David Petersen Talks Mouse Guard

The long-awaited conclusion of writer-artist David Petersen's "Mouse Guard: Winter 1152" hits stores this month, with a hardcover collected edition arriving in July courtesy of the newly revitalized Archaia. Petersen has announced on his blog that the next series, to begin in 2010, will be a prequel focusing on the popular Black Axe character, which will then be followed by a Weasel Wars series.

In a wide-ranging conversation about the series' influences, the evolution of its heroes, and the components of world building, CBR News spoke with Petersen about all things "Mouse Guard."

"Mouse Guard," which won Eisner Awards for Best Publication for Kids and Best Graphic Album--Reprint in 2008, takes place in a society of mice set in a stylized medieval period. A recent war against weasels has emphasized the need for a strong cadre of guardmice to protect the territories and brave the dangerous lands between cities. In the first series, "Fall 1152," guardmice Kenzie, Saxon, and new recruit Lieam uncovered a plot against the matriarchy and brought a greyfur named Celanawe--who claims to be the great hero Black Axe--out of retirement to fight for their cause.

"Winter 1152," which follows immediately after the events of "Fall," sees the mouse territories short on supplies, calling the trio plus Celanawe and Sadie back into service. As their adventure progresses, the team is split into several groups, with Celanawe and Lieam splitting off first in a desperate attempt to return medicine to Lockhaven, and Saxon later briefly separating from Kenzie and Sadie amidst a battle with bats. Meanwhile, in Lockhaven, another scheme against Gwendolyn's authority unfolds.

As "Mouse Guard" progressed through its first two series, young Lieam rose to a position of greater prominence than the rest of the ensemble cast. "Lieam did kind of take off--he was never supposed to be what he's become," David Petersen told CBR. "As 'Fall' was going, he was becoming more and more important. I was kind of plotting that one by the seat of my pants, and I had nine years of thinking about 'Mouse Guard' because I started working on the idea in college before I started making a comic. When it was time to make that first issue that I was self-publishing, and I had no idea whether I was even going to sell one issue of it, let alone do a second issue. I thought, where in this history can I pick up and tell one story that's kind of a standalone that would sum up everything and be the best entry point for a reader?

"And that's where the whole snake/grainmerchant/Lieam-saves-the-day thing comes from. It was just one example of a guardmouse doing something cool. But because that's the only example in print, it becomes that much more potent. People really enjoyed Lieam, and I wanted to wrap up what he had gone through with the snake and the merchant and everything, and it just all worked."

"Winter," though, does also give space to a budding romance between Kenzie and Sadie, with Saxon having his own personal drama unfold, as well. "There's a bunch of stuff there that I got to wrap up [in issue #6]. And it's like oh, great, I've got to this point! But it's going to be another couple of years before I do anything with it," Petersen said, referring to the fact that the next two series take place before the events depicted in "Fall" and "Winter." "I'm hoping it keeps readers on the edge of their seats, rather than just getting really bored and giving up."

Though "Mouse Guard" quite obviously takes place in a world other than our own, it does convey the feeling of an authentic medieval adventure. "I take great liberties with the historical aspect," Petersen laughed. Because it is different, it's mice." He added that his research for the series was more focused on movies and other fantasy literature than literal histories. He does, though, give a certain attention to character names, suiting each to the needs of a character, often with a tinge of Welsh or Gaelic styling. "A lot of the other ones come from baby name book kind of things where I can look up the meaning of the names, the etymology of the name, to be very specific to that character," Petersen said. "Or there are times when I'd just look up a bunch of Gaelic names or a bunch of Welsh names and take ones that I just liked the sound of."

"Celanawe is a funny example of a name. It's completely made up, and there's kind of a secret of how his name came to be, and I'm not ready to spill the beans yet on that one," he added.

