Over the last few years, the amount of confirmed LGBTQ characters in animated television aimed at children in the United States has significantly increased. Media for children has additional hoops to leap through when including LGBTQ characters, such as fear of “corrupting” children into queerness or exposing them to “sexual content” of same-gender relationships. We’re currently at a turning point between reliance on subtext for depiction of LGBTQ people (such as under the Hays Code) and more openness about LGBTQ topics, and all the complications that come with it.
OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes on Cartoon Network juggles straightforward representation with the more nebulous. As brief as it is, Enid is deliberately drawn riding vehicles with a bisexual pride sticker, the same one Rebecca Sugar used to come out in real life. Lord Boxman and Professor Venomous, the main antagonists of the series, come across as queer in another less direct way. Boxman seeks business partnerships with other supervillains of any gender, given the same weight and imagery as if they were romantic relationships. He eventually joins forces with Professor Venomous, who previously dated a woman. Together, Boxman and Venomous are ostensibly a same-gender couple under the bisexual umbrella. Showrunner Ian Jones-Quartey later confirmed via Twitter that Boxman is pansexual and Venomous is bisexual.
On paper, two major antagonists being queer(-coded) sounds unfortunately like yet another offensive stereotype in cartoons. However, the big picture is much more complex. OK K.O. has queer characters on both the hero and villain sides of Lakewood, and even that hero and villain divide becomes blurred.
The rest of this post contains major spoilers for OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes.
OK K.O.! is a love letter to the television, films, comics, and video games the crew enjoyed as children and appreciate to this day. For example, Boxman himself harks back to Eggman of Sonic the Hedgehog in robotics expertise and body type, as well as Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd of Looney Tunes in obsessive personality. For a modern creation, it carries many sensibilities of an older cartoon. Queer-coded villains are just one part of animation’s history at play. OK K.O. repurposes familiar methods to communicate the sexuality and relationship of Boxman and Venomous, but not in a way that demonizes them.
Traditionally, animated male villains have effeminate qualities in contrast to the more masculine hero. It’s not enough to differentiate by cruelty and kindness; male villains must invoke the discomfort straight and cisgender audiences feel when queer men express their sexuality or transgress gender norms. Androgyny and gender nonconformity have been used to characterize villains as evil even when they’re actually straight (i.e. have a love interest of the “opposite” gender). Queer-coding of villains occurs in all fiction, but the exaggeration of features and deliberation of visuals in animation have long veered villains into caricature.
OK K.O. does not obviously introduce Boxman, the primary villain, as pansexual as other queer-coded villains may be. While queer-coded antagonists often detest and attempt to disrupt heterosexual couples and heteronormative society, Boxman’s point of contention against Lakewood Plaza is their platonic friendships. He would have no motive to destroy the nuclear family, because he and K.O.’s mother Carol both raise their children as single parents without stigma. There is little contrast in queerness between him (nor his flamboyant son Raymond) and the employees of Gar’s Bodega, as Enid expresses her bisexuality openly and Rad comes to embrace gender non-conformity and sexual fluidity.
In retrospect Boxman being the head of a corporation could be tied to the perception of gay (white cisgender) men as affluent, but that would be a stretch. Even then, he is far from the only queer man in OK K.O. Boxman could also be considered a “foppish” character, one concerned with his (effeminate) physical appearance and up-keep to the point of comedy. Although Boxman’s character design isn’t “feminine,” comedic insecurity and fretting over his appearance comes close to the trope and could lead to early queer readings. He particularly gets worked up in “We’re Captured!” trying to impress Professor Venomous, who he considers much more successful as a villain. Boxman’s pansexuality begins to shine through interacting with Venomous.
