This year, David Petersen's "Mouse Guard" expands, adding two brand new titles to the Archaia published franchise: "The Black Axe" and "Legends of the Guard." While "Legends" will be a cornucopia of tales from a number of other creators, all tied together by Petersen, "The Black Axe" is the next installment in the series proper, going back in time about forty years to chronicle the beginnings of Celanawe, the legendary Black Axe. "'The Black Axe' is going to be a prequel to the first two Mouse Guard books, and the character Celanawe that's introduced in those books is explored during his heyday," Petersen told CBR News. "It's going to be somewhat of an origin story, and I hope to get the readers some information about the character, but without ever ruining some of the mystique. Some questions will be answered, but not every question. I'm hoping it has a little more of a mythological feel than the last two did, a little more like a fairy tale, but not entirely. So, it's still practical, it's still real-world history."
Petersen sees "The Black Axe" as a chance to explore a character that, while an interesting and vital part of the Mouse Guard mythology as an older mouse, had a vast amount of potential for exploration in terms of his youth. "As cool as [Celanawe] was as an elderly mouse, we knew that he had this past where he was really cool," Petersen said. "We got the impression that Conrad [from 'Fall 1152'] also knew him back then, and I thought, 'That'd be fun to do.' Originally, my concept was going to be a short, three to four issue miniseries of the Black Axe. Each issue of that was going to be a one-shot adventure, but I was going to do them all in a row. It would just be fun to dabble in without actually having to come up with too much story. It was just these fun little adventures showing Celanawe being awesome. After I got started on 'Winter,' where I knew Celanawe was going to be dying and Lieam was going to be taking up the mantle, I thought that if there ever was a time to go back and explore this character's history, this is it, because first of all, the character's dead and for fans who are upset about his death, don't worry - the next book is about him. I think it's going to add some importance going forward. At the end of 'Winter,' when Lieam is essentially told that he is the next Black Axe, I want that to have as much weight as possible going forward, as much meaning as possible. We have to see where the weapon came from a little better, and how Celanawe became the Black Axe himself to make Lieam's journey that much more important."
Because of the timeshift in the Mouse Guard universe for "The Black Axe," Petersen says it's unlikely that fans will be seeing any of the mice they've become familiar with up to this point, with the exception of the old sea mouse, Conrad. "I'm figuring most of the other characters we know, if they are born, they're still infants or young enough that they wouldn't play a role," he said. "Conrad, I think, is going to be the only recognizable character. I might do a few other small cameos, but they're going to be so brief that they're just going to serve as Easter Eggs."
At it's core, Petersen is hoping to make "The Black Axe" an origin story, focusing on Celanawe's start during his journey to become the legendary hero. ""I'm kind of in a weird place with 'Black Axe,'" the writer/artist said. "It's like when somebody wants to do any kind of superhero movie and they have to debate between doing an origin story, or do they go right into Spider-Man's legendary battles with the Green Goblin? You go back and forth, and I'm leaning more to where this story's going to be about origin, so there isn't going to be quite as much of Celanawe at his one hundred percent prime as the Black Axe. There's going to be ferrets, there will be a fox, there will be a crow - maybe more than one crow - but that's not to say that any or all of those animals will be fought. I'm not going to say either way on any of them.
"I don't want to take all the mystique out of the character, but I like the idea of seeing that this character has some human flaws," Petersen continued. "Even the people that we put so much stock in, the heroes, come from somewhere and have motivations as to what they're doing, and they're not just simply purely altruistic, like a lot of the ways Superman can tend to be written. He just becomes this perfect being that becomes god-like and has no flaws. He's just perfect. That's not as interesting as many of the other DC characters for me. In the same way, I like the idea of exploring where this guy comes from in a way that still lifts him up as a hero, still makes him seem like he's awesome, still says, 'Hey, he's better than the rest of us.' But at the same time, he's not perfect."