Another bit of world building comes in the form of text pieces at the beginning of each chapter, and, in "Winter," ballads and songs embedded in the story itself. "When I started doing 'Mouse Guard,' in the first series 'Fall,' there was on the inside front cover always some kind of little text that added, not just what happened in the previous issue, but something else. Sometimes they were excerpts from books, sometimes they were poetry, statements that had been made by great guardsmice... I found that part really stressful," Petersen explained. "And then for the 'Winter' series, before we got that going we ran a contest with Diamond for fans to create their own mouse, and the winner's mouse was put into the book. The winner's mouse happened to be a scribe character that would write histories and poetry and stuff like that. So in addition to putting that character in the first issue, I though, 'oh! I'll write a little poem, and that'll be that piece.'

"And something about the structure, with all of those poems, they're AA BB AA BB rhyming rhythm. It was really easy! I know they're always going to be eight lines, the last two words of the matching lines have to rhyme, and it gets to be a lot easier. By the time I got to the sixth one, I was even putting off writing it until the last day before I had to turn the thing in, and I whipped it out in an hour. I thought, wow, it shouldn't be that easy!"

David Petersen is from Michigan, and popular vacation spots in his home state influence the world of "Mouse Guard" in subtle but important ways. "The second chapter of 'Fall,' the beach scenes with the crabs is totally based on the scenery of Lake Michigan near Ludington," he said, adding that in other cases the Great Lakes State's natural beauty came in "more with the type of flora and fauna, the feel of what it's like to walk in fall leaves, stuff like that."

Petersen continued, "Some of my favorite places in the state are on the west side, like Ludington area or going way up to the 'pinky peninsula,' the Leelanau Peninsula up by Frankfort, Beulah, Benzonia, that kind of area. And there are a bunch of cities on the [Mouse Guard] map that are kind of based on Michigan locales. Like Tahquamenon, the name has to do with how dark the water is, and so I changed one of the names on the map to Darkwater. Even though I haven't gotten there, and I don't necessarily know that it's going to be like Tahquamenon, I wanted to pay an homage to Michigan things, so I put Darkwater on there. Dawnrock is another one, which is Petoskey."

"Winter 1152" was halfway finished when publisher Archaia Studios Press (now simply Archaia) announced it would be restructuring. Nine months passed between the release of issues #3 and #4, and the fifth issue was released in February. Petersen said it was difficult to keep momentum on "Mouse Guard" during the downtime, but knew that ultimately the series would be completed. "I tried to keep working on it, but it did get to a point where, because things weren't getting published and there was a big question mark as to when things were going to get moving again, I did find other paying work just to, you know, keep my life moving," he said. "But there was never any doubt in my mind that 'Winter' would eventually be published." One such paying project would be "Snowy Valentine's Day," a children's book for Harper Collins that Petersen is working on now.

Another piece of "Mouse Guard's" return has been a role playing game based on the series, which was designed by Luke Crane with significant input from Petersen. "When we got together with Luke, one of the goals was that the role playing game wasn't just statistics for mice for D&D. We really wanted it to be a role playing game unto itself that takes into account all the kinds of mousy stuff we see them doing in the books, and make it feel like the books," Petersen said. "And then Luke just packed my inbox with email after email after email with questions. Like, in this society, how do they deal with currency? Or how does **this** happen? What are the sizes of these cities? What is the government system of all these cities? How does a mouse become a guard? And then I had to answer all of them! So I would say 80-90%--and more like 90%--of what's in that book is canon to 'Mouse Guard.' The only things that are kind of out are we leave it up to the players to develop some of the cities on their own, cities that I really haven't touched in the comics yet.

"Then there's some sample missions that obviously aren't canon, and some characters that are introduced for the sake of being able to role-play. Other than that, all of the history and the back-stories, all the rules on becoming things, the traits you can have, skills you can have, that was all fed from what's already in 'Mouse Guard' or what's going to be in 'Mouse Guard.' I ended up having to give Luke a lot of info from stories that are still forthcoming, 'Black Axe' and the 'Weasel War,' telling him, 'you can't use any of this for the book, but you have to make sure that whatever you're putting in the game doesn't contradict any of this stuff that I'm gonna do!'"

