Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

Tough medicine -- and great satire -- goes down easier in a funny-animal pill, when animals serve as icons for human concerns.

Publisher: Archaia Studios Press
Length: 192 pages
Writer/Artist: David Petersen
Price: $24.95
Graphic Novel: Mouse Guard: Winter 1152
Publication Date: 2009-08

Because a talking animal wearing human clothes is a ridiculous concept to begin with, most funny-animal comics tend toward exaggeration. In Krazy Kat’s world, where Ignatz Mouse can throw bricks, why not go crazy with stylistic innovation? In Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge books, in which the world’s richest sentient being is a money-mad duck in a top hat and smoking jacket, what’s to stop him from adventuring in Mayan ruins, or in outer space?

Of course, the funny-animal form disarms human readers. Uncle Scrooge is a scathing critique of American capitalism under the guise of duck feathers. Walt Kelly’s Pogo eased readers into its leftist politics because Florida swamp critters conveyed the message. Tough medicine -- and great satire -- goes down easier in a funny-animal pill, when animals serve as icons for human concerns. We can laugh at ourselves when we think we’re just laughing at wisecracking rabbits, which is why Looney Tunes cartoons get funnier, and sadder, as we get older.

Realism, however, is harder to pull off in the funny-animal form. Art Spiegelman’s Maus depicted the Holocaust with cats and mice, and did it well, but that’s because the Holocaust was so overblown, horrific at an incomprehensible level, that it seemed exaggerated; doing it with rodents almost evened the scale. Jeff MacNelly’s Shoe is a newspaper sitcom with birds. Lewis Trondheim gets away with drawing himself as a bird because his nonfiction misadventures are as hilarious (and brief) as a daily strip. Still, funny animals and mundane life rarely mix well.

Enter David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Winter 1152, a case study in the problems inherent in such a mix. It’s a fantasy comic populated by medieval rodents but it’s drawn realistically enough to evoke the actual world, to scale and with realistic anatomy. At the same time, its protagonists are talking animals who live in castles, and the milieu draws from realms created by fantasy writers -- J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 wants to maintain the conceit of talking mammals but also desires the gravity of an epic tale. This tension -- between art that constantly reminds us of mundane reality vs. writing that’s complete fantasy -- never resolves well in this comic. In part, that’s because Petersen is no Tolkien. Petersen expends considerable draftsmanship in conceiving a universe, with histories and mythologies, languages, and literatures. To this end, each chapter includes a poem by the “scribe” Roibin that sums up various points in mouse history, in the same way that Homer used epic poetry to transmit heritage for future generations.

Mouse Guard’s poems, however, are bad -- the snippets that we read are simplistic and metrically clunky. The stilted faux-medieval dialogue trip up the story. And the story itself is a simplistic quest narrative, told for the umpteenth time. The Mouse Guard, protectors of their home community Lockhaven, travels to find "The One Elixir That Will Save the Village During a Moment of Dire Need". Naturally, they get split up, and struggle to make their way back home. It’s pedestrian fantasy, and fragmenting the story into subplots only heightens its overall slightness.

If Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 were well-paced, I’d forgive its narrative flaws. But the art is too too self-consciously interested in being admired to be a page-turner. There are no zip lines, wild gesturing, or sense of humor that might propel the narrative. Its high detail and quest for verisimilitude means that each panel come across as a still-life. Individually, the panels are gorgeous. Taken together, though, the pages feel like arranged sets of photographs rather than a living, breathing comic. It’s technically superb but almost completely inexpressive.

That flatness extends to the character designs and the lettering. The mice look like real mice, which is to say that they aren’t distinct from each other when placed side by side. Until the Guard splits up, I couldn’t tell one member apart from the others. They all talk with the same diction, and with the same blocky computer lettering. I had to re-read sections just to remind myself who’s who.

A lot goes on in Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 -- a traitor’s exposure; a showdown with an owl; a descent into an abandoned weasel cove; and a tearful reunion between a warrior and his mentor. These strands are loose threads -- borrowed from other, better fantasies -- that are tied together only by Petersen’s technique. Petersen’s clearly read his Tolkien. I wish he had read his Barks, too, and borrowed ideas from comics grammar as well as fantasy-literature conventions.

Because he didn’t, Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 lies inert on the page. None of it sizzles and none of it lingers. It’s a lovely design showcase, but it’s a lousy comic.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.