Many "Mouse Guard" fans are already aware of David Petersen's love for the "Star Wars" films and how, in many ways, his stories reflect some of the themes found in George Lucas' sci-fi masterpiece. Petersen mentioned where "The Black Axe" might fit in terms of the "Star Wars" universe, but with a caveat. "I would say that the Black Axe series, and I'm going to preface this by saying even though what I'm about to say may sound like it, I'm not a prequel hater," he said. "I'm hoping that the Black Axe is going to promise for the Mouse Guard world what about half of the prequels were supposed to give us, but I don't think they did. Going into 'Black Axe' makes me a little nervous, because it's the classic prequel conundrum. You can't do anything story-wise that's going to alter what you've already written. You're kind of, in a way, locked into the ending. We know what characters have to live and what characters probably die because they don't show up later. You can't do anything to really change the ending. There's some implied information that the audience is going in with. For example, in 'Star Wars,' we knew that Obi-Wan had trained Anakin against Yoda's advisement, and that Obi-Wan and Anakin had a big duel when there was a falling out and that it was going to coincide roughly to when Luke and Leia were born. We knew that from the classic trilogy. So then we go into this new series, and there has to be something new and interesting. I feel like story-wise, for the most part, the prequels didn't give us a lot more than what we already knew."
"In that same way, I'm in that same kind of conundrum with Mouse Guard," he continued. "You know some stuff about Celanawe, but I'm trying to make sure the information you get with him is going to be new information that won't contradict 'Fall' and 'Winter,' and it'll give you new information, keep you surprised and will hopefully inform ideas about the future. Those are my goals, and I'm hoping I can live up to them."
And while Petersen is hard at work on "The Black Axe," a number of his friends and colleagues have begun work on "Legends of the Guard." Each issue of the anthology series will contain several stories by other creators, which will be tied together by Petersen. "What's funny is that it started out with me and my friends," he said. "There were some artist friends that I had that I knew I could trust to tell stories. Then, the more word spread, bigger names started coming to the table. Jeremy Bastion is such a good friend of mine, so you can assume, of course, he's going to be involved if I do something like this. Then, you were getting people I knew through conventions who I consider myself friendly with, or perhaps even friends, but audiences wouldn't just assume that person was just going to hop onto a Mouse Guard project. People like Ted Nafieh, Gene Ha..."
Other announced creators for "Legends of the Guard" include Mark Smylie, Alex Sheikman and Guy Davis, along with a plethora of others - but Petersen says that this first "Legends of the Guard" series might just be the tip of the iceberg. "Archaia is really excited about the process, as well. They are looking at doing a follow-up if this all goes well," he said. "Basically, I turned in a list to them that was in three parts: People who I've already talked to that have said yes - that was like the Jeremy Bastions, the Katie Cooks, Mark Smylie, Alex Shiekman; People I have either done pin-up trades with in the past or I know are fans of 'Mouse Guard' and I think they might be willing to [participate in an anthology]; and the third tier was people I have never talked to about 'Mouse Guard,' but I'm a really big fan of their work and I think they'd be a good fit, but it's a pipe dream.
"I think just using the first tier of that list, we're full on series one if we can get them all scheduled." Petersen continued. "I'm pretty sure we're damn close to that point, so we've got a whole lot more list to go as long as people continue to agree to do stuff! [Laughs] We're getting people coming to us and asking if we would be interested in them. We're looking at those honestly and sincerely and just trying to fit them in, to make sure the people I put at a higher priority who are on my list first or who have already agreed get a higher priority than people who are coming out of the blue. The goal here is good storytelling, good artwork and a fun book. If we get some more people like that, I'd love to do more of these with Archaia."
