Rebecca Sugar might not be a household name, but with the rising popularity of Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time,” she’s practically achieved the same degree of popularity. The 26-year-old School of Visual Arts grad played a crucial role in writing several episodes of the show that brought a new level of acclaim, particularly with regard to many of its melancholic songs, demos for which have been uploaded to YouTube by her father, Rob.
All good things must come to an end, but in Sugar’s case, that means a new beginning: She left “Adventure Time” earlier this year to launch her own original series, “Steven Universe,” which premieres on Cartoon Network tonight at 8pm. The program has made Sugar the first female show creator in the history of the network, which is a fitting occasion for a series that’s potentially groundbreaking in other ways: Building on the cross-over appeal of “Adventure Time,” the new program has been designed to appeal to kids and adults alike.
Sugar’s protagonist is adolescent Steven (voiced by Zach Callison), a character based on her real-life brother (now grown) who lives in a mansion with “the Crystal Gems” — a group of super-powered women who possess gems that give them their special abilities. The chubby, hyperactive Steven has a gem, too, right in his bellybutton, though he has yet to discover his own power. In the first two 10-minute episodes, Steven faces a giant bug monster using his wits alone, and joins forces with his curiously single musician father (who lives a nomadic life out of the back of his van) to save the planet. With musical interludes, irreverent asides and surprisingly moments of depth, “Steven Universe” is poised to build on the appeal of “Adventure Time” while unfurling an entirely unique mythology. Sugar sat down with Indiewire at New York Comic Con (and followed up a few weeks later by phone) to discuss her vision for the show, how “Adventure Time” prepared her for it, and why she doesn’t think any story should solely address audiences of a certain age.
How did working on “Adventure Time” prepare you for writing your own show?
I think I really got a better understanding of how a show needs to be universal. You can make it for this younger audience, or you could make it for a younger audience and other people who enjoy it. You can build those layers into it. I got to a place where I was trying to tie every joke to something meaningful so you almost couldn’t separate them — not to sneak anything in, but to make it so interconnected that you could enjoy it on different levels simultaneously and not just shift around, which I think “Adventure Time” does incredibly well. I learned a lot from the way they worked.
Did you realize when you were pitching the show that if it happened, you’d be the first female show creator in the history of the network?
I knew, but tried actively not to think about it. There are a lot of ways in which I feel different from other creators at the network, but I think the biggest one is that I’m not from California, and that’s always made me feel different from the other people I was working with who went to CalArts. So I feel that in an abstract way. In my life I feel the East Coast-West Coast difference more. I’m always trying to psych myself up and say, “I can do this!” because it’s a very stressful thing.
Do you want to carry the “Adventure Time” audience for this show or start from scratch?
I think it’ll be different, because there are people that would love “Adventure Time” but maybe don’t watch it because they think that it doesn’t have the internal logic it does have. With “Steven,” I’m hoping that the internal logic will be so visible that maybe it can even work backwards, where people will realize that it’s also in “Adventure Time.” But I hope that the people who enjoy that aspect of “Adventure Time” will also recognize it in my show, because that was my favorite thing about “Adventure Time.”
How long did you spend making your decision to leave the show?
Well, it was happening at the same time. I was working on both simultaneously for a while. I pretty much did that until it became impossible to do, which was during the “Simon and Marcy” episode [of “Adventure Time”], my last episode. But by the “Fiona and Cake” episode, I was starting to not be able to do both at once.
You said you wanted it to be about your brother and deepen the back story of this character without making it too heavy. It feels like you’re going somewhere unique with the story you’re trying to tell, but also allowing it to be accessible. Can you talk a little bit about how you formulated that balance in a show like this, especially considering the limitations of the format?
I feel like lately really great cable TV has had a lot of layers to it. Things can be rewatched and rewatched. So you have to figure out two different of shows: one for the people who deeply care and one for the people who want to watch fun shows. I like that as a puzzle, and am trying to do that with this.
Everything’s from the perspective of Steven, and so I hope that allows that to happen. He’s experiencing everything for the first time, and so are you. Hopefully, you’ll even get to pick up on things he doesn’t notice.
In terms of making the jump from working on “Adventure Time” to something like this, where you controlled the overall aesthetic? Did it seem like a very different experience going through the first couple episodes?
Yeah. It was important to me to make it about things that were really personal to me, because I couldn’t find any other foothold into my own thing except to make it about my brother. Trying to take everything I ever loved about cartoons and put them all together was tough. So I did really have to hope that it all made sense, and I wasn’t sure that it would, but I think it did. I had a lot of help from people who felt the same way, who felt really strongly about what they wanted to see, and, from other cartoons, what they hadn’t seen before.
