Rebecca Sugar exudes comfort the way the sun emits light and heat. Sitting a few feet from the Steven Universe creator at Cartoon Network’s Comic-Con press event, I found myself warmed by her positivity, earnestness and sly humor as if those intangible traits were actual infrared waves sent from 93 million miles away.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sugar isn’t a cozy, flaming ball of hydrogen and helium all the time. During our chat, she related plenty of interesting stories, but also casually hinted at some of the personal challenges and insecurities that she’s overcome to bring Steven such acclaim. The most special thing about her Emmy-nominated animated series is that it, too, is entirely unafraid to tackle difficult topics. Grief, trauma, wartime morality and memory have all been central themes of the show, as have the vast varieties of love—regardless of who’s doing the loving. And that’s not to mention that in its most recent episode, Steven Universe showed a character’s moment of death on screen. Larzarus was revived, of course, but it was still pretty brutal for all-ages entertainment. [Ed. Note: The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
On the episode “Mr. Greg” and Steven Universe’s Emmy nomination
I’m so excited and I’m so glad it’s that one. It’s been such a lifelong dream to get to make a musical episode of a cartoon. I always loved those, they’re always my favorite one, I couldn’t wait to do ours. And everyone was firing on all cylinders for that episode. I got to do music with Jeff Liu and Ben Levin, and Aivi & Surasshu’s compositions for the finals are outstanding. All the backgrounds are incredible, all the art is so beautiful. It’s Jeff Liu and Joe Johnston’s last board together, so it has a really special place in my heart. It was also one of the last episodes I got to work on with Ian [Jones-Quartey, her long-time partner] before he moved on to his show [OK K.O., which premieres August 1]. I remember seeing it come back and being in the edit bay, watching it, and my eyes were welling up because this was it, this was everything I wanted to do right here. And DeeDee on the vocals… that was while she was doing Tommy at East West Players. DeeDee’s amazing. I love writing songs for DeeDee, and that one, it has some notes in it I cannot hit.
I kind of have my go-to ukulele chords, but I also like to write songs on the Omnichord, which is like a synthetic harpsichord from the ’80s. It basically has these rows of buttons that say the chords, minor, major 7, and you just hit a button and it plays that chord. So I can just experiment with combinations that I don’t usually think of, because it’s as easy as just hitting a button on this instrument, and you can play this little doo doo doo doo doo thing if you slide your finger down the side. I got this one off eBay, the OM-84, and it was a little buggy, wouldn’t play right. It would go out of tune. So I took it to get looked at, and they opened it up at this music shop, and these incredibly corroded batteries fell out of it, which I think were also from 1984, and this cloud of red dust formed. So I can’t put batteries in it anymore, but I can plug it in and it still works.
“Love Like You” is so unusual. It started as a song from the point of view of all Gems and just sort of a thesis of the entire show toward Steven, but also [of] me toward my own brother Steven. What’s so strange about it is because it’s the credits, we wrote it in pieces. So I wrote the lyrics to that song over three years, in little pieces. When I started it, I thought this is about an alien who’s looking at a human being who loves them, and the secret meaning of this is they don’t have the capacity to feel this way because they’re an alien. By the middle of it, I was deep into the show and in a real crisis of confidence, so that was coming from a different place, a very real place where I was just like, “Why are people looking to me?” These people were coming out of the woodwork to thank me for the show, people who had been able to speak to their families in these wonderful new ways, people who had become comfortable in themselves in these incredible ways that I hadn’t been able to do, that I was just so inspired by everyone, wondering why they were thanking me. And when we finished it about a year later, I realized the beginning was not what I had thought it was about at all. It’s not a silly secret meaning about an alien who doesn’t understand humans. It’s about the fact that I had always loved my brother and had these people who had always loved me in my life, and because of my own insecurity, I had never been able to be there 100% for them. And I realized that this is actually one of the most human things I had ever written, and I had written it by accident.
We’re very inspired by every voice that has ever spoken about peace. I’ve recently been reading a lot about Hillel the Elder, and how he said, “If I’m not for myself, then who will be for me?” And just the gentleness with which he approached everything is really inspiring to me. I think that my Jewish upbringing has been an inspiration for the show. I’m half-Jewish, and was raised Jewish, and have felt the feeling of belonging but also not quite belonging, and also just being so moved by this incredible history and just this wonderful community that I wanted to understand and be a part of. That’s all been a big influence on the show. I mean, the whole thing is about growing up with my brother, and that was a part of our life. So I would say there’s a lot of spiritualism in the show.
One of the things I really wanted to do as I went into this show was address how intensely gendered shows for children are and dissolve that. That was my first goal. And I think it came in large part because as a little kid, I always gravitated toward boys’ shows and I felt extremely guilty about that. And I don’t feel like my child self should’ve had to feel bad, but I understood that this is not really for me. And so when we went into this, I wanted no one to have to feel that feeling. I wanted everyone to feel like if they wanted to feel it, then this was for them. Especially in terms of it being gender-nonconforming as a show.
Oh my gosh. It’s so much. When I was a teenager, that show was an epiphany for me. The way that it plays with the semiotics of gender… I was a bisexual teenager watching a show like Utena, it was stunning. I related to it in a way that I had never really felt before, and it really stuck with me. The show is beautiful, and I love that she decides after being saved by a prince that she wants to be a prince. It’s great! And it’s also funny. It’s so extreme that it’s funny. That was a huge influence on me as well, that something could be so dramatic and so beautiful but also wacky. Just the way that Akio will flip on the front of the car, or the way they want to shatter the world.
When I visited Japan, I went to see the Takarazuka Theater, and that was incredible. To see the origins—Osamu Tezuka grew up in that town, and it has everything to do with Utena—I went to the theater and I saw them do Guys and Dolls, which is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. And there’s huge Takarazuka Theater influence in Steven Universe. I loved Utena, and I got a chance to see some of the deepest source material for that whole genre, and it was hugely inspiring. And I also like Guys and Dolls, so it was the best of everything. It was amazing.
I think Lapis is both annoyed and comforted by Peridot’s infinite energy. I often thought of them as the sort of old cartoon idea of a small [excited] dog and a big, sort of doesn’t-really-care dog. I thought that was a dynamic for them. So I think that, like those characters, it’s annoying to Lapis but she doesn’t actually dislike it.
I’m always excited to be more and more ambitious with the stories we’re telling, and I think the danger they’re feeling in the show also feels like a danger that we experience while we’re writing stories that are more ambitious and more challenging. I think it’s something that feels necessary because we’re writing a story about how love conquers all, and how the support is necessary, but you can’t tell that story without showing what is coming up against that. And I’m excited to explore…it’s scary to start to explore where hate comes from in a show about love. It’s a challenge to stay positive while exploring that. But that’s a challenge I experience in life, and I think we’re all experiencing right now. So it also feels like the time to be exploring that in the show.”
Read Paste’s episodic reviews of Steven Universe here.