This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:
Mouse Guard: Fall, 1152
Story & Art by David Petersen
Mouse Guard is one of those books that would be really simple to give a Hollywood pitch for either Watership Down with mice and swords or a Disney/Pixar adaptation of Lord Of The Rings. But trying to boil something down to a Hollywood style pitch always strips it of what makes it good in the first place and the Mouse Guard is far too good to let that happen so let’s continue….
In The Mouse Guard we start with a simple premise, as laid out by Petersen in his introduction:
“Mice have a culture all their own; too small to integrate with other animals.”
The mice are struggling to survive; they live their lives from season to season, working hard to harvest enough food to survive the harsh winters, vigilant and watchful at all times, fearful of predators, keeping watch on the weather that can do so much harm to something so small. Their towns and cities are hidden and self sufficient, deliberately spread apart from one another for protection.
(panel from Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, (C) David Petersen)
The defence and protection of the Mouse territories falls to the Mouse Guard, a group of mice famed for their wits, bravery and skills. Although times are slightly more peaceful now, they are no less dangerous; the Mouse Guard may not be needed as an army but they are needed to protect the Mouse territories against dangers that threaten around every corner. They are protectors, scouts, pathfinders and body guards. They patrol the Mouse Territories, warn against predators, advise on oncoming weather, and find safe passage for travelling merchants and common mice.
“Hail those who are able,
any mouse can, any mouse will,
but the Guard prevail.”
The book follows the adventures of a small band of the Mouse Guard who have uncovered a treacherous plot to overthrow the current Mouse society. An army of Mice is forming, following the commander known as “The Axe” who preaches a path of war and threatens to rise up and overthrow the peaceful status quo: The Guard Mice have to race against this crazed opponent to return to Lockhaven, home to the Mouse Guard, deliver the news and avert a devastating surprise attack.
(a surprise attack storms the gates in Mouse Guard, (C) David Petersen)
Essentially, Mouse Guard is a fairly uncomplicated and simple tale. Indeed, were it played straight with normal human characters it would be reduced to the level of just another Conan / Lord of the Rings style tale (or even the charming animal fantasy series Redwall by Brian Jacques – Joe). But it is the carefully considered anthropomorphism and the scaling down of the tale necessitated by the lead characters being so very small that turns this book into something special.
From the very start, the emphasis is on the strangeness of living life on a small scale. The Mouse societies live a hidden life, constantly vigilant of the threats they face at every turn. The list of enemies to fear is huge and we’re never allowed to forget how small and insignificant the mice are. Everything is out to get them – if it’s not the predators, it’s the weather or the landscape. And it’s the little touches to do with the characterisation of the mice as living in a threatening alien land that makes this a beautifully thought out book. The town of Barkstone is carefully built “into the trunk of a Locust tree backed up into an outcropping of stone” whereas the Mouse Guard’s city; Lockhaven, is carved into a stone outcrop and protected by a thick layer of ivy.
A perfect example of the Mouse Guard’s use of the everyday and natural as grotesque and unreal comes in chapter 2 where two members of the Mouse Guard have to fight their way through a mob of huge crabs. They’re truly alien in their scale and nature and Petersen does a great job in capturing both anatomy and behaviour here. Unfortunately, the perfect capture of the crabs in the artwork highlights one small criticism I have about Mouse Guard; Petersen’s mice are just a little too cute at times and it jars particularly in the crab scene. Or perhaps I’m just being picky?
(shades of the Incredible Shrinking Man’s battle with a spider in this scene from Mouse Guard: Fall, 1152, (C) David Petersen)
However, despite the mice looking a little cute-sy, the art overall is nothing short of wonderful. Petersen’s working with a limited colour palette, all greens, browns and burnt reds that means not only does the art feel absolutely sumptuous; it also perfectly evokes a feeling of Autumn, of approaching Winter hardships.
And while I’m being picky, a little criticism of the pacing of the story; it just sometimes fails to work very well. Each chapter seems to race past, partly due to a very small panel per page count (1-4 panels on a page almost without exception), but mostly due to a slightly staccato rhythm to the whole thing. The scene transitions and some of the panel transitions occasionally just don’t flow as well as they should. It’s a small thing and it only slightly spoils the fun.
As it’s Petersen’s first book it almost seems unfair to point out these minor problems given the skill and quality he displays throughout. This is a wonderful, original book; incredibly well designed and packaged, beautifully drawn and a story that never really falters too much. Well worth your attention. Petersen has his own website full of material, with a special site dedicated solely to his Mouse Guard series here; in addition to the comics the series’ growing popularity has now lead to a range of Mouse Guard figures due later this year, while we have further adventures to look forward to as well – you’re going to be hearing more about this.