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Rebecca Sugar’s Subtle Cartoon Chaos

Rebecca Sugar is a 26-year-old cartooning pioneer. First with “Adventure Time.” Now with “Steven Universe.” Rebecca Sugar is with us.

The main cast of Rebecca Sugar's popular new Cartoon Network cartoon, "Steven Universe." (Cartoon Network)

The main cast of Rebecca Sugar’s popular new Cartoon Network cartoon, “Steven Universe.” (Cartoon Network)

Tom Hanks plays Mr. Animation, Walt Disney, in a big new film out next month, but never mind all that Hollywood history.  We’re looking at animation, cartoons, right now. Rebecca Sugar is 26 years old.  She’s just become the first woman ever in the 21-year run of the Cartoon Network to create and run her own show.  She was Emmy-nominated for episodes of “Adventure Time.” Now she’s out with “Steven Universe.”  We’ll talk with Rebecca Sugar about what it takes these days to grab the creative reins and ride.  Up next On Point:  Rebecca Sugar, cartoon chief.

– Tom Ashbrook


Rebecca Sugar, creator of the new show “Steven Universe,” former writer on “Adventure Time.” First solo female creator of a cartoon on the Cartoon Network. (@RebeccaSugar)

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post:Steven Universe’ creator Rebecca Sugar is a Cartoon Network trailblazer — “By following her artistic passion from Silver Spring to Hollywood, Sugar has become something of a trailblazer. On Monday evening, Cartoon Network will debut its newest program, ‘Steven Universe,’officially making Sugar, at just 26, the first woman to be a solo show creator in the channel’s 21 years on the air. She is thrilled to achieve the breakthrough, but with just days until the debut, she’s not focused on being the first female creator — she’s too busy simply being a creator, with plenty to still decide and coordinate.”

Indie Wire: ‘Adventure Time’ Writer Rebecca Sugar on ‘Steven Universe,’ Being Cartoon Network’s First Female Show Creator And Why Pop Art Is ‘Offensive’ — “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.’”

New York Times: Rising Animators Spring Into Motion — “In ‘It Came From the Nightosphere,’ an episode of the Cartoon Network series ‘Adventure Time,’ Marceline, a vampire over 1,000 years old but who looks 19, sings a tender ballad about feeling betrayed by her father, who also happens to be an unkillable, soul-sucking demon. The Emmy-nominated episode was co-written by Rebecca Sugar, and so was the ballad ‘Daddy, Why Did You Eat My Fries?’ A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Ms. Sugar was wooed by the network after her self-published comics, created while in high school in Maryland, caught the eye of Pendleton Ward, the creator of ‘Adventure Time.’ Since then, Ms. Sugar has created 21 episodes, including celebrated ones like ‘Fionna and Cake,’ in which the heroes switch genders, and ‘Lady and Peebles,’ featuring a unicorn speaking in long passages of untranslated Korean.””

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  • teghn

    I love how multi-dimensional Adventure Time is. I’m 27, my kids are 5 and 1, and we all love the show. We laugh, and dance, and through the weirdness find potent topics of discussion and real heart. Definitely excited about Steven Universe

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    We do not have cable – just (free!) broadcast TV. I know that make us part of a minority; but this channel (let alone the cartoon show) are totally outside my experience.

    Oh well. Life goes on just fine!

    • Jeff

      cool story bro

    • CottonBlimp

      If you’re interested, you don’t have to have a cable plan to watch the episodes. Cartoon Network sells streams of them on at least YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes – I think iTunes even has the first episode for free.

      tbh, I think you should reconsider having broadcast TV. If you wanted to get away from all TV, that’d be one thing, but the basic channels like FOX and ABC are increasingly terrible and mind-numbing, while artistic, beautiful, and brilliant shows like Breaking Bad are finding a home on cable.

  • Naty

    I’m a 42 year old woman who loved cartoons growing up. I watched Adventure Time with my son, now 11, and his younger sister. I koved Marceline’s song about her father. My absolute favorite animated show is Avatar, the Last Airbender and it’s spin-off, The Legend of Korra. I particularly love these shows because of the strong story lines and the presence of compelling female characters. I hope to see more female animators in the future.

    • Parismio

      I think Legend of Korra should be considered a sequel.

  • geraldfnord

    0.) I wish they had left it as “Daddy, Why did You Leave Me?” with the much more plaintive lyrics.
    1.) If “Adventure Time” had been kept at Nicklodeon, does she think she’d have had the same level of opportunity?
    2.) I loved her work (and Muto’s) at “Adventure Time”, intensely… and don’t care much for “Steven Universe”:
    a.) Is the title character _supposed_ to be this annoying and clueless? —maybe it makes him more identifiable as EveryKid, and maybe I’m just old and cranky, though I haven’t yelled at anyone on my lawn ever…. Or is he starting there so he can get somewhat smarter and much less annoying over time?
    b.) I don’t see anything like the level of pseudo-psychedelia and what tvtropes calls something like ‘Getting Stuff Past the Radar’ as in “Adventure Time”.
    c.) I don’t like the art…but then again I’ve never liked Tezuka Osamu’s either.
    3.) Every minute Tom Scharpling does V.O. work for you is a minute he’s not working on “The Best Show on WFMU”. Thanks for that, that makes up for a lot.
    4.) If you ever need a relief-ukulelist, please consider Molly Lewis (‘sweetafton23′ on youtube).

    But I hope she keeps up the good work, as _she_ sees it—I try not to confuse ‘genius’ with ‘doing things I like’.

  • Brian P. Kasso Gaidry

    Women have been breaking through in animation for a while, and I welcome their refreshingly different takes on the medium.

