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Sugar, Rebecca

Entry updated 7 March 2022. Tagged: TV, People.

(1987-    ) American animator, director, writer, producer, artist and musician. Sugar identifies as bisexual and non-binary, using she/her and they/them pronouns. She studied at the School of Visual Arts, New York; one of her animated shorts from this period was Singles (2009), about a man whose one room apartment is located in his chest. On entering the apartment he can be seen in the chest of a larger version of himself, just as in his chest a smaller version enters: an infinite regression on each side can be inferred. One day he steps out of his chest, to enter a void – as do all the versions of himself: fortunately the next size up versions each grab their next size down version and place them back in their chest.

Sugar produced several independent Comics, including Pug Davis (2006-2007, two issues), concerned a cigar smoking pug who used to be a janitor at NASA; after an accident Scientists put his brain in a pug's head and attached it to his Cyborged body. Alienated, he swaps places with a chimp about to be launched into space, to discover a well-populated universe; he now defends the Earth from Alien threats. He is joined by his sidekick, Blouse, who had been sent into space to test the effect of zero-Gravity on homosexuals. Adventures include jellyfish-like alien brains that force people to re-live their most traumatic experiences, and a hostile Shapeshifter who takes on Blouse's appearance, pretending he is future Blouse to say Pug will kill him unless he kills him first; but Blouse cannot bring himself to do so. The latter conflict gets Pug to admit Blouse is his friend, not – as he had previously argued – just somebody he lets live on his Spaceship.

Joining the staff of Adventure Time, Sugar quickly became a storyboarder and writer, pairing up with Adam Muto (seasons two and three), then with Cole Sanchez (seasons four and five). She left when Cartoon Network commissioned her series Steven Universe, though would occasionally return to write songs and do voice work.

Adventure Time began as a surreal, notably bizarre series; very good, but not too concerned with strong characterization. Sugar and Muto's first story – season two's opener "It Came from the Nightosphere" (2010) – began a shift in execution: characters developed emotional depth, the stories became richer. As other storyboarders/writers began to experiment they also took on board Sugar's lessons: but the series lost none of its oddness, becoming weirder and funnier (the excellence continued after Sugar left, with Muto becoming Creative Director in season four, then the showrunner from season five). As well as helping to evolve Finn the Human and others' characterization, Sugar introduced an LGBT storyline with the romance between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. Though she was supported by the other animators, the network prevented the relationship from being clearly stated, to allow deniability for conservative markets (though the series finale was able to make it canon).

Steven Universe's Crystal Gems, by being sentient alien rocks projecting bodies that resemble human females, gave Sugar some wiggle room to realize her belief that LGBT themes (see Transgender SF) should be part of society's conversation with children – helping them to be comfortable with their identities – not a topic hidden away until they are adult. Early on she could not be too explicit, explaining the network had said "we want to support that you're doing this, but you have to understand that internationally if you speak about this publicly, the show will be pulled from a lot of countries and that may mean the end of the show". Like her Adventure Time episodes, Steven Universe displayed her ability to engage with serious matters – including mental health, communication and consent – in an entertaining, inventive and often very funny (but also, often very moving) fashion. Both series also benefited from her considerable songwriting abilities.

Needless to say, both these shows had many other major talents working for them (including Pendleton Ward, who created Adventure Time). Her substantial creative input into two of the best sf series in western animation (arguably the top two, though Futurama, Gravity Falls and Rick & Morty are also up there, jostling), as well as her influence on subsequent major shows (for example, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, The Owl House and Centaurworld), make Rebecca Sugar an important voice in modern sf; to date recognition has been limited to the honour list for the 2015 James Tiptree Jr Award. [SP]

born Silver Spring, Maryland: 9 July 1987


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