Steven Universe’s Rebecca Sugar Reflects On The Past, Present, And Future Of Her Sublime Journey

Steven Universe’s Rebecca Sugar Reflects On The Past, Present, And Future Of Her Sublime Journey
Image: Cartoon Network

Steven Universe Future‘s final episodes brought Steven and the Crystal Gems’ story to an epic close. They also reinforced one of the most important concepts that shaped Rebecca Sugar’s approach to creating the show ever since she first had the idea for the series. Steven Universe and Future were both sublime in the sense that they told excellent stories. But they were also sublime in an artistic, theoretical sense, meaning that part of what made them so powerful was their ability to elicit awe, excitement, and sometimes fear about what was yet to come.

The more Steven learned about the secrets the Crystal Gems were keeping from him about Rose Quartz, the more he desperately yearned for more knowledge, a feeling Steven Universe fans similarly felt each and every single time the tiniest hint about Rose’s devastating truth casually popped up in any given episode. It was scarily exciting to witness Steven’s evolution as he came into his Gem powers and his identity as the only Gem/human hybrid in the universe, and it seemed as if Steven Universe Future was positioned to answer some of the biggest outstanding questions that were left after the Crystal Gems managed to forge a peaceful alliance with Homeworld.

But ultimately, Steven Universe Future was less interested in exploring new fusions or settling old beefs and more focused on bringing Steven face to face with struggles that we’ve all had to grapple with at one time or another: growing up, learning to find himself, and making peace with the fact that the future isn’t all that knowable.

When Gizmodo spoke with series creator Rebecca Sugar by phone a few weeks back, she explained that while Future‘s ending wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind when she first began to piece Steven Universe together, its story is a direct outgrowth of her personal experience working on the show”an experience that took her to both incredible emotional highs and devastating lows. Through it all, Sugar explained, she learned to find balance within herself that helped her heal from trauma and tell even more nuanced narratives, and now she’s ready to look back on the past decade or so of her life and take a few moments to just relax.


Gizmodo: So much of the show has been about Steven’s relationships with his loved ones and how they’ve changed over the course of this larger adventure, and I’m sure that the same is true for you personally. I know it’s kind of a big thing to squeeze into one answer, but how have your personal relationships shifted? How has what you bring to your interpersonal relationships changed?

Rebecca Sugar: I’m trying to think of where to start because it’s…everything. Everything has changed over the course of the show, I learned that I just really needed to take care of myself and respect myself and believe that I deserved friends and love. When I started the show, all I cared about really was working. I was very proud to work myself into abysmal health, and I think a lot of people can relate to this, especially artists and people in animation. It’s a very difficult and tedious medium where a lot of people people take a lot of pride in sleeping under the desk and working until ungodly hours of the morning.

I was absolutely one of those people in college, I would go to school all day, then I would draw comics all night, and then I wouldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t eat. I had trouble with passing out because I was just taking such poor care of myself, and that really continued all the way through, well, some of it continued through the early days of Steven, and I felt like if I wasn’t giving 200 per cent of myself for the show, that I couldn’t accept myself. I didn’t matter nearly as much as the project. Over the course of doing the show, I realised that I couldn’t function that way. The thing I cared about most, which was work, I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t healthier.

Gizmodo: Right.

Sugar: But also in the course of that, I worked with so many artists that I respected and so many people that I love. I was working on the show with my brother and my now husband (O.K. KO creator Ian Jones-Quartey), and they were watching me do this to myself and trying to help me and I just couldn’t see that at the time.

Gizmodo: What ended up happening as you got deeper into your work?

Sugar: So about halfway through, I really collapsed under the pressure of everything and then it felt like I had to build myself up from scratch a little bit. That was around the time that I wrote “Here Comes a Thought” because I was experiencing panic attacks at the time, I disassociated onstage at Comic-Con in 2015. I was also under a lot of pressure because I wanted to put these very personal aspects of myself into the show and I really didn’t know any other way to express myself except but through cartooning. The pressure to remove a lot of the LGBTQIA content”this was back in 2013, 2014, 2015″it was really compounding my already dangerously low self-esteem and putting me in a really difficult place.

So a lot of what I ended up writing towards the end of the show was about the work that I was doing to try and build a foundation of self-respect that would just allow me to keep functioning at work. By the end, I think I really arrived somewhere that I’ve never been before, where I felt comfortable reaching out to people and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to hang out?'”something as simple as that without assuming that they wouldn’t want to spend time with me?

