The next stop on CBR’s Comic-Con International indie creator spotlight panels lands on David Petersen, the cartoonist behind Archaia’s smash hit “Mouse Guard.” Though his spotlight panel fell on a Sunday afternoon at the annual San Diego extravaganza, plenty of fans crowded the room to hear tales of the origins and ongoing plans for the comic chronicling the adventures of sword-slinging mice set out to protect their fellow rodents from larger predators.
Nick Tapalansky, author of Archaia’s “Awakening,” served as MC for the panel, and started things off by asking Petersen to describe the series’ origins. “‘Mouse Guard’ comes out of a medieval fantasy I did when I was in high school that was more like Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ than what it’s like in ‘Mouse Guard’ – anthropomorphic characters with vaguely human bodies and more animalistic heads,” the creator explained. “Near on college, I started thinking, ‘Okay, what if this was really real animals in the real animal world with all the appropriate predator/prey relationships?’ I thought, ‘How would I keep the smaller creatures alive if everyone wants to eat each other?’ Mice had always been the smallest thing in the animal world that could still be used as characters, so I started developing mouse society and planning on then moving onto all the other animals and treating the different species as different ‘races.’ As soon as I got to the point of protecting the mice and having a Mouse Guard and having them live in this little world, I thought, ‘This is the heart of the story. This is the story of the underdog.’ That’s where it came from.”
Prompted by a fan to describe how the individual Guard member Liem grew into his prominent place in the story, Petersen explained, “So many of the characters are based on friends of mine. For those of you who don’t know, Kenzie is my closest, longest-standing friend in the world who was the best man at my wedding. I’m Saxon because I have a short temper, and Rand is a friend of mine who’s very particular and very cautious, which is why the shield and the yellow. Later on, we had another friend named Emerson who had red hair and was of Irish decent. So I made this character for him in Liem, and something inside of that character resonated. And he ended up essentially kicking Rand out of the group…and from the moment he got included in the story, his involvement got more and more important until it’s really important now. I’d say he’s the main character.”
Talk turned to Petersen’s early influences, as the artist explained that he too was once a superhero fanboy. “I’m not sure what my first comic was because these came within a week of each other, but it was either ‘Classic X-Men’ from when Marvel was reprinting the old Dave Cockrum/Chris Claremont stories – one where the Giant-Size X-Men team gets on a hovercraft and goes out to Cassidy Keep – with an awesome Art Adams cover, or it was ‘Ninja Turtles’ #1,” Petersen said. “I became a total X-Men Zombie, and I mean that in the most flattering way. And then I eventually started on ‘Hellboy.’ When Mignola switched over to Dark Horse, people knew about him, but he wasn’t ‘Hellboy’s Mike Mignola.’ So I asked my comic shop, I said, ‘I don’t even know what this thing is’ and I pointed at the cover of ‘Wizard’ that had all the Legend guys on it and said ‘This big red guy. I want it.’ And ‘Hellboy’ blew my mind. It changed my ideas about what comics could do storytelling-wise.”
Concerning the prose books that have affected “Mouse Guard’s” output, Petersen said that many of the novels fans cite as holding strong connections to, he didn’t read until already working on his mouse world including Wil Huygen’s “Gnomes” and Brian Jacques’ “Redwall” series. “I started working on Mouse Guard in 1996, and while I was working on that and coming up with Saxon, Kenzie and Rand, a buddy of mine came up and said, ‘Oh! You’d love this!’ and handed me the first Redwall book. I went ‘Uh oh! Somebody’s already done this.'” laughed Petersen who admitted that he shelved “Mouse Guard” for nine years because of the “Redwall” books. “It made me mature not just in myself but with the story.”
