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Fundamental Comics: ‘Mouse Guard’ and Finding Bravery in Unexpected Places

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Mouse Guard
Creator: David Petersen
Publisher: Archaia Studios Press, an imprint of BOOM! Studios
Publication Date: 2006 – Present
No. of Issues: 18 single issues, plus collected editions, anthologies, and one-shot issues including, Fall 1152 (Series 1, collects 6 issues); Winter 1152 (Series 2, collects 6 issues); The Black Axe (Prequel, collects 6 issues); and Weasel War of 1149 (Upcoming)

Introduction: Welcome to a World of Mice

“…A story about small, seemly helpless creatures, building up a life for themselves from their own ingenuity and bravery, in a world fraught with danger.” —David Petersen, The Art of Mouse Guard, 2005-2015

With just these few words from its creator, we learn everything we need to know about the world of Mouse Guard. On a human scale, it is a small and inconsequential realm and its central characters are among the smallest creatures to be found in it…mice. One would expect such diminutive and fragile creatures to hole themselves away, grateful for what survival they might be able to scrape out of such harsh environs. But do not make the mistake that we are dealing with helpless creatures satisfied with a marginal existence. These are mice of fierce will and vigorous intellect. They have carved out a robust and thriving civilization spanning to the far reaches of their known world, a fearsome landscape requiring the utmost in survival skills. In spite of all the terrors that threaten, their society flourishes, thanks to the heroic mice of the Mouse Guard who devote their lives to protecting it.

There is a prominent quote in the early issues of Mouse Guard that illustrates the heart of this story: “It matters not what we fight, but what we fight for.” The brave mice who make up the Mouse Guard are explorers, revered warriors, and curious adventurers. They are skilled with weapons and have an intimate familiarity with the dangerous world they inhabit; however, Mouse Guard is more than just a story about perilous adventure, swash-buckling bravado, and breathless feats of heroism. It is a story about an indomitable culture in a constant struggle to thrive in an impossibly large universe. It is a story of the bravery required to build something lasting in the face of insurmountable odds.

The Plot: Tales of Heroes and Traitors

Mouse Guard is set in a medieval world populated by sentient animals. The story follows the adventures of the members of the Mouse Guard, a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of mice charged with the protection of the inhabitants of the Mouse Territories. The Guard must confront threats from all sides: hungry predators (snakes, crabs, owls, and weasels, oh my!), treacherous terrain, and, perhaps the most dangerous threat of all, traitors from within their own ranks.

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There are many towns and villages spread far and wide over the Mouse Territories and one of the primary functions of the Mouse Guard is to provide safe escort to travelers and rescue services to any who might become lost. As the story opens in Fall 1152, we set out on the road between Rootwallow and Barkstone with Kenzie, Saxon, and Lieam, three members of the Guard on a mission to find an overdue merchant. Over the course of their search, they battle predators, discover traitors, infiltrate an enemy army, and make a new ally with a mysterious past.

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Throughout the story, we get to know these mice, and many others. We have the clever, levelheaded Kenzie and his closest partner in the Guard, Saxon, who charges forward with bold, hotheaded bravado. Lieam, although one of the youngest Guardsmice, is already well respected as one of the most skilled and heroic mice to serve the Guard. Their camaraderie and conflict provides the background against which the threats to the Mouse Territories, both inner and outer, play out.

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Eventually, the paths of the main characters diverge, taking some to new relationships and others away from the Guard altogether. The prosperity of the Territories is under threat as winter settles in and resources dwindle. The future of their fragile civilization may depend on the sacrifice of one brave soldier willing to venture outside the “safe” borders of the Guard’s patrol.

Over the course of their adventures, our intrepid members of the Guard struggle with issues of personal sacrifice, loyalty, bravery, and social responsibility. The life of a Guardsmouse is not one that makes for easy personal relationships. Not every mouse in the Mouse Territories agrees with all of the decisions and actions taken by the Guard. Both personal and group sacrifice is required to keep their world from faltering to internal struggles or falling victim to outside threats. These are issues that are not easily resolved but neither are they shunned. The struggle must continue for the good of all mice.