“We’re Captured” introduces Professor Venomous as a single father, business man, and villain just like Boxman. They have different approaches to what they have in common, symbolized in their complementary green and purple color schemes. Where Boxman is authoritarian, distracted, and wacky; Venomous is gentle, professional, and menacing. In “We’re Captured!” Venomous and his young minion Fink visit Boxman’s home for dinner in the name of their business partnership, and Boxman desperately wants to flatter and impress him. This proves difficult as Boxman simultaneously deals with K.O., Rad, and Enid infiltrating his factory. Venomous remains calm and collected even when Boxman serves him burnt food, loses his temper at his robot kids, and acts generally scatterbrained.
In Venomous’ case, his queer-coding is much more obvious from the beginning. From his lithe frame to lidded eyes to serrated teeth, his design for a desirable and aspirational male character is one not likely understood by straight cisgender men. His character design comes from storyboarder Ryann Shannon, who decided Venomous must be “hot” for Boxman’s desperation to make sense (transcription edited for clarity):
Ian Jones-Quartey: We actually had a design for Professor Venomous. A character shows up in the mobile game. You see Boxman dealing with this other character and we’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s Professor Venomous.” And so we showed that picture and I think Ryann was just like, “No, he shouldn’t be like this.” Because the whole episode was hinging on Boxman trying to impress this person and really do a good job. And she was like, “He has to be hot.” And we were like, “That makes sense.”
Toby Jones: We had a lot of discussions about cartoon hotness theory. She was so clued in and created something immortal, I would say.
Ian Jones-Quartey: And it was so the right wavelength because I’ve gone back […] in my webcomic RPG World, a lot of the villains stuff was a doofy villain and a really hot villain. It was these two guys, Galgarion and Jeff, who were joined at the hip. And I was just like, “Right, this! I know this! I know how to write this! I’ve known all along!”
From the podcast conversation, it’s unclear if Jones-Quartey and Jones always planned for Boxman and Venomous to be romantic. Nonetheless, the change to Venomous’ character design informed their relationship as we know it. The end results shows him respected and intimidating, but not for muscular physique like the “traditionally” masculine Mr. Gar on the hero side. His presence does not cater to an assumed cisgender heterosexual viewership, which prompts alternative interpretations from the get-go. Boxman never calls Venomous attractive, but “The Glow” of shoujo sparkles around him when he enters (notably absent from Fink’s entrance) make it clear. Boxman’s male perspective specifically frames his allure, though he may to audiences of any gender. He’s not just attractive–Boxman is attracted to him. No character calls Venomous queer, but his “alternative” masculinity and connection to Boxman work in tandem to come off as not straight.
From the introduction of Venomous, understanding his relationship with Boxman relies on subtext that LGBTQ audiences respond to. Straight audiences tend to recognize male characters as gay (bisexual and pansexual less so due to cultural invisibility) through sexual intercourse. In cartoons for children, sex can be included via double entendre for anal or oral sex. See Pop Culture Detective’s video Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laughs for examples of thinly-veiled prison rape jokes in children’s entertainment, including Cartoon Network classics. Sexuality can also be conveyed through physical acts besides sexual intercourse, such as the effeminate and devilish HIM caressing and licking Professor Utonium’s face in The PowerPuff Girls. Queer-coded male villains like HIM can act as sexual menaces toward straight protagonists, which striaght audiences pick up on through clear displays of sexuality.
On the other hand, LGBTQ audiences recognize male characters as gay, bisexual, and pansexual differently due to gay sensibility (or bi, pan, queer, etc. sensibility in this case). In “Camp and the Gay Sensibility,” Jack Babuscio defines gay sensibility as “a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression.” Close relationships with characters of the same gender and interest of multiple genders in fiction, even if not explicitly romantic, resonate with the experiences of LGBTQ people. The characters rarely consummate their feelings on-screen, which makes them undetectable to straight people who require sex to recognize queerness. Differences in identity also lead to different ideas of what constitutes “queer-coding” in cartoons. Compare a fan’s compilation of “gay moments” in Steven Universe to another person’s collection of “gayest moments” in The Amazing World of Gumball, both Cartoon Network shows. The video of Steven Universe, a cartoon created by LGBTQ people with a massive LGBTQ fanbase, features affection and conversation between characters with developed relationships. One-off jokes where a character makes another deeply uncomfortable through physical contact comprise the Gumball video.
