Sunday, 19 January 2014

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 review

I’ve read David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 over a dozen times and every time I read it again, I find new thing to enjoy about it. I don’t remember hearing or reading anything about this comic but somehow I ended up taking the first hardcover edition home with me. The cover was the only reason I bought the comic. Seeing it in the store was enough to convince me to give it a chance and I’ve stuck with the series since. As much as the art was the reason I first read Mouse Guard, it’s also the art that intrigued me on this most recent reread. I’ve recently read Mouse Guard: The Black Axe and I’m amazed by how much Petersen’s art has evolved over the years.

The biggest difference I could notice is how much scratchier Fall 1152 is compared to its sequels. Going along with the less polished line art, Petersen’s colouring isn’t as crisp as I’m used to seeing it now (I can’t confirm that Petersen colours Mouse Guard but no other artist’s name is listed in the credits). It doesn’t seem to be as integrated to the art as it ends up being in later volumes. The mice also look different. Their heads are nearly the same shape that Petersen tends to draw for them now with the exception that they’re not as obviously triangular. The ears stick out more and they tend to be longer than the mice he draws now. Lastly, their bodies are thinner which helps to further contrast them to how he presently draws his mice characters that seem to have gotten shorter and wider in recent years, their overall body shape starting to look more akin to real life hamsters than mice (in a good way). It’s interesting for me to see how the way Petersen draws his characters evolves in the pages of Fall 1152. At times the mice look more like real mice, or at least drawings of real mice but by the end of the first volume, they’re closely resembles the kind of mice drawn by David Petersen. That’s a sloppy way of putting it but Petersen’s art style is as recognizable as any other great artist. You don’t need to be a Mouse Guard reader to know what Petersen’s art looks like and that’s because of the style he developed while drawing Mouse Guard. In Fall 1152 you can to witness the crystallization of Petersen’s style.

Compare this picture to the one on
the right. It's Lieam, the mouse
wearing green.
It's the same character. Look how much thinner and mouse
like he looks in this picture. The picture on the left was recently
taken from Petersen's blog and there is a clear different in style.

All this talk of art and I haven’t even mentioned what Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 is about. The basic idea of Mouse Guard is that mice are such small animals that they can’t properly integrate their lifestyle with other, larger, animals because of the different in size. Therefore, they’ve had to develop a culture of their own but, again, because of their small stature they’re society has developed into a network of mostly self-sufficient cities. These cities are very safe and secretive dwellings, designed to keep the population within as safe and cozy as possible. All of these cities are scattered throughout the Mouse Territories which occupies a rather large area, comparatively speaking. Because mice tend to be nearer to the bottom of the food chain, it’s very dangerous for them to travel from one establishment to the other which is why the Mouse Guard was created. The Guard is located in Lockhaven, near the centre of the Territories and the Guard’s job is to protect the cities and their citizens. They regularly patrol the safe routes from city to city and are also known to escort travellers, merchants and other mice.

For a world that has such a basic setup, Petersen takes full advantage of the world building possibilities. His careful attention to detail is present on every page and the art’s contribution to the story is greater than in most other comics seen on the shelves today. I love the idea of a medieval based mice culture. One of the difficulties that often arise with this sort of story has to do with scale. How big a mouse compared to a snake? To a leaf or a grain of rice? For the most part, Petersen gets the scaling just right. It’s not something I appreciated until I read the Legends of the Guard anthologies in which I witnessed other comic artists struggle with it. Even at such an early stage in the series, Petersen has an eye for detail and it contributes to making Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 an extremely enjoyable read.
Petersen has build several maquettes of
locations that appear in his comic. It's all part
of his detailed oriented approach to storytelling.

With such a simple setup, Petersen could have easily taken his series in dozens of different directions. Fearlessly, he opts to go big but it’s difficult to tell because the story starts so small. Three Guard mice, Lieam, Kenzie and Saxon, uncover a secret plot. Somemouse has been trying to divulge the secret location and the details of the structure of Lockhaven. It appears that somemouse is trying to destroy the Guard. The scope of Mouse Guard isn’t quite as easy to notice and appreciate in this first volume until you’ve discovered where the story goes from there, but all the groundwork for an epic story was laid in this first volume. The story itself moves a brisk pace and it deceives the reader into false sense that little is going on. In actuality, Petersen is building a multilayered world in front of our eyes. It’s difficult to notice upon the first read. It seems to appear out of thing air by the time you arrive at the final chapter. The world building is carefully integrated into the story and it’s all done with the use of wide panels and small speech bubbles.

As if there wasn’t enough to enjoy in the comic itself, the hardcover volume ends with a collection of supplementary material such as maps and other world building information. There is a breakdown of the towns of Barkstone and Lockhaven. There is also a page outlining the primary trades in Lockhaven as well as common trades throughout the Mouse Territories. Lockhaven, for example, has a full time armoury and an apiary. I quite like this section of the book because it helps to embellish the story. The information provide isn’t directly related to the story being told, but it contributes to fleshing out the world in which the story takes place.

You can see the care and attention with which Petersen crafted his story of a group of brave mice who have dedicated their lives to the protection of others. Their way of life is noble and deserves respect and Petersen gives his characters and story the respect they deserve. The evidence is in the comic itself. From the cover to the back matter, the details never let up and it’s presented in such an elegant way that you really get the best of both worlds by which I mean an elegant and simple presentation of a superbly intricate fantasy story. 

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