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Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is

Comic Books

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is

Over the past year, we here at AIPT have been been reading, reviewing and really, really enjoying the new Invader Zim comic from Oni Press. A continuation of the Invader Zim animated series created by Jhonen Vasquez, Oni’s comic has channeled the spirit and spunk of its cartoon predecessor better than just about any screen-to-page transition we can think of.

But the Zim comic is only as successful as its creative team and hey, check it out, we’ve managed to wrangle that creative team for an interview! With us is Eric Trueheart, head writer of the comic and previously a writer for the cartoon, Warren Wucinich, the current main artist and previously a letterer and colorist, and Fred Stresing, the current colorist.

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

Please join us as we pick their brains on all things Zim; from their thoughts on the cartoon, what got them into the comic adaptation, and what magic they perform to make the comic every bit as good as its animated incarnation.

AiPT!: What was your introduction to Invader Zim? Did you watch it when it aired on Nickelodeon in the early 2000s? In reruns? Or did you come into this project cold? And if you did watch the show: Favorite episode?

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is

Eric: Well, I worked on the original show, so my first introduction was my agent calling and saying, “We submitted your writing samples to this new show called ‘Invader Something.’” My next introduction was being led to the darkness of Jhonen’s office to have the brain slugs applied. I don’t think I have a favorite episode, but I’m always amazed that “Zim Eats Waffles” happened at all, so I’ll say that one.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is

Warren: I was already a fan of Jhonen’s comics and was excited for the show, but being a young starving artist I didn’t have cable, so I missed most of it when it originally aired. When you’re subsisting on Ramen noodles and Hot Pockets, cable TV is the stuff of dreams.

Favorite episode? Gosh, I dunno. “Parent Teacher Night”? “Future Dib”? “Battle of the Planets”? “Zim Eats Waffles”?

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is

Fred: I was introduced to this show in the 2000s on a food court television. I think it was the one with the chicken-legged mech they had to keep plugging in. It had everything you could want in a cartoon: Robots, aliens, and a paranormal investigator with an abnormally large cranium (the classic sci-fi triad).

I was pretty much a fan from that point on.

As far as favorite episode… tougher question. I may have to give that to “Rise of the Zitboy” for giving me the hope that one day I too could turn my acne into a bulbous hypnotic friend. Still waiting on that.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is
A page from Invader Zim #13.

AiPT!: Who is your favorite character in the series, both as a fan and professionally? Do you discover that there’s one you liked watching on the show but find less fun to write? One you love to read but hate to draw? One you love as a character but not to color?

Eric: I can’t say I have a favorite character. Maybe Table-Headed Service Drone Bob? I’d love to do a 12-part comic on him. His epic journey from Coaster-Headed Service Drone to the triumphant Bob we know today.

Warren: I’m trying not to copout here but I always liked Zim in the cartoon. He’s just so neurotic and scheme-y and weird. My favorite to draw, however, is Dib. I’m always getting him wrong and having to go back and revise him but I can’t help but like him. He’s just so fun to pick on and punch and blow up and whatever. I love torturing him. Does that make me a bad person?

Fred: Favorite character probably has to go to Zim. Who doesn’t love coloring an angry shouting alien?

Second place goes to Bloaty’s Pizza Hog who I’ve yet to have the privilege to color. Fingers crossed, though.

AiPT!: Warren and Fred, this one is for both of you. Warren, you were the colorist on the book for a stretch of issues and Fred, you’re the current colorist. The Invader Zim cartoon had a very striking color palette (lots of purples and reds and greens), but just because something works in animation doesn’t mean it can make the transition to comics. Did you have any trouble translating the colors of the cartoon? Anything in particular you had to reevaluate because it just wasn’t working on the static page?

Warren: The show (especially the first season) was a lot darker and I was told fairly early on that we were going to take a brighter approach to the comic. There were a handful of wonderful colorists that came before me and my hat’s off to them because they did most of the heavy lifting in establishing palettes and tone. I kinda just spring-boarded off of them.

It’s also been really fun to see Fred color my work. He’s trying stuff I never would have considered and he pulls it off brilliantly. It’s very energetic and I really like that. He makes me look way too darn good.

Fred: The only real issue I’ve run into is making some of the darker and more vibrant color schemes work for print. If you can bear with me, I’ll get into the boring technical reasons:

Color gamut on a backlit TV show is always going to have the advantage of being sharper and more varied than CMYK, which has a limited printable palette. Especially in the case of neon and green colors, which, let’s face it, Zim uses in abundance.

