Steven Universe:

What is The Answer?

It’s funny how something called “The Answer” are two artistic and emotional pathways that ultimately lead to the same place. Then again, perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is quite fitting. In my last article on Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe A Myth of Love and Metals, I focused a lot on the concept of Gem Fusion: when two or more sentient Gems from the series fuse and become another being entirely. At one point, I even touched upon the fact that a Gem Fusion in Steven Universe perceives and experiences reality differently than those beings who remain separate individuals. And while this is explored in the episode “Mindful Education,” it is first introduced in an episode called “The Answer” through the story of Garnet.

Garnet is the central focus of “The Answer.” She is the first Fusion to which we, as the audience, are introduced: even if it wasn’t made blatantly obvious until “Jail Break.” She is also a very fitting symbol of just what “The Answer” can represent. Garnet is composed of two Gems: Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby and Sapphire each have their own narratives before arriving on that fateful day in Blue Diamond’s Court on Earth over five thousand years ago. And just as Rubies and Sapphires are different from one another in expressing their sentience, so too are the different media used to portray “The Answer”: its form as a television cartoon episode, and an illustrated children’s book. Separately they are impressive and they break the rules and conventions of cultural mores and tropes on their own, but it is also clear that they are one very united story.

The television episode, written and storyboarded by Lamar Abrams and Katie Mitroff and animated by Byung Ki Lee, came first of course. It is Episode 22 of Steven Universe Season Two: where we finally hear the story of how Garnet came to be, and what led her to the Crystal Gems. Since the episode aired on January 4, 2016 there have no doubt been many reviews and write-ups on its content and success. This is similar to The Answer children’s book written and adapted by Rebecca Sugar herself, and illustrated by Elle Michalka and Tiffany Ford back on September 6, 2016. As such, I’m not sure if I have anything particularly novel to add to the discussion of the story’s plot but I think that “The Answer” can benefit from some comparison between how it is portrayed between different forms of media.

Let me just say: this is not a comparison and contrast. If anything, I am tempted to state that this article will be more like a comparison and complement: to see the similarities and differences of the episode and the book, while also illustrating just how they work and interact with one another.

“The Answer” begins framed as a story that Garnet tells Steven at midnight on his birthday. It is interesting to note that when she speaks Ruby or Sapphire’s dialogue, the voices of their actresses – and Charlyne Yi and Erica Luttrell respectively – are distinct, as are those of Estelle’s Garnet, Deedee Magno-Hall’s Pearl, and Susan Egan’s Rose Quartz. However, the voices of the other Gems and Blue Diamond do not have their own actresses and are narrated by Garnet instead. We find out that Homeworld, by request of Blue Diamond, has sent Sapphire on “a diplomatic mission” to help her stop Rose’s Rebellion. We see Sapphire with three Ruby guards: including the Ruby who will eventually become her Fusion and romantic partner.

The animation is crisp and clear. It is colourful and the basic shapes and angles of the Gems come to the fore. Even the shadows of other Gems, in the Court, are distinct and convey their emotional expressions clearly in said basic shapes. Of course, we get to see the Rubies jostle each other and bicker, as they are apparently prone to do, and our Ruby – the one we have seen from “Jail Break” and onward – is accidentally pushed into Sapphire. At this moment, they are superior and subordinate and in that order, but Sapphire is forgiving and lets it go. It is at this point, however, that this incidental contact will lead to something a lot more down the line. Sapphire knows her duty and reports what she foresees will happen to Blue Diamond: that other Gem guards will be defeated by the Rebels, and that one Ruby will survive to see Sapphire “poofed” – or physically vanquished back into her Gem – which will allow Blue Diamond to capture the Rebels and end the Rebellion. Sapphire, as a precognitive Gem, can see the greatest probabilities and the angles of her fate, while Ruby believes that she just there as a Ruby to continue following orders for the rest of her existence.

Except we all know by this point that something changed. Something happened. Someone was spontaneous and changed not only her fate, but that of her former mistress. Can you imagine it? Think about it: you think you know how the world works, what your place in it is like, what your future is going to be, and what you are and then something completely random and unplanned happens which completely changes your life and how you view yourself forever. Many humans would call that life.

