Rebecca Sugar, the pioneering showrunner of the Cartoon Network smash “Steven Universe,” returned to her native terrain over the weekend — to the very Maryland comics festival she had attended as a teenager with her handcrafted art in tow. Only now, two decades later, she was the undisputed rock star of the event.
“Independent comics are a great training ground,” Sugar told a rapt audience in a packed conference room at Small Press Expo, the annual two-day bonanza of indie art at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center. She recalled bringing her teen ‘zines and trading books with such creators as “Hellboy’s” Mike Mignola and “The Goon’s” Eric Powell.
“I’ve talked with them ever since about story,” said Sugar, who grew up a gemstone’s throw away in Silver Spring, taking art classes that helped pave her path to animation stardom.
Sugar got her first big break on “Adventure Time,” Pendleton Ward’s Emmy-winning animated show that had its series finale this month, ending an immensely popular run. That led to Sugar getting a shot at her own series, as she became the network’s first female solo showrunner.
On Saturday, returning as a hero crowned, Sugar shared a window into running a show like “Steven Universe,” which centers on innocent half-human boy Steven (named for Rebecca’s real artist brother) and his fellow magical, nonbinary Gem guardians.
“I’ve tried to learn to take things as they come,” the Emmy-nominated animator said. “Everything is incredibly planned ahead, but day to day, there’s also three or four emergencies you have to solve.”
And given the textured depth and ever-developing characters of “Steven Universe,” nothing is cookie-cutter about creating the show.
“The interesting thing about how the sausage is made, in terms of (the show) being a sausage: It’s as if the sausage factory had to make a different sausage every time a sausage came out,” Sugar told the laughing crowd. “There’s no one sausage formula — you have to reinvent the sausage every single time.”
Starting as a storyboard artist, Sugar learned from Ward and his team how to adapt her indie ideas. ” ‘Adventure Time’ taught me that I could do personal work in a commercial animated show,” she said. “We were really encouraged to do things that were personally interesting … and not even my personal work was as personal as the stuff I’d be writing for” the character Marceline the Vampire Queen.
The room fell silent when Sugar opened up about just how personal “Steven Universe” has become.
Within the past two years, Sugar has come out about her bisexuality — a decision she said was entwined with her sense of authentic responsibility as a creator of kids’ entertainment.
“Being able to talk about this personally has helped a great deal,” she said. “Because we were being discouraged from having the (‘Steven Universe’) characters be openly LGBTQ, I also was not in a position to say that I was bisexual. And by 2016 … I had to talk about why this was important.”
Sugar told the audience that she would receive notes from executives in which they discouraged queer representation and subject matter, calling it inappropriate for kids. Such missives stirred something within her.
“It made me start to understand,” she said, “that I had been told that (same message) indirectly by everything I had ever watched as a child.” And now, hearing it directly was hurtful.
“Not only had I not discussed this in terms of my work,” Sugar said, “but also not with my family and my friends.”
Sugar began to pause for emphasis. The room was hushed.
The absence of representation in entertainment is “so casual,” she said. “No one is horrified to talk about how Charlie Brown likes the Little Red-Haired Girl. That’s not shocking or newsworthy. … And the idea that queer kids exist is not at all news and interesting.”
“There’s this need to protect straightness as a default,” said Sugar, her voice impassioned. “We think that is the default because we have been told that is the default. It’s not the default. I want things to shift, please.”
It would mean, she said, “a healthier life for a lot of people.”