Cartoons, Reviews, TV

OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes Is Cute But Not Great Yet

OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes

Ian Jones-Quartey (creator), John Pham (art director), Toby Jones (supervising director)
Stephanie Nadolny, Courtenay Taylor, Ashly Burch, Ian Jones-Quartey, David Herman, Kate Flannery, Chris Niosi, Jim Cummings, Melissa Fahn, Robbie Daymond, Kari Wahlgren (cast)
August 1, 2017 (US)

It starts with a friendly intro evocative of the Pokemon cartoon theme, its title sequence all of 20 seconds. A cast of epic, heroic characters emerges immediately after the credits, featuring voice actors like Stephanie Nadolny (young Goku in Dragon Ball Z) and Courtenay Taylor (Regular Show, Mass Effect, Halo). This opening was animated by Hiroyuki Imaishi, of Dead Leaves and Neon Genesis Evangelion fame. It’s OK K. O.! Let’s Be Heroes, the brainchild of a young animator who came to Cartoon Network from School of Visual Arts just ten years ago. After working on many hit Cartoon Network shows such as The Venture Brothers, Adventure Time, and Steven Universe, Ian Jones-Quartey was able to assemble a heroic team of actors and animators to create this new show about an aspiring hero.

OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes is the first show that Jones-Quartey has led the charge on at Cartoon Network. Its style reflects the storyboard work of Imaishi, whose action work like Dead Leaves and Kill La Kill make him the perfect person to blend American and Japanese animation styles for this new cartoon. The director John Pham, who has written and drawn his own comics, shapes the story frame by frame. These influences are evident in fight scenes and character actions, like mopping the floor or walking around. There is a charming blockiness to it that makes it feel like it’s still in development. The lines are rough around the edges, giving the cartoon an unpolished quality to the animation. Colors are bold and bright, and shadows are few and far between.

The story focuses on an enthusiastic young boy named K.O. who lives with his mother, Carol. Everyone in Lakewood Plaza is either a hero of some kind, or a robot. Each hero gets their own Pow card, which details their “level.” K. O. gets to work with two such heroes at his job at Gar’s Hero Supply and Bodega. K.O.’s friends are a couple of teenage heroes, Enid and Radicles, who they call Rad. They’re both capable of beating off the evil robots sent by The Boxman, and they give K.O. fun things to do. Carol is usually off at her studio, teaching women how to battle and fight, so Enid and Rad watch after K.O. Various adventures happen over the course of the 14-episode series, all of which is available on Cartoon Network’s website.

The story is a simple, repetitive one, and clearly made for children. Themes include honesty, friendship, admiration, respect, and helping people. K. O. cares about all of the right things, and there is never any ethical questioning of any kind. This is a story with some clear lessons about how to behave towards others. If that wasn’t blatant enough, the bad guy Boxman creates evil robots to destroy the people of Lakewood Plaza because he can’t stand friendship. Any kind words of admiration or respect will drive him away back to his evil robot factory. For K.O., there’s no question of who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.

Ian Jones-Quartey

Ian Jones-Quartey, the show’s creator

But perhaps there should be some questioning. For example, Rad is often a confusing character. He’ll help those around him and often helps K.O.,  but he makes fun of K.O., teases him mercilessly, and often makes K.O. feel belittled. Rad is usually high on himself, impressed with his choices even when he’s disobeying rules or slacking off. Yet he is a close friend of the boy, and encourages him throughout the show. This is less pure when it comes to the values that are overtly discussed and enforced in each episode. Rad does learn lessons from time to time, but he’s not like K.O., who has a moral compass that points true North. Enid is much the same as Rad; she is focused on her own life and says that helping others “isn’t really my thing”. In one episode, K.O. shows Enid that she can help people and it makes her feel good, but it’s less clear later whether or not that has sunk in for her.

The adults in the show have a better sense of the morality that K.O. embodies. Carol, his mother, takes time out of her day for her son, even in the middle of a class she’s teaching. She has a sweet and open heart that extends to K.O. and others around her. She has endless patience in dealing with anyone. She is, after all, a teacher. Her encouragement to K.O. is part of what fuels his endless, bouncy enthusiasm for helping others. Mr. Gar, who runs the shop where K.O. works and is a high level hero, is similar. Other than his obvious crush on Carol, he does not hide much about himself or his own inflexible morals. He is there to give the bad guys their comeuppance, too.

For Jones-Quartey, this is a story he’s been working on for a while, one he found in his heart. “I just reached in, and tried to be true to myself,” he said in an interview with Verge. He’s had the idea in mind since 2011, and started making short “minisodes” for Cartoon Network in 2013. This year all of his hard work manifested into a full-blown 14 episode series, which debuted this summer.

There’s an innocence to OK K.O.! that becomes troubling as the show goes on. There are not a lot of political complexities, or even representation for all gender roles. It lacks a lot of the groundbreaking social questions that other shows like Steven Universe spark, such as queer representation and racial concerns. Perhaps it’s not meant to address these things for now; this is only the beginning of the show. But it would be great to see Enid and Carol take on more prominent roles, and to see Rad and Mr. Gar step out of the spotlight in favour of some women. Even to see a love interest that isn’t straight would be cool.

A screen from OK K.O.! Shorts

A screen from OK K.O.! Shorts

Much of OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes is well executed. It’s an action show which delivers a perfect bite size cartoon of 10 minutes, which makes the entire season easy to tackle in a day. It’s good to see Cartoon Network giving another of their long time creators the chance to see through a pet project, and create a new show. The clarity of the story, a singular bad guy, and the clear moral compass all make OK K.O.! stand out amongst its 10-minute peers like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Regular Show. There’s something classic about it, that makes me think of old shows like Superman and Inspector Gadget. Perhaps it’s that as a viewer, I always knew the main cast would be safe from harm at the end of the story. Perhaps it’s the lessons imparted throughout the storytelling.

OK K.O.! is a show that is aware of itself and its rough edges. The combined efforts of Jones-Quartey, Pham, and Imaishi create a fun and lovable cast of characters that draw you into the story. They have worked hard to bring about a sense of natural progression and trust in the story. K.O. isn’t going to ever be seriously hurt or lost, and neither are his friends. As long as friendship, admiration, and honesty prevail at Lakewood Plaza, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes will be safe from Boxman and his evil robots.

Ian Jones-Quartey also helped to create a mobile Android and iOS game called OK K.O.! Lakewood Plaza Turbo, where you can play K.O. as he saves Lakewood Plaza.

You can also watch Jones-Quartey’s original cartoon from his days at School of Visual Arts, nockForce. It’s less appropriate for the kids, and a lot rougher, but you might enjoy the 2007 animation. It has over 50 one-minute episodes.