What really gives further dimension to Ruby and Sapphire’s situation, and their beautiful cotton-candy Proto-Garnet Fusion, is the slow pacing of them figuring it out through breathtaking landscapes accompanied by the episode’s soundtracks crafted by Aivi & Surasshu, and Jeff Ball and vocalized by Yi and Luttrell. It’s funny. America itself has a long-standing tradition of musicals, but that has changed over the years. I know that musicals and music sequences in a show or a film feel like something of a novelty or an extravagance, something that can become oddly wincing and cringing at times. They are not as commonplace now as they were and they often get regulated into specifically Broadway Productions or children’s shows.

But I think the reason why at least I’ve had those reactions is because of just how powerful music truly is: how it imitates a mood affecting a person’s life and actions. It is powerful because it shows vulnerability and a seeming openness that can sometimes be painful to watch because it can cut through a sense of adult cynicism and jadedness: leaving you feeling over-exposed and sensitive. I know when I watch Steven Universe even now, I have to fight that ingrained discomfort but that the pay-off, the sharing of emotions which can be best be done through sound and music, is completely worth it especially as music and singing are literally a part of the fabric of this universe.

It is particularly Rebecca Sugar’s own “Something Entirely New” that follows the two Gems and personifies their exploration into this new world they’ve run into, their own tentative, tender budding relationship and who and what they are now. It is in this song that we find out that Sapphire has never Fused before, while it is intimated that Ruby has done so with her fellow Rubies. The ghostly stirrings of “Stronger Than You” amongst other tracks bring a welling in your chest as the two Gems finally decide to Fuse against after meandering through this strange and ethereal forest, on this odd but liberating planet of organic life on which they’ve found themselves.

Then, after a clumsy navigation where she trips and tumbles down a hill, the newly reformed Garnet gets reacquainted with Pearl and Rose Quartz: who become their new allies. Then the flashback story ends and it is another exchange with Steven that the answer to Garnet’s questions about Sapphire, Ruby, and who she is reaffirmed: in that she is the product and continuing process of love. Steven says he knew this and Garnet replies that she knew that he knew this: which is ironic, as when she asked those questions of Rose Quartz when they first met as allies, Rose also knew but thought what Garnet felt was far more important.

Rebecca Sugar’s The Answer is quite similar to the television episode in that they come from the same place while, at the same time, they fill different spaces. Elle Michalka and Tiffany Ford bring a pastel shading and water-colour aesthetic to the work while, in conjunction with Rebecca Sugar, they make some very interesting page layouts. However, the best way to describe the structure of The Answer is to look at how Rebecca Sugar tells its story.

Unlike “The Answer” episode, Steven isn’t featured in this book. The story is not about him, even though it takes place in his universe, if you will pardon the pun. While you can look at “The Answer” episode and see it as another form of diversity, another story to tell, if you go far enough into reading The Answer without Steven there you can almost see the book appealing specifically towards a female space: particularly children. In fact, one strength that Steven Universe itself possesses, and has been noted by a great many others, is that it expresses its messages of acceptance and plurality without being preachy: by telling stories about aliens and cartoon characters who are nevertheless all people.

So The Answer is pretty much solely about Garnet: or, rather, about Sapphire and Ruby and eventually Garnet. As has been pointed out before, the book itself starts off much like an unpaginated Little Golden Book hardcover: complete with a silver spine with an emblem of Steven Universe and an internal page that is the same. It has an almost vintage fairytale storybook feel and the narrative matches it.

The events of 5,750 years ago continue in a simple and “once upon a time” fashion. We get a nice and simplified version of the background story: of the conquering Gem species and the Rebel Rose Quartz that opposed them. But here is where things are already interesting and different from the television episode. Usually a children’s storybook is essentially an illustrated text: with the images being more prevalent and generally set above the words of the story, or the information being conveyed. What we have here is something, fittingly enough, of a hybrid form. There is a mainline story being told by a third-person narrator, and there are clear divisions of images on the page, but above and below the majority of the pages are the characters of Sapphire and Ruby commentating in dialogue bubbles on the events that occur: surrounded by vines of flowers, and the gems that are their namesakes.