Your brother’s older now, in a different stage of life, and presumably doesn’t live with a group of superheroes. To what extent does this character align with the real Steven?
I think I was going more for the feeling of growing up together. It’s funny because he’s working on the show, he’s a background artist, and he’s still the emotional support for me as he was when I was going through tough times in high school. He’s here backing me up, and it’s bizarre to be making a show about that as it’s happening in real time. It’s him in the way that he’s there for [the Crystal Gems], and wants to be a good role model, but the rest is fantasy. I wanted it to be a sort of reverse escapism style show, where fantasy is having this interest in real life. I want the real life to feel really real. So the feeling has to come from a real place.
How about the music? In the first episode there’s a rap, in the second it’s a cheesy pop song. You’re not being held down by a specific genre. Are we going to see one new song per episode?
There isn’t always a song. I’ve tried to do it where it always feels right. The rap was written by my storyboarder Jeff Liu and my writers collaborated on the lyrics, and he programmed it into his Gameboy, which I have no idea how to do. My animation director turned it into the prog rock song I hoped it could be, but I don’t really know how to write a prog rock song. There are a bunch of amazing musicians on the crew who are writing stuff. So every couple episodes there will be one, and they’re always a little different. Also my composers are brilliant — the score has been so interesting to me, they’re really melodic.
So you said that everything you’ve ever loved in cartoons is the energy you’re trying to funnel into the show. Are there specific shows you’re thinking about that were very influential to you? Or just specific moments?
I’m really inspired by the show “Future Boy Conan” from the ’70s. It’s a really beautiful show, and I love shonen anime and shojo anime, and I like the thought of mixing them together. But also American cartoons. Just everything. Everyone on the crew, we don’t really have the same set of influences — it’s sort of a melting pot of fandom. I’m also interested in the feeling of when you really love something, you see something in it that wasn’t there, and I’m trying to put that into this. That thing that you wanted, but you really just invented — I’m trying to make that present in this. A sort of intense fan energy.
During your Comic Con panel, these two girls came up to the mic and sang a song they wrote for you. How do you feel about the contrast between young fans you’ve developed and older viewers interested as well? Which means more to you?
I really love both. I loved cartoons growing up too much, so I love the people who love them too much. I want to make things for them, because when you feel that way and you see something that addresses that, it means everything. You worry because you like cartoons too much, but there’s something about the fact that these cartoons are for everyone, and you find yourself attached to them in a way that other people aren’t.
That doesn’t mean that it’s not for everyone, either. It’s so accessible. That’s why I love this art form. I find pop art really offensive because it’s taking a piece of popular culture and putting it somewhere where people can’t see it. So I want this to be both. I want it to be incredibly accessible and full of secrets for people that want to find them.
When you say “pop art”…
I mean fine art that addresses popular art but sort of segregates it from everyone. It’s the idea that there’s a vapidness of popular culture that should be addressed and appreciated by a select few who can understand that that is interesting. Really, it’s always interesting. The stuff on television, and the way that people can love it, is a lot more beautiful to me than the emptiness.
You had a close-up view of the rise of “Adventure Time” but weren’t directly in the spotlight with the fandom associated with that show. Did you learn anything from that that would impact how you want “Steven Universe” to get out there and build its own fanbase?
Sure. I admire “Adventure Time” for being a piece of art in the way that I think art should be. If you want to see it is poetry you can, and if you don’t, you can watch a fun cartoon. I think that’s amazing. I used to feel that people around me were incredible and storyboarding and writing and drawing, just doing incredibly sophisticated things for “Adventure Time,” and I was making this cartoon that I wanted, that had depth, in a really sink-your-teeth-into-it kind of way, which I would have wanted as a fan. But which is maybe a little bit shallower.
The profundity of “Adventure Time” was what, for me, made it feel like a real discovery — it was reaching for something nobody expected it to reach for. I detected a little bit of that towards the end of “Steven Universe.” Do you plan to build the mythology of the show in similar fashion?
Oh yes. A lot happened before Steven existed. And he doesn’t know much about it. That’s what the show is really about. Every facet of it, fully learning why he exists, has been really fun to think about. All the characters have very particular relationships to what he is. That’s been the most fun thing for me going forward into the show, really going into that. It’s complicated for them; they all feel that they have an inner life that Steven doesn’t always get to see, but is a huge part of.