Steven Universe has a huge fan following for being one of the brightest, sweetest and most inventive cartoons to come about in years. But even if you know who the Crystal Gems are (and why they’ll save the day), you might not know that the queerest, coolest and best adventures aren’t unfolding on the screen, but on the page.
Yes, the best Steven Universe isn’t actually the television show, but the comics. Melanie Gilman's run on the ongoing series is even queerer, with more heart and more emotional realism than the show could ever hope for.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Steven Universe the comic series is still silly and wonderful. One issue is about a food truck cook-off and another is about the misadventures of Peridot at a Renaissance Fair. But freed from the constraints of telling the show's intricate, sci-fi/fantasy story, the characters can be more fully explored. In essence, this comic is about what the Crystal Gems do on their downtime, and it’s all pretty wonderful.
This is the comic you show to queer children who have nowhere else to turn. This is the comic you use to get your friends into comics. This is the book you read if you’re hungry for good, queer representation (and also love Steven Universe).
The first issue is perhaps the best example of what the comic offers overall; it deals with Lapis, Peridot, and Steven adopting a small baby bird that’s fallen from a nest. (Steven names it “Susan” and uses they/them pronouns for it.) There’s no world-ending catastrophe, just this bird, these characters.
Peridot is hesitant to have anything to do with Susan until she realizes that with care and feeding, it’ll grow into a bigger, stronger bird that will obey her. Lapis is caring, but aloof. Steven sleeps next to the window, the first night, waiting for the bird’s mom to come home. Eventually, the three gems adopt Susan and raise them together, as mothers. It’s a small, soft story that will leave you smiling and happy.
But the second issue is where the comic takes off, becoming one of the most important stories that has been told with these characters.
In an attempt to see an R-rated movie, Steven and Connie fuse (which is when two people merge into another being) and become Stevonnie … and instead run into their friend Kiki. After a bit of talking and shopping, Stevonnie accidentally agrees to be Kiki’s date at a dance.
That makes this the first time we’ve seen a human from Steven Universe — that is, Kiki Pizza — display queer romantic tendencies. Stevonnie has been typically assumed to be a character of non-binary gender — as opposed to other fusions such as Garnet or Opal, who are Giant Women — but here it’s made undeniable. Perhaps this delicate touch is due to the fact that Melanie Gilman is themself a non-binary person? Either way, it rocks.
At the dance, Stevonnie freaks out after a bit of nervous flirting and rushes to the bathroom (which one? who cares!) to defuse. Stevonnie’s new clothes also defuse, with the stereotypically girly clothes — a pink dress and matching flats — ending up on Steven, with Connie getting the stylish stereotypical menswear — a suit and nice shoes. Steven and Connie sit there, worried, because there’s a chance of Kiki “discovering” that Stevonnie is a fusion.
Their fears about Kiki “finding out” are discussed with the exact same language a trans person would use when discussing their dating fears. Steven and Connie wonder if they should have told Kiki they were a fusion before coming to the dance, wondering if by simply not telling her they had lied, how she’ll react, and basically having a small panic attack. It’s wonderful to see two characters basically dealing with what it’s like to be trans in a kids’ comic. While the show has touched upon it, it takes the comic to finally delve into it.
Eventually though, the two re-fuse, realizing that despite their worries, it’s not actually something they need to be concerned with. They like Kiki, but only as a friend, and then Kiki and Stevonnie dance the night away, as friends.
While Steven Universe the show deals with weighty issues — including consent, rape, and abuse through the guise of fusion — Steven Universe the comic is the first time that any of the younger characters have faced any of those concepts straight on. It’s one thing to discuss the rules of fusion, something people won’t ever have to deal with directly, it’s another thing entirely to discuss what it’s like to deal with the fear that people will see you as other.
For the first time, a piece of Steven Universe media positioned the main character as explicitly trans, and it was wonderful to see. That’s why this comic is the best form of Steven Universe media out there — because it’s Steven Universe unshackled from the restraints of the show and allowed to be as interesting, imaginative, and queer as possible.