Another creator who Petersen mentioned was Nate Pryde, an artist who had previously done a pin-up for "Winter 1152." "Nate hasn't done a lot of published work in comics, art-wise, but he's been working behind the scenes in the comic industry, I want to say for twenty years now - at least in the illustration and comics industry," said Petersen. "He was doing a lot of lettering, and artistically his stuff has been seen more in White Wolf publishing game books. He did a pin-up for 'Winter.' He does gorgeous work, and I'm really excited to see what he's coming up with. He hinted at an idea for a story with me a couple of days ago, and I thought it was really fun. I think a lot of people are taking this as a fun personal challenge to do something different. The way Nate approached me was saying, 'I'm guessing a lot of the other creators are going to do stories about mythic battles or fighting some opponent that's bigger than you, and I want to do something that doesn't have to do with fighting at all, but still has to do with a legendary character. What do you think?' I said, 'That sounds great! I love that you're trying to challenge something like that.'"
The idea for "Legends of the Guard" was originally that Petersen would give creators free reign to do whatever they wished in his universe. However, that has changed somewhat since the series was announced. "But not because of my doing!" he insisted, laughing. "What's funny is that, even before we had gotten anything formalized, there were a couple people who were sending me drafts for their scripts or thumbnails directly. Alex Shiekman is one who I mentioned [early on that] it looked like Archaia was going to go ahead with this plan, and I wanted him onboard, and he agreed."
"Two weeks later, he said 'Hey, I've got some thumbnails I'm going to e-mail you.' I said, 'Wow, okay!' So I look at the thumbnails and I even said, 'Alex, I'm going to give you my opinion as a friend, not as an editor," he continued. "I'm telling you these things not because I'm saying you need to change them, but just as though you had showed me a 'Robotica' page and you wanted me to comment on it.' Because I don't want to be an editor on the book - that's Paul Morrisey's job, not mine. So, I went through it and talked him through some panels that I thought might need adjusting, and a little while later, he came back to me with pencils and wanted me to go over his pencils with him, and then we did that with the inks! I'm not complaining at all, because I love Alex and we don't talk enough! I've told him a couple of times after conventions to go ahead and call me whenever he wants to just chat, and then I don't see him again until a year later at the next convention. We've just been missing each other, not really catching up by phone or that kind of thing. So every time he would turn stuff in, it would give us a chance to catch up about all kinds of stuff, and it was great. I'm not complaining that I had to do that at all, but I thought it was interesting that it was a job I wasn't asking for and [I was] telling people, 'No, seriously! Go do your own thing, you have free reign!' It wasn't just Alex - lots of people have been sending me every step of their process, making sure that I'm onboard with it, which is really cool."
Beyond Shiekman, Petersen has actually seen quite a bit of other work - some of which he's been pleasantly surprised by. "I have seen finished artwork, like one hundred percent finished artwork, from Ted Nafieh," he said. "I've obviously read the story and seen up through inks with Alex Shiekman, [but] I haven't seen final colors yet. Both of those stories are great. Nafieh's stuff is gorgeous. I think it's some of the best stuff I've seen him do recently. I'm not trying to take away from his other work at all, but I had an expectation of what I was going to be getting based on stuff I've seen him do, and I was thrilled to have him onboard. What he sent me was above and beyond that. I was like 'Holy Cow!' I actually got a little jealous of his coloring work. I was like, 'Wow, maybe I should try something like that! Maybe I should try a palette like that, that's gorgeous!'
"What's been rewarding is getting back in touch with creators that I normally only communicate with on a convention type level," he said. "Like I was saying with Alex, I consider Alex a good friend, but I only ever really see him at conventions, and he was on the other side of the country and we don't keep in touch as much as I would like. Then, there are the people who I'm only mildly familiar with, like Ted. I've actually only met him in person once. It was cool meeting [him], I enjoyed talking to him, but our conversation was limited to 'How's the convention going, I really like this book that you did,' and that's about it. It's almost really surface level. So by working on these, I'm actually having more interactions with these people about substance. You're looking at story, you're looking at artwork, you're looking at color, you're looking at fonts. You're really talking about your process and what you believe in, in a way. I'm getting to do that with lots of folks."
