David Petersen’s Mouse Guard: Fall and Winter draws you in with the art and keeps you reading with the story. That may sound simple, but so many comics these days do one or the other--and just as many do neither. Petersen constructs his universe with a Tolkien-like precision and then, stuffs it full of realism and adventure. Instead of magic and monsters, Mouse Guard is populated with the animals that surround us every day. Maps, and world building details--and even the characters' way of speaking--provide glimpses into the much larger world of Mouse Guard. The overall effect is akin to being in high school Social Studies and that one bit of cultural anthropology or off-to-the-side history that sticks with you and sends you to the library to do your own amateur nerd research.
Despite Petersen's rarefied, handmade world, Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard shows the comic handed over to other creators. The legends work with varied degrees of success, but it's always interesting and unsurprisingly, the more these stories have in common with Petersen's Mouse Guard, the better. Jeremy Bastian’s legend “The Battle of the Hawk’s Mouse & The Fox’s Mouse” continues Petersen’s focus on realism and universe, but adds in some classic fairy tale elements into the mix as well. It’s really an origin story, but Bastian makes the ending very close to being a parable or fable--and the simple fact that the story has plenty of different interacting brings up memories of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
The structure of “Battle” is delicately balanced, with each strand of narrative carrying individual meaning that both supports the story and Petersen’s universe. It's formally perfect, with everything lining up or counter-acting. In "Battle", two opposing feudal states of the Fox and Hawk are set up the same with minor differences and the same goes with their mouse underlings. Each mouse servant is allowed to keep one companion mouse. One chooses a wife while the other chooses a son.
The pages where each mouse and their predicament are presented have mirror layouts and are reminiscent of Petersen’s Social Studies textbook tone. Looking at the pages is almost like looking at arrangements of “typical period costumes” in history textbooks. The strong parallels between opposite sides supports the story in its final panels when the mice come together and realize for the first time that they are really all on the same side.
Bastian’s art has the same supportive effect. He is more detailed oriented than Petersen giving his story a distinct ancient quality. It also respects the power Petersen has placed in the carnivores that populate his world. It enhances the story by providing a gravitas to the potential origin of the Mouse Guard.
An interesting subtext in the story the way it subtlety presents a balanced view of history. It takes place in a time before any mouse civilization and is heavily described by the narrator as being complete chaos. Despite the grim description of the time period, the hawk’s mouse and the fox’s mouse both have extremely intricate clothes and weapons giving the impression of some sort of structure to the society. It reinforces the idea of the story that mice have a great potential, but it also reflects how people think of the past in terms of lack of current technologies or societal institutions and not in terms of the actual daily life of that age.
The narrator comments at one point that even though this special arrangement between predator and prey is tyrannical it was still a better alternative to the other options the mice had. It's a smart way for Bastian to humanize the time period and to basically say to judge the past on it's own terms.
The other stories in issue #1 are enjoyable, but don't carry the same weight as Bastian's. They feel like they could have been told anywhere whereas Bastian's inhabits the Mouse Guard universe and fully understands what makes Mouse Guard worth reading. The art in "Battle" is clearly gripping, but the focus on the humdrum details of daily life of the characters in between their adventures is what makes Mouse Guard stand out from other animal personified adventure comics.