Review: ‘Steven Universe’ is a gem

Rebecca Sugar — who is already a star in the world of people who love “Adventure Time,” for which she has been a storyboard artist and writer and composer — has her own cartoon series now. It’s very good.

Titled “Steven Universe,” it premieres Monday on Cartoon Network. It’s the first CN series from a solo female creator — which doesn’t put that network behind the rest of the world, especially. With a few rule-proving exceptions, animation was a sexually segregated industry for many decades, relegating women to the ink-and-paint department. There were noted outsiders, such as Faith Hubley and Sally Cruikshank, animating in the days of yore, but you will not exhaust your fingers and toes counting them. Things are changing, but it’s still mostly dudes running the show.

Steven (Zach Callison) is a chubby boy of indeterminate preteen age who seems to live in the custody of but also fights alongside three universe-defending superwomen, the Crystal Gems: Garnet (the British R&B singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno). Each is embedded with a magical, mystical jewel that confers distinct special powers.

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In their sisterly disagreements and color-coded contrasting personalities, there is a rough resemblance to their CN grandmothers, the Powerpuff Girls (Pearl = Blossom/mind, Amethyst = Bubbles/spirit, Garnet = Buttercup/body). As with that and many other series nowadays, the comedy and the action are equally important.


Steven has a gem of his own, seemingly inherited from his mother, a rose quartz he wears in his navel but can’t reliably control. His mother is out of the picture; she “gave up her physical form to bring you into the world,” Steven’s human father, Greg (Tom Scharpling), tells him. Greg, a failed pop musician who lives in his van, is regarded by the Crystal Gems with a rueful tolerance, as toward a hapless in-law.

The series is set in a coastal burg called Beach City, based on the mid-Atlantic vacation spots of Sugar’s youth. The backgrounds (by Sugar’s younger brother, Steven Sugar, a partial model for his cartoon namesake) have a loose, hand-drawn look, and there are some effective evocations of changing light. The overall design — which streamlines that of an earlier pilot and I think improves upon it — betrays that combination of American-historical and Japanese influences that is the aesthetic mother’s milk of every comic artist and animator younger than 40.

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Is there anything particularly female about the series? I suppose so, in the way that there’s something “female” about Tina Weymouth’s bass playing or Jane Freilicher’s still lifes, and because art reflects everything that makes the artist. There may be more salmon and violet in the palette than usual; possibly the emotional notes are more delicately and naturally struck than in, say, “Phineas and Ferb,” to hazard a couple of stereotypes. The important point is that more diversity among animators means more diverse cartoons.

And Sugar’s good at this stuff — which is all that really counts.


‘Steven Universe’

Where: TOON

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)