Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E1 "Let's Be Heroes"/"Let's Be Friends"

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!Ian Jones-Quartey, I am given to understand, does not like the way people keep referencing RPG World when discussing his work, but it’s hard not to. Part of that difficulty, doubtlessly, is that it was abandoned, and particularly that it was abandoned so close to what appeared to be the grand climax. This lack of closure makes RPG World a sort of wound–scabbed over, mostly forgotten, but difficult to stop picking at, a place to seek themes and ideas that echo throughout Jones-Quartey’s career. It is the curse of the Millennial creator: our juvenilia are still out there in dark corners of the Internet, just waiting to return and embarrass us–and the more successful our juvenilia were, the more often we encounter them.
On the other hand, OK KO‘s first two 11-minute stories don’t try very hard to hide the resemblance. Jones-Quartey’s style has some distinct hallmarks, both visual and narrative, and they’re quite apparent here: large, squarish heads and upper bodies; extensive references to video games and animation of the long 1990s*; a male lead who is innocent to the point of naivete and blissfully unaware of how goofy he is; a snarky female lead who is completely jaded about the shenanigans that surround her; gentle mockery of genre conventions.
None of this is a criticism of OK KO; it’s just acknowledgment that it is very, very much a pure Jones-Quartey project in ways that, say, Steven Universe is not. For our purposes, however, the most notable thing about OK KO is that it serves as a handy illustration of the differences between a hero and a superhero. Jones-Quartey’s most visible influences, consistently throughout his career, have been primarily Japanese, whether that’s JRPGs in RPG World, anime in Steven Universe, or platform and beat-em-up games in OK KO. Superheroes, while not exclusively Western, are much more a Western phenomenon, and so the conception of heroism presented in OK KO is notably different.
Both models of heroism involve the protector fantasy, of course, because that’s most of what we mean when we say “hero”: a proactive protector, someone who goes out to slay monsters or capture criminals who seek to do us harm. So, by the end of “Let’s Be Friends,” KO’s quest to become a hero has been deliberately and explicitly entangled with the protection of Lakewood Plaza Turbo; he has completed the first step toward his goal, namely establishing or acquiring a place and people to protect.
The differences become clearer, however, when we examine the other two pillars of this project: there is no near-apocalypse for KO to prevent, but rather an ongoing status quo of which he is seeking to become a part. Lakewood Plaza Turbo and Boxmore exist in balanced opposition, one (as stated in the pilot short, released some years prior to the show proper) providing supplies for heroes while the other provides evil robots for villains. (Separated, according to the pilot, by Route 1. US Route 1 is a major highway that passes through Jones-Quartey’s native Baltimore; his work is as much about his childhood’s re-creation as its recreation.) Perhaps more importantly, what is KO’s origin story? He wanted to be a hero, so he tried to be a hero, with mixed success; now he’s learning to be a hero. There is no trauma here–some slapstick combat injuries, but no genuine suffering, no distortion of memory, time, and identity.
That said, OK KO may not be using the superheroic model, but it is using a model of heroism we have seen before, fairly recently in fact: unsurprisingly for the work of someone as influenced by Japanese culture as Jones-Quartey, OK KO is running on a shonen fighting show’s model of heroism. As in Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and countless others, the hero is originally characterized more by enthusiasm than prowess; however, through determination, training, and the help of a circle of friends, KO grows stronger and begins to discover his abilities.
The show itself appears to be aware of this: again, one of Jones-Quartey’s signatures is gentle mockery of generic conventions, and here he has Lord Boxman declaring a hatred for and desire to destroy all friendship, on the grounds that people who get along are less likely to purchase evil killer robots. His comically inept attempt to accomplish this, of course, only cements that Enid and Rad like, respect, and admire KO, establishing their friendship.
One argument we can make–and will definitely examine–is that by 2017, the time of the superhero is over. As we have been coming to realize, the superhero’s engagement with near-apocalypse can emphasize the most problematic, authoritarian readings of the protector fantasy. Looking at other models of heroism is a good idea, whether our goal is to fix the superhero or replace it–and the creators who grew up on superheroes aren’t a likely place to find those models. It is to creators like Jones-Quartey and his partner, Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar, who grew up on different models of heroism, that we should look for answers.
And three or four hundred entries from now, we will.
*I spotted references to Street Fighter (KO’s design is clearly based on Ryu), Final Fight (Mr. Gar is equally clearly based on Mike Haggar), Mega Man (the robot-building villain’s skull-themed lair, Darrell and Shannon’s designs), Sonic the Hedgehog (Lord Boxman’s design resembles, and he shares a voice actor with, Dr. Robotnik), and My Life as a Teenage Robot (Shannon’s design). I know that last is 2003, but its visual style, sense of humor, and premise (young person who is different from, but more powerful than, everyone else as a consequence of superscience) put it firmly in the tradition of 90s Cartoon Network classics like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab. Anyway, at least as far as we’re concerned, the long 90s end with the finale of Justice League Unlimited and premiere of Avatar: The Last Airbender both in 2005. Everything really did change when the Fire Nation attacked.

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