Gizmodo: Right, right, right.

Sugar: Or little things, you know? Something as simple as putting down my pen and taking a bath just cause I wanted to, or taking a nap in the middle of the day”things I just didn’t feel I deserved before. That really became part of the arc of the show and a lot of what I ultimately wanted to write about in Future. So much of the show is about self-destruction and how that affects everyone around you in a profoundly negative way.

Gizmodo: You see so much of that with Steven rushing to fix the most insignificant of problems when no one’s even asking for his help. I rewatched the last batch of episodes last night and I thought to myself, like, “Dude, calm down. My God, you’re running yourself ragged.”

Sugar: Right. I mean for Steven, now that he knows that he’s not his mother, he’s had to figure out who he is as himself. His whole identity has been tied to work and his work is being the person that saves the world. I wanted to explore how critical it is to really take some time to figure out the person that you are outside of the work that you do. That you have value beyond the services you provide to people. You need to spend time putting work into yourself in addition to putting work into your work, and that’s something Steven hasn’t really had a chance to do.

Gizmodo: You always had the larger aspects of Steven Universe’s story planned out in advance, but how much of Future was really a direct outgrowth of the stress that you had been going through for years at that point? Was what we’re seeing in Future always meant to be the culmination of this story, or was that really sort of a way that the story became a reflection of your personal life?

Rebecca Sugar: Well, the story that we wrote initially in 2012 and 2013 is the arc that really takes us through “Change Your Mind,” which culminates in him self-actualizing and understanding that he is himself and that he deserves the respect as an individual, and that he deserves to love himself, which he does.

About halfway through the show, we were given the impression that the future was very uncertain, and I was told with a fair amount of confidence that there just wouldn’t be more show. So we began working towards the finish line and I also started campaigning for additional episodes so that we could get the story done. All of Era 3 more or less is actually borrowed time because there was just no way we could finish the series without more episodes. But then while we were doing that, I was also furiously pitching the movie because it was a story that would take place in between the two.

That we had come up with in 2015, but then as I was pitching the movie, the possibility was raised that not only could we have a movie, but we could have 20 more episodes of show, to which I said: “Yes, yes, yes, yes, of course.” And then, given the circumstances, there was a lot about Steven that I still wanted to explore, and there was a lot about the story that the initial run of episodes had told that I wanted to recontextualize because I think that people took a lot of what Steven was going through for granted and really put a lot of their focus on”not unlike Steven himself in the character”put a lot of focus on the Gems’ stories that were going on when really as a team we were always very interested in his human story.

Gizmodo: Do you think that if the story had ultimately culminated with “Change Your Mind” that this story would have been…not incomplete, but that it wouldn’t have necessarily been what you would have wanted the fandom to get out of the story?

Sugar: It’s hard to say because we were always building in these possible outs, right? We didn’t know if he’d have more show after “Ocean Gem,” so we thought, “Well, if it ends here, you’ll have this little sublime piece of mystery about what Gems are.” We already knew what they were, and we knew this larger picture and we thought, “Well, these will leave people with a hint of that,” and then we didn’t know if we have more after “Jailbreak,” and so we built that as a potential end of the show. A lot of spots on the show were designed to be that way because they had to be.

That was the nature of the pickups worked at the time. We would be crossing our fingers that we would get more and be able to keep going, and ultimately get through the story we’d conceived initially. But we’re very much at the whim of an entertainment landscape shifting wildly under our feet.

Gizmodo: I was looking back at some of your earlier sketches and notes and you had this really solid concept of Steven’s dynamics with Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl representing these three kinds of relationships that a kid can have with their older siblings. By the end of Steven Universe, we’d seen that those dynamics had been evolving for the entirety of the series. But in Future, they are so distinctly different, and I wanted to ask if you had planned out a new trio of familial dynamics that you really wanted to define each of the ways that Steven interacted with the three core Crystal Gems.

Sugar: I mean, everything is a lot different once Steven is older. There really was a time in real life where the show was keeping me and my brother so busy that even when we were on the floor together, we barely saw each other. I think feeling that obligation to just produce and produce content and put something great out into the world, it just takes up a lot of your time. But you really, really need to prioritise spending time with your loved ones.

