Mouse Guard: Fall 1152
David Petersen, writer/artist
Villard Books, March 2008
David Petersen is a prodigiously talented illustrator, no question. When it comes to being a writer, he may not know art, but he knows what he likes. In its somber, Tolkienesque way, this tale of swordplay and strife amid warring factions of medieval mice warriors is just as much a product of the “art of enthusiasm” school of genre mash-up as Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim or Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja’s The Immortal Iron Fist, or even Neil Marshall’s Doomsday. Without a hint of irony it clearly exists to repackage Petersen’s favorite tropes–Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces, Watership Down‘s red in tooth and claw fuzzy-rodent society, Tolkien’s faux-archaiac prose, Ralph Bakshi’s rotoscoped villains–into a whole that satisfies his own obsessions, all in the hopes that it will satisfy others’ as well.
Mission accomplished on that score, at least for this reviewer, at least for the most part. Listen, I’m sure there are more hardcore fantasy devotees out there who would tear it to shreds for its likeable but stock characters and storylines (three guesses as to whether the black mouse called Midnight is the Guard’s secret traitor) and the clunkiness of the prose (“There I found the record of legend being fact”). Comics readers might object to pacing that frequently gets ahead of itself (introductory text pieces that kick off each chapter deliver vital information skipped by the comic itself; the climax of the story arrives too suddenly). You can probably tell from those flaws whether or not this thing is your cup of meat; there are probably many of you for whom it isn’t. I for one wish the book displayed even a modicum of self-awareness, let alone humor, about itself; I can’t imagine Petersen thinks anything other than he’s making one for the ages, and that loss of perspective hurts him at critical moments, from shading his characters to recognizing the failure of the ending.
But never once did I feel like my intelligence was insulted, a prerequisite for any action-adventure comic that many fail to meet. Nor did I feel like I was “reading” a series of pin-ups or illustrations instead of a comic. For all his pure chops–the lush, textural colors, the evocatively shaky line, the note-perfect cute-savage mouse designs–Petersen does indeed cartoon in these pages. The sound effect for a snake’s hiss weaves sinuously through the foliage. A sudden cut to a goggles-wearing mouse elicits a guffaw. Astute use of photorealism gives predatory snakes and crabs an otherworldly air. Even the format–the pages are square!–speaks to Petersen’s confidence in his vision. It’s not quite fully realized, indeed for anyone other than Petersen it probably couldn’t be, but as comics’ answer to Harry Potter it entertained me enough to tune in next time.