“We’re Captured” certainly has its comedic moments with how Boxman’s plans to host the perfect dinner for Venomous and Fink go awry, but not as the expense of his sexual orientation. Rather, the humor comes from his usual cartoony overreactions. If the situation seems laughable because Boxman’s feelings could never be returned–whether because they’re both guys or Venomous is out of his league–that’s disproved by the end. It’s not a case of LeFou to Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or Mr. Smithers to Mr. Burns in The Simpsons where the gay-coded minion’s object of affection ignores if not abuses them. Things go right for Boxman for once as he wins Venomous’ approval and defeats K.O. and friends. Over the course of the episode Boxman invites Venomous to dinner, Boxman gets flustered by Venomous, Venomous takes in the sight of (shirtless) Boxman, and Venomous accepts Boxman (with a hug).
This is all under the pretense of their business partnership in which Boxmore provides Venomous with robots, but bares striking resemblance to a date where a one-sided crush becomes requited or an aborted breakup. They engage in courtship, the recognizable form relationships took in film after the Hays Code outlawed display of sexuality (heterosexual or otherwise). That’s not to say they’re sanitized, considering Venomous ogling Boxman serves as the turning point of their relationship. Boxman’s display of power may be “macho” like Rambo, but OK K.O. set against the same Glow as Venomous’ entrance to assert that he’s equally attractive from a queer male perspective.
A viewer without queer sensibility may not pick up on such subtext, but LGBTQ fans have taken note since the episode aired. Their business and interpersonal relationship are connected if not equated, going as far as Boxman asking for clarification on “you still want my robots? You still want me?” The double entendre refers not to sexual acts, but to courtship. Venomous and Boxman’s relationship is figurative in that sense, just like Venomous and Fink’s. If viewers can grasp Venomous and Fink as father and daughter when they only refer to each other as “boss” and “minion,” so should they recognize Venomous and Boxman as a couple. Their relationship has been couched in queer-coding from the beginning (specifically that which appeals to queer people), and OK K.O. goes on to embrace that space to tell their love story.
OK K.O. later frames Boxman’s attraction to a woman in the exact same way as his interest in Venomous, reinforcing the romantic meaning and conveying Boxman’s pansexuality. “Coding” pansexuality in fiction can be tricky, as even real people “passing” for pansexual is unheard of. In Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, Shiri Eisner (using bisexual as an umbrella term) observes “two main ways to successfully pass as bisexual: in situations where one is visibly engaged with people of more than one gender, and in situations where bisexual people successfully ‘recognize’ each other.” In OK K.O., characters under the bi umbrella (pansexual Boxman, bisexual Enid and Venomous, and fluid Rad) all have their sexuality conveyed through relationships and interest in multiple genders, though not simultaneously. In the Captain Planet crossover “The Power is Yours,” Boxman strikes a business partnership with Doctor Blight to pollute Lakewood Plaza. He engages with a man and a woman on separate occasions, establishing his attraction to multiple genders.
When a fictional character is confirmed pansexual, the creator usually means attraction to men, women, and non-humans and showcases their relationship with a non-human. In Boxman’s case, showing him interested in men and women places him under the bisexual umbrella. Non-humans certainly exist in the world of OK K.O., including Boxman and Venomous themselves, but they don’t serve as stand-ins for non-binary humans as they frequently do in science fiction and fantasy. Instead, Boxman reflects the true meaning of pansexual and the experiences of pansexual people: attraction to all genders.
However, that’s not to say he was immediately recognized as bisexual or pansexual. Some fans considered “The Power is Yours” an offensive retcon of Boxman’s attraction to men, and his partnership with Venomous thus “queer-baiting.” They interpreted Boxman as gay, and took “The Power is Yours” not as deeper insight to his sexuality but as contradictory. In reality, Doctor Blight poses no threat to their relationship as she only appears within the special crossover. Her interactions with Boxman actually strikingly parallel those with Venomous, showing his equal attraction to genders (and taste in evil scientists). Unlike Venomous, she rejects Boxman to never be seen again. It is simply biphobic and phallocentric to believe Boxman’s budding relationship with Venomous would negate any interest in other genders.
Venomous and Boxman’s next episodes together, the connected “Villains Night Out” and “Villains Night In,” reassure their relationship will continue. The pair of episodes split the same night between Boxman and Venomous at a party for villains, and Boxman’s robot children Darrell and Shannon watching over Venomous’ minion/daughter Fink at home. Though “Villains Night In” plays out under the pretense of babysitting, the intermingling of children is not unlike how the kids of dating single parents meet to feel out how they’d be as step-siblings. Fink clashes with the robots and attempts to sabotage the night because she can’t stand Boxman, but ultimately Darrell and Shannon endure and impress Venomous.
Like Fink tries to sabotage her babysitting, Boxman wrecks the villain party knowing the hosts detest him. He trashes the party boat, hogs the karaoke machine (singing he and Venomous “are two of hearts”), and knowingly provokes the hero organization P.O.I.N.T.; thoroughly embarrassing Venomous. However, once Boxman declares he did so to show he doesn’t care if others see him as merely a “joke villain,” Venomous changes his tune. He gapes at Boxman the same way he did at the end of “We’re Captured,” and says he “loves” Boxman’s dedication to destroying Lakewood Plaza.
The episode ends on Venomous presenting Boxman with a bio-chip in a small box, as if he’s proposing marriage. The visual similarity to a proposal is not comedic, but actually foreboding as the show’s biggest threats have teamed up against Lakewood Plaza. The episode doesn’t sexualize their threat, either. The real punchline comes when Boxman ends his evil laugh with the mundane (if not domestic) “let’s go pick up Fink.” There’s no physical ring or spoken “I do,” but they’ve certainly forged a stronger bond. Again, the romantic significance is there if you have the queer sensibility to notice. Although Venomous does not appear with him, Boxman uses the gifted bio-chip to create a new robot named Boxman Jr. in the season one finale. As a collaboration of their technology, Boxman Jr. may as well be the son of them both.
As of season one, their relationship paradoxically exists on a subtextual level, yet essential to the plot and acknowledged within it. Like the romantic tropes and film making that creates homoerotic subtext between Hannibal Lector and Will Graham of NBC’s Hannibal, but without all the murder and betrayal. If villains and antiheroes were more “obviously” queer to heterosexual viewers, i.e. portrayed in the negative or stereotypical ways palatable to them, that could raise eyebrows or even be used to point to how LGBTQ people are evil. Instead, Boxman and Venomous’ relationship sits comfortably between the lines where only LGBTQ fans can understand and appreciate it. For LGBTQ people who identify with queer-coded villains in particular, they’re humanized while retaining their villainous appeal.
Professor Venomous doesn’t reappear until “Boxman Crashes” in season two, set after Boxman leaves Boxmore to his son Darrell. Just when Venomous laments his boredom, he finds Boxman living in his trash and he reenters his life. Boxman presses against Venomous and grasps one side of his chest when he asks to stay for a few days, showing the physical element of their relationship. Venomous accepts (to Fink’s disgust), taking their courtship along the timeline of dating to proposal to cohabitation, but Boxman proceeds to make a mess and eventually topples his lair. This time his hijinks don’t intentionally make a point and Venomous’ patience finally runs out, which can happen when a couple first co-habituate and they learn about each other’s living habits.
