It's been a long time coming. Over two years since the close of the Archaia published "Mouse Guard: Winter 1152," Celanawe, the legendary Black Axe, died in his protégé Lieam's arms. This week, Celanawe comes back to life in the newest installment of the Mouse Guard epic, "The Black Axe" – but not in the way you might think.
"We start off with Celanawe before he has the Black Axe, when he's a guard mouse," explained "Mouse Guard" creator David Petersen. "His thing is kind of training tenderpaws and leading a secluded life, which is an echo back to how we find him when he does have the Black Axe, leading a secluded life. Suddenly, adventure swoops into his life, quite literally, and throughout the series we get him with the Black Axe."
"Mouse Guard: The Black Axe" is quite literally a prequel to the events of Petersen's first series, "Fall 1152," divulging the origin of the wizened and deadly Celanawe as a younger mouse coming into possession of his famous weapon, the Black Axe. The events of this new series may take place before "Fall" and "Winter," but as Petersen told CBR, he's planting a few plotpoints in this series that will sprout into a major surprise further down the line, well after the events of "Winter 1152." "There's one big thing that I can't talk a whole lot about," the creator said, mentioning that the mini serves as an origin for the early development of the Guard itself. "I know that there are lots of little seeds from a roleplaying aspect – city development and the way that cities work. I try to take readers, not just fans of the roleplaying game, to a new location every now and then. There are going to be two mouse cities that we'll certainly see during the series and that will play in at some point in the Mouse Guard series anyway, because at some point we'll go back there, or there's more information there, or when I name drop that city again, the readers will have a better understanding of what I'm talking about. There's all kinds of stuff like that – side characters, Saxon's mentor Lukas is mentioned."
An additional payoff for longtime readers will be the inclusion of Conrad, the mouse from "Fall" who valiantly sacrificed his life to a plethora of crabs to allow Sadie to escape and warn Lockhaven of the coming danger. "Yeah, Conrad's definitely there. With any series I'm trying to deepen what I've already done," said Petersen. "I'm trying to explain some of the things I've hinted at and at the same time open some new questions. But yeah, there's a relationship going on between Conrad and Celanawe, kind of like Celanawe and Lieam, but not in the same way. Conrad, as you know from how he behaves in 'Fall,' even though ultimately he's a hero, is not a Lieam. So, the results are very different."
The mention of Saxon's mentor Master Lukas and Conrad's previous relationship with Celanawe both serve as fitting examples of how the "Mouse Guard" universe has grown by leaps and bounds since "Fall 1152" - and Petersen is making sure he has his bases covered continuity-wise in "The Black Axe." "It hasn't been terribly difficult [keeping track of continuity]," he said. "I'm pretty good, but I have a copy of 'Fall' and 'Winter' and the RPG all right on a little cubby on my desk by my computer where I draw. I have access to all that material, I don't have to rely on just my memory, and I do pull those down quite a bit. I flip through and make sure I'm remembering names and dates or ages and all that kind of stuff correctly."
"I've also made a spreadsheet of all the mouse characters that have ever been mentioned. I have a big table that has all their names and columns of their birth year, their induction into the Guard, when they died (if they died) or when I plan on killing them, what their cloak color is - any important details like what they mean in story terms or what they mean to another mouse or who their mentor was," Petersen explained. "The table isn't by any means filled out completely, but there are some characters where everything is mapped out. There are others where I put in what I already have and if I get a little further, like while I'm developing 'The Black Axe,' I start filling those pieces in. I slowly start working the chart to full, although it seems like I'm always now adding a new character. The minute I make a character, if it's a mouse's mentor or somebody that was at Lockhaven who mentioned that when they joined the guard they were apprenticing with the weapons master of Lockhaven and that was so-and-so, now I have to write down that character's name and that they were weapons master of Lockhaven from this date to this date. Because I know that if I ever show the weapons master of Lockhaven during a time period and I get it wrong, my fans will call me out!"
The chart is not a new development for Petersen as he created it over two years ago as the scope of the series began to hit him. "Somewhere in 'Winter' I started making it, and I got much more serious about it during the development of 'The Black Axe' because I was dealing with big chunks of history changing," he said. "'Fall' and 'Winter' were back-to-back story, but with 'Black Axe' being about 50 years in the past, I had to do all my math and make sure everything lined up."
In addition to lining up continuity, Petersen has been hard at work balancing the action and story fans have come to expect from a "Mouse Guard" series. "I think it'll be a good mix. I don't want to mess too much with a formula that has worked in the past," Petersen told CBR. "With 'Fall,' we had a couple of big creature battles, we had a couple things that were more just story, we had some quiet moments and the same kinds of things I did for 'Winter.' I switched it up - 'Fall and 'Winter' are obviously very different stories, but I put in a couple of creature battles and then had some high adventure and action with some quiet moments and general storytelling. 'Black Axe' will be the same kind of thing. I don't think I'm brave enough yet to take out any one of those elements and still call it 'Mouse Guard.' In 'Black Axe,' right away, there's some kind of creature attack, but I handle it differently than I did in previous series. There will be some of that, and big versus little is always a big part of 'Mouse Guard;' how the cities work and how the mice treat each other is a part of 'Mouse Guard.' We'll get both of those."
