Welcome to the Mouse Territories. Blacksmiths, masons, healers, and craftsmice ply their trades in grand cities and small townships, from the libraries of Lockhaven to the homey inn in Barkstone. But who seeks out the safe ways from village to village? Who patrols the borders and defends the paths from savage beasts and the weasel armies?
Mouse Guard is a graphic novel series by David Peterson, published by Archaia comics. The series has won four Eisners and hit the New York Times bestseller list, as well as garnering the greatest award of all: a cult following of loyal fans. I am one of those fans, and a recent rereading of the series gave me a new appreciation for the power and artistry at work here.
The animal-fantasy premise draws inevitable comparisons to Redwall and Watership Down, but Peterson’s main inspiration was the medieval role-playing games he fell in love with as a kid. He blends animal stories and high fantasy in an immersive illustration style that speaks of his background as a printmaking major, crafting a thoroughly and lovingly detailed mouse civilization. The result is a visual feast, evocative and cinematic, rich with themes of loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair.
Mouse Guard has spun off a fantastic anthology series, an award-winning role-playing game and some really sweet legos. But the main story (thus far) is contained in three gorgeous hardcover editions from Archaia: Fall 1152, Winter 1152, and The Black Axe.
Mouse Guard appears fully formed in this first chapter. The story moves briskly as we are introduced to three main guardsmice—Kenzie, Saxon and Lieam—as well as the other main players: the matriarch Gwendolyn, the mighty keep of Lockhaven, and the mysterious Black Axe. It’s a wild journey full of beast battles, traitorous uprisings, and cataclysmic events that introduce the themes and question that Peterson will build on in volumes two and three. The themes are honor, sacrifice, and duty. The question is: “What does it mean to be part of the guard?”
The second chapter of a story is often the darkest, and Winter is bleak for the guard. But it is also more intimate: the story is still a wild adventure against untold dangers, but this time the story is given more room to breathe, offering deeper character development and life-changing decisions for the mice we met in volume one. The focus on camaraderie, dependence, and character growth make this story, in a sense, the warmest, even as the heroes fight their way through a bitterly cold landscape and their own inner demons.
THE BLACK AXE
In volume three, we finally get the full story of the legendary Black Axe. As much as I love the first two volumes, this is the book that compelled me to write up a review of the series—its execution is simply astonishing. Peterson’s striking visuals and thoughtful pacing were arresting in the first book, but by book three they’ve been honed to perfection. The story sets aside the wide-scale journey of the guard for a tale that is both larger and more personal in scope: Celanawe’s journey is equal parts rip-snorting tall tale and heart-rending Shakespearean tragedy. It’s intended to follow the first two books, answering questions about the Black Axe, but I’ve found it equally satisfying as a lead-in to volume one.
I can’t wait for more. Peterson has a new volume in the works, a story set during the great Winter War of 1149. In the meantime, if you haven’t entered the world of Mouse Guard yet, there’s plenty of time to catch up on the first three volumes, and the Legends of the Guard anthology books are a smorgasbord of comics from some of the most skilled artists working today.
Jonny Jimison is a talented cartoonist and graphic novelist. In addition to a long history of web-based cartoons, he’s the author of Dragon Lord Saga series of graphic novels, including Martin & Marco and The River Fox. Jonny lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.