Rebecca Sugar became a fan-favorite writer and artist on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with such episodes as “It Came From the Nightosphere,” “Fionna and Cake” and “I Remember You.” Twice Emmy-nominated for her work on the show, Sugar’s now become the first female creator of a Cartoon Network series with her new show, Steven Universe, which premieres tonight at 8 p.m.
Steven Universe features many of the qualities Sugar brought to her Adventure Time episodes, including illustrative designs, catchy songs and occasional moments of poignancy in its tale of Steven, a hyperactive kid in Beach City who’s the youngest member of the Crystal Gems, a trio of mystical guardians of humanity named Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl. Steven’s own gem is in his bellybutton and doesn’t seem to have any powers yet, but he’s determined to help his friends save the world from the strange and terrible threats that come their way – and enjoy ice cream and hanging out in the meantime.
The show’s already developed a following based on its original pilot, which appeared online a few months ago, and the series officially premieres tonight (you can watch the first installment, “Gem Glow” on Cartoon Network’s website). We talked with Sugar about how Steven Universe came about, her influences on the show, and more.
Newsarama: What was the initial inspiration for Steven Universe? I understand a bit of it came from your own brother Steven, who works on the show.
Rebecca Sugar: Yup. That was pretty much where it started. I’ve always wanted to do something about Steven – a comic about Steven, you know, and I did some animations of Steven in college. So it was not unusual to start making something about Steven. It feels very unusual for it to now be something that is so much bigger than me?
Nrama: So what about your relationship with Steven inspired you?
Sugar: We were really good friends growing up. I used to think that I created the show – in a lot of ways it was about how I wanted to be a good role model for Steven growing up. But I think as we were working on the show, I realized how it’s about he was always there for me.
It’s interesting, because he’s working on the show now as a background artist, and this is an intense experience for me, and he’s just totally there for me and gets what the show is. And it’s just a really overwhelming feeling for me, being there with him and just drawing stuff like when we did when we were teenagers, but on a way larger scale.
Nrama: I was actually talking with Mike Mignola at San Diego Comic-Con, and he said he knew you, and were talking with him about elements of mythology you wanted to incorporate into the show. Could you tell us a bit about that, and what it’s like working with Mike?
Sugar: Oh gosh, it’s wonderful! I mean, he’s my hero. I would see him when I’d go to comic cons, I would find him and give him my books and get his advice, and he was always really nice.
And when I got to really sit down and talk with him about the show, I really wanted to know how…he has such an intensely powerful sense of feeling in his work, of this depth that extends outside what you’re actually getting to see, and I just wanted to know how he does that.
And he told me all sorts of really fantastic references, particularly Ishtar, the Babylonian goddesses – I listened to pretty much everything he said! (laughs) And the imagery is amazing – this Babylonian imagery of lions and stars and strength and manipulativeness and really interesting stuff.
Well, you know he’s a genius! (laughs) So, I feel lucky that I got to talk to him about it.
Nrama: I’ll say. I’m kind of dying of jealousy on the other end of the line here.
Sugar: (laughs) I mean, I was holding his Hellboy in Hell pages and just going (mimics swooning).
Nrama What’s interesting to me about the use of mythology is that it’s apparent from your Adventure Time episodes – and some of the commentary in the demos your dad was posting on YouTube – is that you have that real interest in mythology and backstory for your characters. I saw some of this in the second Steven Universe episode, the backstory with Steven’s mom. Do you have some arcs and mythology planned for the characters on the show?
Sugar: Oh, absolutely, yes.
Nrama: Why is that aspect of storytelling interesting to you?
Sugar: Well, I was a really big fan of cartoons growing up, and I loved to read too much into them most of the time. And I loved – the funnier and lighter the cartoon, the more I wanted there to be something more and bigger behind it.
I love thinking of cartoon characters feeling really real feelings. And I love to do that, not just as a fan, but as a creator, so if people want to look for those levels, they’re actually there.
Nrama: I interviewed Pen (Ward, creator of Adventure Time) last year, and he said that he wanted Adventure Time to be a show with “secrets,” so if you freeze-framed scenes or paid attention episode-to-episode, you’d learn all these things. And your episodes of the show, and what I see in Steven Universe is how you reveal information about characters and backstories in a very indirect way.
Sugar: Oh, yes! I’m really interested in – in college, I learned about the Theory of the Sublime, which is that you can make art that is beautiful and very self-contained, in that you can look at it and enjoy it, but then there’s art that’s sublime, which is a little bit scarier. You’re looking at something that implies there is something else other than the subject of what you’re looking at, and I really like that idea.
