To start with a disclosure of journalistic bias: I really, really love the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time, which I consider, in all seriousness, to be one of the best tv shows of recent times in any category, not just cartoons , and arguably more entertaining to watch than any of the non-cartoon contenders for this title. The work of Rebecca Sugar as a writer, storyboard artist and songwriter for the show has been inventive and fun, not to mention twice nominated for a Primetime Emmy award. (She’s responsible for the episodes focused on fan-favourite characters Fionna and Cake and some of the best with Marceline the Vampire Queen, in addition to composing the musical repertoire of the latter.)
So I was glad to be given by Cartoon Network the opportunity of a brief phone chat with Rebecca, in anticipation of the European premiere of her new show, „Steven Universe”- the first Cartoon Network series to have a woman as a showrunner and creator, as it has often been mentioned in the press (perhaps a bit too often- some part of me thinks it’s not fair to put all this pressure on her to be The Female Animator). „Steven Universe” is the story of a boy who is trying to learn how to use his power as a Crystal Gem and become an intergalactic magical warrior, while living with the three other Crystal Gems, all girls, and skilled warriors already: Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet. In other interviews, Rebecca had mentioned that the protagonist is inspired by her own brother, also named Steven, who is currently a background artist for the show.
Rebecca ended up working on storyboards for „Adventure Time” when artists from the team saw „Singles”, her experimental graduation short from The School of Visual Arts in New York, were pleasantly impressed, and sent her a storyboard test. „Comics were the greatest training I ever had for animation”, she says (Rebecca is an author of indie comics, and I’ve read nothing but praise for her book „Pug Davis”). In our short phone conversation, she comes of as friendly and full of enthusiasm and admiration for all things animated, as well as knowledgeable of the field. „Animation is old-school magic”, Rebecca declares. „It’s a sort of universal language, that everybody approaches in a different way, though.” She says she takes a keen interest in animation from outside the US, and speaking of that, I mention to her that the Crystal Gems from „Steven Universe” give me, from what I was able to see from the leaked pilot, a „Sailor Moon” vibe. Did she ever watch it? „I did watch Sailor Moon– I watched a lot of „magical girl” shows, but also a lot of shonen anime, like One Piece, it’s one of my favourites. I wanted to do a mix of shonen and other things”. (For those of you who don’t know, shonen is a category of manga and anime whose target audience are pre-teen and teenage boys). „I’m interested in the way cartoons are gendered, the way some things are deemed for boys and some things are deemed for girls. I wanted to make this big soup with all of that”.
Cartoon Network’s own target audience is generally perceived to be primarily young boys, but series like „Adventure Time” (and, it seems, „Steven Universe”as well, judging from what can be read online of the reactions to the US premiere) have a large following of fans of all ages and genders. Who does Rebecca think of as her audience when she writes stories? „I write them for myself, and I try to make sure that everyone on my team writes for themselves as well”, she replies. „We are cartoonists who love cartoons.” The artists working with Rebecca have different goals, as everyone wants something different from a cartoon they like, but they pour it into the same product and make it innovative and original: „They are trying to push what a cartoon can do”, Rebecca says of both „Adventure Time” and „Steven Universe” staff.
Part of what made „Adventure Time” a success with people of all ages was its ability to embed into the stories a second level of meaning that can be decoded only by older minds, especially as time passed and the series acknowledged that Finn was getting older, a rare thing in animated series. Rebecca confirms that „Steven Universe” will also operate on this level, as its protagonist, starting out with the „blinders” of childhood on, will gain a new understanding of life. „Nobody in Steven Universe is doing or saying things that they wouldn’t do or say in front of a kid, but Steven doesn’t know that”, Rebecca explains. „It’s a coming of age story and he’s slowly becoming aware that there is a more mature world out there”. Indeed, that is how the growing up experience felt to the creator herself, and it’s probably a description that many of us can recognise as accurate.
Is Rebecca thinking of branching out into movies after her success in television? „I actually did work on a feature, „Hotel Transylvania”- with Genddy Tartakovsky. I learned so much! I did not know what it took to work on a feature. I like tv because it has such a breakneck speed, but movies have more time to explore everything. I would like to do more of both, to be honest.”
„Steven Universe” will come to Romanian TVs in August; I’ll get to watch it earlier: in the UK, where I live, it premieres on May 12th, and I can’t wait.