The Mouse That Roared: Petersen talks "Mouse Guard"

There is a book on the shelves of your local comic book shop that is unlike anything else you'll most likely find in the store. It's won multiple awards, it's shaped like a square, and it has vicious battles involving ancient weaponry…wielded by mice. The book is "Mouse Guard" from Archaia Studios Press (ASP), written, drawn, and colored by newcomer David Petersen.

The six-issue "Mouse Guard" completed its initial run in January, a hardcover has been solicited in the February issue of Previews, and Petersen recently announced a follow-up miniseries is in the works. Now that he's had a moment to catch his breath, CBR News got a hold of the creator to discuss his success with the book and his plans for the future.

To begin with, congratulations on completing the miniseries. Have you had any time to appreciate your accomplishment? Or has it felt like you've just been go-go-go?

Thank you! The series has kept me very busy, so in some ways I don't know that I have taken it all in yet. But I do realize how fortunate I am to have a series that fans have taken to so quickly, so I make sure I take notice when the book is complimented or featured. It's all very surreal to me still.

I know you've talked about it elsewhere, but for our readers who don't know, could you quickly summarize how the book came into being and how it ended up at ASP? Also, the thinking behind the book's unique size format as well?

Sure, I had been working on a medieval fantasy idea with animals as the characters. The mice were the most compelling part of the story, so I quickly shifted the focus to be on them. I did the first issue as a black and white book that I would sell at a local convention, took a copy of that to San Diego in '06 and showed it to Mark Smylie of ASP. He was very encouraging and said that ASP would be interested in printing the book in color. I had met Mark a few years before at a Chicago con and I showed him samples of my RPG fantasy spot illustrations – and he was helpful and encouraging then too – so I felt that ASP was a good home for the mice.

The size, which thankfully Mark didn't want to change (something I was very happy about), was arrived by the concept of doing a mini-comic long ago. Lots of artists do mini-comics to cut their teeth on storytelling. I thought a neat way to do a mini-comic that would stand out, but still use standard copy-shop products, would be to use legal paper instead of letter. A book printed that way would be roughly square. It made me think about panel relationships and I found I liked the panoramic shots it offered.

How much of the story was in your head when you started out?

I have had stories for these guys in my head for almost a decade. So it was a matter of figuring out some chronology for those and then deciding where to start, and what would be the best way to introduce the world and characters. There were plenty of scenes that I came up with or modified from the original thoughts and notes to fit into a six-issue story better, but the skeleton of the thing was there. I still have plenty more "Mouse Guard" storylines and character arcs to tell.

As you did the book entirely by yourself, what was/is your process? Did you pencil the entire issue first, and then ink, letter, and color? Or did you "hop around" from task to task while you worked?

I work in a very odd way. This being my first book, I took to heart the storytelling advice offered to people starting out: "Don't rely on the words to tell the story, make sure the page reads without dialogue." So I wrote an outline for the first issue and then figured out how many pages it would take to tell each bullet point of the story. Then I set to drawing the book. It's not until I have the whole book done that I go back through and add the dialogue. I may know roughly what a character is saying or the mood or tone, but I rarely have the wordsmithing done ahead of time. I wanted the story to be very visual and found that if I overwrote a scene, which I tend to do if I'm left with a blank word document, it fell flat or fought for attention with the images.

I tend to work on facing pages to make sure they have some design sense or balance. I draw in one part of the house, sometimes scanning several sketches and assembling them or resizing them to see what they would look like on a page, and when I ink I try to spend time with my wife. So I listen to whatever television she is watching while I stipple and cross hatch. I try and color a batch of pages at a time so that when I get to the end of inking the book, I may only have a few pages left to color. I found that coloring the book early can also help establish a mood on earlier pages that helps me when I'm laying out later pages.

What surprised you most about the series as you worked on it?

Hmm, that's tough. I guess how much I like the process of coloring the pages and how it really changed the book. With the black and white, I had it set in my head as a colorless book. I knew the mice had color associated with them, but had worked so hard to establish unique ways of making greys on the page with hatching and stippling and other textures that the idea of coloring it didn't appeal to me at first. I don't think I really hit my stride until issue three or four in terms of color, but looking back on it, I don't think that many key scenes would have played as well in black and white. I also found myself thinking about color as I was inking, deciding if that line would be a color-hold or if I needed to under or over stipple an area because I knew the color may distract from it.

