On Sundays, Felan profiles his favourite comics and graphic novels from across the diverse medium’s history.
I suppose Reepicheep, the rapier-wielding swashbuckler mouse of C. S. Lewis’ wonderful Chronicles of Narnia can be seen as the progenitor of the small-rodents-with-medieval-weapons sub-sub-sub-genre. More recent examples include the Redwall series of young adult novels by Brian Jacques (RIP), Bryan Glass and Michael Oeming’s comic book Mice Templar, and the subject of today’s profile, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard. Although it shares pedigree with these other series, all of which are worthy in their own rights, Mouse Guard carves a very satisfying niche and stands out from the crowd (albeit a very small crowd, being mostly composed of heavily-armed mice).
Mouse Guard is set in the towns, colonies and fortresses of the Mouse Territories, nestled far below the trees and larger animals on the forest floor, in fields, and rocky tunnels. The titular Mouse Guard is an elite order of highly skilled mice that serve as guides, pathfinders, messengers, trackers and defenders across the territories. The central storyline follows the ongoing adventures of one of many individual Guard units: Lieam, a brave young recruit, Saxon, a grizzled and hot-tempered warrior, and Kenzie, a wise veteran and the de facto leader of the group. One of the things that differentiates Mouse Guard from other examples of mice-with-swords stories is its grounding in real ecology. There’s no magic or destiny here – mice are way, way down at the bottom of the woodland food chain, and every season is a desperate struggle for survival at the mercy of predators and weather, not to mention political tensions within the Territories. Epic battles against freezing blizzards and monstrous snakes abound in every issue. In many ways, Petersen’s approach is similar to those classic 1970s Gnomes books – he’s part storyteller, part anthropologist documentarian of mouse culture.
Petersen is a solo auteur, writing as well as inking and colouring his own pencils and layouts. The story is engaging, if straightforward, but it’s in the presentation that Mouse Guard truly shines. Sumptuous colours bring high-contrast ink line-work and shading to life, bringing to mind the Bill Watterson’s full-colour Calvin & Hobbes illustrations. Each mouse is painstakingly characterized with different coloured fur and ornamentation – a cape here, a scarred ear there – and the settings are great, too, especially the mouse architecture, all nestled between tree trunks and hidden beneath beach stones. Petersen employs an unconventional square page format to great effect, and the hardback collected editions are a delight in themselves, beautifully designed and published by the indie Archaia Studios Press.
More information, and the source of the above images, can be found at the official Mouse Guard website: http://www.mouseguard.net. Mouse Guard is published intermittently by Archaia (the quality of the work gives Petersen a free pass to take as long as he needs on each issue!) and three collected editions exist, the most recent of which, Legends of the Guard: Volume 1, is a collection of stories by other writers and artists, all chosen by Petersen, that expand the lore of the Mouse Guard universe. Be sure to also check out the excellent Mouse Guard tabletop role-playing game, also a beautiful hardcover rife with Petersen’s illustrations.