In 2006, David Petersen launched the indie hit Mouse Guard, a comic about mice surviving in a society based on medieval Europe. Petersen's charming but serious tone and beautifully composed, almost antique style of illustration was aimed at readers of all ages, and it landed him two Eisner Awards. Mouse Guard was on hiatus through most of 2008, thanks to a restructuring at Petersen's publisher, Archaia Studios Press. But November saw the return of the series, now on its Winter 1152 arc; a new issue is due out in February. The end of 2008 also brought the release of a tabletop role-playing game designed with Luke Crane. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Petersen about his influences, why he chose to tell a story about mice instead of bears, the latest news on the film version, and how to write for kids without talking down to them.
The A.V. Club: You've been developing the world around Mouse Guard for more than 10 years. How has the story evolved in that time?
David Petersen: Well, the larger concept was originally going to be more like Disney's Robin Hood, where there were going to be lots of animals, and they were going to interact with each other. But once I got to college and started rethinking it, [I decided] I needed to make this more serious, and the way to make it more serious was to make sure that the animals all had their appropriate predator-prey relationships. And I thought that the mice would be the smallest thing I'd really put in that world, and because of that, I then had to come up with some way for them to survive. How do you keep characters who can't interact with the rest of the world involved in the story?
And that's kind of how it became just about the mice. I figured, "Okay, they're the underdogs, they're the more interesting part of the story anyways." The ideas for their characters started hitting me faster. If I had gone with, say, the bears or something like that, it would kind of be a boring story. It's like, you never go to the movie about the baseball team that always wins. That's a terrible movie.
AVC: In Mouse Guard, you've referenced the weasels as the enemies of the mice—but they're much larger animals. Were you worried about how to handle that?
DP: I wasn't before. I'm starting to worry about it, because I plan on making [the fourth series of Mouse Guard] the weasel war. Drawing a war is daunting enough, and then making it believable when the opponents are so much bigger—and then also, just from an artistic standpoint, how do you frame panels where you're not just drawing dots for the mice? One weasel in a panel vs. one mouse, that's not a war. If you've got 20 weasels vs. 40 mice, okay, that sounds more war-like. But by the time you pull back far enough to get the 20 weasels in, the mice are starting to just become dots.
It was easier to put into scope when I had the idea of [using] lots of other animals. But now that it's just the mice and weasels, it's a little daunting.
AVC: As you build your world, are all the details in your head, or do you have them written down?
DP: I have some of it written down now. But no, for the most part, it was all in my head when I started. And because of that, I liked the idea of keeping it fluid. In fact, with Fall , I would routinely go around and talk to other people and just tell them the story of each issue, before I would actually do the issue. And it's kind of like telling a joke. You hear a joke, and then you retell it, and the first time you retell it, you kind of mess it up, or you didn't get the timing right. And then you realize that the person who told it to you maybe put some superfluous information in it. You didn't need to know that the guy was wearing jeans, or something like that. So you take the jeans out. And you start honing down the words of the joke until you get it.
AVC: Does the current series, Winter 1152, feed into the larger story, or is it mostly a survival story?
DP: It's a survival story. It's kind of my Empire Strikes Back story, in some ways. It's dark. It's going to be darker. And the ending isn't going to feel as resolved. When you actually look at where the mice were at the beginning, in issue one, and you look at where the situation is at the end of issue six, there's not a whole lot of difference. The whole mission kind of got bungled by the fact that they got stranded out there. And then it's just about getting home.
A lot of Winter is about character development. And part of the idea was looking at the shortcomings of Fall, and hearing what fans thought of like, how a character acted, or what they thought a character's role was, and then me realizing, "Oh, they don't have that quite right." I left it too open, because I've got it in my head what they act like, or who Kenzie is, as opposed to who Saxon is, or that kind of thing. And so it was just about thinking, "Okay, how do I take the things that are in my head and establish them without force-feeding too much information, and [turning them into] clichés?" Also, Winter starts to bring in the romantic stuff.
AVC: You mean with Kenzie and Sadie.
