— Photo by The Associated Press/Mark Hill-Cartoon Network
In spearheading the joyful animated gem “Steven Universe,” Rebecca Sugar became the first solo female show creator in the 21-year history of the U.S.-based Cartoon Network.
It’s a good talking point, if only Sugar wanted to talk about it.
“Before the show came out, I think someone must have pointed that out (to me),” she said in a telephone interview this week. “It’s very hard to think about because there’s just so much work going on.
“I think more than anything early on I felt really different (more) because I come from the East Coast and I went to school in New York, and a lot of animators are really California-based.
“More than anything,” she added, “that’s the thing I’ve felt is different about what I’m doing.”
Well, how about the fact that the show’s rambunctious title character (based on Sugar’s real-life brother, Steven) lives with three intergalactic warrior women known as the Crystal Gems, who act as guardians of the universe — surely there’s a certain empowerment at work there?
“This is a tough one,” she responds after a pause. “The Gems are, first and foremost, these extraordinary fantasy characters. It’s hard to even think of them in those terms because they’re not human beings.
“What I like about those characters in the show is that they’re very distilled and exacerbated versions of different parts of myself, and now at this point, different parts of everyone in the crew, because everyone’s a little like one of those characters sometimes.
“I think that really transcends gender completely. ... I hope these characters are relatable to everyone and there is an even playing field in terms of who you can identify with, because that really goes beyond anything like that.”
Indeed, what Sugar is aiming for is universal appeal, a show that charms men and women, adults and children alike.
It’s a lesson she learned on “Adventure Time,” an ostensible children’s program that amassed a dedicated adult following for its sprawling mythology and cleverly constructed whimsy.
Sugar was a storyboard artist and writer on 19 episodes of that beloved series, earning two Emmy nominations while crafting some of fans’ most-cherished instalments, including “What Was Missing,” “Incendium” and “Fionna and Cake.”
“Steven Universe” premieres in Canada on Teletoon on Thursday night, but the first season has already aired Stateside. Sugar worked furiously to put that set of episodes together while balancing contributions to “Adventure Time.”
But the lessons she learned on the cult favourite series proved invaluable, particularly in terms of helping to angle her new series at a diverse audience.
“If you’re going to tell a universal story, the first thing you have to do is just look at what you want,” she said. “What you wanted when you were young, what you want now. That’s how you make something that everyone can find something in. It’s so personal and it’s so honest.
“If something’s being written aggressively for a demographic, it’s easy to forget what you want.”
Sugar also wrote 17 songs for “Adventure Time” and her giddy songwriting has become a strength of her new show, though she’s careful to have the characters break into tune sparingly.
Her first instrument was the hammer dulcimer, an instrument so “esoteric” that “nobody has one, so (Sugar) could never show off.” She tried piano, but “wasn’t super good at it,” and has enjoyed the “idiot-proof” omnichord. But her instrument of choice is the ukulele, portable and “insanely easy to play.”
“I need things that are easy,” she said with a laugh. “I never finish learning any instrument.”
Her brother actually plays the accordion but she chose not to write that skill into his cartoon counterpart.
“I thought it would be too cartoony,” she said. “I didn’t think people would believe it.”
Otherwise, her plucky protagonist — perennially sandal-clad with bushy, curly locks and a goofy grin plastered on his face — is still largely derived from her younger brother.
Onscreen, Steven cheerfully weathers the occasional dysfunction of the Gems, and the character’s disposition and dependability are sweet tributes to Sugar’s sibling, who works as a background artist on the show.
“It has a lot to do with how we were together when we were growing up. In that sense, I think it’s still very much like him,” Sugar said.
“Growing up, I always felt like I was sort of a strange nerd and I felt like nobody quite got me, but I could always hang out with Steven. He was a huge support for me. When we were teenagers hanging out together I always knew I could come home and hang out with Steven. We were siblings and best friends.
“That’s completely what the show is about. These detached characters who are a little inside their own heads, but they have Steven and he’s always there for them, no matter what.
“In that sense, it’s totally him. And he’s like that for me now. It’s hard not to be really inside my own head, ’cause I’m working on this show — a vortex into my own cartoon obsessiveness. And he’ll pop in and be like: ‘Are you doing OK?’”
By Nick Patch
THE CANADIAN PRESS—TORONTO