To hear Jhonen Vasquez tell it, the last thing he ever expected to be was the creator and producer of a cartoon show on Nickelodeon.
``I met with some shady guy in an alley and he had glowing red eyes and he had me sign some papers,'' says Vasquez with a laugh that touches on a manic cackle. ``And I ended up with a show . . .''
That show is ``Invader Zim,'' a subversive new animated series that began its first 20-episode run on Nickelodeon late last month. As a network, Nick has worked slightly outside the standard television box when it comes to programming for kids -- and has prospered with shows such as ``Rugrats'' and the delightfully wacky ``SpongeBob SquarePants.''
But Vasquez's show about a weird little alien who decides the best way to infiltrate Earth before a major invasion is to pose as a middle-school student is a step by the network into the world of adult comics. While there's plenty of anarchic humor for the kids to like in the little battles between the delusional Zim and his schoolroom nemesis -- the brainy, conspiracy-minded Dib -- there's also an animé-inspired edge to ``Invader Zim'' that is clearly meant to appeal to adults.
It's all the product of the wickedly dark imagination of the 26-year-old Vasquez.
Born and raised on San Jose's East Side, the 1992 graduate of Mount Pleasant High and one-time film student at De Anza College has developed a reputation as one of the comic-book industry's brightest creative lights. His comic book series ``SQUEE!'' and ``Johnny, The Homicidal Maniac'' -- published by locally based Slave Labor Graphics -- became big sellers in the world of adult comics and ``SQUEE!'' was nominated for several Eisner Awards, the comic industry's equivalent of the Oscars.
Vasquez grew up creating his own little stories and sketches. His first work -- an early version of ``Johnny'' -- was published in 1995 in an underground Goth magazine out of Mountain View. Then, while watching a cable access show on TV one night, Vasquez saw a segment on Slave Labor comics.
``I noticed the address was just 10 minutes from where I lived,'' he recalls. ``And I thought it was kind of neat that comic publisher was nearby. So I took a folder of my work there and dropped it off. They called and said, `Hey, we like it, let's do something with it.' ''
Surprised by success
Vasquez -- who moved to Los Angeles from San Jose when production on ``Invader Zim'' started -- admits to some surprise with his own success. ``I just happened to do really well right off the bat and I wasn't about to complain because it allowed me to just do comics,'' he says.
Vasquez says he was drawn into the world of television animation by ``Invader Zim'' executive producer Mary Harrington, who -- as an executive with Nickelodeon -- oversaw the development of shows such as ``Rugrats'' and ``The Ren & Stimpy Show.''
``Back when I was doing `SQUEE!' she saw the book and liked the style and liked the humor,'' Vasquez says. ``Obviously, it wasn't the humor for a kids' show but the humor was coming across to her. So, she contacted me and asked if I had any ideas for a show. And I did. Well, I came up with one right then and there. I came up with `Zim' ''
Vasquez says that he is ``definitely happy with where the show is going -- and with how it started off. It started off really, really well with more quality than you'd expect.'' But he's also more than a bit ambivalent about doing a high-profile TV cartoon show.
``The idea of doing a show for Nickelodeon, there's just something so twisted about that,'' he says. ``I'm not out to make some nasty, heinous show that will completely destroy the network or anything like that.
``But just the idea, just the thing that I had a show on Nickelodeon, people go, `YOU? My gawd, what are they trying to do to the children?' And I usually throw my head back and laugh for 10 minutes. And then when I'm done, I say, `Well, I thought it would be interesting.'
``And it has been interesting -- if not joyous.''
The bad side
Vasquez says that ``the bad side of it is the absolute lack of happiness in my existence. . . . I'm used to doing something and then doing something else. It keeps me very interested in whatever project I'm on.''
But with ``Invader Zim,'' he says, ``there's just so much management that goes along with it that's not anywhere near as creative as I'd like it to be. That's the part that kills me.''
And then there's the occasional lack of control over his own creation.
``You've got so many people'' working on the series, Vasquez says. ``You've got so many people who are incredible, so many people who are on their way to being incredible, but it's not your style. It's their style or a style they've used on other shows.
``And it's frustrating because I know what my characters are supposed to act like, what they're supposed to sound like, right down to when they nod their heads and don't even say a word.''
But probably the biggest frustration is not having the time to work on comic books.
``I put out books now and then,'' says Vasquez with a sigh. But ``it's not like when I was doing `Johnny' or `SQUEE!', when it was my job, it was my life. Now, it's kind of this thing I try to escape to when I have the time.''
Still, Vasquez has hopes that ``Invader Zim'' will find an audience he might not have been able to reach with his work otherwise. ``The attitude is that comics and animation are for geeks and they're for kids. But it's not true,'' he says. ``You'll find some stuff out there but they always have the elitist, underground, alternative thing to them. But there's no reason why it has to be that way. I'd love for it to be far more accessible.
``I'd like to think that `Invader Zim' -- even though it's not an adult show -- that adults can really dig it in a way that kids understand but there's a different level to it. There's more to it than little guys running around being goofy.''