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.