When David Petersen first included a pin-up page by a guest artist in his Mouse Guard comics, the idea was to fill out an extra page when he was still learning how to pace an issue.
But he liked seeing other takes on his characters and world by artists he admired.
Art by David Petersen“When Bastian and Mark Smylie turned in their pinups for the Mouse Guard Fall 1152 series, I was so happy with the results that I told them both, ‘You are welcome to play in the Mouse Guard world any time you like,’” Petersen said. “I like both of their work and trusted them as storytellers and loved the idea of seeing more of their take on my world. However, we didn't know how to work something like that into the normal Mouse Guard series without messing up continuity.”
Petersen finally figured the how out with Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard. This new four-issue miniseries from Archaia features framing sequences by Petersen set in a mouse tavern. The proprietor challenges her customers to a tale-telling contest, with one of the three rules being that they “tell no complete truths.”
Each of participant’s stories is then written and drawn by a different cartoonist, three per issue. Bastian, Ted Naifeh, and Alex Sheikman contribute to the first issue, while future issues will include stories by Smylie, Gene Ha, Terry Moore, Guy Davis, Sean Rubin, Craig Rousseau, Karl Kerschl and Katie Cook.
Exclusive Art By Sean RubinPetersen assembled the artists from a list of writer/artists who possessed what he felt were unique styles, with “friends of Mouse Guard” getting priority. From there, they would give Petersen their scripts and roughs for approval, and as long as they met his criteria—no adult language or themes, no gratuitous violence, and, naturally, they were good stories–then they were fine by him.
The first issue’s contributors had no problems meeting those criteria. Bastian is the creator of Cursed Pirate Girl, Sheikman is the artist behind Mouse Guard’s sister Archaia book Robotika, and Naifeh’s many credits works include all ages adventures like Courtney Crumrin and Polly and The Pirates for Oni Press, and the art half of Holly Black’s The Good Neighbors YA graphic novel series.
So Petersen is pretty adept at assembling a list of creators, but how is he as an editor and collaborator?
“He already proved that he’s got ‘chops,’ when it comes to writing and drawing,” Sheikman said of Petersen, “and he can now add editing to his comic book accomplishments.”
Exclusive Art By Sean RubinAll three of the contributors praised Petersen’s ability to open up his world to them, which is an awfully complex place with its own history and culture. Of course, being friends and/or fans of Mouse Guard, the trio had already talked quite a bit with Petersen about their stories before the title even began to take shape.
“I was asked about towns, what animals wear clothing (or don't wear clothing), culture differences between mice of different areas, etc,” Petersen said of some of the questions he dealt with while putting the series together.
How about mouse anatomy?
“The number of digits on hands and feet has come up too,” Petersen said. “For some reason, I do three fingers and three toes...but real mice have more than that. Some artists wanted to do something more in-line with nature, others wanted to keep continuity with what I do.”
Of course, working in a setting so thoroughly defined by a single artist’s vision can provide interesting challenges for artists invited to play in that setting. Do they calibrate their styles to be more Petersen-like? How Petersen-like is too Petersen-like?
“Like most creator owned stories, they only look their best when the person who created them is drawing them,” Bastian said, noting that he didn’t want to stray too far from Petersen’s look, but didn’t want to stick too close to it either.
Sheikman felt the same.
Art by Terry Moore“Being a fan of David’s art, I very much appreciate his style, both in his rendering technique and also his storytelling, but I did not want to mimic it,” he said. “That would not be fair to the fans and it would defeat the purpose of Legends miniseries. So I spent sometime thinking about what made Mouse Guard unique and then I tried to interpret those qualities through my sensibilities.”
The approach they took was to pick up on the things they noticed and admired about Petersen’s work, and then apply them to their own story. For example, Bastian spent a lot of time on costume and weapon design as a way of characterizing his characters, and Sheikman worked with texture, which he felt Petersen made an important part of his Mouse Guard.
“Oddly, I had no trouble slipping in to his world, both in writing and in art,” Naifeh said of that particular artistic challenge. “Obviously, I don’t stylize mice the way he does. I prefer to look at real mice and stylize in my own specific way. My bats were based on real vampire bats, but they ended up looking like gargoyles on gothic cathedrals. But it’s clearly a story from his world, because his world is so unique it could hardly be anything else.”
“ As for the story, I feel very much in step with the way he writes, so it was easy to write something in way that fits into it,” Naifeh continued. “I have a much harder time writing established superhero comics, because I don’t get the style as well.”
And as for drawing stories starring mice instead of cursed pirate girls, sci-fi samurai types or nose-less little girls with magical powers, each artist had a slightly different take.
“That was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge that any artist would enjoy tackling,” Sheikman said, noting the most challenging part for him was adjusting to scaling background elements like trees and grass to tiny little mice characters instead of humans.
Exclusive Art by Gene HaBastian really enjoys drawing animal characters. “When you draw an animal and it looks like the animal you were attempting, even from different angles, it just looks really cool and you think you're really talented,” he laughed. “ Just small manipulations of the eyes or even ears can convey the expression you're trying to get across.”
Naifeh agreed, noting that facial expressions are wired into our brains, and that “you can get a strong range of emotion out of punctuation,” so obviously comic book mice are no problem.
“Artists forget than the first purpose of a comic character is to convey emotion,” Naifeh explained. “Everything else, like realism, or other kinds of virtuosity, is an optional extra. If you sacrifice expression for the sake of other concerns you’re putting the cart before the horse.”
For his part, Petersen is obviously pleased with the trio’s suite of stories. While he’s unsure how he’d feel about letting another artist handle one of his major stories with his main characters Lieam, Saxon and Kenzie, he was excited with these shorter stories on the margins of his epic.
“For longer stories, I’m torn. I feel that I should be the one telling the major stories and history of Mouse Guard and at this time have no plans for it to be otherwise,” Petersen said. “However, if a creator I trusted very much came to me with a one-to-three- issue miniseries that dealt with smaller events or side stories, I wouldn't rule it out.”
In the mean time, there’s three more issues of guest artists visiting the world of Mouse Guard. Well, at least three more issues.
“We would love to do another series or two of this book!” Petersen said. “We already have a half-dozen creators who have agreed (which is roughly two of a possible four issues filled!) Provided the fans enjoy and support the book, Archaia and I are up for it!”