“Boxman Crashes” focuses not only on his relationship with Venomous, but with Fink. For single parents, a potential partner’s connection to their child can be just as important as to oneself. Like Venomous in “We’re Captured,” Fink comes around to Boxman against the odds. Boxman reveals a constructed present for her: a monster truck-esque tricycle, which she happily accepts. They actually have a lot in common, from their crudeness to their soft spots for Venomous, symbolized in similar color schemes. By the end of the episode Fink goes from calling Boxman “stinkman” to “Boxboss,” marking him a father figure as much as her “boss” Venomous.
Fink’s joy abates Venomous’ anger, allowing their relationship to continue. Boxman takes Venomous’ hands and promises he’ll show him “a good time” attacking the Plaza as a trio. Again, the double entendre at play refers less to sex and more to family formation and child-rearing, which straight people don’t associate positively with same-gender couples. Boxman and Venomous bond spectating Fink’s attack, and Venomous declares he “loves” the excitement Boxman’s hands-on villainy brings to his life. To emphasize the romance of this revelation, Boxman and Venomous lay on their sides facing each other as if in bed together. Even in defeat, Boxman enchants Venomous so much he purchases Boxmore to reinstate the two of them as the heads of the company. Their businesses become one, seen in the snake constructed into the face of the Boxmore building, which can only mean wedding when you consider their business partnership also operates as a romantic relationship. Boxman even refers to Venomous as “partner,” another double entendre. Again, their combined threat against the Plaza is not comedic nor sexualized through its queer subtext, but conveyed with courtship culminating in marriage.
Boxman and Venomous reach peak domesticity in “All in the Villainy,” a parody of retro family sitcoms like All in the Family starring themselves and their collective children. The episode’s opening transitions to the title card with a laugh track at Boxman sighing “Oh bother!” as if he has a catchphrase, and continues into credits over the “cast” and snapshots of their group outings. The credits culminate in arranged portraits of the fathers and children titled “The Voxy Bunch,” a la The Brady Bunch. In a recap of “last time on The Voxy Bunch,” Venomous orders for all the kids at a fast food drive-thru, Venomous pays for a group shopping spree when Boxman has no money, Venomous drives Raymond to sports practice, and Boxman and Venomous both attend a musical performance by the kids.
At this point, being a blended family goes far above subtext. You could even say that being a family defines the villain characters, which goes against conservative “family values” opposed to LGBTQ parenting. OK K.O. presents same-gender stepparents and their children as “wholesome” as an all-American sitcom. In that sense, Boxman and Venomous have assimilated into the nuclear family idealized in popular culture. However, “villainy” still defines their family and sets them apart, similar to The Addams Family. Even with all this family imagery, it’s still couched in the language of their businesses “merging” and Fink becoming a “coworker” to the Boxbots. Their connections are definitely acknowledged, but their significance comes across more through feelings. It’s like Darrell says when Fink asserts they have bosses, not dads: “They’re daddies in my heart.”
Boxman and Fink get along now, but the same can’t be said for Darrell and Fink. For “a Voxman episode,” Darrell and Fink take up a majority of screen time, which goes to show the importance of their children to their relationship. The conflict between kids makes them reconsider “co-villainy” entirely. On Venomous and Boxman’s side, their different approaches in parenting come out. While Boxman only physically punishes, Venomous only materially rewards. Boxman–and by extension OK K.O.–previously put Venomous on a pedestal of “the good dad,” but he can actually be just as clueless when it comes to parenting. Only once Boxman and Venomous collaborate on weapon presents for Fink and Darrell respectively (symbolizing the crossing over of their family) and Fink feels responsible for Darrell in battle does everything work out. Once again, Fink comes around to Darrell just like Venomous did with Boxman.
