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Of Mice and Mice – Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #4

December 12, 2010
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I’m afraid I don’t read much new material. Let me amend that — I don’t read much new material as it comes out. If I see something relatively fresh thrown into a bargain longbox like remaindered books at a Barnes & Noble, then I’ll give it a look. My reason for not going having a pull list at my favorite local comic shop? I can’t afford to shell out money for new comics. I recoil at that $2.99 cover price. In light of my willingness to spend relatively significant sums of money for older comics, there’s some irony there. And perhaps an ill omen for the comics industry — hopefully I’m not the canary in the coal mine.

But I digress. Anyway.

I was quite pleased to stumble upon this little (no pun intended) series while rummaging around in a box of stuff one day. I’d actually read about Mouse Guard in some random publication a few years ago, but I put it into the “I’ll probably never get around to reading it” side of the ledger. I’m certainly glad I opened up one of the issues to take a look. It’s quite good.

Thus far there have been two six-issue series (this particular issue is from the second volume), with each installment written and drawn by series creator David Petersen. Every issue is brief, but there’s an astonishing level of depth to the storytelling involved. Set in medieval times in a world devoid of humans, the central characters, brave and noble protectors of their fellow mice, are always near the precipice of death. They travel in a world which is (much like the real early days of the last millenium) unforgiving and unyieldingly harsh. Petersen invests the mice — both through his scripting and art — with a level of pathos that grabs you immediately.

The art is detailed and speaks volumes in the limited space available. On this page, two of the mice have been torn from their temporary snow-shelter by a vengeful one-eyed owl. Despite their respective sword and battle-axe, they’re in deep trouble:

Look at the ice that’s formed on the fur of the mice. It’s a minor detail, but so eloquent. It puts you right there in the freezing  air and the soft, muffling snow.

In a parallel storyline, the most brash and cocksure member of the Guard, Saxon, has offended the Bats who rule the abandoned Weasel Kingdom (just roll with me here) and has been plunged into its darkened depths. After awakening on a towering mound of mouse bones (as seen on the cover), he sets out to wind his way back to freedom. In his meanderings he comes across a skeleton whose cloak and sword he recognizes as belonging to his old teacher. The resulting moment is one that — I’m not ashamed to admit — brought a tear to my jaded eye:

That one sepia toned panel is all we ever get of Loukas, but that and Saxon’s tears (and maybe his little feet poking out behind him) are enough.

The comparisons to other animal properties, whether Watership Down or Mice Templar or whatever else, are obvious, but there’s a searing truth in the Mouse Guard universe that’s quite unique. There’s a frank quality to all aspects that’s quite gripping. I’ve become a fan.

A final aside — My grandmother was a wonderful lady who I spent a lot of time with growing up. She was indomitable, but she had a terrible, and I mean terrible, fear of mice. I was the one charged with cleaning out the traps in her house. I hated that. I liked the mice, and whenever I found one alive I’d pick it up and carry it outside and hope that it’d hop a train to another town or something. Better to be a mouse-hobo than dead, I figured. I felt so bad for them. That could add to my empathy for the mice in this book, but I think the quality of the work on display transcends whatever baggage I or anyone else might bring to the table.

You can find both mini-series in collected editions or, if you’re lucky like me, in your local bargain bin. It might make a nice Christmas present for someone, young or old.

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