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.