Petersen spoke about the origin of the recently released “Fall 1152” Limited Edition hardcover which reprints the first “Mouse Guard” series in black and white. “That book is purely thanks to fans. I’d been getting people asking about a reprint volume of the ‘Fall’ book, and I didn’t want to just repackage the same book with numbers in it and then charge more…so people were coming by my artists alley table, and they’re always surprised when they see my original pages because I draw all my artwork on 12 x 12 inch ink drawings that I then color in Photoshop. People were going, ‘Wow, I had no idea this is what it looked like!’ and a lot of people were saying, ‘I like this better.'” Those comments led to the book (which reprints the Petersen’s art at its original size) and includes vellum overlays to reproduced the rain effects used in the fifth issue of the series.
“People have been asking for the ‘Winter’ volume like that, but the rub is that those vellum overlays are hand-tipped in by the printer, one-by-one. And they’re frighteningly expensive. There were 22 of those pages in the ‘Fall’ book, and there are 66 at minimum in the ‘Winter’ book. We’re talking triple the hand-tipped cost. So we’re working on trying to see if we can find a printer who will lower the price and see if the fans are willing to pay slightly more for that.”
Details of the next series in the “Mouse Guard” saga (tentatively planned for an early 2010 release) leaked during the panel, with Petersen explaining. “The next series is going to be called ‘The Black Ax.’ It’s a prequel, and it’s going to take place long before the ‘Fall’ book. It is about Celanawe,” the artist said, unveiling the first piece of promotional art from the book. “Because this is a prequel, Conrad lives! And he’s got two feet! And by the end of the series, he should have one. Not only with every arc of ‘Mouse Guard’ but with every issue, I think, ‘How am I deepening the world? How am I deepening the characters? How am I tying up loose ends and opening up new story possibilities?’ And so ‘The Black Ax’ is totally written in response to the end of ‘Winter’ – specifically what happens in the very end of ‘Winter’ and in the epilogue of the hardcover. And we’re finding out about some characters people told me they really liked, like Conrad who was only in [the series] for one issue, and then he bit it.
“They’re going off the map. So that map that you see on the end papers of the hardcover? We’re going to need a new map because they’re going off it. And you’ll see another city of Mouse Guard. With each city I’ve tried to use a new design aesthetic and help inform you about the type of society these mice have. So when they get across the sea and encounter whatever they encounter, I’m going with a new design aesthetic. I said, ‘I’m not going to be doing British, Irish and East Coast American design and names. I’m going with Danish.’ I’m of Danish decent, and I thought that would be really fun. I’m using some of their history, some of their words and some of their iconography to help the culture across the sea.”
When a fan asked after developing relationships between the mice in the time frame of 1152, Petersen said, “The one after [The Black Ax] is going to be the Weasel War, and yes, I’m scared to death of drawing a war because that’s daunting. In the fifth book, we’re coming back to this time-line post-winter.”
As for other future projects, Petersen explained that he had his plate full with both future installments of his comic and an upcoming children’s book for a big time publisher. “It’s made me really, really really appreciate ‘Mouse Guard,'” he said, noting that unlike the many revisions he’s had to undergo for his book editors, he receives no interference from Archaia. The artist will also play a role in helping bring Jim Henson properties like The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock and Mirror Mask to comics, starting with a two-sided poster he did for the convention featuring his own characters on one side and the “Dark Crystal” cast on the other. “The Jim Henson Company…could have become my employer if I had dropped out of school like I had planned,” Petersen said, adding of the deal “It’s not just a license. It’s a partnership. We’re actually joining forces.”
When Tapalansky asked what Peteresen’s dream job would be, the artist simply expressed satisfaction with where his career was at now. “Other than more opportunities to do little side projects and things…look, I’m never going to go do a run on ‘X-Men.’ I’m never going to do a run on ‘Hulk.’ I don’t have that in me. Look how long it takes to get ‘Mouse Guard’ done…however, if Marvel wanted me to do a one-off issue of the ‘X-Men’ I’d love to do that. It’s a little feather in my cap. I got to do trading cards for ‘Star Wars Galaxy.’ Not only did I get to know it was coming out legally, but I got paid to draw ‘Star Wars!’ Really, what better job can you think of than that?” Although he did admit, “I do not do designs for tattoos. It’s way too much pressure.”