ON TUESDAY evening, when Cartoon Network debuts its series “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes,” viewers can spot signage that might seem to spoof almost any suburban strip mall in America. But creator Ian Jones-Quartey’s scenes of highway-spliced commercial centers are inspired by one very particular place: the terrain of his Maryland childhood.
“The world that ‘OK K.O.!’ takes place in is an alternative-universe Maryland,” Jones-Quartey tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Specifically Columbia.”
Six years ago, Jones-Quartey — a 33-year-old writer-artist who has honed his skills on the network’s “Steven Universe” and “Adventure Time” — was working up a pitch for a series about aliens, but then he scrapped it to pivot to an idea that had emotional resonance for him. The seed of “OK K.O.!” sprang from how much he loved the shops and streets and bike paths of his home town’s Oakland Mills village, where his family moved when he was 9.
“OK K.O.!” centers on a boy’s adventures at friendly Lakewood Plaza, where his kick-butt mother runs a dojo and fitness center, and where he helps out at a bodega that supplies equipment to heroes — all across Route 175 from where villainous Lord Boxman runs his big-box retail monstrosity, which sells weapons to baddies.
The series, which is aimed to appeal to grade-schoolers, pops with video-game-style action — its short tales even affectionately nod to gaming tropes — but the adventure is grounded by how family and friends exist in this suburbia as filtered through a child’s lively imagination.
By age 8, “I had lived in several places,” says Jones-Quartey, who was born in Hatfield, Pa. “But I found Columbia especially inspiring, and I found that the ideals that the Rouse company originally tried to enforce with the planning of the community were super-inspiring.”
Developer James Rouse founded Columbia 50 years ago as a planned community that aspired to a colorblind, class-crossing utopia of homes, schools and shops, lakes, and places of faith. Last year, Money magazine named Columbia — with its social and economic diversity across nine interconnected villages — as the best place to live in America.
“It was all about these neighborhoods that had a nice even mix of different classes, and [some of] the housing was near the shopping centers and schools,” says Jones-Quartey, noting that his fictional Lakewood Plaza sits between two large metropolises. “So for me, community and commerce were fused together.”
Jones-Quartey’s father was a pharmaceutical engineer, and his mother worked as a librarian for the W.R. Grace chemical conglomerate’s Columbia research campus. Tagging along with his mom at work, sometimes as the only kid on campus, young Ian — who was always drawing — felt his imagination sparked by these academic surroundings.
Jones-Quartey, though, was less interested in the sciences. Instead, he loved world-building through art, even teaching himself to draw by freeze-framing Looney Tunes classics on the family VCR. His creative passion was further fueled by trips to visit a grandmother in Ghana, Theodosia Okoh, an artist and stateswoman who even designed her nation’s flag. (“It’s no coincidence,” Jones-Quartey says, that his show’s title is similar to the surname of his grandmother, to whom he also paid tribute with the character Nanefua Pizza on “Steven Universe.”)
After graduating from Columbia’s Long Reach High School, Jones-Quartey headed off to study animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he would meet his partner, “Steven Universe” creator and showrunner Rebecca Sugar, another Maryland transplant. The two eventually went out to Los Angeles, where their success working on Pendleton Ward projects, including “Adventure Time” and “Bravest Warriors,” led to shots at creating their own shows.
In Jones-Quartey, Cartoon Network’s executive vice president and chief content officer Robert Sorcher saw a gifted animator whose storytelling is marked by a strikingly personal viewpoint.
“When I looked at ‘OK K.O.!,’ I saw there was a person who is equally enthusiastic about gaming — and the language of video games — as he is about animation,” Sorcher says of Jones-Quartey, who created a games-themed comic, “RPG World,” before joining Cartoon Network.
“In the most delightful way … it’s the love of gaming and these two languages mixing together and then this sense of joy and wonder of being a kid,” continues Sorcher, speaking by phone from Cartoon Network’s Burbank, Calif., offices.
Sorcher formerly worked at AMC as it was developing such hit shows as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — series birthed by television veterans through traditional channels. Now at Cartoon Network, he says, the evolution of a series can be very different, incorporating mini-webisodes and mobile gaming. “No show at Cartoon Network is longer than 11 minutes,” says Sorcher, adding that “OK K.O.!” was born out of the network’s shorts development program. The short, “Lakewood Plaza Turbo,” led to a mobile game that the network began offering through an app last year.
Now, Jones-Quartey, himself a voice actor, is thrilled to have hired such top vocal actors as Jim Cummings, Melissa Villasenor, David Herman and Courtenay Taylor. (He also unofficially employs of the talents of Sugar, who provides a song for the show.)
Jones-Quartey hopes, too, that any kids near Columbia who like art might find inspiration in his new series. He cherishes memories of the town’s long bike paths and little dirt roads that ran past power lines and industrial areas, and they still inspire.
“I fell in love with that kind of aesthetic,” he says, “the mundane magic that you get from being a kid in a world that’s so big.”
“OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes” premieres at 6 p.m. Tuesday on Cartoon Network.