†DP: I remember writing something about Sadie when I first developed her as a character, and the idea was that she was as deadly as she was beautiful. But I'm not trying to make her a tough character per se. I always felt like if you weren't used to Sadie, and you were hanging out with her, and then a predator came, you would be surprised that she just took out an owl. You'd be like, "Whoa! I didn't see that coming from you at all!"
AVC: In one interview, you mentioned that you and your friends have a common lore, or a common set of characters. Is that something you came up with as you gamed together, or as a drawing collaboration?
DP: A little of both. Some of the friends were artists, and we all liked comics, so at different times, we'd come up with our own projects. And there was always, in everybody's book, an analogue of one of us. And usually the core cast was made up of us, no matter whose book it was. This is the Dave character, this is the Jesse character, this is the Mike character, etc. And that's kind of how the Mouse Guard thing started.
The relationship between Saxon and Kenzie is very closely related to the relationship between me and my best friend. And we are healthy competitors. And we are drastically different. He is one of the slowest people on the planet, until you get him out on a basketball court, and then he's running circles around me. But you say, "Hey, we're going to meet at 10," and I go to pick him up at 10, and he's not ready. "Oh, don't worry, I just have to brush my teeth and put on some clothes." And an hour and a half later, we're still getting ready.
And I'm just not that way. I roll out of bed, I throw on a shirt, "Hey, we're ready to go!" So I'm the Saxon, and he's the Kenzie. They always say, write what you know.
AVC: You've spent a lot of the book drawing nature scenes. Did you grow up in the country?
DP: I grew up in Flint, Michigan, which everyone knows from the film Roger & Me, unfortunately. And even though it was a city, the area where I grew up had some really nice parks, actual wooded parks. Not just like a manicured park. But I grew up in a city, and I live three blocks north of the Detroit city line right now.
We vacationed all over the country, and my favorite vacations were always the ones where we just hung out in Michigan, just kind of explored our own state. So I did a lot of camping growing up, and that's where I think a lot of this comes from.
AVC: Did you have any specific references as you fleshed this out? For example, you've said the Mouse Guard is run by a matriarch. Did you have an inspiration for that?
DP: A strong grandmother. And a lot of people would have guessed that grandpa ran the home. I mean, it looked like your typical 1950s family or before, where my grandmother by all outward appearances was June Cleaver, with the notable difference that if you spent enough time, you really realized she was the one making the decisions. And I think sometimes even my grandfather didn't realize that.
AVC: How did you decide to make a Mouse Guard role-playing game?
DP: I had role-played Mouse Guard back before there was a book, with my friends. They just played their characters. And we had a lot of fun with it. So it was something I was always open to, and a lot of people came by when the book came out and started asking, "Are you a role-player? Is this a role-playing game?" Because they just felt like it inherently had that quality.
AVC: Did working on the game challenge you to rethink the canon, or commit yourself to more rules about the world?
DP: One of the first questions [game designer Luke Crane] came at me with was, "How does one join the Mouse Guard? Like, is it mandatory? Is it a recruitment thing? Do you join when you're young? Is it only an elite few? What is it like?" I was like, "I have no idea, dude! That's a crazy question!" But at the same time, one that I should've had answered long ago.
AVC: You've also been working in children's illustration. You've drawn books for your nieces, for gifts—that must be time-consuming.
DP: The first two that I did for my nieces, I did all on the computer, as a way to try to save some time. I don't know if it did or not. But yeah, it's time-consuming. I love those girls. But the third niece still needs her book. And she's been bugging me a little about how that's coming up. I made her a deal, I said, "When you're 5." So I bought myself two more years.
I did a book for [my wife] Julia called Cardinal And Mouse. I'm the mouse, she's the cardinal. And I did it for her for our wedding. And then for our first Valentine's Day as a married couple, I added a second chapter, which was called "Snowy Valentine's Day." Harper Collins eventually contacted me, and we're doing that as a children's book. But it had to be drastically changed. For one reason, the original story is about eight pages, and they need a 32-page book. But another reason was because they had problems with the interspecies love. And one of my other things I said was, "Not mice." I don't want my children's-book career to be confused with my comic career.