Looking back, was there anything you learned that you might have done differently if you had the chance?

Perhaps I would have written tighter outlines. There were times I felt very panicked because I left a lot of "wiggle" room for what needed to fill three pages, but sometimes those parts are what gave me the freedom to make them some of the moments in the book I really like. There were nights I couldn't figure out pages to save my life. I would be pulling my hair out. And then mornings where in the shower three pages would come to me at once and I'd be so glad I had the option to fill them in that way. There may have been a pacing thing in issue six I would have changed, but I don't want to go back and special edition the first series, so I look forward and focus my improvements for the next series.

Your book racked up tons of recognition on several "Best of…" lists in 2006. Did any award surprise or excite you in particular?

Sure! All of them excited me, and many surprised me. I especially didn't expect Wizard's nod for best indy adventure book, or IGN's best indy book. I am overwhelmed. I really didn't think the book would have this wide of a fanbase. I thought I'd get a few fantasy readers, a few animal story people, perhaps girlfriends or wives of comic readers. I am really honored that it has gotten the praise it has.

What can fans look forward to in the Hardcover edition? Any bonus features?

The Hardcover will have the story reprinted in one volume and will feature eight pages of epilogue, a map of the mouse territories, the covers reprinted sans-text, and a few pages of field guide to expose the world of "Mouse Guard" a bit more to the readers.

Diamond Select is going to put out toys from "Mouse Guard." Are there any details you can let us know about yet? Will they be action figures? PVC sets? Figurines? How involved are you in the designs?

Right now I have seen the designs and prototype sculpts for Saxon, Kenzie, and Lieam. I'm really happy with what I have seen; they did a great job of working from illustrations from the book to really capture those guys. They are going to be resin figurines, but DST has the license to include PVC and plushies, so perhaps we will see the line expand as time goes on. I have approval over the sculpts and packaging.

Has there been any interest from Hollywood? I could see it being pitched as "Stuart Little" meets "Lord of the Rings."

I have spoken with producers who are interested in the movie rights. Now that I have the first series done, we are starting to talk and look in that direction. I would love to see it as a CGI film where the landscape is alive and moving, and where the camera can easily pan and zoom to give a sense of the scale of these guys to their environment.

In the February issue of Previews, you said the following about the next "Mouse Guard" miniseries:

"The next series will pick up a few months after the events of 'Fall: 1152.' The Guard will be dealing with some reconstruction, and not just from the damage of the siege on Lockhaven. In the heavy snows of winter, the Mouse Guard finds that with the political dissent in the fall, some of the territory is not prepared for the season at hand, and woefully, Lockhaven is the most ill-equipped. All while being pursued by new predators, facing the harsh weather, and surviving rites of passage."

Can you share any more details at this time?

A party will be sent out to act as ambassadors to redistribute goods that were not freely traded in the fall, and make sure vital items make it back to Lockhaven. This series will have a real "survival" feel to it for the main characters. And I can't promise all of them will make it through. There have been some amazing artists who offered pin-ups for this series also. I was very pleased with the pinups from series one and I'm happy to say that the series two artists have lived up to that standard.

Excellent. Any idea when we'll see it published?

Issue one of that series will be out in July of '07 and continuing bi-monthly for six issues.

Visiting your website, you have tons of gorgeous illustrations, including several short unpublished children's stories. Any chance we'll see those collected and published?

Thank you. I'm very proud of those. Before "Mouse Guard" I was trying to get a portfolio together for children's book illustration. My nieces are a big part of my life and for their birthdays I wrote and illustrated special personalized books for them. There is still one more niece that isn't quite old enough to read or understand a storybook yet, so I know I have at least one more book to do in the coming years. My wife is a big fan of children's lit and children's book illustrations so I try and make special gifts for her in storybook form as well. I wrote a book about our beloved Newfoundland and a gift book that I gave her on our wedding day. I later added a chapter for our first Valentine's Day as a married couple. So far, no plans on publishing them, but perhaps if there is enough interest I would.

I'm interested! Is there anything else you're working on that you want to let us know about?

At the moment I'm focused on "Mouse Guard." I have a few other projects that I hope will see the light of day eventually, but not yet.

Well, if the other projects turn out even half as terrific as "Mouse Guard," readers are in for a treat. For now though, we have more "Mouse Guard" coming our way this summer, and I, for one, couldn't be more pleased. Thanks David!

Now read about this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

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