I’ve long harbored something of a fetish for great opening lines. In fact, as my weariness and crankiness increase with age, I find that when I approach a new comic book series I am seldom willing to look any further than the opening line. Like the man in the art gallery from that old comic strip who ignored the paintings in favor of intently studying the EXIT sign (“He’s always been text-driven”), I am a man for whom words have more power than images (I’ll often reach the bottom of a comic book page only to realize I’ve read all the dialogue while completely ignoring the illustrations.) I have neither the time nor the patience for literary foreplay, and as such I often offer a new comic only a single caption (or perhaps a full page) to win me over.
Enter David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, with its cover featuring a warrior rodent, sword held aloft, cloak billowing heroically, gaze stern and alert as an enemy snake prepares to strike. Here is a case where few will even bother with the Opening Line Test, for when it comes to the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, a cover illustration isn’t likely to sway devotees or skeptics, and nor I’d suggest, in the case of Mouse Guard, will its opening caption: “Let me tell ye about the Guard. We mice have little chance in this world, considering all the critters that eats us.”
Cute enough to keep me reading (if also a bit too reminiscent of Tolkein), but the true test of any story in the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, once you’ve committed yourself beyond its first caption or sentence, is twofold: 1) Would the tale still hold up as a legitimately engaging drama if you were to replace the animals with humans? 2) Conversely, if robbed of its other fantasy trappings, would the tale still serve as a compelling glimpse into the world of its chosen subjects, in this case mice?
Mouse Guard succeeds admirably in the latter category; its noble rodents reside in a forest world that is not only intriguing and attractive, but also utterly convincing, owing in equal parts to Peterson’s luscious visuals and his thorough and imaginative consideration of how intelligent mice might learn to navigate and conquer such an environment. The fantasy aspects, on the other hand, might perhaps feel overly familiar to swords-and-sorcery enthusiasts (a band of warriors reduced in peace time to mere escorts, a missing peasant, an investigation that leads to unexpected adventure, characters who speak in terse, self-important proclamations and admonishments like “So tell us, why have three of the Guard’s finest been dispatched?” and “Speak if yeh wish to keep your life” and “It is not we who are trapped in with them, but they who are trapped in with us!”) But while Mouse Guard’s genre riffs might seem tired at first glance, Petersen is a confident and efficient storyteller, and his characters and their struggles feel fresh and different. You might further expect that mice would have limited potential as sympathetic or believable heroes, but everything about these characters invites our devotion, from their firm, proud resolve to their consistently persuasive movements and poses. Petersen knows his mouse anatomy; these are not mere human figures with mouse heads but actual mice who just happen to travel on their hind legs and swing swords at one another.
And golly, do these mice ever love to swing their swords! For a title with such obvious promise as an all-ages success, it is surprising how dark, brooding and violent Mouse Guard can be (though in fairness to Archaia Press, I should note that its website does suggest that a Mouse Guard reader should be at least ten years old.) Blood is a common sight in these pages, and many of the characters have such calmly, casually hard-assed personalities; in fact, here’s a compromise of my own rule, for if these warriors were human I would find their macho bravado tiring, but instead it feels earned seeing as these wee ass-kickers are such natural underdogs when most any opponent they face inevitably dwarfs them in size. Even so, the cute physiology of a mouse makes for a strange vessel for such honor, determination and violence. It is as if someone had decided to adapt Frank Miller’s 300 with mice as the stars. At any rate, I hardly suspect that younger readers will be bothered by Mouse Guard‘s violent battles. In fact, the seventh graders with whom I shared the series were predictably impressed with the fight scenes.
Happily for more sophisticated readers, much can be read into the political turmoil these characters are forced to navigate (“You are a puppet of many and a ruler of few”), but on the other hand none of the sociopolitical commentary is so heavy-handed as to diminish Mouse Guard’s pleasures as a rousing action-adventure, and in addition to my affection for its exciting battles and political wit, I am also (perhaps inordinately) enchanted with the cryptic snippets of philosophy the mice toss at one another. As someone with a tendency to seek not just entertainment but indeed guidance from his pop cultural pursuits, I am always on the lookout for quotes that serve as catchy (and admittedly disposable) self-help instructions. It’s a sort of bumper sticker brand of personal pop philosophy, and the best example I’ve come across since Bruce Wayne’s “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” from Batman Begins just might be Mouse Guard’s “It matters not what you fight but what you fight for.” A barely-perceptible fragment of this stirring motto later appears as the background in a long panel of which two-thirds is devoted to a close-up shot of Lieam — he of the green cloak on the cover — looking defiant and furious as he faces a towering, terrifying reptile. It is a moment of genuine power that thrilled me more than the tiresome posturing of most typical comic book heroes has done in quite some time. And when Lieam grabs the nearest fang of this same reptile in order to pull himself into its mouth to thrust his sword through the top of its skull, well, that can only be what Dave Campbell would call a “F%*K YEAH!” moment. Fellow Guardmouse Saxon’s reply after the fact, a simultaneously bemused and awed “We turn around and you’re inside a snake,” is just one of the many examples of Petersen’s quiet, understated sense of humor.
