Always the Side Character Never the Main: Invader Zim’s Gaz
If you grew up in 1990s America, likely you’re familiar with Jhonen Vasquez’s work. His comic series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is fundamentally part of end-of-20th century United States culture, with its darkness, extreme violence, and bizarre humorous interjections. Greatly popular, his humor seeped into mainstream zeitgeist, joining many of the “totally x-treme” pieces of pop culture such as Nu-Metal bands, asshole anti-heroes, and skateboarding.
However, many non-comics fans that grew up in the era would have more familiarity with Vasquez’s short-lived TV show Invader Zim. About a ridiculous, incompetent alien plotting to take over an Earth just as ridiculous and incompetent as himself, Invader Zim was not only popular with kids at the time of its airing, but amassed a cult following that still thrives today (proof is in the Invader Zim merchandise Hot Topic sells now, almost ten years after the show ended a second time). I knew several girls my age that loved Zim’s baby-voiced robot assistant, Gir. Me, I loved Gaz.
Although not often seen as much as twelve-year-old me would have enjoyed, Gaz had an impact on the show that differed from most side characters in Nickelodeon cartoons at the time. As the sole consistent female character on the series, her role was to disparage Dib, her brother, and Zim’s nemesis. Although I was naturally drawn to her because I recognized that we shared a gender, Gaz had the most relatable position in the Invader Zim universe in general. Zim, the protagonist, was not only the before-mentioned ridiculous and incompetent, but also evil. Dib, meanwhile, while technically correct in his suspicions of Zim’s intentions, had the paranoid, hyperactive, and gross habits of a young, unmanaged conspiracy theorist. Zim was never actually going to achieve his goal of taking over the world, and Dib needed to be put in his place—Gaz worked with the neutrality of the viewer, almost completely ignoring the existence of the first and openly mocking the second.
Gaz possessed many qualities that most female characters I consumed at the time lacked. In fact, she still possesses many qualities that the grand majority of female characters we see today anywhere lack, starting with the fact that she is nowhere near a love interest. Gaz was a side character, but unlike Trixie Tang from Fairly Odd Parents or Cindy Vortex from The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (two cartoons that aired on Nickelodeon around the same time), she didn’t represent a desire or a goal.
Instead, she maintained her individuality by depicting a separate type of humor from the boys. While Zim and Dib acted as the children they were, usually interacting within the realms of childish taunting and gross-out humor, Gaz brought in deep sarcasm. Whether sarcasm is a “higher” form of humor over body humor is arguable, but it certainly made Gaz seem much more mature to twelve-year-old me. As a young girl who was transitioning from child to young adult around the time she watched the show, the sole female character’s disinterest in childish games (but still presently obsession with Game Boys) and adaption of adult responsibilities (while Dib plays up in his room, Gaz hangs out with their dad downstairs) maybe symbolically represented my own growth.
That all said, Gaz in terms of the show—or Oni Press’s current Invader Zim series—isn’t given much more due than most other side characters in any fictional medium. The show primarily follows its title character, who is only one male-presenting main character out of the millions that have existed. In liking Gaz, I liked whatever scraps that I was tossed, because most other television shows didn’t give me anything of the kind, at all.
After years of demanding a continuation of the series, fans received a comics series from Oni Press in July 2015. Excited and filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, I purchased the first two issues. But when it came to cleaning up my pull list, I dropped the series without a second thought. Ten years after the ending of the show, I know much better what I crave. It’s not the narrative of an alien trying to take over Earth that hit me as a twelve-year-old, nor the sense of humor Vasquez used to tell that story. It was all Gaz. And what I made of her.