Friday, September 5, 2014

The Marvelous World of Mouse Guard

The first thing you notice about the Mouse Guard graphic novels by David Petersen is how beautiful they are. Yes, the stories are real rip-roaring animal fantasy yarns, but it's the artwork that really pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages. Petersen has a distinctive artistic style, featuring finely-drawn characters and eye-catching, digitally-colored illustrations. It's a style that has won Petersen numerous fans as well as critical accolades, including the prestigious Eisner Award.

 But Petersen's own artistic vision took years to develop, as he told a crowd of Mouse Guard fans gathered recently at my library. "Early on, I tried to emulate other people whose work I liked," Petersen said. "But I was never really happy with the way my things turned out.... I'm not saying that drawing by copying other people's styles is a bad thing -- that's how we all learn.  I'm just talking about slowly shedding the ideas of other people... so you can learn to be you."

In his talk, Petersen talked about his childhood in Flint, Michigan, a city that many think of as urban and gritty. Yet where Petersen grew up, he could be surrounded by woods in a five minutes' walk, something he believes has totally informed his work. Just take a look at any Mouse Guard book and you'll quickly become immersed in what Petersen calls "the natural world."

 As a fine arts major at Eastern Michigan University, Petersen thought he would become a children's book illustrator. At the library program, he showed part of his portfolio, including an illustrated story that he wrote and illustrated called The Mouse and the Cardinal. Petersen joked that he quickly learned that "inter-species love was off-limits in the children's book world."

Another key influence for Petersen was his love and knowledge of role playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons. He loved the games, and he enjoyed the friends he made as he played the games. At the program, he showed a picture of three of his good friends -- all role-playing game buddies -- each of whom has become a character in the Mouse Guard books.

The Mouse Guard books "are silly on the surface," Petersen said. "They're about mice who are walking and talking on their hind legs. But it's not a silly story," he added. And he's right -- the Mouse Guard books comprise a range of literary genres and emotions. While the characters are mice, they are stand-ins for human readers who will readily relate to their fears and joys. It's worth reading Petersen's FAQ on his website to learn more background about Mouse Guard, including this statement: "For David, mice became a perfect representation of being an underdog, having the world stacked against you, and having enemies with all the advantages of size and might."

 So far, there are three main Mouse Guard books written and illustrated by Petersen. He says the first book, Fall 1152, "helps readers learn the characters and their stories." Here's how Petersen describes, on his website, the overall world-building scenario for the series: "... mice struggle to live safely and prosper amongst harsh conditions and a host of predators. Thus the Mouse Guard was formed: more than just soldiers, they are guides for common mice looking to journey without confrontation from one village to another. They see to their duty with fearless dedication so that they may not simply exist, but truly live."

The second book, Winter 1152, is a "character-driven story," Petersen said. School Library Journal noted that the book "follows the darkening adventures of the brave troops of the Mouse Guard as they battle the elements, predators, and even other mice in order to secure their way of life. The high-quality artwork found in the first volume carries over into this one." Their final verdict: "Combining a tale of action, romance, comedy, and tragedy with the graphic-novel format results in a top-notch work with wide appeal."

 All of this intricate artwork and story-telling takes time, however. As Petersen told the library crowd: "It was taking me so long to get going on the third book, that I decided to do a spin-off of the series called Legends of the Mouse Guard." Petersen's idea was that he would ask other graphic novelists to contribute stories that members of the Mouse Guard might have told in the local tavern, adding that "I draw the bar scenes." So far, two of these Legends books have been published "and we're about to start on a third volume." Petersen particularly likes to spotlight talented new graphic novelists in these books, as a way to giving back to the community that helped him get his start.

Last year, Petersen published The Black Axe,  the third volume in the Mouse Guard series. "It's a prequel," he said, adding that it is set about 40 years before Fall 1152. This November, he will published another Mouse Guard book, Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales. That book will be a mix of four stories that he wrote for Free Comic Book Day, plus two new tales.

One of Peterson's models for the Mouse Guard books.
Petersen has done other things besides the Mouse Guard books, including doing illustrations for the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. But it's in the Mouse Guard books that he really can show his prodigious artistic talents, as well as his attention to detail. Petersen wowed the library crowd when he showed slides of the models that he builds -- from cardboard, mainly -- of buildings, ships and other locations that are featured in the books.

 Overall, Petersen's talk was a hit with our library audience, which included both kids and adults.  One young reader asked Petersen during the Q&A why the mice often wear cloaks in his books. The audience loved Petersen's answer: "I had no idea what mice anatomy would look like if mice stood on their hind legs. So I just wrapped a bunch of fabric around them."

Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Mouse Guard books, and Petersen's publisher, Archaia Comics, will be putting out what Petersen calls an "over-sized" collection of his art from the books. Petersen also plans to begin working on a fourth Mouse Guard book about the Weasel War of 1149, something referenced in the other volumes. Clearly, Petersen has plenty more Mouse Guard stories to tell -- good news for all of his fans!

Note: thanks to Dave Burbank, a library assistant and the graphic novel guru at my library. You can read more about Petersen's work on Dave's Comics blog. Also thanks to Esther Kim of Fantom Comics in Washington, D.C. who brought copies of Petersen's books to sell to eager fans.

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