Even with the spotlight on Fink and Darrell, “All in the Villainy” provides the most physical intimacy between Boxman and Venomous yet. They lay on top of each other, sit beside each other whenever not standing, and reassuringly hold hands. They ecstatically hug when they order Fink and Darrell to share a bedroom, implying they do as well. The episode doesn’t reveal their shared bedroom, but renders the head of their meeting table as if one: two chairs close enough to form a bed’s headboard, lamps and books beside them like nightstands, and cushioning on the chairs reminiscent of pillows. It evokes the kind of parents’ bedroom scene found in sitcoms, including animated ones like The Simpsons. As they discuss the predicament with their children, they turn to each other (like in “Boxman Crashes” before) and the cushions shift beneath them. The “pillow talk” strongly implies sexual intimacy, though the topic is their parenting. Finally as they watch Fink and Darrell play together, Boxman puts his hand on Venomous’ hip in a direct callback to “The Power is Yours,” but this time he’s not rejected. As always, their relationship serves as their queer-coding. In this case, they’re newlyweds clinging to each other. Their physicality lies between each other, rather than predatory toward a straight protagonist.
After the merger, Boxmore attacks feature a new “VM” logo when the attack comes from collaboration between them and “BM” when not. “Rad’s Alien Sickness” features a VM attack from Venomous and Fink, in their first episode without an appearance from Boxman. They channel Jesse and James of Pokemon, queer-coded characters beloved by LGBTQ fans in the US, to announce their arrival at the Plaza a la the Team Rocket motto. Such LGBTQ cultural references include Fink in her family’s queer-coded villainy without going into a small child’s sexual orientation.
In season three, Venomous and Boxman’s marriage goes from subtext to text when Raymond refers to Venomous as his “stepfather” in its second episode “K.O., Rad, and Enid.” The third season also features more episodes about Venomous and Fink without appearances from Boxman: “K.O. vs. Fink” in which Fink taunts K.O. for being a “mama’s boy” and “The K.O. Trap” in which Venomous psychologically tortures K.O. and friends. They may be sweet to their family members, but they’re malicious to heroes far beyond the antics of classic Boxmore. The shots of Venomous’ reveal made with “extra love” by storyboarder Ryann Shannon in “The K.O. Trap” invoke the “alternative” framing of him more than ever. The sexualization as he taunts K.O. comes uncomfortably close to portraying him a sexual menace, though it is more “fanservice” of a beloved character to his established fanbase than anything else at this point.
It would be one thing if Venomous remained a villain K.O. truly hates, but K.O. becomes part of his family tree when he discovers Venomous is his biological father in “Big Reveal.” K.O. learns that Venomous once went by the name Laserblast and dated his mother Carol when both worked for the hero organization P.O.I.N.T., until Laserblast lost his superpowers and took an opportunity to fake his own death. While Venomous has always been obviously not straight, his past relationship with Carol places him under the bisexual umbrella according to the same coding as Boxman and Enid. Following his “death” Laserblast experimented on himself in attempt to regain his powers, then instead turned to capitalism and renamed to Professor Venomous. On paper, Laserblast’s physical transformation from a bulky hero dating a woman to a queer-coded villain sounds like he “became gay” in turning evil. However, the LGBTQ heroes in OK K.O. partially ease such negative implications. On an individual level, Venomous was not a straight man turned gay but always a bisexual man.
Even then if accepted as bisexual, Venomous’ transformation has a lot to unpack. Shiri Eisner observes that “male bisexuality usually appears only in three contexts: medical, sexual, and denial,” and the case of Venomous has none of the above. OK K.O. defines Venomous’ bisexuality through courtship with Carol and Boxman, desire for them neither wholly sexualized nor sanitized, and identity provided by Ian Jones-Quartey. Like Boxman, queerness makes up part of his three-dimensional character. With that said, Venomous embodies negative perceptions of bisexuality more than any other character in OK K.O.: greedy in his desire for power, cruel in his torture of K.O., morally unfixed in his change from hero to villain, and untrustworthy from Carol’s perspective. According to Eisner, “male bisexuality is perceived as ‘impossible’ or ‘contradiction in terms’ because multiplicity is perceived as contradicting dominant masculinity.” This perceived threat to masculinity often results in male bisexual characters being villains with the aforementioned traits. Venomous embodies multiplicity not only in his sexual orientation and androgyny, he also lives three distinct identities (Laserblast, PV, Shadowy Figure) across his life. On paper, Venomous’ flexibility in identity and sexuality serves as an avenue to the dark side.