In terms of Petersen's own contribution to the series, the Mouse Guard creator be producing both interior pages to tie all the legends together as well as the covers for each issue. "I'm also having a lot of fun doing the covers," he said. "We debated back and forth about what I would be doing on the covers. First of all, we wanted me to be doing covers to reassure fans that this is a David Petersen sanctioned thing. I am involved. I'm not just taking a nap and saying, 'You guys handle it for a while.' We wanted to make sure that my work was still facing forward. We wondered what we should do with the covers - should they reflect the legends that are being told? Should I take a moment from Ted's story or from Jeremy's story, or something like that and try to do a cover based on that? Should I do a cover based on the tavern scenes, which seems kind of boring when the title is 'Legends of the Guard' and it's some mice in the bar. We ended up coming up with something that's just one-offs. It has nothing to do with any of the stories involved, it's just an image that is in itself a legend. I'm doing essentially one-panel comics. It's just one big image that has some amazing thing happening, or something that makes the reader go, 'Whoa! What's going on there?!' On the inside front cover, I'm typing a one-paragraph synopsis that's a history lesson of what [the cover image is] about."
In addition to "Black Axe" and "Legends of the Guard," Petersen has also written and drawn the "Mouse Guard" portion of Archaia's Free Comic Book Day offering. ""It's actually going to be 11 pages. Archaia didn't know for a while," Petersen said. "I got to page ten and went 'Uh-Oh! I can't fit this all on one page I need one more.' They said, 'That's okay, we can fit it. We can work it out.' It's 11 pages. I went at it from a way of saying Free Comic Book Day, as much as it's about honoring existing fans, it's equally, if not more so, about new readers. Not just new readers to Mouse Guard, but new readers to comics. Free Comic Book Day has a lofty goal of getting people to walk into a comic book shop that maybe never have [before], because they're going to get to try out a couple of stories for free and see if it's something they're interested in. I tried to approach this story from that point of view. Let's do something that's got everything - like a Mouse Guard sampler. In the same way as with 'Black Axe,' reading the stuff that came before is going to enhance your reading of new material. Fans of Mouse Guard are going to understand more [of the FCBD story]. I feel like the way I set this up, people who haven't are going to want to know more. It's actually going to get them wanting to read 'Fall' and 'Winter' if the material interests them at all. It's a sampler, it's got a little of everything Mouse Guard is about. It's got fighting big animals, weather, big landscapes, little mice with swords, maps, their day-to-day tasks, things that they've built that are cool mouse engineering, mouse architecture..."
The writer also was able to share some news on the "Mouse Guard" movie front. "We are talking to a studio. I have a lawyer involved where things are...basically it's about looking at the deal," he said. "A deal has been offered to us. We're looking at the deal, things are going really well. It's just a matter of contract stuff with the lawyer. I'm excited about the folks who have shown interest. They're exited about the property and they went actually went so far as to do some concept art to show what they were thinking a final movie would look like and I was sold."
After the conclusion of "Black Axe," Petersen will take readers to the great weasel war and then get back on track, moving forward in continuity - way forward. "There's going to be a bigger gap between 'Winter' and chronologically what is going to be the next book," Petersen said. "I want to leave a gap in there for me so that if I ever want to revisit something in the middle there, I can. I want to leave space in there for the reader, so that even if I don't get around to telling stories in the gap, they can imagine whatever stories they want."
"In terms of story years, the time that will have passed since 'Winter,' I don't know. I would say between five and fifteen years, something like that," he continued. "Although, again, I'm saying that now, but I've still got two series to do before I get there. My mind might change three more times! [Laughs] But that's kind of what I'm looking at, probably closer to the five, but somewhere in there, because I've got some stuff I need to make happen so that when we see them again, some things have changed. In terms of production schedule when that's coming...as soon as I can humanly get to it without losing my mind."