So the trick is finding the right balance of vibrant and printable. The good news is, if it doesn’t look good, my editors can yell at me and I can fix it.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is
Another preview page from Invader Zim #13.

AiPT!: Fred and Warren, what is your operating logic on when to color GIR in his red “duty mode”? I’ve noticed that sometimes when he’s being cooperative, he’s still blue, while other times he’s red. Is it a judgment call thing; “GIR is being cooperative but not TOO cooperative so I’ll keep him blue”…? Are there many subtle levels to how cooperative GIR is?

Warren: That’s pretty much all in the script. I may have made a judgement call once or twice, but that decision usually comes from the writer.

Fred: For me, it depends on a few things. If the script calls for Duty Mode GIR, he’s red. If he is following orders with a super serious face, he’s red. If he’s got lasers and weapons popping out of his head, he’s red.

And sometimes GIR is blue when he’s following orders because he’s just not 100% into it that day.

AiPT!: Fred, the colorist often has control over the tone and atmosphere of the scene, depending on the palette they use. The Zim cartoon, and subsequently the comic could get pretty intense; balancing a precarious line between comedy and horror. How do you determine when to make a scene “scarier” or “sillier”? Do the characters involved ever affect how you play the scene (you’ll go “scary” for Ms. Bitters but not Professor Membrane)?

Fred: It really depends on a few things. The tone of the story and dialogue plays a big part with how I’m coloring a page. Another thing I like to do is keep an eye out for action panels, which I will try to make the center of attention, using more vibrant, impactful color to draw the eye and make it more exciting.

The real trick though is reading the script and figuring out the beats, figuring out the environments and coloring to mood of the scene.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is
Another preview page from Invader Zim #13.

AiPT!: Warren, you’ve been something of a Jack of All Trades since the series began. You were the letterer, then the colorist, then you took over drawing Recap Kid, and now you’re the artist. What went into making all those transitions?

Warren: Ooo, “Jack of All Trades.” I like that!

The transition part wasn’t so difficult. I’ve done different combinations of drawing, lettering, and coloring on other projects so I just go into that specific “mode” when I need to.

I’ve always wanted to work on good comics and I’ve always been willing to learn whatever skills were needed. Early on in my career when I couldn’t find work as a penciller I taught myself how to color and letter.

When I first heard that Oni Press was going to do a Zim comic, I just wanted to be involved no matter what the job was. (When someone asks if you want to work on Invader Zim, you say “YES!”) Thankfully, my editor, Robin Herrera is one of the best in the industry and she’s been an integral part of my various works on Zim. I really have her to thank for bringing me on to the Zim team to begin with.

AiPT!: Warren, a lettering question for you. With Zim, the lettering plays a major role in channeling the “voice” of the characters, which was a unique part of the animated series (the way characters would toggle back and forth between scheming and screaming). Did you have to come up with your own font for the screaming, or is it hand-lettered? And how do you determine when a line of dialogue warrants just an exclamation mark or the whole jagged boxed, giant screamy lettering job?

Warren: The screamy voice is a custom font I created. At first I was doing it by hand, which was great fun, but was ultimately impractical. It was slow and making revisions was tough so I made a few custom fonts of my hand-letters to speed things along.

In the script Eric and Jhonen usually let me know which dialogue needs to have an emphasis by italicizing or making it bold but that’s usually it. I normally get to decide what fonts to use or when the balloons do something wacky, and most of that is intuitive. Still to this day I’m in love with Todd Klein’s work on Sandman. The way he gave a lot of characters their own unique fonts and balloons was wonderful and I felt that Zim was a project that has the potential to do the same kind of thing. For example, I put all of GIR’s dialogue in rough, erratic balloons because GIR is a screechy little crazy thing. Zim’s computer has a different custom balloon than Tak’s ship and so forth.

AiPT!: Warren, you’ve taken over art duties on Zim from Dave Crosland and Aaron Alexovich, the main series artists who preceded you. What did you learn from them before taking the baton? Alexovich has been credited with layouts on some of your issues; what’s your system with him like?

Warren: Aaron did the layouts for my first issue and his work was pretty invaluable. He did the blueprints and the groundwork for the whole series and he was able to steer me in the right direction for when I took the training wheels off.

Oddly, what I learned the most from Dave is balance. Keeping the balance between a personal style and the established house style is a tricky business and Dave handled it really, really well.

