Rebecca Sugar has been building new worlds for as long as she can remember. As a kid growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, she and her younger brother Steven would draw out fantasy stories.
Inspired by Zelda games and Yoshi’s Island, as well as hours spent on the household Nintendo 64, the two nascent artists drew “fairies and forest adventures and glowing ethereal beings”. For Rebecca, it felt like an escape from normality.
“I think, back then, I did feel like that was all more interesting and exciting than my regular life,” she says over the phone from her studio in Los Angeles, lingering on every vowel, sounding awe-struck by the sentence as it forms.
“Fantasy worlds seemed so exciting to me when I was younger. But as I’ve gotten older, reality is so much more complex and interesting.”
After studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Rebecca’s self-published comics helped land her a job as a storyboard artist and writer on Adventure Time.
Then Cartoon Network made her its first female showrunner with the launch of Steven Universe – a groundbreaking, coming-of-age animation series that deals with gender, sexuality and human interaction with rare subtlety and humour.
The show is situated halfway between this world and another. Its adolescent hero (named after Rebecca’s little brother Steven) lives in the fictional town of Beach City, on the east coast of America, with three immortal aliens – all of whom have power-bestowing gemstones at their cores.
Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl are part of an ancient order founded by Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz, who gave up her physical form to have Steven.
Together, as the Crystal Gems, the magical beings are determined to defend Earth from maleficent forces. But they’re also here to protect and raise Steven, which often proves to be a much knottier job.
Steven himself is one of the Crystal Gems, but he’s half-human. He’s grappling with his superpowers one minute and craving donuts the next; he defends the planet from destructive forces, then gets anxious that his best friend won’t text him back.
In the first verse of the show’s extended theme, he sings: “We’re good and evil never beats us/ We’ll win the fight and then go out for pizzas.”
From the start, Rebecca knew that Steven had to exist in that liminal space. “I even had a chart, very early on, with fantasy on one side and reality on the other side, then Steven in the middle,” she says. “He’s the bridge. He’s bringing these fantasy characters closer to reality, and bringing these real characters closer to that fantasy.”
Rebecca, now 30, has been making Steven Universe for five years and its characters have changed and grown as much as she has in that time. The cartoonist tries to map every idea out, but remains flexible enough that if she learns something, if she matures as a person, that can be reflected in the story.
The show’s audience – mostly kids – is growing up with Steven and his friends. It’s something that Sugar is keenly aware of. Though Steven Universe features dark, uncanny moments where antagonists seem impossibly powerful, there are no purely evil characters – every villain has a backstory. It’s one of the luxuries of the format.
I ask Sugar if there’s something utopian to that idea, and she pauses. “Oh gosh, that’s very emotive,” she says slowly, before stopping again. “It’s a question and a search that I feel is always going to be relevant and real. I mean, I hope that that’s true. I think that there are always reasons for people to…”
Another pause. “I think one of the reasons that I love making a television show for children is that I do believe that hate is taught, and that it’s not something that is necessarily instinctual for kids. I like speaking directly to children because there are a lot of things they may not have learned to be upset or confused by yet.”
The immersive beauty of the show – the wonderfully-rendered, pastel world that Steven lives in – is partly the work of his namesake. Steven Sugar works as its lead background designer, still world-building with his sister. When the series was green-lit in 2012, the two siblings travelled to the same Delaware seaside towns they’d vacationed in as kids.
“We were trying to get at, not just what that place looks like, but what it felt like,” she says, adding that the two made sure that Beach City was navigable and meticulously detailed: the characters, their interactions and their world all had to be specific.”
In a show that refuses to trade on the expectations of its format, this lush detail gives Steven Universe its ability to play with conventions.
“We gave up on a lot of instantly readable material, and started out with a challenge of how to make this place and these people interesting and funny and beautiful and cool – without trading on genericisms.”
That means gender identity remains fluid, we see an unconventional family do its best, and Garnet – the “fusion” of gems Ruby and Sapphire – represents the literal embodiment of a lesbian relationship.
“Animation is a medium, not a genre,” Rebecca says. “But a lot of people believe that there are certain things that cartoons do, or cartoons are. And that used to make me frustrated, but at a certain point I started to get very excited, because that means you can play with someone’s expectations.”