David Petersen discusses Mouse Guard

Those of you who read our comics section regularly may remember us reviewing the US release of the first graphic novel volume of Mouse Guard a few months back. This delightful comic details the adventures of sword-carrying, cape-carrying mice. The first collected volume - called Fall 1152 over there and Autumn 1152 over here - follows three members of the Mouse Guard – Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon – as they go looking for a missing grain mouse in the forest. “Fine storytelling”, our reviewer chappy said, “a comic that actually stands a chance of appealing to non-comic readers”.
Anyhow, Titan Book are now distributing the book in the UK – so keep your eyes peeled for it. Here’s a few words with writer/artist David Petersen.

What prompted you to produce a series about mice?
“I had started on an idea in high school for a fantasy comic with animals as the characters. It wasn’t until college that I re-examined the idea and spent more time thinking of how to keep characters alive if their predators are characters and live in the world as well.
“I started with the mice, knowing they would be lowest on the food chain in the book, and developed a culture and survival method for them. They would live deep and hidden in cities and towns where predators couldn’t penetrate. Then I drew three mice, wearing capes, who would be like the Ranger Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. They would live outside of civilisation, they would be the guides, the pathfinders, the trail blazers, the weather watchers for this mouse country. And it grew from there.”

Are there any films or books in particular that have influenced Mouse Guard?
“Well I’m a huge fan of George Lucas’s work. Star Wars and Indiana Jones were very big deals when I was a kid growing up. As an adult, I can really appreciate how he brought the lessons of Joseph Campbell [author of The Hero With A Thousand Faces] to a new audience, and reinvigorated telling myth in film with Star Wars. And he revived another storytelling form with Indiana Jones, using the setup-to-cliffhanger-to-rescue methods of the old movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s. I think both of those things really shaped who I am as a storyteller.
“And while no book stands out in particular as a influence for Mouse Guard, I’d say that the timeless adventure stories like Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, The Wind in the Willows, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit captured my attention as the types of stories I’d want to tell.”

Of the three main heroes — Kenzie, Saxon and Lieam — who is your favourite?
“Well, I am fond of Saxon, but I can’t play favourites too much. Lieam started out with far less of a role in my mind, but as the series grew and the story was to continue being published after the first series, his role has gotten much larger, so I certainly have a soft spot for him. And I also really like Kenzie, because without a calm, level-headed Kenzie, you can’t have a hot-headed sword-wielder like Saxon.”

Are there any other characters you identify with?
“I most identify with Saxon. I am, to a fault, a quick temper, occasional grudge holder, and irrationally angry at times. Not all the time, but I certainly have my bouts if enough things go wrong in the day (leaky faucet, trip on a shoe lace, cut off in traffic, phone marketers, etc). I think Saxon is much angrier than I am, and he helps me vent the frustrations by wielding a big sword and asking questions later.”

Were you intending to produce an all-ages series? How do you picture the average Mouse Guard reader?
“I don’t know that there is an ‘average’ Mouse Guard reader. I certainly wanted to keep the door open so that anyone who likes a good adventure story and likes rooting for underdogs may come in and adopt Mouse Guard as something they also enjoy. However, the response I have had is amazing. The variety of people who approach me at conventions is much wider of a demographic than I thought when I started drawing mice with capes.
“I never write down to a 'children’s level' because kids don’t like being talked down to; they learn more by being challenged or asking an adult to help them read something; and I certainly didn’t want to limit my audience to be only kids. I wanted adults to enjoy this as much as, if not more than, their kids. As the series progress the subjects may become darker and more advanced, but never crossing a line into purely adult.”

The natural world features heavily in the series, in terms of the threats the mice face. Is this an interest of yours? Do you work from
photo-reference for the detailed images of the crabs and the snake in Autumn 1152?

“I was a boy scout and an avid camper when I was young. I grew up here in Michigan, which is a wonderful state for those things. My interest in the natural world comes from boyhood wonder of exploring it while camping or even in the woods near my house while I was avoiding homework. A lot of what Mouse Guard is set in is based on those experiences.
“I do use photo reference. I snap pictures of leaves and grass and limbs on trees from mouse perspective. I tromp around and find trees with the right configuration of knot holes or rotted out hollows to look like a mouse-home. For the snake I relied mainly on photos I found online, as I didn’t have a brown rat snake handy. The crabs we bought at a local market. My wife was a good sport and helped me rotate them around and take photos of them from every angle and side we could think of. I want the threats the mice face to seem even more realistic than I depict the mice. I want the threats to feel like threats.”

Do you write detailed scripts to work from, or work from thumbnails?
“I work in a very odd way. I start with a very loose outline hitting the major points I know need to happen in an issue. I’ll then put tick marks next to each bullet point on the outline where I guess how many pages I think it will take me to 'tell' that part of the story. Once I get the outline to gel with my page count, I start working from the outline: ‘Okay, I have allotted myself three pages to tell this part of the story, do I want a splash page followed by some tighter panels to play out the dialogue, or focus on the action in this scene with lots of smaller panels throughout all three pages?' And I do the whole issue that way.”

Have you been surprised by the success of Mouse Guard?
“Yes. I knew I had something with it from the very start. I knew that it could be a great series that would have a loyal audience… I just didn’t know or understand how large of an audience!”

What do you have planned for the future of Mouse Guard?
“After the winter series concludes, I have three more outlined stories for the Guard. I’m not calling that fifth story ‘the end’ but it’s what I have worked out up to this point. We are moving forward with some games, both board- and role-playing types. Mouse Guard figurines and statues and plushies will be coming out through Diamond Select toys. It’s really growing and every time I tell people more about the future of Mouse Guard, the more excited they get.”