The idea of a comic book centering around anthropomorphic mice living in a medieval society might sound like a killer logline for a children’s movie, but the premise of David Petersen’s Eisner Award-winning Mouse Guard series is anything but kiddie fare. With a richly detailed world, complex characters and gorgeous storybook art, Archaia’s Mouse Guard is one of the best titles out there. The finale to prequel series Mouse Guard: The Black Axe drops today, so we caught up with the “Moustermind” himself, David Petersen, to talk about design influences, learning from mistakes, and what’s next for the Mouse Guard universe.
Nerdist: Tell us about the genesis of Mouse Guard and how it’s evolved over the past 7 years. I know that this title had been germinating for a long time before that, too.
David Petersen: Mouse Guard started in high school with the idea of combining animal stories like Wind in the Willows and Disney’s Robin Hood with the D&D adventures my friends and I were playing. Back then it had a wider cast of species as characters, and being only 16, I didn’t get very far with it before some other project, homework, or pastime caught my attention. In college, I dusted off the idea again, but decided to make it a bit more like Aesop’s Fables where the animals were actual animals rather than animal heads on human-like bodies. Each species was meant to have a different culture and mice would be the smallest of these and bears the largest. I soon realized that if those varied species interacted much, there would be slaughter… especially of something like mice, who eat only grain and are very small. Because that felt like the heart of a good story, I pushed everything else to the background and focused solely on the mice.
The only evolution since then (and the first issue) has been to try and improve as a writer and artist. The visuals and words have changed with each volume, hopefully all for the better.
N: What drew me to this comic was its similarities to Brian Jacque’s wonderful Redwall series, but you managed to take those children’s books sensibilities and make them compelling for an adult audience. Were you at all inspired by those books?
DP: In a way, I was counter-inspired. Around the time I decided to make the mice the sole focus on my tales (and started doing the first drawings and written notes for Saxon and Kenzie) a friend of mine handed me the first Redwall book saying, “You will love this book!” And I did enjoy it very much. So much, that I figured I had very little new to add to that genre of story. So I shelved Mouse Guard for 9 years before starting work on it again. In those 9 years, I graduated college, worked full-time jobs and got married, so I’d grown up a bit more and felt that I might have a different take than Brian did on the same type of material. I made some very conscious decisions to take deliberately different paths than the Redwall books tread down, and only because Brian did them so well, I could only hope of being a second-best at what he did.
N: One of the things that stands out about Mouse Guard is its distinctive art style. What inspired the visual design of the world of Mouse Guard?
DP: In high school and even in college, my attempts at drawing comics were always about me trying to emulate the artists I admired: Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Jim Lee, etc. The problem with emulation is that unless it just inspires you to do something on your own, you are always at a loss for how to draw something new until you see that other artists do something similar first. I started drawing Mouse Guard seriously at a time when I was figuring out how to draw like myself (I did a blog post all about this subject a while back). Mouse Guard is drawn in a way that I feel comfortable with, so that I can draw it without needing to reference other artists and also in a way that suits the story. I want there to be some grit and wear in the world they inhabit.
DP: In the Fall and Winter series, I introduced a character, Celanawe (Khell-ehn-awe), who both wields and is called “The Black Axe.” I built up the mythology of him, the weapon and its creation in those volumes, and even had the character pass the torch (both title and weapon) to a younger mouse. The Black Axe series is a prequel story, where I show how Celanawe first put paw to the axe, and I unravel some of the myth behind the weapon’s past. It’s a quest story with a blend of background history and high adventure. I wanted the weight of what the axe represents and where it’s been to factor into any future stories with the new Black Axe wielder.
N: The Black Axe is wrapping up with issue #6. What’s next for the Mouse Guard universe? Will we see more prequels? Will we finally see the Weasel War?
DP: We will be collecting the Black Axe issues into a nice hardcover collection with more extras than ever before (maps, guide pages, cutaways). After that, another round of Legends of the Guard, the spinoff anthology series, with guest contributors telling the tall tales and legends of the Mouse Guard world: We have Stan Sakai, Rick Geary, Cory Godbey, Ben Caldwell, C. P. Wilson III, Bill Willingham, and others turning in pages for those issues. The next series I’ll get to will be a prequel, the Weasel War, set 3 years before the Fall 1152 book, this tells the story of the mouse war with the weasels, what was lost, what was preserved, and how it all came to be. But I may need a very short mouse-break before I tackle that epic.
N: Well, that sounds like a pretty full dance card. Has there been any movement on the long-rumored Mouse Guard film? What if I said “please”?
DP: I wish saying please could make a difference. Unfortunately, the deal I’ve spoken about in the past fell through when the contract was on the table. I’d still love to see Mouse Guard on the big screen as an epic CG animated film that is accessible to kids without watering down the content so that adults will still enjoy it. I also am rather protective of Mouse Guard as a property, so I’m not willing to make a quick deal just to get a film made… I want it done properly. And while a movie or a series of movies could be great, I’d rather use my books as the main method of getting the story delivered to fans anyhow. (With that said, I have found a new ideal casting for Celanawe’s voice in Jim Carter from Downton Abbey)
N: Oh god, Mr. Carson would make a killer Celanawe. You’re very talented as both a storyteller and an illustrator. Do you find that you prefer wearing one hat over the other? Is one more challenging for you?
DP: Thank you. They are all challenging and easy in their own way. The art duties can also be broken down into wearing the hat of a penciler, inker, and colorist. I suppose some of it comes down to the grass being greener… when I’m penciling and having to think about layout and readability and leaving room for text and tangents, I find myself longing for the duties of coloring or inking, and the same is true when doing those tasks. Ultimately I’m most at ease with inking. It’s a blend of drawing and thinking and being spontaneous, but after all the heavy lifting is done. Writing is something that is growing on me, though. I’m even working up the nerve to do some of it, solely for its own sake rather than as a script for something I’ll draw.
N: What’s something that you know now in your career that you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
DP: I don’t know. Most of what I know now that benefits me is what I gained through the experience of doing it… learning to draw better, write better, fill plot holes better when I make a mistake. But I never would have learned that if I didn’t do it poorly at some point to begin with.
N: Apart from Mouse Guard, are there any other upcoming projects you can share with us?
DP: Nothing at the moment. There are two rather small projects that I can’t talk about yet and I’ll continue to do the odd pin-up or cover assignment from time to time, but my focus right now is on Mouse Guard and starting up convention season (which means being well stocked in sketchbooks, bookplates, prints, etc.).
N: What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
I’m loving Locke & Key and Hellboy right now. I’m still poring over the detail in Jeremy Bastian’s Cursed Pirate Girl. Outside of comics I’ve been watching Shameless, Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, Modern Family, Parks & Rec… and listening to audio books or old time radio when I work.
N: Strong choices! Now I need you to make a few more: what is in your ideal burrito?
DP: Beef and bean… I’m simple that way. Unless you meant this as a metaphor… if so, I don’t think beef or beans are my answer.