The show is from Steven’s perspective, and he’s got blinders on in many ways about the Gems and what they’re up to. They’ve gone through things he doesn’t know about, and that’s something he has to live with and learn about. And I’m really interested in exploring that indirectly, and being very deliberate.
Nrama: One thing that was also interesting to me was the setting of Beach City, because this theater in my area has been showing a lot of Studio Ghibli films, not just things like Totoro or Spirited Away, but some of the adolescent romances like From Up on Poppy Hill and Whisper of the Heart –
Sugar: Whisper of the Heart! Ooh! The best!
Nrama: And that setting, Beach City, is interesting to me because it’s that kind of placid setting that helps create those quiet moments like you see in a Studio Ghibli film. I was curious as to how you came up with that setting, and if Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki were influences.
Sugar: Well, the setting is inspired by the beaches that Steven and I would go to growing up. On the East Coast, there are these little beach communities, and I wanted to give it that feeling that it’s a really small place, very different from a California beach, but also more fantastical than an East Coast beach. And I wanted to give it a feeling that it was sort of detached from the rest of the world, this quiet place, and not even the prettiest place, per se.
I was really inspired by Miyazaki’s series from the 1970s, Future Boy Conan. It’s this post-apocalyptic show set on islands. It’s very different, but I love it. That was definitely a big influence on the look of the show.
Nrama: And regarding the look of the show – there’s been a lot of back-and-forth on the design of the Crystal Gems in the show vs. how they appeared in the pilot, and I was curious about that process. It reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, where you initially feel like “What, Batman has a square jaw?” and then you see the characters in action and they move and animate very well.
Sugar: For me, when we were making the pilot, I didn’t feel “done” with the way they looked. They didn’t look like the way they felt to me yet. That functionality is part of it. And I wanted to simplify the designs – there were a lot of extraneous elements that weren’t saying anything about who they were – an earring or a barrette, and it wasn’t helpful.
It wasn’t until late in the game that we decided to incorporate stars into their outfits, which was also influenced by some of the Ishtar mythology that Mike Mignola introduced me to – there’s a lot of imagery with stars.
So I wanted to work stars into their designs, and to be significantly different from each other, to be different sizes and no repeated beats – they all had to be distinct, different archetypes of new ways you could be.
I was really inspired by the Bauhaus school of design, the idea of the red cube and the yellow cone and the blue sphere that just have to be those shapes and those colors because that’s what they represent – the yellow cone being really directional, and the red cube being powerful, and the blue sphere being sort of nebulous, and the way that that related to each of those characters – their ridigness and pointed-ness and looseness. And that’s what I wanted to incorporate into the characters.
Nrama: I wanted to ask about music, because that’s been a big part of your work, and it plays a unique role in this show. There’s a stage-musical quality to the songs that reveal a lot of character – the 1970s rock ballad “Let Me Dive My Van Into Your Heart” becomes unexpectedly poignant in the second episode.
Sugar: Yeah. I love musicals, and I love it when they do that. I think it fits so well in animation – a musical is fun and incredibly entertaining, and singing is so expressive that you can get so much more out of a moment when a character communicates it through song. It adds another level of meaning to something. It’s just a whole other level of expression.
I try not to be frivolous about it – I only want to use a song when something needs a heightened meaning. That song you mentioned, I wanted to try to explain why this relationship happened, even though you don’t get to see it – that Steven’s dad really is a wonderful person. I really like writing that character.
Nrama: I was talking to some cartoonists at SPX like Lamar Abrams and Sam Bosma who are working at the show, and it looks like you’re doing what Pen has done and JG Quintel has done on Regular Show, recruiting cartoonists to work on the series. What’s that process like and the unique advantages of it?
Sugar: I was recruited like that too! (laughs) Lamar and I were trading ‘zines when I was a teenager. And it’s really cool to be working with him now. Steven and I are always walking around cons, and we’re both big fans of Sam’s.
I love comics. Comics are something I’ve always wanted to do. I still want to do comics. So animation for a show like this, a storyboard-driven show, the writing and the artwork are the same thing, there’s no distinction. And that’s something that comes naturally out of comics. You have to have those skills, to write and draw and relate. I think everyone should do comics. (laughs)
Newsarama Note: Mere hours after this interview was conducted, a Steven Universe comic was announced by KaBOOM!.
Nrama: We’re out of time, so last question: Why do you think people should watch this show?
Sugar: We’re trying to do a real comedy-actions how in a way that hopefully it’s never been done before – that it’s going to be something that’s so cool that it’s funny and so funny that it’s cool, and something that you can take seriously and laugh at and none of those things will conflict. That’s been my challenge, and I think that we’ve done it, and that’s my hope – that people will see it and tell me that it’s true.
Steven Universe premieres tonight on Cartoon Network at 8 p.m. EST.