Essentially, The Answer is something of an illustrated text and comics piece of mixed media. To me, it’s actually reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s “Winter’s Tale” in Issue #20 of Miracleman: illustrated by Mark Buckingham, colour art by D’Israeli and lettered by Todd Klein. That work exists in the centre of a comic and most operates as an illustrated text placed there, a story-within-a-story but sometimes you see interjections of dialogue bubbles and even panels from the children Mist and Glen as their mother Rachel reads it to them.

The Answer, however, begins as an illustrated children’s book but as time goes on it changes. It starts with Sapphire observing the events on the top of the pages as if they are still going on and predicting the story to be a short one. She warns, presumably, the reader on page five that if they don’t like “scary and sad” stories they should not read on, even as Ruby on the bottom pages is trying to figure out what is actually going on. We also see the two Gems interact from the top and bottom parts of the page layout, benefiting their ranks, but while Sapphire acts as though she has read this story before – and she thinks she has – Ruby is surprised by the turn of events, and this emotion is what changes everything from the top down.

There are already a few meta-fictional winks here: especially with Sapphire referring to the readers, and then making statements, such as the one on page six, along the lines of “Only five pages left.” It is actually about five pages in, from pages six to seven, at the point where Sapphire says there are supposedly five more to go that that panels actually begin to appear in the illustrations representing Sapphire’s own precognitive visions of how the Gems would be defeated, she would be vanquished and the Rebels caught: and all of these panels are in a diamond shape. Even afterwards, on the next two or three pages – from pages eight, nine and ten – when the panels are gone, you can see a series of sequential events of these exact moments happening… until they don’t.

You see, at the same time as Sapphire’s visions, and the actions occurring on the main segments on the pages, Ruby begins to rebel against Sapphire’s own fatalistic commentary: her meta-narrative. From her place below, she calls out to herself on the main page to “Do something.” And then, she does. On page eleven you get to see both Gems look in stunned silence, without words, as a three-eyed black-haired Garnet is made for the first time.

After a while, it comes clear that the character interactions taking centre stage – ironically enough considering it is a queer or LGBTQ+ narrative – on the margins of the pages. As an interesting aside, the Haida visual and comics artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, focuses in particular on the subject of the comics gutter: that white space between panels in a sequential page layout and how it is not an empty place to be exploited in a colonial sense nor taken for granted. In many of his own works, in what could be interpreted as a post-colonial act he fills “the gutters” with meaningful content that interacts with the main sequences occurring in the main body of the graphic narrative. A prime example of his work is called Red: A Haida Manga.

Yet while Rebecca Sugar and her collaborators do not to my knowledge utilize Haida or First Nations aesthetics, and have a clearer panelling and segmentation at work in contrast to Yahugulanaas with wider gutters, you can see a similar principle at work. Many of the lines that Sapphire and Ruby tell each other on the show, after they flee Blue Diamond’s Court, are exchanged from their positions above and below each other on the pages. This interaction of hierarchy, or hegemony and their deconstruction comes to the fore on pages eighteen and nineteen as Ruby seeks to comfort a confused Sapphire over her broken narrative, who states that “This book is supposed to be over already! This page shouldn’t even exist.”

Perhaps I recalled Yahugulanaas, whose work and words were introduced to me through a friend, because of the post-colonial resonance I get from The Answer. I mean, here are two members of a species that colonizes and mines other worlds for the Greater Diamond Authority, thinking they know their places in that society, finding themselves on the run through beyond a narrative dictated to them by their leaders and their castes, and discovering that the Earth itself is not in fact – as Yahugulanaas would state – a literal Terra nullius: “nobody’s land” to conquered.

Ruby tells Sapphire, on page nineteen, to throw something down to her so she can join her above: to which Sapphire, originally the higher ranking and different form of Gem, obeys and takes a piece of the gutters, of the vine frame around her to let Ruby climb upwards on page twenty-one. On page twenty-two, Ruby looks around Sapphire’s space and remarks “Wow. Everything looks different from up here.” But it is Sapphire who looks at the space that Ruby vacated below and tells her that “your old spot is empty.” It is Sapphire who suggests that they jump down, to Ruby’s spot, together on page twenty-three. You can’t really get more romantic than a mutual and agreed upon exchange of power dynamics: especially in how Sapphire holds Ruby’s hands as she hovers them down on page twenty-four past their main narrative of exploring the waters together.