Reception Upon Release

David Petersen first started drawing Mouse Guard characters and exploring their world in 1996 while he was still in college. He self-published a black-and-white issue of the story via ComiXpress in May of 2005 (which would later become the first chapter in Fall 1152). Approximately 250 copies of that first issue sold and today are quite valuable to collectors on the secondary market.

Petersen presented this self-published first issue to Mark Smylie, founder of Archaia, at San Diego Comic-Con in 2005, expected nothing more than essentially a portfolio review. Smylie, however, immediately offered to publish Mouse Guard under the Archaia label, starting with Petersen’s already released issue and keeping its unique 8” x 8” square format. The first issue published by Archaia sold out at the distributor level within two days of release. They also sold out all the copies they had brought to New York Comic Con in February 2006. The first issue ultimately went through 4 printings.

Over the course of 2006, Mouse Guard and the first book of collected issues, Fall 1152, garnered numerous accolades in the press, including Best Indy Adventure Book of 2006 from Wizard Magazine, Best Mini-Series of 2006 from Metro News, and Best Indie Book of the Year from IGN(dot)com. The second book of collected issues, Winter 1152, spent 6 weeks on the New York Times Graphic Book best seller list (which has since been absorbed into the general Fiction category).

Critical Analysis

As soon as you open the pages of Mouse Guard, you encounter a world of amazingly rich and intricate detail. It is a visual and storytelling feast that has been widely praised.

“Sumptuously illustrated and smartly scripted …this comic evokes children’s picture books…[but] has enough intelligence to keep adult eyes open.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“An anthropomorphized adventure that will appeal to fans of Bone and The Secret of NIMH, Mouse Guard is a visually dazzling book…” — The Oklahoman

“Petersen’s art is always the draw for Mouse Guard adventures and [Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales] is no exception. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his writing is every bit as good.” — Comic Book Resources

“With a richly detailed world, complex characters, and gorgeous storybook art, Archaia’s Mouse Guard is one of the best titles out there.” — Nerdist News

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It is David Petersen’s gorgeous art that, perhaps more than any other element, illustrates for the audience the constant bravery required to thrive in the Mouse Guard universe.  The reality of dealing with the threats to this tiny civilization is addressed in nearly every aspect of mouse-life in the Territories. The security of individuals, towns, and roadways is the central concern of the political system governing the Mouse Territories. The need for a Mouse Guard is in itself an acknowledgment that even the simple act of traveling from one place to another is a harrowing task for even the boldest of mice. In every panel of the story, we are confronted with complex reality of survival.

Petersen draws the audience into this perilous environment by creating both a realistic and intricate world. His characters inhabit a gorgeously drawn woodland that is both appealing in its lushness and terrifying in its all-encompassing scope. The exterior images he creates of the various mouse-inhabited villages emphasize the need to camouflage and be protected from unfriendly eyes. In just a single amazingly detailed panel depicting a typical mouse living environment, Petersen conveys just how ingenious and inventive this society is. We understand at one glance how precarious and audacious these little outposts of civilization truly are.  

While it is one thing to bravely live together with many other mice, it’s quite another thing to step out into world alone. Members of the Mouse Guard usually (and understandably) travel together in groups of three or four, but the safety afforded in such a minuscule force is very small comfort against the vast wilderness. Petersen is unforgiving on this front; indeed, one of the main storylines in the first two volumes involves the eventual decision by one of the main characters to leave the safety of the Guard and the Mouse Territories altogether…all alone. It seems incomprehensible to the audience, but it is not so hard to understand to a member of the Mouse Guard.

Petersen’s frequent use of full-page panels is especially effective in conveying the scale of the many threats to our intrepid Guardsmice. In one such scene from Winter 1152, a massive owl towers over a solitary mouse, ready to slash out with a single talon in a killing blow. His victim stands steady in the foreground, and even though he is small enough in the panel to be nearly engulfed by the snow surrounding him, we know he is standing his ground.