We eventually determined that they'd both be rabbits. I was originally going to do both as cardinals, but they said no, we really need something cute and fuzzy. Children don't relate to birds as well.
AVC: When will that be out?
DP: Because it's a Valentine's Day-themed thing, it's going to be around Valentine's Day of 2010.
AVC: With your comics and your children's projects, you've tried to appeal to both kids and adults. What are some things you've learned about making that work, or things you've learned to avoid?
DP: It's a really hard tightrope to walk. One of my rules is, never talk down to kids. I think a perfect example is tyranny. You want to use "tyranny" in a book, you think like, "Uh-oh, tyranny's a big, funny-looking word." But the bottom line is, every kid knows what tyranny is. If they've been on a playground, they know what tyranny is. They've had the king of the playground be a tyrant to them. It's really just then an opportunity for them to learn that the funny word with the "y" has a meaning they already know.
And if you don't talk down to them, and actually give them a chance to ask, "Hey, what's this mean?" instead of just spoon-feeding them stuff… I think it needs to really go beyond what they know, and are comfortable with, to kind of see what their limit points are. As long as you're not doing anything gratuitous, violence-wise, [and there's] no kind of sexual energy or anything, they're going to be okay with it. And most of the parents that come by, I show them the pages [of Mouse Guard] that have blood on them, they go, "Oh, heck, my 4-year-old can sit through Lord Of The Rings."
AVC: Your comics saw a long delay in 2008 as ASP was being restructured. On your blog, you wrote that you were very determined to stay with ASP. How did you make that decision, when you probably could have gotten a deal with someone else?
DP: I always felt like nobody would want to publish a silly book about mice. So I really felt like ASP was doing me a huge favor by taking the chance on the book. Now everybody goes, "Oh, why didn't you go to Marvel or DC, or try to pitch to them?" Because I would've gotten laughed out of the booth!
So they took a chance on me, and we had solicited issues that hadn't come out yet, so I didn't really have a reason to go anywhere else. There's been some stress over the restructuring, and new contracts. Because basically, ASP's being sold to a company that was asking for a new contract. And we all got to negotiate our own contracts, and it was stressful. Contract negotiation is never fun. And especially when it's a renegotiation, it's even less fun. But it looks like everything's back on track. I've got a contract that I'm happy with now.
AVC: Mouse Guard has also been optioned as a movie.
DP: David Kirschner [producer of An American Tail, Titan A.E., and Miss Potter, among many other things] is interested in pursuing it, and we're just working on getting a pitch together to take to studios to try to get this thing made.
Although that whole process makes me a little nervous too. I point to the [Teenage Mutant] Ninja Turtles as a perfect example, where the movie and cartoon popularity overshadowed the comic popularity, and actually kind of tanked the comic franchise for I think a good decade before it wasn't a laughable property again. Which is unfortunate, because I loved it as a property before it became the Cowabunga Pizza Turtles.
AVC: How would you do the animation?
DP: When I'm drawing Mouse Guard, one of the things I really strive for is to make people believe that the mice are vulnerable. Because if they're not vulnerable, there's no vested interest. So the idea was, let's do CGI mice that look as close to real as we can. So when that snake pops up, you're like, "I know that eats those." And then do live-action backgrounds, because since the nature is such an important part, almost like a character in the books, why pay someone to recreate nature when it's all out there? Just go film it. And then put in the mice afterward.
AVC: As this moves along in Hollywood, have you thought about how you'll deal with the compromises and problems that'll come along?
DP: Probably not easily. I'm probably going to get really frustrated. I already have a couple of times, and we're still so early into the process. But part of it's letting go, part of it's knowing how much control you actually have. Mike [Mignola] was always a fan of saying, "The only person who really gets to do things exactly the way they want is Frank Miller. And nobody gets the Frank Miller deal except for Frank Miller. So give up on that." And I've definitely realized I'm not getting that.