I had a hard time deciding what I wanted to talk about this week. Not that anyone’s called me on it yet, but I usually talk here about stuff that I enjoy and I know that that can give the impression that I like everything, which simply isn’t true. In fact, I just read a book that I didn’t like so much and contemplated talking about it instead, if only for variety’s sake. But is criticizing a mediocre, small-press book really how we want to end the year? As Tim O’Shea reminded me when I expressed my indecision on the subject, there’s a lot of bad material out there. Why spend a whole column focused on that when there’s good stuff that can use a larger audience? Mouse Guard may not exactly be an underground comic, but until it hits #1 on every Best Sellers list in the world, I’m considering it under-read.
The first thing you’re struck with by Mouse Guard is how beautiful it is. I was reading Winter 1152 in public the other day and a woman stopped and asked me what it was. As much as I try not to make assumptions about people from their appearances, I’m guessing that this immaculately-dressed businesswoman doesn’t have a large comics collection at home. But she saw David Petersen’s highly realistic, stunningly detailed, and lushly colored artwork and was attracted by it enough to want to know more.
But Mouse Guard is about more than the pictures and the seasons in the title dictate more than just Petersen’s color palettes. There’s a deep, compelling story at work with human characters – mice though they may be – and powerful themes that reflect the time of year they’re set in.
Both volumes take place in the year 1152 on whatever calendar the mice are following. It’s really not important what the year is, except that the characters and some of the additional material (the books are filled with maps and guides that flesh out the mice’s world) occasionally refer to recent wars or other events and it’s handy to know just how long ago those things happened. Mouse Guard was one of the first comics published by Archaia when it expanded its catalog beyond founder Mark Smylie’s Artesia series and you can see why. As good as most of Archaia’s material is, Mouse Guard has the most in common with Artesia, from the power of its art to the depth of its world.
What’s important about the titles of the Mouse Guard books are the seasons. In Fall 1152, Petersen doesn’t just paint with autumnal colors; he tells a story about the near collapse of mouse society. The Mouse Territories are a loosely-allied collection of towns and villages that are hidden from predators in lavishly furnished rocks and trees. The only thing keeping the forests and fields between these communities safe for travel and commerce is the Mouse Guard, former warriors who’ve become guides and pathfinders in the last few, peaceful years. So, when someone close to the Guard poses as a legendary figure from the Guard’s past in order to inspire a rebellion against the Guard, the situation becomes dire. It’s up to a few Guardsmice who’ve uncovered the conspiracy to try to stop it before the traitor leads his army against Lockhaven, the Guard’s base of operations.
If you haven’t read Fall 1152 yet and want to remain unspoiled about it, you probably ought to stop reading right here, because Winter 1152 continues the story and follows up on the events of the first volume. I can’t talk about Winter without revealing a little of how Fall concludes.
The season again determines the tone of the book. Winter is always a harsh time for animals, especially if they’ve spent their autumn fighting rebels instead of gathering food. Winter reveals more about the politics of the Mouse Territories as the Guard’s matriarch sends out ambassadors to reinforce alliances and gather supplies in the various mouse communities. One of these parties is made up of the heroes from the first volume and it’s of course these that the story follows most closely.
Back at Lockhaven though, it soon becomes apparent that the rebellion hasn’t been completely squashed. Though the inciting traitor has been dealt with, the underlying feelings that sparked the rebellion – that the Guard holds too much power and is of too little benefit for the Territories – are still held by some. With the Guard’s most experienced and able mice out on their missions, Lockhaven is once again vulnerable. And with difficulties plaguing the traveling Guardsmice – like a relentless, one-eyed owl and an underground kingdom of vindictive bats – it’s doubtful that the heroes will return in time to help, if they can return at all.
What I liked most about Winter though (besides soaking in the art) is the further characterization of the heroes. The main trio of mice from Fall are Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam. They’re joined in the their mission by Sadie (who had an important if small part to play in the events of Fall) and Celanawe (who may or may not be the actual legendary figure that the traitor from Fall was pretending to be). Though the five of them start out together, Winter splits them up and plays with their dynamics a bit.
In Fall, it was obvious that Kenzie and Saxon have been partners for a while and that Lieam was the rookie (though an extremely brave and promising one) of the group. Kenzie is the oldest and wisest of the group, while Saxon is an impetuous hot-head. In Winter, Petersen reveals more about that relationship and also gives Lieam more opportunity to branch off on his own and learn what his role in the Guard is going to be. There’s also romance, some of it unrequited as Saxon reveals that he’s secretly in love with another character.
There are some books and some movies that I push on people as soon as I learn they haven’t read or seen them. I’m obnoxious that way, but I usually get thanked for it in the end. Mouse Guard (both volumes) are in that category. I’m on a mission of my own.
Five out of five giant, one-eyed owls.