She-Ra’s showrunner on villains, heroes, and the show’s controversial design

Noelle Stevenson has had a whirlwind career, and like so many other young artists these days, it started online. In 2012, while still a student in art school, she started Nimona, a goofy webcomic about medieval knights, mad science, and a hero-villain duo whose picture book rivalry was complicated by the introduction of a shape-changing teenager with a taste for havoc.

Three years later, Nimona was a complete story, a dark, tragic fantasy published by HarperCollins that had a vocal and enthusiastic online fandom. Stevenson had graduated from college, interned at the comics company Boom! Studios Comics, co-created the ongoing Lumberjanes comic series, then moved into television writing, most notably on Craig McCracken’s animated series Wander Over Yonder.

Given that rapid progression, it’s no surprise to see Stevenson suddenly surfacing as the showrunner of her own series, Netflix’s reboot of the fantasy cartoon She-Ra: Princess of Power. The original series, which launched in 1985 as a companion to the Mattel-backed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, features a princess named Adora who transforms into the heroine She-Ra to fight the evil Horde.

Stevenson’s modern update, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, just launched on Netflix, and it changes the dynamic of the original considerably. For one thing, much of the first season focuses on setup and relationship-building, particularly the connection between Adora and the feline humanoid Catra. The two young women grew up together as child soldiers in a military compound called the Fright Zone, which is ruled by Lord Hordak.

When Adora learns that her people are ruthless conquerors who’ve lied to her about the magical princesses who oppose them, she defects to the Rebellion, and with the help of a magical sword, she becomes the superpowered guardian She-Ra. I recently spoke with Stevenson about her new She-Ra show, its origins and designs (including the vocal positive and negative opinions about it), and her thoughts on some of the 1980s characters that haven’t turned up in the reboot yet — but still might.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did this come together? Who went to whom with the initial idea to reboot She-Ra?

DreamWorks acquired the rights to She-Ra a couple years ago, and one of the development executive at DreamWorks, Beth Cannon, had been a huge fan of She-Ra as a kid. Seeing that DreamWorks had the rights to that property, she was really interested in finding someone to develop it. She was a fan of my work, Nimona and Lumberjanes, in the comics realm, and she reached out with an interest in me pitching my take on this series. So I came up with a pitch, I wrote a pilot and the show bible. And, eventually, I became the showrunner and began developing the show for DreamWorks.

What did that initial pitch look like? How much did it look like what we’re seeing on-screen now?

It’s very close to the original vision. I had a meeting with Beth initially, before I pitched it, and she laid out her hopes and dreams for the property, the things she loved about the original, and the things she wanted to see that would be different. She wanted to see different body types. She wanted deepened relationships, and emotional stories that would carry over multiple episodes. That was what I took away from that initial meeting, and that was what I really set out to explore.

My pitch focused very, very heavily on the characters because that’s always been the main course of the Masters of the Universe world. The bible is almost entirely laying out the characters: who they are, what they want, what they’re about, and how they relate to each other. And then there’s also a good deal of world-building: laying out the lore, the big arcs, the endgame, and what this world is about. That was something I focused heavily on, trying to paint these broad strokes for the show.

The first season is a “getting the band back together” story for the Rebellion, and it doesn’t focus nearly as much on the Horde. Do you have an overall plan, a series of arcs in mind?

Yes, yes. There are a lot of big arcs coming up, and I’m really excited about them. So, you know, the first 13 episodes are just really setting a lot of that up. I’m really excited for viewers to get into the later arcs.

You focus intimately on Catra and Shadow Weaver, but you don’t get into the Horde back bench the way you get into the Rebellion members. Is that part of what’s coming up, or do you want to keep the Horde side about a few specific people?

We’re keeping Hordak at arm’s length for the first chunk of episodes, but it doesn’t mean that’s the overall plan for him. It’s more about a slow rolling out of increasingly more dangerous villainous threats. Because Adora came from the Horde — she was raised there, this is her home and family — she’s not that different from many of the people there. I think Masters of the Universe has always been about the villains as much as it is about the heroes. It’s about their hubris, their ambition, their greed, but something always felt very human about them. So that was really something I wanted to explore.

This is almost a two-hander. The villains are almost a dual-protagonist in this series. There are times when you don’t want them to win because they’re doing terrible things. But there are times when you can forget that and start to root for them without realizing it. So that was something I had a huge interest in doing.

By the end of the season, you’ve got Catra and Adora in a classic co-dependent emotional hero / villain relationship, the kind of Batman / Joker thing where they both created and shaped each other. Did you look to any specific past inspirations in building that connection?

I am a sucker for this type of relationship. It’s showed up in a lot of my work. The idea of two people who are tied together by their experiences, but also have some key differences that push them tragically down different paths, is very interesting to me. I’ve always loved the nemesis relationship. I think there’s a lot of the DNA of a relationship like Clark Kent and Lex Luthor from Smallville in here. I grew up on that and really love that.

There are a lot of relationships like that in comics, in general. These people who mean the world to each other and hate each other but love each other, and it’s all wrapped up together. It’s a really confusing bundle, and I love it.

You had a similar relationship at the heart of your comic Nimona between the protagonist and antagonist, and your fandom had such a profound emotional reaction to their interactions. Was that part of the impetus to keep exploring this style of connection?

I think it’s less, “Oh, people responded well to this,” and more that Nimona was exactly the story I wanted to tell. I set out with an independent comic to tell stories only with characters and dynamics that appealed to me. So having the response to it be as big as it was, was great. But it still was a story that was very personal to me. This is exploring a slightly different take on a similar dynamic because that dynamic is so interesting to me.