However, OK K.O. portrays his transformation to Professor Venomous as an improvement to himself and his loved ones more than anything. Laserblast had poor self-image due to insecurity over his super strength being sapped from other people. He had a macho appearance, but believed he didn’t live up to it relying on others for power. This paired with bisexuality, a sexuality of multiplicity and perceived femininity, undermines his aspiration to the masculine ideal of singularity and self-reliance. Toxic masculinity sabotaged his relationship with Carol, resenting her to the point of abandoning her. Once he lost his superpowers as well as his muscles, it opened a door to alternative masculinity that he embraced. Before he couldn’t see himself as a father, but now he’s the dad of several children. He dumped his feelings on Carol without accepting her reassurance, but now he goes to “HR” meetings like marriage counselling. He compared himself to Carol to the detriment of his self-image, but doesn’t in his current relationship. In fact, Boxman’s different style of villainy invigorates Venomous. He hated having to rely on others, but now he gladly works as a team with Boxmore. Overall, his flexibility in identity and by extension sexuality in fact allowed him to move away from toxic masculinity.
Venomous may be a villain who has tortured K.O. and Fink has bullied K.O., but they can no longer be Othered as evil now that K.O. knows they’re related. In fact, K.O. discovers Venomous is the dad he’s been longing for all along. “Big Reveal” parodies Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in how K.O. grips a pole when Venomous tells him the truth about his parentage. Just like Luke Skywalker, the thought of carrying villain blood when he believed otherwise shakes him to the core. K.O. has known villains can become heroes like Mr. Logic, but not the inverse. Now K.O. knows being a hero is not set in stone, and fears he has the predisposition to become a villain just like his father.
In retrospect, the heightened evil of Venomous in episodes without Boxman seem like OK K.O. stepping back from his doting father characterization to better serve K.O.’s shock. They remind the audience he is, in fact, a bad guy. Nonetheless, the audience knows Venomous as just as much a family man. Indeed, he readily calls himself K.O.’s father and offers K.O. a place in his life, even though K.O. gets uncomfortable with his level of “evil.” During their first father-son weekend in “Let’s Get Shadowy,” he offers to help K.O. deal with the mysterious Shadowy Figure who regularly manipulates K.O.’s insecurities.
As it turns out, Venomous and Shadowy Figure are one and the same. When Venomous attempted to regain his superpowers, new powers manifested exclusively in his “alter ego” Shadowy Figure. Venomous is a villain, but Shadowy is even more dangerous and monstrous. Fink and Boxman’s distaste for Shadowy when he takes over his body once again makes the case that he’s better off as Professor Venomous than anyone else. Boxman even ends their partnership, which has overcome multiple spats over three seasons, because of Venomous’ behavior as Shadowy. He exists as the artificial embodiment of the power Venomous chased out of toxic masculinity, and acts just as toxic to the people around him. He’s manipulated K.O. throughout the series, including creating K.O.’s own destructive alter ego known as Turbo K.O.
As the one responsible for T.K.O.’s existence, Shadowy is T.K.O.’s father as an extension of Venomous being K.O.’s birth father. Now that Shadowy is closer to K.O. than ever, he hijacks Venomous’ body during father-son time and manipulates K.O. into dangerous situations hoping to unleash T.K.O. Shadowy Venomous destroys his Boxbot stepchildren and neglects his adopted daughter Fink in favor of wrecking havoc with T.K.O., his biological son. Venomous has known K.O. as his biological son since they met in “We’re Captured,” but only Shadowy sought him out before “Big Reveal.” Instead of a queer-coded villain attacking the nuclear family, OK K.O. characterizes Shadowy Venomous as evil beyond other villains in how he prioritizes blood ties. Even then, T.K.O. and Shadowy Venomous bond only through hurting others and Shadowy uses T.K.O. as a means to his own quest for world domination. Shadowy’s interactions with T.K.O. are possessive, but not sexually predatory.
