Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard volume 1 and 2 review

David Petersen has created something special with his Mouse Guard series. Fantasy series populated with anthropomorphized mice is by no means a new idea but if popular culture has taught us anything is that old ideas can be made new again when creators bring a new perspective to it. Genre stories often use very similar building blocks to their fictional worlds and their stories but by using different approaches you can still create significantly different and even original works. This is exactly what Petersen has done with Mouse Guard. The anthropomorphized mice of the series live in hollowed out trees and in burrows. They have a league of courageous mice that patrol the outer borders of the Mouse Territories. They are the Guard.

This simple concept has given Petersen plenty of story ideas. Combined with his beautiful art and square pages, as opposed to the traditional letter pages used in comics, he’s made a mini fantasy epic in comics form. His panels and page composition aren’t just interesting but they contribute to giving the series a different style and tone. The best thing about the comic though is that it’s still ongoing. Like many other epic fantasy series, the wait between volumes can be difficult to handle. That’s where the Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard spin-off series comes in.  

Petersen thought up the idea of Legends of the Guard after Jeremy Bastian and Mark Smylie submitted their pinups for the collected edition of Mouse Guard: Fall 1152. It was his opinion that both creators effectively capture the tone of the series. Knowing that they’re also skilled storytellers of their own, Peterson thought it might be interesting to invite other writers and artist to contribute stories set in the Mouse Guard universe and create an anthology title to act as a sister series to the main title. The idea was to have other creators contribute stories without having them clash with the main story being told exclusively by Petersen. By choosing to do an anthology series with bookend stories by Petersen himself, he was able to have his cake and eat it too. He also took advantage of this new title to include other legends he’s thought about on the covers of Legends of the Guard (the cover art also appears as tapestries on the walls of the tavern in which the stories take place).

A few years later we now have two completed volumes of Legends of the Guard. I have to admit it’s a great idea in concept and it certainly works in practice but like most anthologies, some stories are better than others and some can’t help but be disappointing in comparison. Both stories take place in the June Alley Inn in Barkstone in the year 1154 (a couple of years after the events of the main story by Petersen). June, the Inn’s owner, organizes a contest for her regular patrons. For those who which to participate, they must tell a story. After each story has been told, June will pick her favourite and clear the tab. All of the other participants must pay off their tab in the next seven days. There are only there rules during the contest: “Tell no completed truths, no completed falsehoods, and tell me a tale I never heard.” The anthologies are made up of the stories told by the mice at the Inn and each volume ends with June’s declaration of the winner (you can’t help but think if it’s also Petersen’s favourite). In honour of the structure of these volumes, I will review some of my favourite stories for each book.

Volume one:
“The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse and the Fox’s Mouse” by Jeremy Bastian
For those who are familiar with Bastian’s work, perhaps from his Cursed Pirate Girl comic¸ his art is something to behold. It’s reminiscent of carvings more than traditional comic book art and it works really well for the kind of stories he tells. As a fantasy story, it’s difficult to think of many art styles that would be better suited for the tale. His story is set in a time when mice were hired by other animals to act as their protectors. Sometimes these mice warriors would be used to end feud between two animals.

As it were, a field hawk and a fox have a disagreement to settle and their mice protectors duel. The execution and the resolution of this short story are nothing short of impressive. It’s a grandiose story with which to kick off the Legend of the Guards series.

“Bowen’s Tale” by Karl Kerschl
This is a simple silent story that reminds us just how difficult it is to be such a small creature in such a large world. Bowen is nearly trampled in the heart of winter by stampeding elks (or caribou, maybe). It’s the art and the silence that makes this story stick in my mind. It’s very simple but there is a majestic quality to the elks and quite acceptance by Bowen that this is just another reason that the life of a mouse is difficult and dangerous. It’s kind of humbling to see what these guys have to go through just to survive.


“Crown of Silver and Crown of Gold” by Mark Smylie
It might be a little unsurprising that Bastian and Smylie, those who inspired Legends of the Guard with their Mouse Guard pinups provided some of the best stories in the first volume. They really understand the style of the story and their stories also work well with their own artistic style. Smylie’ story deals with the madness of kings in a time when mice were organized as kingdoms. Knowing the current structure of mouse society it’s clear how this story will end but the execution is entertaining and enjoyable.

“Potential” by Sean Rubin (art) and Alex Kain (story)
Rubin is another artist whose style suits the world of Mouse Guard. This superbly drawn story is about the price the Guard is willing to pay to safeguard their fellow mice, even in the smallest of settlement. It also shows the undying spirit of the Guard. Their willingness to face danger to protect others is one of the way in which is continues to fill its ranks, by inspiring others to do the same. “Potential” gives us insight as to why the Guard works so hard to protect the Mouse Territories and exactly how they do it.

Volume two:
“Leviathan” by Alex Eckman-Lawn (art) and Nick Tapalansky (story)
The subject of this story is easy to guess by its title. It must be very difficult to write such short comic book stories. With only six pages, the writer and artist have no time to waste and so “Leviathan” deals with the idea of other Guards in the world. What elevates the tale is that it’s presented as but a single chapter in the legendary exploits of Tiernan the Brave’s other adventures.

“Love of the Sea” by Christian Slade
This is yet another silent story with spectacular art. Rich in detail, “Love of the Sea” doesn’t break any new ground (it doesn’t have the page count necessary to do so) but Slade still manages to offer us bravery, high sea adventures and an impossible romance that survived the ages.

“The Thief, the Star-gazer, the Hunter, and the Tailor” by Cory Godbey
Mice and a dragon. Need I say more?

“Back and Forth” by Jackson Sze
A young Guardmouse is accompanying an older mouse whose job it is to map safe routes from one settlement to the other. The young Guard is bored and thinks little of his mission. Along the way he discovers that the older mouse displayed the kind of courage and sense of duty of some of the most respected Guardmice. I wasn’t initially taken by Sze’s digital paintings but by the end of the story I was quite impressed by his take on the world of Mouse Guard.

Epilogue: “Just a Printer” by Dirk Shearer and David Petersen (first page)
A little story with a twist, this epilogue to the second volume tells the tale of Allister, June’s husband. He is a printer and “Just a Printer” recounts a time when Allister played an important role in a victory against a warring mouselord.

Like most anthologies, not all of the stories collected in the two volumes of Legends of the Guard are great. Some are entertaining enough but they’re light and ultimately forgettable. However, some creators took the opportunity to try and tell miniature sagas of grand proportions as befitting the world of Mouse Guard. Like the mice characters of the story, these shorter works by talented comics professional have more to offer than what people would typically credit them for. Not all anthologies are great but these two have enough impressive stories to make it one of the better comic book short story collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment