Piotrek: I was very satisfied with myself when, recently, my little niece asked: why is it only uncle Piotr who knows comics? I try to keep Madzia (her sisters are too young) supplied with age-appropriate comics, stuff like Zita the Spacergirl or Yotsuba&, which means I get to read them, out loud and often multiple times 😉 And, since I’m the one to choose, it’s usually something I enjoy myself, but obviously, not things I read in my own reading time. The topic of this review is different. This is a series of graphic novels for everyone to enjoy. I’m not going to leave the verdict for the final parts, I’ll admit straight away: I really like David Petersen’s Eisner-winning Mouse Guard series.
Ola: Don’t forget it’s my find! 😛 It’s indeed a perfect comic book for all ages 7 and up – first, it definitely helps if you can read on your own ;), and second, the plot, themes and execution are best understood when one is at least a tiny bit learned in the ways of the world, having read or listened to Hobbit, for example, or at least made a passing acquaintance with the material culture of medieval times… On the other hand, the educational aspects and the straightforwardness of the plot suggest a younger cant to the target audience. However, I believe that being young at heart is absolutely sufficient to properly appreciate the Mouse Guard story. It’s a decidedly different read to your average superhero comic books, but the heroic and quite adult themes are very much present in David Petersen’s work.
Piotrek: Which is clearly a work full of passion, he started distributing small batches of self-printed sketchbooks, before publishing his comic through Archaia Entertainment, known as a home of very graphic novels aimed at a completely different audience. Very quickly, in 2008, the series got two Eisner Awards. Now, Goodreads lists 13 titles in the series, although it includes Art of… and short pieces prepared for Free Comic Book Days. Actually, the series is rather short, when we exclude all the additions. We want more! But lets start explaining why…
Ola: Mouse Guard is set in medieval world of sentient animals: mice, weasels, snakes and owls, rabbits and crabs. Mice are a peaceful nation living in settlements dispersed through a land of forests and heaths, where almost every other creature tries to hunt them down. As the author puts it:
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 goods from one town to another and, in case of attack, guard against all evil and harm to their territories.
The Guard works like a medieval guild: there are masters and students, there are legends and lore, a set of rules by which the Guard members must live. The life of Petersen’s mouse is not easy: dangers are lurking everywhere, and as we learn from the first collected comics, even within the mouse society.
Piotrek: And while we talk about the world of Mouse Guard, I want to emphasize it is a rich, living, world and not just a background of the adventures of heroes. There are maps, and economy, and quite a bit of history. We might get a Sill-mouse-rillion one day… now, I was able to explain the basics of some traditional trades using examples from the city of Barkstone:
Forgive the Polish version, fortunately the images are self-explanatory 😉 It’s a very nice touch, reminds me of Wolf & Spice, a series YA light novels that combined simple fantasy with detailed description of the medieval economy surpassing in its realism many serious semi-medieval fantasy settings. It’s lighter here, but the readers are younger.
The stories itself are heroic, but scale is relatively small, as befits our protagonists. They keep vigil to protect weaker mice against enemies within and without, with fame rather than fortune being their usual reward. Weasels, owls, snakes, and even mice with dictatorial ambitions will be stopped by alert, skillful, brave and self-sacrificial soldiers of this unusual order. And with their organizational skills and discipline they are soldiers, not just good warriors. Perhaps not features we usually associate with vermin…
Ola: I’m sure David Petersen couldn’t escape the question of “why mice”? They are not universally liked, certain people fear them for reasons I cannot fathom, and in the Western culture they are more often than not treated as superfluous, to put it mildly. Sure, white laboratory mice are useful, but their regular cousins figure in cautionary tales mostly as a plague or a deserved punishment. There is a legend in Poland which deals with a traitorous ruler called Popiel. He wanted to gather power into his own hands, so he poisoned all the elders/nobles from his council at a feast. The dying elders turned into mice and ate Popiel alive.
Moreover, there is always the tradition of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize. Spiegelman portrayed Jews during Holocaust as mice, generously using the cultural tropes of mice as vermin to be exterminated…
…and a prey to predators such as cats. But there is also the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin, where mice are exchanged for children with frightening ease.
Piotrek: Well, when you’re a peasant in subsistence economy, any creature likely to eat your stored crops is going to be vilified.
Ola: The animal metaphor is a very potent one, with a long history in the Western and Eastern cultures. Thankfully, Petersen goes beyond the stereotype of mice as cowardly, lazy and helpless prey to other, more predatory animals by giving each character unique, very human traits. The differentiation is made both on the psychological and graphic level, as each mouse is depicted in a particular way: different facial expressions, different clothing, different behaviour, etc.
Piotrek: They are human, with complex personalities and all the complicated rules of well developed society. There are familiar types of protagonists, stoic veterans like Kenzie, young and eager warriors like Saxon, motherly leaders – Gwendolyn – and others. But these are well-developed characters and not cliches.
Ola: I love the art. It is very different to the popular comics from Marvel or DC, more in line with European graphic traditions – a single painter’s work, where each panel forms a whole, incredibly detailed picture. It is even more jaw-dropping when you realize that Mouse Guard is a work of a single person: David Petersen is both a writer and an illustrator of the series. It’s also the reason for the relatively infrequent appearance of the comics ;).
Piotrek: I don’t care, I want more 😉
In Legends we can see the results of other people playing in Petersen’s sandbox, and while I really liked these short stories, Petersen’s are better. And more child-friendly, Mouse Guard version of Poe’s Raven and Smylie’s relatively bloody tale would be rather scary for youngest readers.
Ola: Petersen’s Mouse Guard is a real treat for young and old alike. Its plot resolutions are simple but not simplified, told in the venerable style of old minstrels’ songs and legends. It’s a great graphic novel for those starting their adventure with the genre, but also a wonderful read for those who are a bit tired with the super-heroic stuff of the biggest publishing houses. Mouse Guard has heart and guts – and all the parts in between ;).
Piotrek: And there is even a tabletop RPG! I’ll get it in a few years, should be a great starter for the primary school students.
Score: Ola 10/10 Piotrek 9/10