David Petersen, Mouse Guard (Archaia Studio Press, 2006-2007). $3.50, six issues.
By Alex Boney
The first book I remember reading as a child is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I had read plenty of books before that one. My mother read to me quite a bit as I was growing up, and she subscribed to the Classics Illustrated series for me when I was young. I know I read Black Beauty and Around the World in 80 Days and 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I knew those stories well. But Watership Down was the first book of which I have distinct, vivid memories. In middle school, my English teacher made Adams’ novel an interactive experience. The class divided the rabbits into warrens and distinguished their personality traits. We had to draw them and create stories that captured the essences of the characters. And through the process, I grew to believe in Adams’ personification of all these damned rabbits. It seemed absurd at first. For some reason, I had been able to completely buy into the Super Friends’ super powers and Luke Skywalker’s manipulation of the Force with no difficulty. But this was the first time such an elaborate fantasy—starring animals, no less—had made its way into the “real books” I was reading. The only way I could completely buy into this story of rabbits on the run was to visualize it outside the confines of the book. As a result, I developed an affinity for this sort of animal tale, both in and out of literature. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, An American Tail, and the stories of Beatrix Potter pick up on the same premise as Watership Down: small, seemingly insignificant animals demonstrate heroic courage while making their way through the dangers of a world stacked against them. David Petersen’s recently-concluded six-issue miniseries, Mouse Guard, provides the closest experience to this sort of fantastic, humanistic animal tale I’ve read in more than twenty years.
Most contemporary animal fables are set in the modern world, and the dangers the animals face turn the stories into modern parables. The animals’ biggest threats are usually lawnmowers, cars, heavy boots, and other dangers of an encroaching industrialized world. Petersen breaks from this trend by setting his story in the Medieval age. The introductory page in the first issue provides the essential background: “The mice struggle to live safely and prosper among all of the world’s harsh conditions and predators. Thus the mouse guard was formed. After persevering against a weasel warlord in the winter war of 1149, the territories are no longer as troubled. True, the day to day dangers exist, but no longer are the Guard soldiers, instead they are escorts, pathfinders, weather watchers, scouts and body guards for the mice who live among the territories. Many skills are necessary for the Guard to keep the borders safe. They must find new safeways and paths from village to village, lead shipments of good from one town to another, and, in case of attack, guard against all evil and harm to their territories.” The story seems to be very Anglo-oriented; the villages, clothing, and weaponry of the mice seem patterned on Medieval English life. But the animal predators the mice face (weasels, snakes, wolves, and crabs) suggest that the story could be set just as easily in the Chesapeake Bay area as in Europe. Petersen’s decision to locate his story in a different era makes Mouse Guard more timeless, if not more immediately accessible.
The central story follows three members of the Mouse Guard—Lieam, Kenzie, and Saxon—who uncover a plot by a rival military mouse clan to infiltrate the Guard stronghold in a town called Lockhaven. The mice have to fight not just snakes and crabs, but also each other, in forests and on beaches. The book provides a familiar Medieval story of tribal warfare, treachery, aging warriors, swordfights, and castle-storming. Petersen’s not breaking a whole lot of new ground here. But his decision to feature mice as the central characters adds a new level to the traditional chaos and helplessness underlying most Medieval tales. These characters are constantly in danger, which creates consistent anxiety and dramatic tension. Every action—even something as simple as stepping outside the city walls—puts their lives in jeopardy. As a result, the Mouse Guard motto inscribed at Lockhaven (“It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for”), while clichéd, takes on new meaning and believability in this environment.
The story Mouse Guard tells is interesting and engaging, but the verbal narrative is not terribly strong. Grammatical errors are frequent and distracting. I still can’t understand how comma splices and “its”/“it’s” inversions slip past editors, even in small presses. I suppose these missteps are minor, but they make me hesitant to recommend the book wholeheartedly to young readers. Luckily, though, Petersen seems to know where his strengths lie. He uses verbal narrative and dialogue economically; the true strength of Mouse Guard is found in its art. Petersen provides not only expressive, anthropomorphized mice, but also lush, gorgeous environments and backgrounds. His pencils and inks are clear, but the rich, bold color palette gives the book added texture. It’s difficult to tell whether the color is computer-programmed, but it looks almost watercolored. Despite its faults, Mouse Guard is unquestionably a beautiful book to read.
Petersen has created a world in Mouse Guard that has lasting potential. We still don’t know exactly what the Weasel War of 1149 was all about. This and many other subplots and background stories can still be told. But I hope that if Petersen tells them, he publishes them as graphic novels. At 24 pages per issue, the story doesn’t work as well in serialized parts as it would as a unified whole. Petersen provides introductory pages at the beginning of each issue, but there’s not really much to catch the reader up on after the first issue. I’d much rather read this story as a single novel told in chapters, and I suspect the collected edition of Mouse Guard will be more rewarding than it was in monthly installments. On the whole, though, this first Mouse Guard story is a good start to what could be an enduring series of novels.