It wasn’t really until fairly recently that I would just have to stop everything and just call him and talk to him on the phone for a couple hours. We’re both adults working in television animation, and it becomes difficult to reconnect. Every once in a while, you know, when we’re visiting home, suddenly we can have some version of that dynamic where we’re both with our parents again, but that’s so few and far between now that we’re both so much older.

So I think in a way, that is a bit reflected in Future where the Gems have their tasks to do, Steven has his, and they’re all trusting that everyone else has matured to a point where maybe they don’t need the kind of support that they were offered early on. But the truth is that they really do, and that’s also true in reality for all of us. You really need to constantly find time to reconnect with the people in your life that you love and depend on.

Gizmodo: You brought up therapy, and I wanted to talk to you about the Diamonds who in each of their own ways has become a healer in a way that everyone had previously thought only Pink/Rose Quartz’s gem could do. I feel like Blue and Yellow’s powers were so straightforward that you can read them almost immediately as forms of traditional therapy, like physical therapy or being medicated to just deal with your depression. But White’s powers are a little more complicated than either of the other Diamonds. What is it that she’s experiencing when she’s connecting to another Gem? What’s the healing concept there? Because when White and Steven connect, it quickly turns dark and leaves them both freaked out.

Sugar: Well what she’s doing is not good for Steven. Confronting himself is really difficult for him in that moment. When we looked at their new powers, we really wanted to invert everything that they were. Instead of destructive, constructive. Instead of emotionally devastating, sort of emotionally uplifting. But with White, her power is her identity. She had the ability to override your identity with her own, and that power comes from the fact that she doesn’t actually believe that she has an identity on her own. She thinks that everyone is her. 

Gizmodo: How so?

Sugar: She purely thinks of herself as light, and so all other Gems’ light forms, she thinks of them as extensions of her. Everyone is just a sort of a lesser version of her, [or] that’s what she used to think. But now with her new abilities, instead of thinking that she’s everyone, she has come to understand that she is no one.

So she can just experience full ego death and let someone else use her as a megaphone. It’s the only way, I think, to neutralise what’s dangerous about what White is. The only way was basically to have her not exist or be able to force herself on anyone.

Gizmodo: There’s this really interesting way that Future grapples with the concept of family by introducing Gems like the Rose Quartzes and humans like Greg’s parents, who we don’t see, but who are what we would consider “biologically closer” to Steven than the Crystal Gems. But Steven doesn’t know anything about them or how to relate to them. I’m thinking specifically about “Mr. Universe” and how he had this really adverse reaction to seeing how human the DeMayos are. What were the feelings you really wanted to hammer home in bringing Steven face to face with his closer family? 

Sugar: Yes! Internally on the show, we’ve always understood the relationship between Craig and Rose…we’ve seen little fractions of it. But this is a piece of that puzzle that we’ve been discussing in these little moments, but never really spoke about so directly, which is that they’re really very similar.

Gizmodo: Like even in the lyrics of “Welcome to the Universe” that Greg plays for Steven in the van, they’re literally describing what Rose wanted to do. Her idea of it was just much more concrete because, well, Gems mastered space travel.

Sugar: [laughing] Yeah, it’s a little more literal for a Gem. But they both came from really stifling households, and they both found a way to escape. We talked about it a little in Steven’s dream when Greg is sitting on the steps with Steven, he talked about the moment that Rose tried to talk to him about her past, and he said it didn’t matter to him because he felt like the person that she is now, the person that she invented for herself, that’s really her, that’s the real her. Of course, he feels that way because Mr. Universe is the real him. To him, it doesn’t matter if it’s silly or flimsy. Because his persona is so much more himself than the person he was being forced to become in that home.

Greg really understood Rose and he really respected her, and she really responded to that because she had never had that before. By the end of their relationship, she didn’t feel like she was hiding from him, and that was something that she couldn’t really get from anyone else in her life except for him. But the flip side of that is that she was off and running from something, and he enabled her to never confront what troubles her about her past because he doesn’t want to confront what troubled him about his past.

Steven drifting away from his father. (Image: Cartoon Network)

Gizmodo: Did Greg want them to be a part of his life as he got older and after Steven was born?

Sugar: Greg tried, obviously tried to reach out to his family and he would have wanted them to be part of his life eventually, but they’re also frustrated with him. They never open his letter. They never responded, they’re not happy with the choices that he made.

