Growing up in the Village of Oakland Mills in the 1990s, Ian Jones-Quartey says he remembers riding his bicycle to explore the Columbia village centers, where families and friends came together in a welcoming environment.
The community gathering places, part of Jim Rouse’s utopian vision for the planned community, inspired Jones-Quartey as a writer, storyboard artist and animator, he said, and extends to his latest television project, “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes,” which premiered on Cartoon Network in August.
Set in the future year of 201X, “OK K.O.!” follows lead character K.O. who hopes to become the world’s greatest hero. K.O. works alongside his alien friend, Radicles, and coworker, Enid, at Gar’s Bodega hero supply shop in the Lakewood Plaza Turbo strip mall.
The pilot, titled, “Lakewood Plaza Turbo,” aired as part of Cartoon Network’s Summer Shorts project in 2013. The show was greenlit in March 2017 and the first episode aired on Aug. 1.
Jones-Quartey, 33, said he drew some ideas for the show, particularly its setting, from his childhood experiences in Columbia. He and his family moved to Oakland Mills from Pennsylvania around 1993.
“Lakewood Plaza Turbo is heavily inspired by my memories of biking to Dobbin Center and going to the video game store, the larger stores or getting something to eat. That was a fun memory,” he said.
The Lakewood Plaza Turbo strip mall was based on the Dobbin Center, Jones Quartey said, and built across from a store for villains, Boxmore. Boxmore represents the development of Columbia Crossing, the large strip mall that opened in 1997 and included big-box stores.
Like Dobbin Center and Columbia Crossing, Lakewood Plaza Turbo and Boxmore in the show are also divided by Route 175.
“[Columbia Crossing] used to be a giant picturesque field, but suddenly there were huge stores that were there,” Jones-Quartey said. “It didn’t ruin Columbia, but I do remember the feeling of, ‘Oh my gosh, now there are these warring bases of commerce right in my town.’ ”
Beginning with Columbia’s first village center in Wilde Lake in 1967, Columbia Archives director Barbara Kellner said the village centers were originally designed to face inward and create the feeling of a small town square. At that time, Wilde Lake Village Center had a courtyard with shops, and offices and a community center were built above them.
“The original idea was for every village to have a center that would provide basic needs, including the kinds of shopping you would do every day or on a weekly basis as well as the services you might need,” Kellner said.
Parking was located behind the village centers, requiring shoppers to get out and walk to the courtyard before they could see the storefronts. Harper’s Choice and Oakland Mills Village centers followed with that design a few years later, Kellner said. However, designs began to change with Kings Contrivance and Hickory Ridge villages, built in 1986 and 1992, respectively, and storefronts were visible from outside the village centers.
Jane Dembner, Columbia Association’s director of planning and community affairs, said the village centers were designed when retail competition was limited, so there was no need to build them on major roadways or have large signage.
“The grocery-centered village center model has been affected not only by the increased competition of retail outlets generally, but also by the development of a wide variety of grocery outlets from specialty stores to Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and merchandise stores that now sell groceries, such as Target, Costco and Walmart,” she said.
In a partnership between Columbia Association and the Howard County Economic Development Authority, Dembner said they have created the Columbia Village Centers Retail Development program to strength Columbia’s nine village centers for retail and community gatherings.
When Jones-Quartey learned that his TV show was greenlit at Cartoon Network, the Long Reach High School graduate said the project began to feel “real” after he’d spent so much time creating the world of K.O. and dozens of other characters.
Now living in Los Angeles, Jones-Quartey studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York City after graduating high school and began his career at World Leaders Entertainment, where he was the animation director for the TV show, “The Venture Bros.”
Jones-Quartey was hired at Cartoon Network in 2010 as a storyboard revisionist on the show, “Adventure Time.” When he was promoted to storyboard supervisor for the show, Jones-Quartey said he pitched an idea to studio executives that eventually became “OK K.O.!”
A single episode takes about nine months from start to finish, he said, so everyone is working on several episodes at a time in an assembly line-style fashion. It all starts with a story idea.
“We write that down as a rough outline, which contains all of the story beats and the action that happens,” Jones-Quartey said. “We hand that off to a storyboard artist, who draws and writes the story all at once, and then pitches that idea to an entire room of us. We laugh at all the jokes, figure out which jokes don’t work and which could be better.”
From there, the storyboard is broken down by artwork, including backgrounds, colors, characters and props. Every animated object has a purpose, he said. Materials are then shipped to the studio’s partners, animation studios Sunmin Image Pictures and Digital eMation, who put together the animation.
The episode is finished once the scenes are returned to Jones-Quartey and his team and sound and special effects are added. Voice talent features Courtenay Taylor as K.O., Ashly Burch as Enid, David Herman as Mr. Eugene Gar and Kate Flannery as Carol.
Voice actor Jim Cummings, who voices well-known characters such as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and the Tasmanian Devil, provides the voice of Lord Boxman. Jones-Quartey said he lends his own voice to characters Radicles and Lord Boxman’s robot teen son, Darrell.
“Voice acting was never something I expected I’d ever do,” Jones-Quartey said. “To get to be in the booth with these amazingly talented actors and watch them do their craft is an amazing education.”
Art and drawing was a big part of his childhood and strongly supported by his family, he said.
“My maternal grandmother, Theodosia Okoh, even designed the flag of Ghana, where my family’s from,” Jones-Quartey said. “Having someone like that in our family made it easy to think that being an artist is a thing I could do.”
Jones-Quartey said “OK K.O.!” speaks to his inner child and creates characters that children can practice drawing to express their own artistic abilities.
“The show was created to speak to the kind of kid that I was — the kind of kid who I know is out there and is into exciting superheroes, special powers and really enjoys drawing,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have people around me who saw my art and encouraged me to do more.”