Throwing Popcorn: Steven Universe

1

su-stevenlogoSteven Universe

Rebecca Sugar

Cartoon Network

The 15 second theme song tells you the most basic information about the show:

We — are the Crystal Gems
We’ll always save the day
And if you think we can’t
We’ll always find a way
That’s why the people of – this – world
Believe in
Garnet
Amethyst
And Pearl
…and Steven!

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network is literally both like and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. That makes perfect sense, though, because Rebecca Sugar, alumni of Adventure Time is the first woman to create a series for Cartoon Network.

Sure, the main character is a boy — we see that all the time. But this boy — the titular Steven Universe — is an excitable, sweet-natured, enthusiastic, and sincere boy somewhere between 8 and 12 years old, I’m guessing. He inherited his Crystal Gem powers from his mother, Rose Quartz — who “gave up her physical form to bring Steven into the world” (that’s how his father Greg puts it).

su-gregandrose

Greg Universe is a late-blooming hippie who can’t let go, hanging on by the skin of his teeth to his long, beautiful, lush brown hair (which is bald on top). He runs a car wash in Steven’s hometown of Beach City and is only kinda marginally involved with his son’s life.

Steven’s real mentor figures are the Crystal Gems as mentioned above. They are the teammates/sisters of Rose Quartz who immediately adopted Steven into their number because he’s a Gem by inheritance. Rebecca Sugar refers to them as magical girls although there are no transformation sequences as such. The girls do have powers, but not so much with the calling of attacks or flowery speeches. Their powers are beautifully visualized, and there’s an aspect of them that requires them to work in unison which is refreshing when compared with the many kids’ programming shows that have girl vs. girl rivalries.

They each look after Steven, show him how to use his powers a little at a time, and have their own personality and method of dealing with Steven.

The Crystal Gems (L) Amethyst (C) Garnet (R) Pearl

The Crystal Gems
(L) Amethyst
(C) Garnet
(R) Pearl

su-garnetGarnet is the leader. She’s the one with the giant square afro. She’s a woman of very few words, but despite not being one for talking, she has the most strength (she is the only Gem who can survive swimming in lava!), the most experienced, and the most reserved personality. For all that, though, she is also the one who displays the most confidence and belief in Steven, even when he stumbles or missteps as a kid his age is wont to do. Her Crystal Gem powers come from the stone of the same name embedded in her palms. They summon her weapon: a pair of large fighting gauntlets.

su-amethystAmethyst is the most like Stephen. She and Steven bond over feeling stifled by Garnet’s strictness. She describes herself as “up for whatever” and tends to forget that although Steven is technically a Gem, he’s still only half-human. She enjoys the parts of human life her sisters eschew: eating, sleeping, and new experiences. This gets both Steven and her in trouble from time to time. Her weapon is a thorn vine whip that comes from the gemstone in her chest. Amethyst tends to scuffle with the third gem.

Pearl is very sweet when she can be calmed down enough to show it, but mostly shesu-pearl’s extremely uptight, precise, persnickety, and strait-laced to the point of it wearing on everyone’s nerves. She acts the most like a mother and a teacher toward Steven, taking every opportunity to show him about his heritage as a lesson. She balances out Garnet’s confidence in Steven with almost suffocating protectiveness. Her brow knits with worry for him the moment they step out of the safety of their cliffside cottage/magical temple home. Pearl’s gem is her namesake which is at the point where her hairline meets her forehead, and it summons her pearlescent spiral spear.

As for Steven himself? He’s the heart of the group. He takes the missions mostly seriously and has a child’s unshakable certainty that if things go wrong (and they do), that the Gems will make sure everything works out fine. He follows his father’s philosophy: “If every pork chop were perfect, we wouldn’t have hot dogs!” most of the time, but he also shows a surprising and endearing emotional intelligence for a kid his age. He is usually the referee/peacekeeper when Pearl and Amethyst begin bickering, and when Garnet tells him to “preserve the harmony” he takes it to heart, not just figuratively, but literally — bursting into song as a way of getting through to Amethyst and Pearl when they’re not getting along. Steven has a gem too; it’s on his belly button. Snarky Lars from Steven’s favorite hangout, The Big Donut, teases him about it, but Steven can summon his own weapon: a shield.  He just needs a little more practice and to realize his own way of doing it that differs from the other Gems.

Which leads me to another aspect of the show to gush about. The music. The background music is tinkly with piano and strings, but beautiful, emotive, and evocative. There are leitmotifs woven in for each of the Gems, Steven, and even when there are references made. Steven’s father Greg is a has-been musician who in-universe appears to have been no great shakes, but his one song “Let Me Drive My Van Into Your Heart” is earnest, sweet, and earworm catchy! Steven himself is a prodigy level musician; he plays ukelele, tambourine, lead guitar, bass, and drums that we’ve seen so far. The Gems are also musical and seem to prefer instruments that reflect their personalities. Amethyst plays drums. Garnet plays keytar. Pearl plays violin. I would love it if CN would release a Steven Universe soundtrack album with all the songs from “Giant Woman” to “Strong in the Real Way” to “Steven and the Stevens.”  Hint, hint, Cartoon Network!

