David Petersen is the creator of the Eisner Award winning series ‘Mouse Guard’. After attending Mott Community College and graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a Fine Arts degree in Printmaking, he self-published his first issue of ‘Mouse Guard’ which was later picked up by Archaia. Archaia has published four hardbound volumes of the popular all-ages series. David lives in Michigan with his wife Julia and dog Autumn. Although he is busy getting ready for San Diego Comic-Con, he has graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
For what age audience do you write?
I think of myself as writing for everyone, but I suppose that’s not entirely true. I want my books to have wide appeal, but never by becoming a collection of lowest common denominator ideas. I don’t write down to children, but there is nothing in my books inappropriate for children. I just do my best to write something I know I would have enjoyed and something I would enjoy sharing with other adventure fans. “Mouse Guard” is somewhere in the fantasy adventure genre. The fantasy aspect has mostly to do with the characters being walking talking mice who wield swords, but beyond that, the world acts as our natural world with threats coming from weather and predators. Survival becomes a big focus and no supernatural elements ever come into play (other than some ghost stories the mice may tell each other).
Henry: Let me just add that David’s artwork is spectacular. He makes sword-wielding mice look both heroic and believable. The clever details and color work are magnificent.
Tell us about your latest effort
My latest work is a prequel book to my previous ‘Mouse Guard’ books called the ‘Black Axe’. It tells the story of a mouse named Celanawe (Khell-Ehn-Awe) as he goes on a quest to retrieve a mythic weapon, honor his ancestor’s heritage, ventures beyond any mouse-maps, and encounters predators galore. It was a challenge to write something where the readers already know some of the outcome (based on the other books). I focused on making sure that if I was showing something in the past, it added weight, new understanding, and importance to the facts from the earlier books.
What do you hope readers will get from reading your work?
Mainly I hope that they have a good time reading it and that they get some emotional tug (joy, relief, sadness, etc) in that parts that touch them. I also hope readers minds swirl with questions about what I didn’t tell or show in the illustrations, what lies beyond that hill, or around that corner.
What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging?
Getting it all to fit visually is a struggle for me. Drawing comic pages means that the panels need to be arranged in an order where the reader always knows which panel comes next…but if I need to have a very tall panel in the middle of that page, it can make getting everything else for that page included a real trick. I can spend a few days laying out just one page if I get stuck. I think it’s the part that takes me the longest, and is the most difficult for me. But in many ways, the page layouts and what goes in each panel is more important than the final drawing.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being an illustrator?
I’d say it’s the effect an illustrator can have on a reader. I’m amazed when I hear from readers saying my stories (specifically some of the illustrations) had them crying over certain characters or events. In one issue, a crow is killed by some large weasels. The bird was a companion of one of the main mouse characters, and I had to carefully figure how to show that without going too far. I never showed a weasel actually touching the bird, and I also focused on the reaction of the mouse witnessing it….a very Hitchcock approach. But fans told me how they cried and were so sad over the bird’s violent death and how graphic it was….but it wasn’t graphic, they filled in the gaps I didn’t show in their mind.
Henry: Don’t think less of me, but I’m dabbing my eyes right now.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer/illustrator?
All of my interactions with fans and teachers and librarians are important to me, and would have never happened if I hadn’t ever written or drawn anything. If I had to single out one moment though, it would be getting to talk about image making and storytelling with Mike Mignola. Hellboy is my favorite comic, and I’d met Mike several times before, but one morning before a convention we were both in the same coffee shop and he sat with me and we chatted. It wasn’t about me being a fan and him being the Hellboy guy…we were just talking about methods of telling stories as casually as two other guys may talk about baseball.
Henry: I loved the Hellboy II movie. PLEASE tell us that a Mouse Guard movie is in our future.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors or illustrators?
I’d say that you have to work very had to get better, but know that you need to start your project (and ultimately end it too) before you feel ready to. If you wait to create something until you feel your skills are at their peak, you will never start. And the best way to improve your skills is to start and finish an entire project and then review it with a critical (but kind) eye.
Henry: That reminds me of the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” –Andre Gide
Henry: Nice. There’s also “A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner.”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write or illustrate?
I don’t like to re-do things. If I’ve drawn something one way, I don’t want to repeat it again (unless I have to for effect). Same with writing. I like doing a strong initial pass on something and then only make minor tweaks…re-writing something gets me to feel like I’m rehashing old thoughts and taking the life out of them. I’m sure I have more…
Henry: I write with the help of my kids. They don’t like to re-do (i.e., edit) either. Why can’t it be right the first time? 🙂
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Invisibility used to appeal to me when I was younger. I had thoughts of being able to escape places I didn’t want to be without being noticed (school, my room if sent there for punishment, etc.) I also figured that since I was pretty small and weak, I could still exact revenge on bullies using strategic invisible tactics. Now I’d rather have the ability to freeze time so I could perhaps cacth up to all my deadlines and still have time for a campfire.
Henry: Freezing time is a surprisingly common author response to that question.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
That is a very hard question…partly because if it’s to be a good dinner party, I’d want to make sure the authors would find each other in good company as well (without large language or cultural barriers) I’m going to go with all living 20th+ century writers I admire who I think would keep each other entertained: Stephen King, J.K Rowling, & James Gurney. I really admire King’s ability to set a time and place so vividly you have nostalgia for it as you read it. I love the way J. K. wove details and history and events that all interconnected beautifully over the course of seven books without ever losing sight of making her characters relatable and interesting. And James Gurney because I’m a fan of his blog where he shares his writing and illustrating process. He’s the kind of person who studies physics to be a better painter.
Henry: I have this vision of Stephen King bringing rubber eyeballs and spiders to slip in the others’ food when they’re not looking.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
In general terms, I have to go with talking animals. Part of why I do ‘Mouse Guard’ is because I really enjoy them myself: Wind in the Willows, Aesop’s Fables… But if I have to list one specific creature, I’m also a big fan of dragons. They have a mix of majesty and terribleness that’s hard to beat.
Henry: Well, I’ve seen a Mouse Guard riding a vulture, so why not a Mouse Guard on a dragon? You’re welcome.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing/illustrating?
I enjoy building things with my hands, spending time with my nieces, and playing board games.
Henry: Readers should not that David has created a ‘Mouse Guard’ role-playing game.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
“It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for”
Henry: I just got back from Europe, and one of the things that caught my eye was a postcard with a cartoon monster holding a kid. The kid is firing suction cup darts at the monster. It reads: “Dans la vie, il faut toujours se battre!” (In life, we must always fight!). I also like “It’s not the size of the dog (or mouse) in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Where can readers find your work?
My books are available from your local comic or book shop but can also be found online through comixology, Amazon, and the ‘Mouse Guard’ website. Readers can also follow me on my weekly blog and on Twitter. At the upcoming SDCC, I will be at Artist Alley Table GG-09 most of the Con.
Henry: Some of David’s signed prints also hang in my office, but that doesn’t really help, does it? However, here are some more examples of his stunning work:
Fall 1152 cover
Saxon, Kenzie and Lieam, three of the Guard’s finest, are dispatched to find a missing merchant mouse who never arrived at his destination. Their search for the missing mouse reveals much more than they expect, as they stumble across a traitor in the Guard’s own ranks and a plot to overthrow the Guard itself.
Winter 1152 cover
Legends of the Guard
Mouse Guard Role Playing Game
This article is also posted to the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.