There’s also a personal connection for you here in the LBGTQ content of the story. Has the success of series like Steven Universe and Adventure Time made DreamWorks more comfortable with tropes like a mostly female cast and deep, emotional connections between women? Even leaving aside gay relationships, animation companies have been very leery in the past about even having a lot of female characters.

Absolutely every show that has made strides in LGBT representation makes it easier for shows that come after. So we owe a huge debt to Steven Universe for showing that you can have a cast of majority women, a bigger mythology, a space-opera epic feel, and explicit LGBT themes. You can point to that and say, “This can appeal to audiences. Trust me, I can make this work.”

It always helps to have other people who’ve come before us blazing that trail. So I definitely feel we owe a huge debt to all the shows that have come before us because it’s never an easy trail to blaze, but it’s an important one. And every step we take, it just gets us all a little bit closer.

The characters in your She-Ra are younger than they were in the original, which feels like it could be a statement about your intended audience. But it also feels like they’re more of an age where they’re trying to figure out their identities. What went into that decision?

A lot of it felt very natural because it’s built around Adora’s story, and Adora’s choice to leave the Horde and become a hero. She’s very sheltered. She hasn’t even left the Fright Zone before. It seems like she’s on the cusp, on the border between being a teenager and being an adult. And this is the choice she has to make, about what person she’s going to be when she sets out into the world.

That felt like a story that needed a slightly younger protagonist. It’s ambiguous in the original show how old Adora is. She looks a little older, but typically, this assumes she’s in her early 20s. Our Adora isn’t super young, but she’s a little closer to her teen years. It felt like the right age for her, 17 or 18 years old, when you’re leaving home for the first time, going out into the world. You’re studying the ideologies of the people who raised you, and figuring out what your own ideologies are. Adora goes through that, and all of the other characters are also going through something similar.

One of the big changes here from the original is that She-Ra’s identity isn’t a secret. Most people know it’s Adora, and it isn’t a big source of angst and drama. Why did you make that choice?

Originally, the first pitch I did, I did have the secret identity in there. But it was hard to make that work, short of having the sword have some sort of power that caused people to not recognize her. It raised a lot of issues. For example, she carries this sword around with her. Why does no one recognize that it’s the same sword She-Ra has?

On the original show, there was a lot of like, “Oh, I’ll be right back!” “Oh, it’s me, She-Ra. How’s everything going?” “Hey, where’s Adora?” “She’s fine, don’t worry about it!” I also wondered why she didn’t bring her best friends, Bow and Glimmer, into that either. At the end of the day, it was a little hard to make that work. This way, it feels as though we could get more honest character reactions about She-Ra. Without making the secret identity so literal, I do think there’s a little of that dual identity for her, and the characters respond to Adora and She-Ra differently, even though it’s though it’s the same person.

 Image: Netflix

What have you made of the online resistance to the character designs?

It wasn’t totally a surprise to me. I came from comics, where there’s an almost constant outcry over this sort of thing. Characters are constantly being rebooted, and fans are constantly resisting those changes. So it’s very familiar to me in a lot of ways. And we really are taking the characters in a different direction. She’s a very iconic character. She’s very recognizable.

The resistance to our version is the same kind of resistance we’re seeing to the fact that we have character designs with diverse body types, with characters of all ethnicities. That is something I think fans need to enter the show understanding and appreciating because it’s not something we’re going to compromise.

But most of what I’ve been seeing has been really positive: the fan art, the cosplay I’ve seen already, the people reaching out to me. I’ve seen very little of the backlash in my personal online existence, which is really great. So I think the people who see something in it that they think they might enjoy have given it a shot and enjoyed it. And some people who say it’s not for them, it’s not for them.

What was the design phase like for the show? What sort of instructions did you give your artists in fleshing out this world?

We started out by hiring a bunch of illustrators who I found inspirational, to have them go crazy with designs and just push them as far as they could to find something cool and unexpected. We got a lot of really cool stuff back from that. And it opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t really considered.

One artist who actually works as a board artist on the show now, Mickey Quinn, drew a version of Catra that was smaller and more slight of frame. And that was something I never considered. It was like, “She was a femme fatale in the original, of course she’ll be a femme fatale now.” And this version was like, “Oh, what happens if she’s not? What happens if she’s just this sort of scrawny scrapper? That changes things, and it’s more interesting.”

 Image: Netflix

With Adora, we went through a lot of like, “She is very practical, very buttoned-up in her own personal style. She likes fighting. She’s very straightforward. She doesn’t have a lot of ornamentation, or even personality, in the way she presents herself. Her ponytail’s just up-and-back, very straightforward.”

So when she becomes She-Ra, what are the things that both reflect her personality and make Adora uncomfortable? So we have the glitzy details, the crown, the flowing hair, the gold and the shiny and the skirt. But then we also have a few more military details, like the racing stripe on the shorts. The buttoned-up top. We didn’t want to make her so totally uncomfortable that it didn’t feel like Adora at all anymore, even though it is her more femme alter ego.

So the design phase was really about opening it up to our artists and just having them push the envelope as much, And then, within that, homing in on ideas and concepts that were interesting to us and developing those. Obviously, there were a lot of eyes on it, so I went through a lot of rounds of notes and tweaks and changes to end up with the characters you see in the show.

Given some of the weirder characters you’ve revived, do you have plans for any of the really out-there goofy stuff, like Loo-Kee and Kowl?

There’s definitely less of that in this show. There are a lot of different influences in the original show — it feels like half a sci-fi action show, and half a princess fantasy show, and then half… that’s too many halves! And it was too many halves! With the comic relief characters like Madame Razz, we tried to find a version of them that fit a little bit more. But some characters just didn’t seem to fit into our world. However, there are still a lot more characters to meet in later seasons, so I think viewers should stay tuned for those.

Season 1 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is on Netflix now.