If the charming characters and the music aren’t enough to attract you — the stylized artwork will! Steven is a big-eyed chibi of a kid who is a bunch of positive messages in one adorable bundle. Although he’s a boy, he doesn’t find it weird or embarrassing to have three parental figures. It doesn’t bother him that he’s being raised by a nontraditional family of three women. He finds it extremely cool that he has powers from being half-magic on his mother’s side, and the fact that those powers manifest as the pale pink of rose quartz does not bother him in the slightest. Nor does it bother him that while the Gems have a whip, spear, and gauntlets — he has a shield. He’s perfectly okay with having an item  that protects rather than attacks.

Although the Gems describe Greg as “kind of a mess,” Steven loves him no less for su-cryingbeing a chubby has-been musician with a bald spot, a car wash, and a van he sleeps in. The one time Greg’s weight is mentioned as part of a joke, it’s not a fat-hate joke; Greg just misunderstood something his excitable son said. Steven is a little portly himself, but it doesn’t slow him down, and the show never, ever makes fun of him for his size. Emotive and expressive, Steven wears his heart on his sleeve unreservedly. When he’s happy, he literally gets stars in his eyes. When he is sad, giant teardrops roll down his face. When he is excited, it’s hard to keep him still. And when his emotions are just right — he can access the power of his Crystal Gem to generate force fields, bubbles, and shields.

su-lionOh, and did I mention Steven is one of those kids who loves animals — all animals — even if they’re deadly monsters? Amongst the animals Steven has befriended are a seagull, a goat, a Centipeetle they fought in the first episode, and a magical pink lion. Steven’s is so kind that he even hopes to be able to follow in the footsteps of his mother who “saw beauty in everything” and rehabilitate the monsters to not be mean.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? The women are superhero-strong without being Strong Female Characters; which is to say their outfits are modest, and there are no men attached to them even peripherally, other than Steven. Their body types are not “stock wasp waist girl.” Garnet is tallest and slim except for her hips. Pearl is a spindly stick and about medium height. Amethyst is short and rubenesque, which is never portrayed as a negative thing. Garnet wears a full jumpsuit that exposes pretty much only her elbows. Scrappy Amethyst wears a tunic over a tank top, baring her arms and her knees. Pearl began with a ballerina outfit, but changed into something a bit more martial, showing only her knees to her mid-calves. Steven wears a T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops.

Oh, and how could I not mention the diversity! Beach City is apparently not just a cute little seaside hamlet. It’s a tourist town. Bookworm Connie, Steven’s crush, is East Asian. Lars is not white, but they’ve never specified what race he is. The Pizza family appear to be African-American mixed with East Asian. Mr. Smiley, the Jack of All Trades, who runs the amusement park, the underground wrestling ring Amethyst and Steven compete in, and recorded the safety video for the donut shop Lars and Sadie work at, is African-American.

I can’t forget the voice actors! Steven Universe boasts a literally globally sourced voice cast of names both familiar and new: Afro-English Rap Star Estelle voices Garnet, Trini Rap Star Nicki Minaj voices Sugilite, African American Sinbad voices Mr. Smiley, Asian-American Michaela Dietz voices Amethyst, African-American Reagan Gomez Preston voices Jenny and Kiki Pizza, African-American Ian Jones-Quartey voices Steven’s cat fingers (long story, and Afro-Norwegian Toks Olagundoye voices matriarch Nanafua Pizza.

But wait: there’s more! If you’re going to watch Steven Universe, for most episodes you’ll need Kleenex on hand because you’ll laugh until you cry. But Rebecca Sugar and her team tell whatever story they want to, and that means some of those stories will require the Kleenex because they’re sweet, or touching, or devastatingly heartbreaking.  There’s one episode that was so emotionally powerful I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it a second time, though I’ve watched all the others repeatedly.

The show’s format is two fifteen minute episodes. It returned from hiatus at the end of August 2014 and began airing one new 15 minute short a week, plus the previous week’s new one, so you’re right at the perfect time to jump in and catch up. If you’ve got a package that allows On Demand, start from the first episode, “Gem Glow,” and watch in order because there is a loose continuity.

Once you’ve watched all the episodes and are hungry for more Crystal Gem goodness, head on over to your Local Comic Shop or http://comixology.com and pick up the Steven Universe comic produced by KABOOM! Studios and drawn by the talented Coleman Engle, whose artwork captures the vibe and style of the show perfectly.

Steven Universe Comic: art by Coleman Engle

Steven Universe Comic: art by Coleman Engle

Share.

About Author

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

1 Comment

  1. Huh? Lars is not white? OK…. Looks white to me, red hair and all… But, oh well…

    Connie is definitely not East Asian, but South Asian! India and such…

    I do agree with you on the wonderful diversity thing!