By C.J. Bunce
In his very best storytelling in the world of Mouse Guard so far, David Petersen takes us through his unique style of beautiful words and illustration on an epic adventure in Mouse Guard: The Black Axe, as noble mouse Celanawe (pronounced khel-en-awe) searches for a legendary symbol and talisman. That’s saying a lot considering this third hardcover edition of Mouse Guard continues Petersen’s already brilliant 2008 Eisner Award-winning Mouse Guard : Fall 1152 and Mouse Guard: Winter 1152.
Despite his great earlier work this new legendary tale manages to convey even more emotion, more fear, empathy, and excitement for these little warriors in their elaborate world within our own world. Taking place years earlier than the past tales in 1115, three unlikely individuals are brought together as a reluctant Celanawe learns about a destiny shared by himself and another mouse, the older and wiser matriarch Em, shared relative of an ancient bloodline, whom Celanawe is directed to protect by his own matriarch, Bronwyn.
Fans of the first books will of course already know Celanawe 37 years later is known himself as The Black Axe, and they will enjoy this look at how the blacksmith mouse Farrer created the famous axe and how Celanawe first encountered it. As much as for adults as middle grade readers, new readers of any age will not need any backstory to be completely immersed in this story.
The villages, shops, and entire realm of Mouse Guard, the mice clothing, the other animals they encounter are all nuanced, layered, and very real. Celanawe and Em encounter a complex character in Conrad, who’d best be played by Robert Shaw in a parallel world. Conrad drinks too much but he is feisty and tough enough to take the others across the sea.
Both heartwarming and heart-wrenching, the darkness of the animal kingdom means deaths of several characters, both goodly and not, and somehow these deaths, despite being necessary for Petersen’s story, are all the more shocking and tortuous because they are happening to these beautifully rendered animals. Early on a raven is brutally attacked by ferret “fishers,” and the mice must take on a giant red fox. There is both triumph and tragedy.
Where Petersen’s square-paged style, which has redefined the comic book medium, has previously dazzled, again with Mouse Guard: The Black Axe he similarly dazzles, with pages cloaked in fog, other pages rendered in dark blues of night and stars, and yet others emulating an ancient document style. In addition to the six issue series that the hardcover edition compiles, we also get to see a new 11-page prologue and 4-page epilogue as well as plenty of additional reference material to make this edition worth buying whether or not you read it in individual issues. It also includes all the original cover art, new section-dividing artwork and single-page interpretations of Mouse Guard by other artists including Mike Mignola.
The Mouse Guard series is the flagship of Archaia Publishing, and as far as we’re concerned David Petersen should be the Jim Lee of any publisher he works with. With the recent purchase of Archaia by BOOM! Studios, readers can only hope BOOM! continues with Petersen’s superb series and high-quality book editions.