When the mouse charges forward to attack his much, much larger foe, we understand how utterly outmatched he is in this conflict in a visceral way. Petersen engages with all the diminutive characters in this story to fully explore all aspects of the kind of bravery required for such an action. Is it foolhardy to rush forward into battle with little regard for personal safety? Or is nobler, and more beneficial, to cautiously approach danger with a level head? Is fearless self-sacrifice of oneself helpful or harmful? These aren’t questions that are easily answered in Mouse Guard, but they are gorgeously illustrated on each and every page.

Relevancy Today

Since its release, the series has received numerous awards, including the 2008 Will Eisner Award Winner for Best Publication for Kids (Fall 1152 & Winter 1152), the 2008 Will Eisner Award Winner for Best Graphic Album Reprint (Fall 1152), and the 2014 Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album of Previously Published Work (The Black Axe).

Petersen’s work has many admirers among his fellow comic creators, writers and artists, as evidenced by the many peers (including Jeremy Bastian, Katie Cook, Karl Kerschl, Gene Ha, Terry Moore, Skottie Young, Dustin Nguyen, Jake Parker, Becky Cloonan, Stan Sakai, Mike Mignola…just to name a few) who have contributed to the Mouse Guard universe with numerous pin-ups, original stories, and artwork for related anthologies.

David Petersen enjoys continuing popularity at comic conventions, where he inspires long lines of people seeking original artwork, autographs, and collectible memorabilia. The Mouse Guard world has spawned a wide selection of merchandising, including games, pins, toys and collectible figures.

It is impossible to overestimate the relevancy of stories about the underdog, the disenfranchised, the smallest among us, in today’s fraught political and social landscapes. Mouse Guard reminds us that nobody is too small or too insignificant to effect change in the world. A mouse who is brave, who is loyal, who is willing to sacrifice him or herself to help others is a mouse who can conquer anything.

These are themes that have been well represented in popular culture, from J.R.R. Tolkien to J.K. Rowling. With the surge of epic fantasy storytelling on both on page and screen, and the sustained audience for more Game of Thrones and more Lord of the Rings (including a never-ending supply of spin-offs and prequels), a story like Mouse Guard that tackles similar themes and is set in the kind of expansive world-building that Tolkien and Martin have excelled at certainly has the potential to continue to elevate its standing in the entertainment landscape. There is no height this mouse cannot reach.

Other Points of Interest

David Petersen announced Weasel War 1149 in 2013 and confirmed he had started work on this next collection of stories in 2017; however, no release date has been announced so far.

In July 2016, 20th Century Fox announced it would produce a Mouse Guard film with Matt Reeves as a producer and Gary Whitta as screenwriter. Wes Ball signed on to direct; Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Andy Serkis, Jack Whitehall, and Idris Elba were all announced in various roles. In June 2019, Disney (which had acquired Fox that March) cancelled the project.

In 2016, IDW published The Wind in the Willows, an unabridged hardcover edition of the classic story, with pen and ink illustrations by David Petersen. This was a 6-year project completed while Petersen took a lengthy break from the Mouse Guard series.

David Petersen has contributed artwork for numerous other BOOM! Studios titles, including Muppet Robin Hood, Muppet Peter Pan, Muppet King Arthur, Muppet Snow White, The Dark Crystal, and Fraggle Rock.

Mouse Guard-related anthologies, Free Comic Book Day releases, and collections of art:

  • Legends of the Guard, Volumes 1-3; Anthology series featuring the work of artists and storytellers handpicked by series creator David Petersen.
  • Baldwin the Brave and Other Tales; A collection of four Free Comic Book Day stories, plus two new tales.
  • The Art of Mouse Guard, 2005 – 2015; A large format, “coffee table” collection of the artwork of David Petersen offering an in-depth look at the artistic and creative process behind the creation of the series.

Mouse Guard-inspired games:

  • Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game and Boxed Set – A pen-and-paper traditional RPG designed by Luke Crane featuring artwork and extensive background material from series creator David Petersen.
  • Mouse Guard: Swords & Strongholds – A light-strategy board game invented by David Petersen and published by Luke Crane (Burning Wheel).

Claire Thorne, Fanbase Press Contributor



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