A review of The OK Team by Nick Place

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The OK Team
By Nick Place
Allen & Unwin
Paperback, Jan 2008, 264 pages, $A14.95, ISBN: 9781741751864

Hazy Retina has a problem. As his name would suggest, he’s out of focus. That’s out of focus as in blurry, or hard to see. Blurry isn’t a great look for a teenage boy, and not only is it the cause of some in-school bullying, it makes it hard for him to get a date. But haziness runs in Hazy’s family, and there isn’t a lot he can do about it. It helps if he can stay calm, but try doing that when you’re being picked on by super creeps, attracted to the opposite sex, and treated like a freak by your own father.

The solution to Hazy’s problem is a way-out one, involving a support group, low grade superpowers, and a hefty dose of empowerment (I’m OK; you’re OK). Although it’s wacky, and definitely one for the boys, The OK Team is as much fun as a comic book, and full of positive messages for young teens. For reluctant readers, there are lots of gimmicks that will attract attention and make the reading easier, including newspaper articles, cartoons, collectors cards, handwritten notes, photographs, transcripts, and graffiti. It’s all done in an upbeat, lighthearted manner, which reflects the humour in Place’s prose:

I’m so depressed that I’m practically a cloud again. I fall easily through the solid wall onto the street and land on my hands and knees in the alley at the back of te power station.

‘Well, what have we here? Where did you come from, little freak?’

I look up and I’m filled with panic. Stepping out from behind a collection of maybe a dozen big green wheely bins is a crazy-looking man, with a long tangled beard and a nasty look in his eye. Dressed in a tattered coat and a beanie holding back his lank, grey hair, the guy has scars on both cheeks and a tattoo of a Frankenstein bold on the side of his neck. He might be the most frightening person I have ever seen – including some of my school teachers.

Although Retina’s problems aren’t likely to be those that your average teen is experiencing – few kids are troubled by physical haziness, at least in a literal sense, but the idea of turning individual characteristics into something positive, rather than something which makes you feel like a “freak”, is one that all children will relate to. At thirteen years of age, his awkwardness, and his awakening sense of self is one which provides a good deal of material. The humour added by such things as a list of attendees at the Victorian Society for the Blurred, a superhero audition, and names like the “human sewer”, the OK Team’s early attempts at foiling low grade crime, along with the silly characteristics (such as a sister who can “see into the past”, or a boy whose superpower is that he is dead), add to the enjoyment and accessibility of this book.

The characters are fairly simplistic, but that’s part of the overall charm—this really isn’t a book geared for adults, but rather one that will be enjoyed by those who enjoy graphic novels, magazines like DMag, or cartoons. Despite the ease of reading, and the deliberate, almost dogmatic lightness of this book, there are some serious and important themes dealt with. Empowerment and believing in yourself are two, along with an exploration of the power of teamwork and friendship, and the many different forms of strength and power. The varying narrative, slightly otherworldly Gotham city setting, and the overall positive messages makes this a good choice for young boys – particularly those who are struggling to enjoy the world of books. That it also involves a fair amount of wish fulfillment also adds to this books charm for children.

Older readers around 16+ or those who are used to more serious novels, may find this a little too zany. My ten year old son, an excellent, high level reader, found it “puerile” – and that’s his word (and rich, considering his ongoing interest in Pokemon), but my eight year old son, also a good reader, loved it. So The OK Team isn’t a book for everyone. The point of view is Hazy’s and it’s definitely a male one. The one female superhero in the book, Liarbird (not counting the little sister), is a little shallow in her depiction, her powers notwithstanding. We know more about her great beauty and her ability to quip untrue one liners than we do about her background or motivations. But again, as a lighthearted read with an important underlying message, The OK Team provides an ideal option for lovers of comics, or boys who want an easy to read book full of innovative and fast pace plotting and plenty of humour. This is certainly one I would recommend for the reluctant male reader.