    Emily Kapnek, best known as the creator of the primetime live action show Suburbatory, started as the creator/head writer of the Nickelodeon show “As Told By Ginger”.

    If you watch “Ginger”, you can clearly see the seeds of Suburbatory.Both explore the inner conflict of a girl looking for substance and meaning in an absurdly superficial world.

  • Jamison

    Im a 32 year old cartoon lover with my first child on its way and Im working inspirational posters based around cartoon characters and there sayings (like f every porkchop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hotdogs.) for my child’s room. Ive noticed that there aren’t any leading female characters that are allowed to be witty and imaginative and corky like you see in Edd Ed and Eddy or Dexters Lab or Flapjack … Why is this???

    • Jeff

      Not saying there’s enough of them, but I wouldn’t claim there aren’t *any* similarly ‘corky’ girl protagonists. What about Kim Possible? The Powerpuff Girls? The Mighty Bee? Ginger Foultey? Pepper Ann?

      • Jamison

        I will give you Mighty Bee, that was a great show, the rest are ether super hero girls like
        Totally Spies, Jem! and the Holograms or there like tweens and dealing with tween stuff. And yes tones of great supporting characters! (personal favorite Mabel-Gravity Falls)
        It just douse not feel like girls are allowed to use their imagination and be creative they always feel like they have to be gtron and smart (for example Anais from Gumball)

  • hennorama

    One can hear the wide-eyed wonder in Ms. Sugar’s voice, and combined with her habit of giving credit to others, this will serve her well in such a collaborative pursuit.

  • nlpnt

    Are there plans to update Steven’s character design as he grows into the superhero role and his actor’s voice deepens? I’d assume this was something that was considered way back when Adventure Time was picked up in the series and they cast a boy rather than a grown woman to voice Finn.

  • The poster formerly known as t

    Let me respond to your questions, the best way I can but it’s going to be long-winded.

    “What’s the application process of getting on board with Cartoon Network?”You know, that is one of the questions Rebecca dodged the entire time. She never related how she got her big break or what was it about her work that made her stand out from the hordes of competition. Is the quality of her work suppose to be self-evident? She didn’t do a very good job of describing
    her work and her answer to what exactly made Steven Universe “subversive “was underwhelming.

    Steven Universe is two part Tezuka Osamu’s art style coupled with hipster sensibilities but I don’t think she’s being ironic. The visual aesthetic behind her Steven Universe and Adventure Time is Kitch Art–which is the infatuation the Art World has with has with visuals that are intentionally jarring or ugly, cheesy, and with a hint of retro .. The instructors at art schools tell their students that is is what the people with money want and the students feel liberated from having to learn anatomy and perspective more thoroughly and focus more time “marketing”. i.e. schmoozing. Perhaps, she just went to the right parties or she knew the “right people”, in addition to presenting a complete portfolio of work , for critique which in her case, were comics. The Creative Class like to pretend that it’s all about merit and talent and it’s not that simple. An aspiring creator has to be presenting the right material to the right audience at the right time (we’re at a time where minimalism/ kitch art is IN and it lines up with the bottom lines of content providers. Adventure Time is by all means a lot cheaper to produce than Spongebob Squarepants. ) Many different things have to line up in other for success to occur. If you look at the budgets and art styles of animation over the last 15 years, on one end of the spectrum is the hype-realistic Pixar stuff and at the other end of the spectrum, is stuff like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. At the other end of the spectrum, where Adventure Time and Steven Universe is, it seems like everyone wants to get things done with the smallest amount of effort. From what I’ve seen, there is nothing here that is new other than that we have an animation show on a cable network driven by a woman’s sensibilities. The storytelling and themes are is generic. The art is even more generic if one is familiar with contemporary illustration or the American “alternative” comics scene. I don’t remember where I read this, but I remember reading that right now is an excellent time to be an (imo , upper middle class, )woman seeking to enter the illustration/animation fields because(upper middle class and up, a very important marketing demographic imo) women were marginalized and under-served for so long and the gate keepers are willing to give them more of a chance in order to explore an untapped market.

    • Ian Schopa

      You are greatly undervaluing the work these people are doing. I’m a pretty avid follower of all the influences you mention including anime and Tezuka, and I’ve never seen them do anything quite like Adventure Time or Steven Universe. Pay attention to the interview – Sugar readily describes these influences and explains that the storytelling comes from a personal place – her experiences growing up with her younger brother. Both shows also exhibit an acute self-awareness, which is extremely rare in anime and manga.

      • The poster formerly known as t

        There’s nothing special about her work. IMO. My opinion is informed by being around animators and seeing trends (seeing student animation work) develop over time and seeing the level of talent out there. For every Rebecca Sugar there are probably 10 Rebecca Sugars with the same amount of talent and very similar artistic sensibilities, who don’t make it so I think it is disingenuous for people to say how groundbreaking and revolutionary her work is. From my perspective, that is ignorance.

  • Roberto Severino

    Rebecca Sugar is absolutely amazing. I’ve been following her work ever since I saw her student film “Singles” quite some time ago and these drawings she did of Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. She really has her own unique way of looking at the world and its evident in so much of the stuff she’s done as cartoonists should.

    While I never really got into Adventure Time, I really think Steven Universe is a great show and one of the best I’ve seen on Cartoon Network in a very long time, especially in a visual way. Each episode just gets better and better and I really can’t wait to see where this show’s gonna go as Steven begins to truly learn how to use his powers.

  • Ian Schopa

    There’s some great advice in this interview – take your son to comics and animation conventions for one.

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