guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

September 2009

David Petersen,
Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (Archaia, 2009). $24.95, hardcover.

By Alex Boney

When I reviewed David Petersen’s first volume of Mouse Guard in February 2007, I closed by writing “On the whole, though, this first Mouse Guard story is a good start to what could be an enduring series of novels.” I’m glad to see Archaia agreed. A few months ago, David Petersen wrapped up his second Mouse Guard series, entitled Mouse Guard: Winter 1152. This new book is darker and more complex than Fall 1152. But it doesn’t veer far from the strengths that made the first volume successful. Petersen is a distinctive cartoonist who plays to his strengths, and the result is another solid entry in what is shaping up to be a sustained and enjoyable series.

It becomes clear early in Winter 1152 that Petersen is telling a more involved, complicated story than he did in the previous Mouse Guard volume. Because the story features several different subplots in different locations, I spent the majority of the first chapter trying to figure out who was who (and where and why). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Fall 1152 is Mouse Guard’s The Hobbit, Winter 1152 seems to be Petersen’s attempt to take the series into Lord of the Rings territory—at least as far as tone and plot intricacy go. Several mice begin a journey together to find food and medical supplies that are in short supply in the winter months, and they get separated at the end of the first chapter. Meanwhile, the mice who have remained in the Mouse Guard home fortress of Lockhaven have to contend with betrayal and treachery left over from the events of the Fall 1152. Thankfully, the collected edition of Winter 1152 contains useful back-matter including a map that helps keep the travel routes and locations straight. This map isn’t necessary, but it is useful in the same way the maps in Tolkein’s books are useful.

The dialogue in Winter 1152 is more somber and elegiac than it was in Fall 1152, and Petersen takes more chances with writing styles. Occasional flashbacks reveal more about the characters and add depth to them. Several songs are mixed into the narrative in the form of background captions. At times, this works. But in a visually-dominant book, these experiments (especially the songs) often detract from the flow of the action unfolding in the panels. And Petersen’s more varied use of narrative devices occasionally leads to stilted, clunky dialogue. On the whole, though, I’m glad Petersen is taking these chances. The result is a more layered book that makes greater use of the full range of the medium. It also gives more depth and texture to a book that could easily be dismissed as a one-trick anthropomorphic gimmick.

Ultimately, no matter how strong the story or dialogue, the true strength of Petersen’s cartooning is his art. In a medium that too often rewards swiping and imitation, Petersen has one of the most distinctive visual styles in all of comics. His palette is on full display in Winter 1152. Whereas the previous volume provided a playground for Petersen’s visual tricks and talents (giant crabs, snakes, beach scenes, etc.), the art in Winter 1152 is more focused, cohesive, and refined. Because the book is set in winter, the constant snowfall sprinkled into the outdoor scenes creates a distinctly beautiful—but also cold and bleak—atmosphere that’s the visual equivalent of George Winston’s December album. Even the indoor scenes—mostly tunnels, caverns, and hovels—look bare and forlorn. This is not a happy book, and the visual aesthetic sets a mood that matches the subject matter well. Petersen’s depictions of his rodent principals are always impressive; how he manages to convey feelings in the faces and body language of mice is astounding. His rendering of other creatures (owls and rabbits in this case) is equally impressive. But the amount of linework and detail he packs into the panels of Winter 1152 makes me linger more in this novel than I have in pretty much any other comic book this year. Near the end of the final chapter, a funeral scene in which the smoke effect is created by thumb-smudged paint technique left me just staring for several minutes before I could bring myself to finish the book.

I do hope Mouse Guard continues to find an audience. In an industry full of very targeted genre books, all-ages books struggle to find a place on store shelves. Mouse Guard is a book that can be read by young readers and appreciated by adult readers, and I hope retailers are able to create a space that will allow new readers to discover Petersen’s work. One final drawback to Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 I’ll mention is its lack of page numbers. This is a common deficiency in comic book publishing that I’ve mentioned before and will continue to pound until comics publishers take themselves seriously enough to treat their material as serious books. This is especially evident in Vertigo books (many of which should be taught in higher education), but it’s also true in books that are fun to read and discuss in groups or in families. It’s simple: page numbers help people write and talk about books. In the end, creators should hope that this is what their work inspires.