AiPT!: Warren, do you ever find yourself having to review the cartoon to maintain cohesion with the Zim aesthetic (or just for any visual inspiration)? And how do you balance applying your own style to an existing “house style” that’s so distinctive?

Warren: Yeah, I reference the show a lot. Mostly for camera angles and occasionally design. The comic is quite different, but its roots still lay in the show, so I go back to it quite often. (Plus, any excuse to go back and re-watch the show is a welcome one.)

Maintaining the balance between personal and house styles is, far and away, the most challenging part of working on Zim. You don’t want to carbon copy the people who came before you but at the same time you don’t want to go too far with your own personal style. I try to keep the characters and environments pretty “on-model” but since the script comes to me in TV form (no page or panel numbers) it’s up to me to decide how many panels are on a page and how they’re composed and what the pacing will be. I think that’s where my style shows through the most.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is
A page from Invader Zim #13.

AiPT!: Eric, you’ve been the main writer for the Zim comic since it began, but prior to this you wrote for the Invader Zim animated series. What opportunities has this comic supplied you with? You were the writer behind the story arc from close to the end of the cartoon that involved Dib commandeering Tak’s spaceship, and you’ve worked Tak’s ship into several of your scripts so far. Is there more to that storyline that we can look forward to?

Eric: Opportunities? Good question. So good, in fact, that I have no answer. Next!

In all seriousness… For me, it’s been a chance to revisit this kind of storytelling again. I work mostly in animation, and you’d be surprised how few outlets for demented science-fiction comedy there are in the cartoon world. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Actually, given what’s on the air, you definitely wouldn’t be surprised.

Jhonen and Robin Herrera (editor at Oni) have had a few artist-driven experimental issues, but we approached my issues with the same kind of storytelling we used on the 11-minute cartoons, with maybe a little more character interaction thrown in.

It’s been great for me to practice this particular kind of insanity again. I finally got to do the “Pants” story that Nickelodeon torpedoed all those years ago. (Invader Zim issue 8.) PANTS!

On the subject of Tak’s ship: I can’t say that there’s any “storyline” planned, but that ship and its deep Dib-loathing is definitely ongoing, and s/he will be there to give Dib a hard time every time he goes into space.

AiPT!: Eric, what has the transition from TV to comic been like in regards to scripting Zim stories? Have you had to rethink your whole approach or has it been fairly intuitive?

Eric: It’s been shockingly intuitive. We’ve been basically telling classic Zim tales, just rendered for the page instead of the screen. And Jhonen prefers we write them in screenplay format. Yep, we give the artists animation screenplay format. That will probably invoke fiery rage from comic writers and artists everywhere. Or maybe just the writers, while a quiet group of artists silently celebrates the fact that someone, somewhere is letting a comic artist do the panels however he damn-well wants.

AiPT!: Eric, in regards to the comic, what’s your relationship with series creator Jhonen Vasquez like? He’s credited in the book as “Control Brain” so I can only guess what that means in relation to your job as writer.

Eric: Jhonen’s control brain has sprouted tentacles and is seizing dominion over an ever-growing radius around his house. It now controls six city blocks. It’s like something out of Akira, but with people’s lawns.

Basically, Jhonen plays executive producer on the whole comic. He’s a sounding board for all ideas, and the guy with the final say on details from the script to the final art. When people say, “It feels just like the TV show,” that’s down to Jhonen’s influence. He has the essence of Zim locked in his head, and he wields that essence like a flaming ninja sword with acid-fangs! (Actually, I don’t know what that metaphor means. Moving on.)

For my scripts, I go over to his house, pitch a few new stories, and then play video games until we forget why I came over. We talk about the ideas he thinks will work best, flesh out the story a bit, and then I go off and write the script. After I turn it in, I receive angry midnight calls from him, screaming like a rabid wolverine about how I’m ruining his creation. And why is the Incredible Hulk in this one again?! And why does Zim drive a flying diaper truck and speak only in French?!

Actually, after we come up with ideas, I write the script and then run it by Jhonen. He usually has a few tweaks that make it just that much more “ZIM,” and then we let the artist have at it. It’s fun.

AiPT!: Eric, the Zim cartoon had a pretty robust cast of characters; a lot of fan favorites, too. But you’ve also created your fair share of new characters for this book (I especially liked Groyna from issue 8). How do you decide when to implement a character, be it preexisting or original? Are there any outlying characters beyond the Dib and Zim crew you particularly want to develop or explore?