The scale of the world these mice inhabit in relation to their own diminutive stature makes for some clever, fun and often startling moments, including one scene set in an outpost called Calogero, wherein “It’s mid-morning and… still dark… Something is blocking the windows!” The something in question proves to be an invading army of crabs, and by this point we know the world from the mouse perspective, and thus the arrival of the crabs is a truly terrifying moment. (That this scene leads to the second “F%*K YEAH!” moment in as many issues should hopefully not surprise you at this point.)
I mentioned earlier the two rules of success for the Anthropomorphic Critter genre, and a third rule that applies to comics in general is this: if you were to remove the dialogue (as Marvel Comics attempted with decidedly mixed results a few years ago in a company-wide gimmick called ‘Nuff Said), would the arrangements of the panels and the illustrations in those panels still move the story forward? Peterson rises to this challenge; Mouse Guard falls “silent” for pages at a time, but the story’s momentum is never compromised, and indeed the silence offers an intimacy with the enchanting woodland setting which dialogue might otherwise hinder.
I would be interested to learn how and why Petersen came to the decision to populate his action-adventure with mice. I nearly described Mouse Guard as “his fantasy epic,” at which point I remembered that Petersen wisely keeps his focus tight for this tale, which calls to mind something from Robert McKee’s Story: “The irony of story versus setting is this: The larger the world, the more diluted the knowledge of the writer, therefore the fewer his creative choices and the more clichéd the story. The smaller the world, the more complete the knowledge of the writer, therefore the greater his creative choices.” And indeed Mouse Guard is not a sprawling epic but rather a lean, knowable world, but one with epic possibilities lurking all along its periphery. It could be that Peterson is just a fan of mice, or perhaps he chose to pursue the genre because it has proven to have so many possibilities, for truly Mouse Guard joins a rich, varied and often baffling tradition. The subgenre of Anthropomorphic Critter Warriors alone encompasses such divergent properties as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bucky O’Hare, Earthworm Jim and the Redwall series of novels; lose the warrior component and you open the floor to everything from Beverly Cleary’s Ralph series (starring, like Redwall, a mouse), Watership Down, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, Pooh Bear and his Hundred Acre Wood buddies, Orwell’s Animal Farm, the Cowardly Lion of OZ and all the assorted misfits and lunatics of Warner and Disney’s respective rosters, plus far too many more to bother trying to list.
Nor is this anthropomorphism by any means an exclusively American phenomenon. Every culture and ethnicity offers its own variations (the Japanese catbus introduced to bewildered American audiences in My Neighbor Totoro is a memorably exotic example.) You could do worse, in seeking a brief but fascinating distraction, than to type “anthropomorphic” into the factually unreliable but always entertaining search engine at Wikipedia; the results delve heroically into everything from religious condemnation of anthropomorphism to its representation in various religions (Shamanism, Hinduism, etc.) to its representation in Artificial Intelligence.
One facet of anthropomorphism which Wikipedia is not equipped to cover is the simple matter of why audiences find animal humanism so endlessly compelling. Anthropomorphism has manifested itself in everything from our advertising (the Budweiser Frogs and their canine ancestor Spuds McKenzie come to mind) to our pornography (and Wikipedia is helpful here, too, with a cheerful glossary of terms including “furvert” and “plushophilia”). From Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat to Marilyn Manson’s delightfully absurd “Tainted Love” video (featuring a hilarious hip-hop incarnation of Manson in bed with a number of scantily clad hotties with large, creepy-cute plush animal masks), this imagery and these themes keep recurring in the stories we tell ourselves. Many people I know like to boast that they feel more sadness at the passing of an animal than a fellow human; could it be that it is easier for a reader to sympathize with and root for a character who seems on some primal level more pure or innocent than we poor, flawed humans? Do we secretly long to carry ourselves with the quiet dignity of some of our favorite animals? Or am I perhaps reading too much into a phenomenon which might just as likely boil down to our shared bias for shit that’s cute?
Whatever the social, spiritual or sexual significance of this most unlikely yet most enduring of hybrid genres, David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, with its well-paced action, subtle and inviting characterization and simultaneously cute and thrilling artwork, is a worthy addition to its history. And while that may seem like faint praise in a genre populated with pizza-scarfing, catch-phrase-spewing turtles and bad feline porn, Mouse Guard would be a standout in any genre, and in any medium.