Before Rebecca Sugar created the groundbreaking animated series Steven Universe for Cartoon Network, she was a writer and storyboarder on Adventure Time, reportedly heavily responsible for pushing the envelope on that series’ relationships. At the time, she was beginning to plan Steven Universe — and one of the people she consulted for help was Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.
Sugar is one of the many prominent interview subjects in Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters, a documentary currently being pre-sold through Kickstarter. Alongside author Neil Gaiman, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, actor Doug Jones, comics figures Joe Quesada and Vita Ayala, and many more, Sugar discusses how Mignola’s extensive career in comics influenced her work, and discusses his place in her career. From an exclusive clip from the documentary footage, Polygon learned that Sugar credits Mignola with helping out with a key moment in Steven Universe’s early development — and says that his input led directly to Steven’s iconic star T-shirt.
“I was just starting Steven. I was on the pilot. I think I was probably 24 at the time,” Sugar says in video shot for the documentary. “So I pitched him the idea of Steven, and I think the first thing he said was, ‘Are they really going to let you do this?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I wasn’t picked up yet.”
Sugar says she specifically sought out Mignola to ask about ancient goddesses, because she wanted real mythology to help develop Steven Universe’s themes. “[I wanted] something really powerful and all-encompassing,” she says. “And, like, without skipping a beat, he said, ‘Oh, Ishtar, you want Ishtar. She’s the Babylonian goddess of just about everything.’ And he pulled out a book and opened it up to Ishtar… she’s the goddess of love and war and passion and everything.”
Sugar says she also wanted to consult with Mignola about his sense of visual design, which she hoped to reflect in the show. “I was always fascinated with the way that he would use visuals, a reoccurring symbol or of a flower or something carved into the wall,” she says. “There’s something that I love in Mike Mignola’s comics, those moments where you enter a room and there are just these little tiny panels of all of the details in that room that give you that feeling of your peripheral vision, kind of scanning everything and catching on these little objects and items. And you feel the weight of those images. You feel that something is behind it, that it has some sort of power.
“I was really fascinated by that power, the way that something as simple as a flower could have all of this weight to it. When you saw it, you would know that there was something bigger going on, and something deeper and ancient about these visuals and these ideas. I wanted to ask him, how do you get that kind of weight from these visuals? How do you create this feeling of importance? And he said that it was really repetition.”
Sugar says Mignola told her that bringing back the same image at meaningful moments in the story creates a sense that the artist is evoking unseen moments as well. He suggested creating associations between an image and a character — which is how she ended up dressing Steven Universe in a shirt with a star on it.
“That’s where the star comes from,” Sugar says. “He didn’t have any sort of symbol. He just had a pink shirt on. And I started to really think, ‘What kind of symbol do I want to be the symbol of — not just of Stephen, but of this whole show? And what really got me excited about using the star — well, stars [symbolize] Ishtar… stars and lions, both of which became really central to Steven. What I loved about the star and using it everywhere is that: It had to do with space. It had to do with positivity. It’s like the go-to sticker of doing a good job at school.”
Sugar says she was also excited to give Steven a completely gender-neutral symbol, given his transformations throughout the series. She also says Mignola’s advice helped her develop Steven Universe’s repeated imagery around diamonds, which she incorporated into the series long before the audience would understand its significance. “There are things all over the show — when you first go to the sky arena, the four diamonds are there, and the pink one is broken. You know, there’s like little acts that happened offscreen earlier… you know the characters defaced this symbol. It’s really exciting every time I think about what he told me then, how much power you can feel so subtly off of imagery when you’re consistent… I think it’s so cool.”
Reached for comment about what he remembers about meeting with Sugar, Mignola says he was surprised when she reached out. “I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in years,” he says. “I guess I knew that Rebecca had something to do with Adventure Time, but I didn’t know quite what a giant deal Rebecca was. To me, she was just that very sweet and super-talented, very shy kid I used to run into at conventions.”
Mignola says they sat together for hours and talked about her ideas for a new show, “but I never think stuff like that is ever going to actually happen.” He also downplays his importance to the process. “I loaned her a book, and that was it. Then some time later, Steven Universe appeared, and got all kinds of rave reviews. I remember thinking ‘Oh, that must be the thing we were working on at the kitchen table.’ I honestly have no memory of any actual suggestions I made, and I can’t really imagine I added anything important to what was already there. Rebecca is a true genius. I was super-flattered when some time later I saw a video where Rebecca talked about me being involved. I remember my daughter being super-impressed. For a couple of minutes, I was actually a Cool Dad.”
Mignola says he still hasn’t watched Steven Universe, but he remains amazed with the Sugar projects he has seen, including the comic Pug Davis. “It’s brilliant — wonderfully odd, original, and super-fluid,” he says. “Then at some point, there was an animated short I stumbled across. I seem to remember it being an art-school project. It was something with a guy falling and making or trying to eat a sandwich? It’s been years since I’ve seen it.”
“I remember staring at this in stunned amazement,” Mignola says. “Rebecca was doing things there. I just could not wrap my mind around what I was seeing, couldn’t begin to image how a brain like that works. Genius. I know that word gets used a lot, but that’s really the only way I know to describe Rebecca Sugar: genius. Or maybe mad genius, in a good way.”
As of press time, the Kickstarter for Mike Mignola: Drawing Monsters had already achieved more than $200,000 in pledges, starting with a goal of $58,000. The film is planned for a spring 2022 release.