Eric: Ah, Groyna! I hope we can find a good way to bring Groyna back. Every Dib needs a Groyna every now and again, know what I mean?

We walk a line on the old character vs. new character question. There’s no set policy, we just take it story by story and see what the narrative calls for. On the one hand, we’ve got a big world we don’t want to ignore, but on the other hand we don’t want the comic to feel like it’s staring into its own green navel.

Do our readers want intricate world-building or more novelty? Should we even base our decision on what our readers want? Half of them are grown-up fans, the other half are school kids. A third half are blind, subterranean mole people with milk-white eyes who only read the comics by smell. That’s right, that totals three halves, but remember, history is littered with the corpses of those who, in their arrogance, ignored the mole people. I’m sorry, what was I talking about?

Still, you never know what old face we might bring back. I think Jhonen mentioned using Prisoner 777 at some point. I have a feeling we’ll eventually see Invader Skoodge again, though no plans yet. I’m also mildly pleased that Agent Batflaps may be an ongoing addition to the comic universe as a foil for Dib. Go Batflaps!

AiPT!: Eric, you’ve done a great job of maintaining the integrity of the Zim storytelling style in the transition from screen to page. You’ve even hit on some of the wilder qualities of the show, like stories that end with everyone dying (but it’s okay because they’ll be better by the next installment). What little quirks are there in the scripting style of Zim stories that are essential to making them FEEL like a Zim stories? Do you ever have any troubles or frustrations with the formula/rhythm of Zim storytelling?

Eric: Aw, thanks.

I wish I could list exactly what the quirks are, because it would make my job easier. If only it were just taco and pig jokes followed by GIR shouting “Doom,” I could crank these out in a day.

If I had to speculate, I’d say the premise always contains a certain amount of science fiction twisted in ridiculous directions. The lead character — whether it’s Zim, Dib or someone else — is usually driven by hubris or self-delusion, and they’re usually destined for failure. At some point we’ll point out our own absurdity, and drive a truck through our own plot holes. Dark humor. Horrible things made funny. Moose. Burritos. Doom. etc. I don’t know.

I actually really enjoy the rhythm of Zim storytelling. My only fear is that it will some day stop being interesting, that we’ll have worn our tropes down so smooth and nubby that people will just shrug and say, “Oh yeah, this,” and move on. So among the “classic Zim” tales, my brain is still looking for ways to do something new. Maybe we’ll some day do an epic Irken space opera, just to shake things up. Maybe we’ll go really deep into the background of one really obscure character. Maybe we’ll do a complex Marvel Universe style thing and assemble the Irken Avengers of Minor Invaders. Or maybe not. I just would hate for it to get routine.

Invader Zim Interview: Eric Trueheart, Warren Wucinich and Fred Stresing Tell it Like it Is
A page from Invader Zim #13!

AiPT!: Eric, I’m sure you want to stick a screwdriver in the next person to ask you this, but if I don’t do it someone in the comments section will get mad at me. So, ya know. Tak. Any plans for her? Her character’s popularity is staggering, especially considering she was only in one episode (personally, I like the dynamic you’ve developed between Dib and Tak’s Ship).

Eric: I will drop only this misty nugget of mystery:


But for the sake of all the Tak fans out there, I will add that it’s only because Jhonen thinks Tak is a great character, and he doesn’t want to bring her back simply for the sake of doing it. If — or more probably, “when” — Tak returns, he wants it to be for a story that’s as cool as she is.

I mean, hey, we could bring back Tak every four issues and turn her into the Lex Luthor of the Zim universe, but would you really want that? The answer is no, you would not. Aren’t you glad we know what you want better than you do? The answer is yes, you do. See how good this feels?

AiPT!: Eric, and lastly, do you have plans for another multi-issue storyline or will the book be sticking to the episodic format for the time being?

Eric: That’s a tough one. I can say you will definitely see the episodic format for the near future, but I’ve been idly talking with Jhonen and Robin about the possibility of someday doing something more long-form.

No, it won’t involve Tak.

This time.

That’s enough of everyone’s time for today. AIPT would like to thank Eric, Warren and Fred for submitting to our Q&A and the behind-the-scenes folks at Oni Press for helping make it happen!

Invader Zim #13 comes out this Wednesday, September 21, featuring the abduction of Dib and the apathy of Zim. Be sure to check it out, and catch up with the Invader Zim Volume 1 trade paperback collection, already in stores.

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