SPX 2018: Rebecca Sugar On Adventure Time, Steven Universe, And More

by Hannah Means Shannon

The Universes of Rebecca Sugar panel at Small Press Expo was a very popular event on Saturday, wristbanded and attracting plenty of cosplay, casual and otherwise. An overflow room accommodated extra attendees.

Ryan Sands hosted Rebecca Sugar, cartoonist, writer, and ukelelist, as well as storyboard artist, and creator of Steven Universe.

Asked about how their days and weeks usually go, Sugar said they’re doing a mix of movie and show work. Design work comes in on multiple projects. It’s exciting, but the schedules make them want to cry. They are trying to “roll with it”, since you get “punished” if you try to plan too much ahead on a given day. Around Comic-Con time, there is added extra planning, too.

It feels like reinventing the sausage and the way of making it every 11 minutes, Sugar reflected. Adventure Time has wrapped up, so they feel like one of the “old timers” now, after 10 years. Talking about what they learned from Adventure Time, Sugar said that it taught them to do personal work on a commercial show. They were encouraged to do writing that was “not like other shows”. That was what Pendleton Ward and others were interested in. They wanted it to be like indie comics, and Sugar’s indie comics were even more indie than most.

Sugar started out writing “big, flashy musical numbers”, but was asked to write smaller, more “intimate moments” between characters. It taught them that you “can do something subtle in television animation”. Sugar fell in love with that and wanted to “keep in going” in their work.

Asked how protective they are of characters, in terms of having various writers working on Steven Universe, Sugar said that things are “up in the air” even when they are storyboarding. Nothing is locked in until the animation is done. Conversations “start really macro” and “become really micro”. They start by asking what they are saying in a broad sense and narrow down. Sometimes the notes they make for themselves end up being cryptic when they go back and look at them, leading to wild speculation, though.

In the last 10-15 episodes of Steven Universe, Sands reflected, some major plot elements have really “landed”. He asked Sugar how it feels when they bring forth a big plot element and explanation. Sugar said it’s a “huge relief” if it gets aired and did not get “leaked” first. Picking screen caps for the episodes can cause trouble since they do it way ahead of time. They will take elements of images and freeze the frames at weird points to avoid spoilers, Sugar said.

Asked if they always had a “concrete ending” in mind, or a general sense of where characters will end up, and whether they have been pressured to make the show a certain kind of show, Sugar answered that they always had an “ending theme in mind” but it has evolved as the show as progressed. Sugar teased that they and Sands should do a “follow up” once the next few shows are out, to audience speculation and trepidation.

Sugar feels that television is constantly changing, and continuity is one of the hardest things to do, since shows are aired out of order all over the world. So having ongoing stories is hard, but it creates excitement, too. Adventure Time continuity was subtle, and Sugar said that creating something non-linear is challenging, making sure characters learn and grow in a self-contained episode enough to take them to the next episode. Sugar also loves cliff-hanger episodes.

Regarding representation, Sugar has previously said that waiting to talk about queer representation to kids is always too late, Sands commented. Sands pointed out that Sugar has been part of the change of representation for children, and that other shows are becoming more willing to represent queer children because of Steven Universe. In the past two years, Sugar has found it to be a time to talk about this even more. In that time, Sugar has come out, too. Sugar didn’t feel in a position to say that they were bisexual in the past, but by 2016 it started to impact their ability to function, they explained. Being in kids entertainment, and being told it was inappropriate to discuss, made them realize that they’d been told the same thing indirectly all their lives, since childhood, too, through media.

The idea that queer kids exist is not at all new, Sugar said, and in the 90’s, they started getting more involved in community centers with queer youth. So much “default” thinking is still involved, though, assuming straightness as a starting point, and they wants that to “shift please” to create a “healthier life for a lot of people”, to applause.

Sands, as the parent of a young child, thanked Sugar for the work they’ve done, and the conversation created by the show, which has become an “incredible teaching tool”, to applause.

Asked if a story like Steven Universe can only be created these days as a TV show for a big company, and if their future projects will be as large, Sugar said that Steven Universe, to be itself, requires a team, in fact several teams, and there isn’t a way to do it on a smaller scale. But there are definitely ways to tell other stories like Steven Universe on a smaller team. If you have a lot of time, you can do a big scale with fewer people, as well, Sugar clarified.

Independent comics were a proving ground for them to try out stories on a smaller scale, meeting people at SPX like Mike Mignola and Eric Powell, people they still talk to about story. They feel that storyboards and comics are very different, and they certainly express time differently. Time is “literal” in storyboarding, but in comics, navigation affects time and that’s “exciting”, too. Sugar trained to tell different kinds of stories in different ways.

Finishing projects is really “huge” and important, Sugar reminded, and even knowing you’re not satisfied, but you’re finished, and being able to move onto the next thing, is a big lesson to learn. “You’ll never be happy with anything”, Sugar warned.

Sands commented that you can have a “healthy dissatisfaction” with your work, but it’s probably best not to be down on your work to the public. Sugar agreed that it’s good to know you can do better, and to want to do better. That can become a “source of pride”.

Asked how they feel about their “old work”, Sugar said that some of these characters have been around a long time and made their way “into everything”, so fans searching for meaning in early work may find it. They see old stuff as “learning experiences” and also see work they are doing now in the same way. Sugar doesn’t want the first page of a book and the last page of a book to look the same, instead having changed along the way, and they feel the same way about Steven Universe.

Sharing things about yourself with other artists who you respect by working with them on a project can be difficult, trying to clarify why things are important to you, but it’s rewarding, too, Sugar said.

During audience Q&A, Sugar encouraged fans and aspiring creators by assuring them that the only “end” to creative work is when you give up and stop trying. “Don’t stop”, Sugar said, “Please never stop”, to applause, closing the panel.

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