Petersen gives Luke Crane full credit for the RPG's success, calling him the star of the book. "I've done enough amateur game design, trying to make my own role playing games when I was a kid, or trying to make my own board games, etc., [to know that] it's really hard to make games that work, and don't have loopholes, and don't fall apart, and are still fun to play, and make sense, and all that kind of stuff," Petersen said. "The [Mouse Guard] role playing game has got nothing but rave reviews from reviewers and fans. It's also up for an Origins Award for Role Playing Game of the Year. And I keep saying, it's Luke's award. People will tell me, 'Oh, come on David, if there were no 'Mouse Guard,' there wouldn't be a game,' or 'you provided a lot of artwork for that thing.' But if it was really pretty to look at, and the game sucked, if it wasn't fun to play and the rules fell apart on you, it would not be nominated for an award. If it was really fun to play and it looked ugly as hell, it still could be. So the glory goes to Luke on that one."

Aside from the RPG, the final issue of "Winter" released this month, the collected edition in July, and the "Black Axe 1099-1116" prequel beginning in 2010, Petersen and producer David Kirchner have spoken with a screenwriter about a "Mouse Guard" film. "We're just trying to get our ducks in a row to go pitch this to studios," Petersen confirmed.

The writer-artist has also just published a limited black-and-white edition of "Fall 1152" presenting his original line art from the first series. "I had a lot requests from fans to make a limited edition of 'Fall,' and I think basically what they were asking for was just reprinting 'Fall' with numbers. And I thought, that makes it look like I'm just out for cash. Look, because we stuck '5 of 1000' on the inside front cover, this book is $100 now? That's ridiculous, it's the same book we already published, I don't like this idea. But at the same time, when I was at conventions there were a lot of fans who were seeing the original pages for the first time in person, and going, 'wow, this is really cool, I like your black and white stuff! It's neat to see just the line work.' And with original pages, some people are taken aback by the pricing, and I think that comes from people not realizing that this is the original, they think it's a print or something. I thought it would be cool, since people like the black and white stuff so much, to let people own the original pages without owning the originals. So what if we did a book that was the exact same size as the originals, in the original non-color format?"

Because some effects were added later in Petersen's process, the limited edition "Fall 1152" features vellum overlay pages to recreate weather events such as rain. "Unfortunately, the printing method, the way this all gets bound together, is that those overlay sheets have to be individually hand-tipped in. So it got a little costly, but we were still able to do it," Petersen said. "The big stumbling block for putting out another one, like 'Winter,' would be the tipped-in pages jump from around 24 for 'Fall' to 66, because of all the snow. So it's going to come down to what we can get as a printing quote, and whether it's going make financial sense. If we can get it to go and the black and white 'Fall' edition continues to sell well, I think it's a possibility."

The success of "Mouse Guard," Petersen acknowledges, stems from its ability to engage children and adults equally. His approach to crafting such stories has primarily been a matter of simply respecting his readers. "My outlook on it has been, so far, no gratuitous violence, nothing sexual, and no curse words," Petersen said. "And don't worry about the vocabulary. Write as if you're writing for an adult because the minute you start second-guessing what a kid's vocabulary is, you're cutting them short. You might be undercutting where their vocabulary is. If you don't raise the bar above where their vocabulary is, you're not giving them the opportunity to learn that vocabulary. When I read the 'Chronicles of Narnia' as a kid, I would take the book to my parents and say, 'what does this mean?' It's the perfect opportunity to get kids to go a little farther, to get anybody to go a little farther."

However, the next two "Mouse Guard" miniseries may add new challenges. "Now I'm getting into things with battle sequences and having to deal with death, and it's suddenly becoming a tightrope I wasn't anticipating quite as much," Petersen confessed. "And I'm getting really scared about what's going to happen during the Weasel Wars! Because it's a war, it's not going to be pretty. I haven't decided how I'm going to balance that or if we're going to have to release a statement ahead of time, like they do on some of those TV shows, telling parents you might want to get your kids out of the room."

"Mouse Guard: Winter 1152" #6 goes on sale this month, with the hardcover collected edition on sale in July from Archaia.

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