We really wanted Steven to finally understand as he’s been learning more about his mother and realising that she shouldn’t really be up on the pedestal that everyone was putting her on. Through all of that, he’s always had his dad; Greg has been such a solid role model for him. But there have been little hints of this difficult aspect of his and Rose’s bond. Andy showing up tells you a lot about what Greg’s family is like because Andy’s still a part of it, and Steven wants that. He’s so desperate for human family, which we’ve shown there, and to him”especially at that age”he can’t really see why Greg wouldn’t introduce him to them.

It’s not that Steven’s losing Greg or that he can’t count on him to be there for him, but so much of the show is about that moment that you realise your parents are fallible people, and he just hadn’t had that with Greg up until that moment.

Gizmodo: I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s about Emily King, actually.

Sugar: Oh! Yeah!

Gizmodo: Talk to me about working with her and what you really wanted to get out of “Being Human.”

Sugar: Actually it goes all the way back to when I was writing “Here Comes a Thought.” When I write songs for Estelle, I always talk to her first because it’s a lot of pressure to write songs for Estelle, and so I talked to her before “Stronger Than You.” She had given me some reference songs based on my descriptions of what the scene is going to be and the song was going to be, and she said, “Oh, that reminds me of this, this, and this,” and then I would put these songs on. For “Stronger Than You,” it was “Gold” by Spandau Ballet and the theme from Fame, which I would listen to over and over thinking like, “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be a fight song and a love song and a victory song all simultaneously.”

Gizmodo: Makes sense.

Rebecca Sugar: So, going into “Here Comes a Thought” I talked to Estelle about it and I basically said, “Is it possible to have a song that calm and fast?” I was thinking at the time, when I’m experiencing panic and if someone tells me in a slow and reasonable voice like, you know, “Please calm down,” it doesn’t help. I need someone to be quick. I need someone to match my frantic energy that I’m in. If someone’s coming at it from a slow and measured way, I think, “Oh, my God, I’m doing everything wrong.” I need someone to be fast and just be like, ‘”It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK” but also be there with me in the moment, you know what I mean?

Gizmodo: Absolutely.

Sugar: So, I asked Estelle if she could think of songs that are calming like a lullaby, but aren’t slow, and she sent me something she was working on, which was great, but she also recommended Emily King’s EP The Seven. I think because of that, Emily King was tied in my mind to this very difficult time where I was trying to come out of panic, and when we got to the movie, I’d really hoped to collaborate with her. One time when I was at New York Comic-Con, we got a chance to meet up at a bar to talk, which was great because I was such a big fan? The musical was still on the horizon, so I wasn’t really in a position to ask if she would be involved yet, but I basically just discussed with her how much I loved her music.

The movie came and went and I didn’t get a chance to work with her on the movie, so that was really my one last collaboration that I really wanted to do before the show was over. But we had we sort of had a precedent with “Last One Out of Beach City” where I had worked with an original song by Mike Kroll and had him be a real person in the universe. So when we had “Bismuth Casual,” I thought, “Oh, let’s do a follow-up where we feature an Emily King song. So I got in touch with her about that, and then I was also hoping at the same time to have her potentially sing on the credits, which again, the melody was written by Aivi & Surasshu and I had layered lyrics on top of it and recorded a demo. I got in touch with her, she was interested, and I was just so glad because I really wanted the chance to work with her. 

“Being Human” is really very much where my head is that at the moment and a real feeling that I was having when we were writing the song. It was around the time of the movie and we were doing Future simultaneously, which was extremely difficult, and I just loved the thought of going somewhere, you know?

Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst sending Steven on his way. (Image: Cartoon Network)

Gizmodo: How are you feeling right now?

Sugar: Oh, my gosh. I’m good. I’ve been taking the time to really reflect on this whole experience. I am astonished. I’ve been at Cartoon Network for 10 years; 2009 was also the year that I was attacked, so it’s been a really long arc for me.

Looking back on everything and seeing the time I spent nervously trying to process myself through cartooning, which is what I had always done”but then eventually, finding a therapist and taking the time for myself to live within doing this work, and then making that a part of the work. I’m excited to have a chance to step away and look at everything as a whole and then move forward. That’s really how I’m feeling right now.