By the time we get to page twenty-five, the two of them are looking around and when Sapphire states “Wow, it feels so different down here,” Ruby replies “Yeah, I guess I never noticed it before.” Sapphire is no longer looking down on Ruby from her place of privilege in which she was made. And now Ruby realizes from her previous spot above just where she had been in their mutual narrative – the one made by the Greater Diamond Authority – and where she usually acts, she now genuinely thinks because of her exposure to Sapphire: just as Sapphire acts instead of over-analyzing because of the influence of Ruby.

It becomes telling that, on page twenty-six, the upper space where Sapphire resided – isolated, alone, bored, and afraid – is gone and the panels below become organic and fluid as the two Gems dance together as they would have in the show with their musical score and these two pages – twenty-six and twenty-seven – completely embrace the two-page spreads happening since the escape and sojourn of the two Gems. Ruby and Sapphire have explored their places and have chosen a more grounded existence where they can build a new life, literally, together. In the end, on page twenty-six, we see Ruby and Sapphire below for the last time. Ruby tells Sapphire “Hey, I’m really sorry I ruined your story,” to which Sapphire replies “I like this version better! I didn’t know we could just… change to whatever we wanted.”

It is after this moment that there are no more gutters, no more spaces, or the lines separating the main narrative and the gutters expand and on page twenty-seven we see the full figure – unconstrained by surprise or fear – of Garnet. And then, on pages twenty-eight and twenty-nine the bottom gutter space returns with Garnet, a colourful, cotton-candy haired Garnet, standing there in place of Ruby and Sapphire: their perfect union, their important process. Finally, after she interacts with Pearl and Rose Quartz on these two pages, on page thirty we see the three them walk off together in a beautiful red sunset with the answer to Garnet’s question about her existence: love.

Earlier in this article, I speculated on how the mind of a Fusion might work. I also referred to the fact that Garnet was the perfect metaphor for “The Answer.” While the show animates the story of Ruby and Sapphire well, and displays it for all audiences through its identification point of Steven, I feel as though Rebecca Sugar’s The Answer does something far more complex and, as far as I can, also in twos. I feel as though The Answer shows you the inside of Garnet’s mind: illustrating, quite literally, how the regimented separate nature and duties of Ruby and Sapphire began to melt away into compromises, mutual sacrifices, and eventually lush curved panels, lines, colour, and unity. At the same time, it also serves to portray the inside of a mind that perceives time differently considering how the part of her who is Sapphire can see the future and the present as a script that has happened, but due to Ruby know that it is still happening and therefore important.

But The Answer is more than just an attempt by Rebecca Sugar and her collaborators to show us how a precognitive consciousness and fourth-dimensional sense of fourth wall perception works. It is created specifically for children, using characters who are identified by female pronouns, showing them how scary and wonderful it can be to realize that you do not fit the narrative of society’s expectations, that you can find someone special, and create a truly unique life together. It makes me think about the fact that many young girls, perhaps queer or LGBTQ+ girls, will read this book and it may become part of their formative experience growing up: a story of their coming of age or the beginning of awareness. Somehow, that just makes this artistic creation even more worthwhile.

Yet one major thing that both “The Answer” and The Answer have in common, despite how differently they depict the same message in complementary media, is Garnet herself. It occurs to me that Garnet is an almost perpetual Fusion. She rarely ever separates, due to the strength of love between Ruby and Sapphire, and there seems to be no one like her: not just because she is made of two separate kinds of Gems, but because even among the Crystal Gems Fusions rarely ever last as long as Garnet’s existence.  And just as there has possibly never been anything, and certainly not anyone like Garnet she can recognize that there never been anyone or anything like Steven Universe and that is why in the show we see the story through her telling it to him: from one Fusion to another. Certainly, and as such from what I’ve seen there has not been anything like Steven Universe: no matter how it chooses to tell its stories, or rather because of the different ways that it does. These are at least two pathways to the same place in “The Answer,” their gutters full of interaction, and that space in their mutual centre is love.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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