While it may at first seem that Shadowy Figure is a separate entity from Venomous, it’s not that simple. Just like T.K.O. is not simply a part of K.O. that can be compartmentalized or repressed, they are one and the same and must be accepted. By that logic, Shadowy Figure is also Venomous. T.K.O. and Shadowy are both activated by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, which causes them to lash out in attempt to prove and retain power. However, they are different in that T.K.O. is only a child and thus more sympathetic than a grown man taking advantage of him. On top of that, Shadowy was created artificially. His unnatural superpowers are knocked out of Venomous’ body in the form of bile, but the desperation for power remains. He still has to live with the consequences of his actions as Shadowy Venomous, including being ignoring by K.O. for manipulating him. In the end, blood ties aren’t enough to connect K.O. and Venomous. K.O. already had a father figure he aspired to in Mr. Gar, while Venomous already learned he could be a supportive father through raising Fink. However, Venomous is nonetheless part of K.O. and always will be, continuously blurring the lines between heroes and villains.
K.O.’s “best life” granted by the President of the Universe involves his mother, his stepfather, and his best friends; not his biological father. Venomous’ best life involves his adopted daughter, not his biological son, whether they’re destroying a planet together or back on Earth. Once Venomous exhausts himself destroying a planet, his best life rests on reconnecting to his partner in “Let’s Be Forgiven”. The villains get just as much a “happily ever after” as the heroes. Unlike Carol and Mr. Gar or Nick and Joff, their literal wedding ceremony doesn’t appear on-screen. Instead snapshots show Boxman wearing a wedding ring on his right hand as he reconciles with Mr. Logic, and Venomous the same in the crowd of Fink’s e-sports competition. As always, their relationships with their children intertwine with their love. Such a subtle reveal of their marriage compared to other couples is fitting, considering their relationship has always been told in an “under the radar” way.
Venomous and Boxman’s romantic relationship was always “canon,” even before their on-screen wedding bands or confirmation of their sexual orientations. It was just conveyed in a different way, as part of OK K.O.‘s overall representation of LGBTQ folks. It’s not the only case of the show incorporating social issues through its fantasy world while providing representation, such as approaching ethnic stereotypes through space aliens in “Everybody Likes Rad?” while the cast is full of fleshed out characters of color. No matter how Broadcast Standards and Practices may have factored in, OK K.O. conveys their relationship in the form the crew imagined. Business partnership isn’t a secret code for marriage per se, it’s a creative decision based in affection for queer-coded villains and carried through to its full potential where it’s nonetheless irrevocable from the plot and character arcs.
On a personal note, it’s surreal to have not been “reading too much into” interactions between characters for once. It’s even more surreal to say “yes, the villains are pan and bi, but in a good way” in recommendation. (That’s not to say people aren’t allowed to enjoy “problematic” portrayals of LGBTQ identity, speaking as someone who grew up loving animated queer-coded villains.) Sean P. Griffin details in Tinker Belles and Evil Queens how LGBTQ people interpreting cartoons as queer and incorporating them into LGBTQ culture used to go against the grain of heteronormative storytelling. As awareness of gay culture grew into the 1980s in part due to the AIDS crisis, gay-informed readings were mainstreamed by straight critics such as Dan Rather’s widely accepted interpretation of an AIDS allegory in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Now in the 2010s with more awareness of broader LGBTQ culture and more openly LGBTQ creators working in animation, such interpretations can be fully intended (especially in hopes of communicating queerness against persistent censorship). In those cases, queer sensibility can serve as a kind of literacy. As with any literacy, some people have developed it more than others. I’m grateful I got to watch Boxman and Venomous’ relationship unfold, even though OK K.O.‘s time on Cartoon Network was cut short. It made its mark in the history of LGBTQ representation in cartoons in spite of that, and with any luck will inspire future generations.
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