"The short elevator pitch is 'mice with swords,'" said Petersen, "living in a culture where all the predators of the world are trying to get them. They are food."
Protecting mouse-kind is the Mouse Guard, warriors who escort travelers from mouse city to mouse city, allowing free trade and travel. "The Mouse Guard is there to make sure mice don't become prisoners of their own cities," said Petersen.
"It's amazing how cute and adorable and badass these mice are," said Dysart, pointing to the book in Petersen's hands.
"Adorably fierce," responded Petersen as the audience laughed.
"Mouse Guard" originally began as a high school project, influenced by Disney's animated "Robin Hood" and Dungeons and Dragons. During college, Petersen returned to the idea, this time approaching it "like Aesop's fables...where the animals are actual animals," said Petersen. Realizing he should concentrate on specific species, he set out creating a world populated by aggressive crabs, evil owls and noble mice.
"I treat them all like Tolkien treats races," explained the creator. "Every species I could do, I could come up with their own culture, their own aesthetic, their own beliefs."
Referencing the "Redwall" book series, Dysart asked how Petersen avoided the pitfalls of specifying what a species represents, turning entire groups of animals into stock characters.
"I had to set limits for myself," responded Petersen. Though his original idea encompassed multiple species, the writer/artist began by focusing on the mice. "They are just food. So how do I keep them in the story without them being just the thing that's chased after?" said Petersen. "Oh, they'll become the focus of the story!"
Naturalism was extremely important to Petersen, who painstakingly drew from photo references, often shooting his pictures. When drawing a crab battle, he bought dead crabs from a local market and played with them to get their movements right. When the need to draw a duck arose, he spoke to a friend who owned one as a pet.
"I went over to her place and said, 'Can you make your duck do things for me?'" laughed Petersen. "I just put my camera on burst and got all the references I needed."
"The way you draw, it has this sort of documentarian feel," added Dysart. "You're a naturalist, drawing from the point of the mouse."
Encouraged to self-publish, Petersen released the first issues of "Mouse Guard" as a mini-comic, hoping to gain interest. However, Petersen knew he would have to make his mini-comic stand out among a sea of self-published books.
"I [realized]…I can take legal paper and, without up-charging the cost of my book at all, I can make it look totally different than everybody else's," said Petersen. The resulting eight-inch by eight-inch book not only stood out, it helped sell the comic once Archaia Comics picked it up for publication.
"The first week it came out, retailers were sort of freaking out," recalled Petersen. Since many stores had specially spaced bookshelves that could not accommodate the unusual size, retailers put it next to their cash registers or on easels, making it stand out further.
"It almost became like a point of purchase," said Petersen. "It totally paid off."
"When did you know you had something successful?" asked Dysart.
"'Mouse Guard' came out nationally on a Wednesday," Petersen answered. "The first New York Comic-Con started on that Friday. I had retailers come pick out comics in New York telling me they had sold out of two hundred and fifty issues in two days."
Petersen admitted the structure of the mouse society originally was not going to take up so much of the story. However, when readers began making assumptions and asking how the mouse cities functioned, the creator realized he had to describe the world more clearly.
Throughout the developing process, the idea of the guard being altruistic "was very important to me," recalled Petersen. "It's not the 'Dungeons and Dragons' dungeon crawl where the main characters are in it because they are cashing in on gold. I could make all of their individual goals much more personal."
Dysart pointed out the fact that the Mouse Guard is a matriarchal organization and asked where that idea came from.
"My grandma ruled her house with an iron oven-mitt," Petersen explained, dispensing judgment and advice "with a slice of homemade apple-pie." Petersen said many elements of his grandmother could be found in Gwendolyn, the leader of the Mouse Guard. "That gave me the idea that women can be strong ruling characters without being Bridgette Nielsen-types."
Petersen also let slip there is talk of a "Mouse Guard" movie, but could not confirm anything at this point.
"Do you see yourself staying with 'Mouse Guard' for the next decade?" asked Dysart.
"Sure," answered Petersen. "As long as I can schedule [time off], I'll be able to keep doing this as long as I keep having stories to tell with the mice."