The quest to locate child-friendly graphic novels is amusingly difficult. You wouldn’t think finding quality comics would be so hard. The public perception is that comics are just made for kids anyway, so shouldn’t this lead to an abundance of riches? Hardly. You’re lucky if you can find three new books a season that aren’t parts of already existing series. Now, I had heard of "Mouse Guard" before. While drifting about the most recent Comic Con I took some free samples of the "Mouse Guard" comic books. They were nice items, but too short and shoddy to stand up to serious library circulation. A friend told me they’d be bound together at some point, but I never really believed it and "Mouse Guard" fell out of my thoughts. Months later, I received this in the mail: a beautifully bound edition of six or seven of those comic books, now in a handsome edition. More than library-worthy, "Mouse Guard" is bound to remind kids of ‘Redwall’ and the like. The feel and the art, however, is vastly different.
Author/illustrator David Petersen puts it like this; Over the years he’d scribble little ideas about this miniscule world. One of the first read, "Mice have a culture all their own; too small to integrate with other animals." The result is a story that would fit right into England circa 1152. An elite guard of mice is trained to protect the travelers in their realm from natural predators. Three of these guards, Kenzie, Lieam, and Saxon, are dispatched to discover why a local merchant went missing not too long ago. In their search for his remains they discover the seeds of a plot to overthrow not only their home of Lockhaven but also the entirety of the guard itself. A mouse claiming to carry the legendary Black Axe is certain that the guard is outdated and plans an uprising to control all the towns and villages. Only by working together can the guards defeat this scourge, finding an unlikely ally to aid them along the way. End matter consists of maps, guides to residences and professions, and (in a very interesting twist) different takes on the characters by fellow artists and illustrators.
First off, I should tell you that the language here has a stilted awkward nature to it. Unlike some other graphic novelists, like Neil Gaiman or Jeff Smith, Petersen’s language is brief and to the point. Each chapter of the book begins with a synopsis and encapsulation that brings readers up to speed, even if the action and names become confusing. What the book really feels like, oddly enough, is an English translation. As for the plot, it jumps about a bit but is understandable. Petersen enmeshes you so thoroughly in this world that he sees little reason to fill you in on some of the background details. You never hear of the legend of the Black Axe until you’re meeting the mouse who claims that title himself. Similarly, characters are mentioned briefly in passing long before they appear in the book. The result is that you begin to wonder if this is the middle of the saga rather than the beginning. The words are serviceable, but they aren’t the lure you’re looking for here.
The real draw to the series, as I see it, is the art. Author/illustrator David Petersen received his BFA in Printmaking from Eastern Michigan University, making him the first children’s graphic novelist I’ve seen to utilize that particular art form. This means that everything from the mice to the predators to the pockmarks in a castle’s stone is rendered exquisitely beautiful on the page. Petersen constantly shifts his perspective too, sometimes looking up as three mice have a council of war, and sometimes down, as in a fight. The panels themselves expand and contract according to the scene in question. Petersen’s very adept at the breathtaking view of an overwhelming enemy. And the colors… oh, the colors. Orange-red autumnal rains and the dusky purples of the woods at dusk are just some of the scenes that grace this book. With great skill Petersen even plays with light, simulating night and the bright blue sky of a day at the beach.
A very interesting blurb graces the book flap of this title. According to a Mr. Matthew Price of "The Oklahoman," this title is, "An anthropomorphized adventure that will appeal to fans of ‘Bone’ and ‘The Secret of NIMH’." An interesting idea. As I said before, this book is far closer to "Redwall" in its idea of little mousies with big heavy swords. Yet the series that I was reminded of the most, over and over with this book, was Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge tales like, "Summer Story". Obviously the tone is very different, but the visuals have some distinct similarities. In both cases we get intense views of enormously details mouse societies. Barklem was more concerned with bizarre Rube Goldberglike layouts, but both Petersen and Barklem create meticulously details miniature worlds.
"Mouse Guard" falls into that odd little category of books that are appropriate for kids, but that haven’t yet made the leap from the graphic novel geeks to the children’s book geeks. I mean, the comic community has truly embraced these stories. The children’s librarian community? Not so much. This is the problem small presses like ASP Comics face when attempting to break into the library market. However people find it, "Mouse Guard: Fall 1152" may actually serve a new purpose in the future. Kids that like this series could easily be turned onto "Redwall" as well, if they’re not already familiar with it. Whatever the case, Petersen’s created a lovely little graphic novel here. Let’s hope people give it its proper due.