David Petersen: A Journey to the World of the Mouse Guard

A comics interview article by: Charles Webb
David Petersen’s award-winning series Mouse Guard returns to shelves this Wednesday with the release of Mouse Guard: The Black Axe, a prequel exploring the history of Celanawe, one of the characters who makes up the titular Guard. Petersen was kind enough to answer a few questions about the series, its inspirations, and questions of genealogy.

Charles Webb: To start things off, could you give our readers a brief rundown of the opening of The Black Axe arc?

David Petersen: In my previous books, Fall 1152 & Winter 1152, the readers are introduced to a character whose true name is Celanawe but has taken on both the title and the mythic weapon “The Black Axe.” This prequel series is the tale of how he acquired the axe. Issue One is a call to adventure tale where Celanawe is approached by an elderly mouse woman named Em about the mythic weapon.

Webb: Could you talk a little about series protagonist Celanawe, a bit? Who is he at the start of this journey?

Petersen: Celanawe is an experienced Guardmouse at the start of the series. He has trained young Guardmice and he talks about that in the issue. We even get a flashback of him presenting his apprentice with a cloak of his own. I’d say he’s comfortable with his life, enjoys the solitude of his work with the Guard, and thinks he has a good handle on everything. It’s not long into the series before he finds he needs more.

Webb: And Em? What about her? She’s kind of -- metaphorically speaking -- getting close to the end of her journey.

Petersen: Yeah. She is playing the role of the mentor in this story to some degree. She is the gateway to Celanawe’s journey and offers up hints about what he wants his life to include. Em can speak to animals other than mice and similar mammals. It’s something I wanted to nail down a bit better, in that, the other animals in Mouse Guard are not unintelligent non-sentient beings, but that because of the barrier of culture and language, when the mice see them, they look like beasts. Think of it as when Europeans first encountered Native Americans, they viewed them as primitive savages, when they had just as rich a culture, language and tradition as any European culture -- they just didn’t get it. So Em is my way of letting the reader know that when the other animals hiss, click, squack, quack, etc., that it is language most mice just don’t understand.

Webb: Genealogy and lineage seem to be important aspects of the Mouse Guard universe. From the mating packs of predators to Em’s motivation for dragging Celanawe along for this quest. Was this a conscious element being weaved into the stories?

Petersen: My mom does genealogy as a hobby, so I knew I wanted to include it to some degree. I had a genealogical archive in a town scene the first book as a nod to her. Most classic stories and myths make use of bloodline and heritage at some point, so it was one of the tools I knew I could weave into Mouse Guard effectively. Though I’m a firm believer in nurture playing as active a role as nature (if not more so), I think there is something magical to family trees being empowering, and not just in storytelling.

Webb: Legends of the Guard was recently collected. How was it working with a diverse swath of talent?

Petersen: It was amazing! I mean, I tried to remain as hands-off as possible, so it was mostly like I got to be a passenger and watch as they created their stories. It was a great group of really talented people who did a great job telling Mouse Guard stories for my audience.

Webb: Are you ever anxious putting your world in the hands of other creators?

Petersen: I wasn’t very anxious about it. The set-up for the book being a series of out-of-continuity tales and legends meant I didn’t need to worry how it would fit in with my books, my stories. I also trusted the people I chose. I handpicked the talent because I knew their work and was confident in their ability to tell a good story in general and that they understood Mouse Guard enough to make sure they fell in with the spirit of my world.

Webb: It was interesting contrasting your artwork with those of your contributors, each of you maintaining the tone of the world while still going in distinct directions. How do you think your own style has evolved over the years?

Petersen: It has become more consistent for sure. I have become more focused on details that I was in the early days. Fall has so many panels with minimalist backgrounds...I can’t seem to do that anymore without feeling like it’s missing something. In general though, I’m always trying to do better work.

Webb: One of the most interesting motifs of each volume of Mouse Guard is how it’s about the telling of tales. For instance, the narration from Celanawe would seem to indicate that its events are being recounted well after the fact. What’s the appeal of this approach for you?

Petersen: With this being a prequel, and the reader already knowing the fate of Celanawe, I felt that having it told to the reader in journal style would be appropriate. With the epilogues and last year’s Free Comic Book Day story, I got to play around with narration instead of dialogue as the text to move the story along. I liked what I could do with it, but felt that if I had a long format story to do, blending dialogue and narration would be a fun challenge. Hopefully it also gives the reader more insight to Celanawe as a character.

Webb: The books continue to be successful, and you’ve got the RPG out there. Ideally, what would you love to do next with the characters and world of Mouse Guard?

Petersen: After Black Axe, and another round of Legends, the plan is for me to do a Mouse Guard series set in the Weasel War of 1149. I have hinted about the event a few times in the books, and it may be time to show the readers that part of the Guard’s history. It will be fun to revisit Saxon, Kenzie and Rand again. In fact, when I first conceived of Mouse Guard back in 1996, the framework of the Weasel War was the first story I had for them.

Webb: Could you tease a bit of the next issue of The Black Axe for our readers?

Petersen: Conrad, another character from Fall, will be introduced (although much younger) and the trio (Em, Celanawe, and Conrad) will start their voyage across the sea. Before they leave though, we get a view of the town of Port Sumac, which was fun to design.

Cover image courtesy of The A.V. Club.

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