pants story...?”

This time when Jhonen asked me about it, I was ready.

“What are the pants like,” he asked, clearly expecting me to fall for the same trick twice.

“Like, veiny, slimy, H.R. Geiger type pants,” I responded, and in that moment, I knew I had won!

Fortunately, Mary Harrington liked it, too, and armed with an “approved to outline” notice, I set about crafting this story’s outline.

Unfortunately, a deep dark evil way more insidious than alien pants stopped this story in its tracks: Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius!

One day we got word back from the executives that the episode would have to be cancelled.

“WHY?” we shouted in unison.

Jimmy Neutron is doing a Christmas special called ‘When Pants Attack.’” “SO?” we shouted again.

“So, it’s about some robotic pants that get hit with a virus and try to take over the city.”

We paused briefly, assessing the situation, then answered: “SO??’

“So, it’s too close to your pants episode. This network can’t have two cartoons about pants, by gum!”

There was a long pause, and then...

“WHY?!?” we screamed again in unison.

We tried reasoning with them. Look, we proposed, this pants episode won’t be even finished for at least nine months after the Jimmy Neutron special aired. Surely that’s enough time for America to cleanse its memory of any pants-related hijinks!

They still said no.

We tried countering again. The two shows don’t even have the same audience, we pointed out, but the executive captains would not be swayed.

Jhonen also presented one of the most cogent arguments of all, “It’s Jimmy Neutron! It’s not like it’s anything anyone cares about!” Curiously, this changed no one’s mind.

Full disclosure: I once worked for the people who made Jimmy Neutron on a show that never saw the light of day called Dirk Derby: Wonder Jockey. They’re good people, and funny, and clearly not deliberately out to stop anyone’s pants ambitions. Also, Dirk Derby was a genuinely hilarious show that unfortunately couldn’t find a home on TV, probably because it was too “out there” for kids TV. So for the record, them Neutron folks are all right!

That was the end of the Pants episode, one of my favorite ideas killed in its tracks by a trouser-themed Christmas special. It would have ended there, but fate intervened.

Years later, when the good people at Oni Press decided to launch a series of Invader ZIM comic books, I once again pitched the “Pants!” episode. Now it had the added bonus of being a “lost episode” of the series. This time good sense was on my side, and our editor Robin Herrera said yes almost immediately.

You’ll find the script for this little comic epic later in this volume. Suffice to say, I was as surprised as I was happy to tie up that weird little loose end almost twenty years later.

I even got to slip in Donald Sutherland making that face.

The Medium-Sized Book of Zim Scripts is on sale now for digital download on BookBaby and with a physical release of the book slated for July 27, 2020.

Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus is available to stream now on Netflix worldwide!

More Nick: New 'Invader Zim' Comics from Oni Press Announced!
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