Of course, no "Mouse Guard" story would be complete without new additions to Petersen's menagerie of wonder. Who could forget "Fall 1152's" epic snake battle or how, during "Winter 1152," we had a chance to see a handful of mice fight an angry owl and a horde of bats? This time, readers will have a chance to see a whole new spectrum of wildlife. "Fishers show up. They're in the weasel family, but they're pretty big. In size, they're right between otters and weasels. They're big," Petersen said. "We've got those, we see a squirrel, a crow or two, a duck, ferrets and there's another big one I don't want to spoil!"
It's no secret Petersen draws inspiration from George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, and in a previous interview with CBR, Petersen mentioned his hope that "'The Black Axe' was going to promise for the 'Mouse Guard' world what about half of the [Star Wars] prequels were supposed to give us, but I don't think they did." With the series is about to begin, he's still working on making that hope a reality.
"I'm still working on the series, so I'm constantly worrying about the lesson Lucas gave us with the prequels," he said, chuckling. "I'm always trying to make sure I'm coming up with something, something going on that's more interesting than the base information that the audience already knows."
Petersen was also quick to mention he is, by no means, a prequel-hater ("Not at all!" he exclaimed), but he felt there was definitely something missing from the "Star Wars" prequels he hopes to include in "The Black Axe." "There wasn't enough that was different from we already knew as old-school Lucas fans. I want to make sure my old-school Mouse Guard fans get something out of this; it's not just a six issue recap for them."
In fact, Petersen mentioned his main hurdle at this point has been in tracking the story's finer points. "The biggest challenge so far has been getting the story where it needs to be, even if that's just details," he said. "Part of it is the Lucas thing, making sure that I'm giving something more, but at the same time keeping on track with the main part of the story. Introducing characters is hard, introducing new parts of the world can be hard without them just getting mired down with the whole issue explaining the way a city works. All that kind of stuff. It's keeping the story moving and giving the right amount of information. Also, just the sequel curse or sophomore curse of anything. Even though this is my third series, I still have to keep on par with everything I've already done, if not make it better. Currently, I'm spending way too much time trying to make it better and getting locked down on pages for way more time than I should, inking in little details and tweaking the coloring – just trying to make each page the best that I can. I should probably go a little faster," he laughed.
Of course, each "Mouse Guard" series is not without its rewards for Petersen, and the creative process for "The Black Axe" is no different. "Part of [what's rewarding] is the coloring," he said. "I think every series has a slightly different color palette. I'm still learning what I'm doing in terms of coloring, I think. I feel like this is where I'm turning a major corner in coloring. The palette is helping. It has a very yellow feel to it, overall. I'm even noticing, now, that I have to come up with different color choices for the minutia because everything is ending up in this warm yellow type of a thing, which obviously is a bit of my comfort zone. Some of it is my go-to color palette. I've got to switch up some details to make sure there are other things that can draw your eyes to the panel.
"Also, the inside front covers on 'Fall' and 'Winter' included a synopsis of what happened last time during the issue, with an illustration and a poem or a saying or something," Petersen continued. "This time around, they're more illuminated manuscript pages. So there are six new pages that I did a while ago. They're all done, they're not getting changed. I did that partly to keep me on task because they echo what's going on in the series overall. Every one is a little bit of a dictation for me to make sure something rings out clear in the issue, whether it's the sentiment or the overall story – some kind of nice parallel. That was really rewarding."
Although fans might be clamoring for a giant, 30-issue epic relating the origins and adventures of Celanawe, this six-issue series will only cover a limited span of time in the popular character's life. "It's not terribly long before the series wraps up, but there's a reason for that I can't really discuss," said Petersen. "Part of it is also that I felt that trying to do both an origin story and a 'hey-look-at-all-the-cool-stuff-Celanawe-did-with-the-Black-Axe' are two separate series. That's not something I can fit into one.
"I'd say it's a good close," Petersen continued, referring to the series' conclusion. "There's a cliffhanger in the sense that every story leaves the reader wondering what happened next. Even when it is pretty well wrapped up, I think fans still think, 'There's got to be something more! What happened with this?' So, there's a little bit of a cliffhanger, but for the most part this is a wrap-up ending that will illustrate a point that will carry us into the next 'Mouse Guard' series."
Though plans are far from solidified, Petersen does have more ideas for the character of Celanawe and what brought him to the point readers met him in "Fall 1152." "Right now I don't have anything locked down, but yes [I'd like to revisit this time period]," he said. "Splitting up an origin story with Celanawe and the Axe and Celanawe with the Axe are two separate series. I don't have a plan yet for what the Celanawe with the Axe series is going to be, but not doing that would be foolish."
As for the future of "Mouse Guard," plans for a second "Legends of the Guard" series have already been announced and, while he couldn't say much, Petersen did mention that talks for the "Mouse Guard" movie were still going on, though details are limited at best. "There's nothing I can really talk about. Things are still where they were, which is that we're talking, there are negotiation type stuff being done."