How 'OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes' Created the Craziest Mall in Animation
Ian Jones-Quartey's new Cartoon Network show is like a charming 'Mallrats' and 'Street Fighter' mashup.
If you were ever a teen, chances are your resume includes a crummy retail job at a mall. The job was the pits, probably, but there was a certain joy in that rite of passage. You got out of the house and out from under your parents’ thumb. You got to loiter at the mall, engage in some low-stakes commercial shenanigans with friends, and make a little scratch. That feeling is what Cartoon Network’s new show, OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes, is all about.
Well, that and exploding robots and bonkers superhero action.
The show, which premieres on Tuesday, was created by Ian Jones-Quartey, who also served as a storyboard artist on Adventure Time and is a co-executive producer on Steven Universe. Set in a world inspired by a veritable kitchen sink of superhero comics, fighting video games, classic animation, and shonen manga, the show follows young K.O. as he works at a convenience store for heroes. Along with his two teenage co-workers, Enid and Rad, K.O. needs to learn how to be a great hero himself — and keep robots from destroying the store before closing time.
Like all heroes, OK K.O. has an origin story. It begins back in 2011, when Jones-Quartey was working on Adventure Time and Cartoon Network asked him if he had any ideas for a short. His effort, Lakewood Plaza Turbo was released in 2013 and largely based on his teenage years working at a grocery store, combined with memories of getting to go to work with his mom on occasion.
“I made an idea based on that about these coworkers who hang out with this kid and how they just get up to fun high jinks,” Jones-Quartey tells Inverse. “But, then I also decided to add in something that I really like which is the idea of a bunch of genre stuff where you get to play together. There’s fighter guys, alien guys, ninjas, goblins all sort of living in one world.”
Jones-Quartey had created a rich world, and Cartoon Network was interested in expanding it beyond the short. However, right about that time, Steven Universe kicked off, and Jones-Quartey instead spent his time working on one of the most impressive, immersive animated worlds out there. Still, Jones-Quartey kept the idea for OK K.O. going, with a mobile game and another series of shorts, before the full show finally made its heroic entrance.
Together with supervising director Toby Jones, Jones-Quartey filled up Lakewood Plaza with all sorts of weird and wonderful heroes.
“Because the plaza is for superheroes, there are always people walking around in the background,” Jones-Quartey says. “And instead of having them be generic characters who you’re never going to hear from again, we populated the world with all these characters we came up with.
He explains that while the pair had created maybe 60 heroes (with even the most minor one having a backstory), board artists helped populate the world even more, bringing the current roster to somewhere north of 150 characters.
“They all have names, stories, likes and dislikes, powers. They all have their own individual things,” Jones-Quartey says. “Basically, every character is sort of the star, could be the star of their own show or game.”
Some of these characters are “particularly dumb,” like Dogman, a dog wearing a T-shirt that storyboard artists wouldn’t stop sneaking into the background of shots even though he’s a joke. Don’t confuse Dogman with Brandon, though, a more serious hero who is a bear wearing shorts.
Even though the character designs are diverse and wonderfully weird, Jones-Quartey says the main trio are the heart of the show, for good reason. “The dynamic between K.O., Rad, and Enid is my favorite thing on the show when it comes to the characters,” he explains. “They have this feel of like a three-person fighting team and a brotherly, sisterly sort of feel at the same time.”
The current generation of animation on Cartoon Network, which Jones-Quartey credits The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack with kicking off, is renown for mixing all-ages humor and light fun with expansive, engaging and complex universes. OK K.O. will be no different, but its creator says it will start small, and never forget that K.O. is the audience’s eyes.
“It’s something that I learned from Steven Universe where you should really approach it from the characters, who they are instead of what the world is,” he explains. And, to be clear, it’s a rich world, one full of questions that need answering. “There’s the plaza. There’s the fact that heroes always fight robots, and that’s just how it’s always been,” Jones-Quartey teases. “There’s, ‘why does everybody in this world have superpowers?’”
“If you watch from Episode 1 to 6, the layers of the world slowly get peeled back, but only as K.O. is experiencing them,” Jones-Quartey says, noting how episode two introduces the robot-obsessed villain, Lord Boxman, and the next episode widens out to highlight some of the other Lakewood Plaza patrons.
In an age where even little kids are media savvy enough to watch for continuity, expanded universes, and Easter eggs, it’s no surprise that OK K.O. has big aspirations. How could it not, given the depth of the world and characters that Jones-Quartey and his team created?
But in the end, OK K.O. is not about the grand scope of the world beyond Lakewood Plaza Turbo. That’s all fun and good, but our heroes in the mall are more important than the mall itself.
“It’s a show about heroes that are best friends who fight robots, and the robots explode, and there’s a ton of explosions,” Jones-Quartey says. “If any of that sounds good to you, you should check it out.”
OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes premieres on August 1 at 6:10 p.m. Eastern on Cartoon Network.