Interview With David Petersen

Interview With David Petersen

(Matthew Manarino, orig. Panel Bound, Ferndale 115 News, April 1, 2012 ed)

David Petersen is the award winning creator of the Mouse Guard series out with Archaia Entertainment. In 2007 David won the Russ Manning Award For Most Promising Newcomer and since then has continued to revitalize the fantasy genre in comics. As both the writer and artist for Mouse Guard, David approaches creating comics from every possible direction. His ability to craft a world as dynamic as the one found in Mouse Guard, speaks to his ability as a writer. While the lush sequential art in Mouse Guard has given David recognition as one the best illustrators working in creator owned comics today.

I spoke with David about a variety of topics including, how he manages to keep track of individual characters personalities and what steps he takes to develop the mythology of Mouse Guard. The most recent issue of Mouse Guard The Black Axe (#4 of 6) hit shelves on March 14th, you can check out a preview at Archaia’s website.

 Mouse Guard has a dynamic world with it’s own history and legend. How did you first develop the world of Mouse Guard?

It came about when I was trying to revive a high school concept I had for a D&D-like animal comic. It was very much like Disney’s Robin Hood with human height animals. When I was dusting the idea off, I wanted to make it more like Aesop’s fables, where the animals were real animals and actual size, both in their relation to each other and the natural world. The main gem that came out of this development was figuring out how to include a mouse civilization in this scheme. They were prey to almost every other species…and so small. So how they spread their cities apart and hidden and how the Guard are there to protect, guide, and defend all came from that initial re-setting.

From there it just happened slowly. It’s like building blocks, you don’t just put all the blocks down at once and it forms a tower, you build it up slowly from the bottom. For a while, I only created and designed history and settlements when and as the story called for it: cross that bridge when we come to it-type idea. After I had done a bit of that, more ideas would pop into my head playing off what I had already done, but I wouldn’t have ever been able to sit down and come up with that stuff at once.

Seeing it in print and hearing fan reactions to characters, setting, myths all helped me form where it would be fun to take it next.  The Black Axe character as an example was meant to merely be an old mouse who can keep up with the young mice. He, like Obi Wan in episode 4, is wise and skilled beyond the younger characters; he wields an ancient and amazing weapon, and has a history that in his heyday was an even more impressive mouse. So after getting Celanawe (the Black Axe’s real name) into Fall 1152, I thought more about Obi Wan and how as a mentor character, he has a life expectancy and a goal…to pass on his knowledge…which is how a great deal of Winter 1152 developed…from there I just kept building on ideas about figures who are mythological in their own context (Batman, the Dread Pirate Roberts, The Shadow) and tossed in bits of grail lore and weapon lore to get a whole back story and history of the Axe weapon that spans back 1000 years now.

Mouse Guards has dozens of characters. As a writer how do you keep each individual one interesting with their own story to tell?

I try and only focus on a few at a time in any given story. I also try and develop each character as an arc-type first and round them out after I’ve introduced them…that why when you first meet Saxon you get “Angry” and when you first meet Kenzie you get “Calm” etc. To make sure they are not one dimensional I flesh them out in later stories, like Kenzie being a singer and Saxon having a secret love. I base some of the characters on friends of mine. Well, simplified version of friends of mine. Knowing the dynamics between my friends and I, I’m able to translate that so I know exactly how one mouse will react to another in most any situation.

The character list has grown because the Guard isn’t a tiny organization, and every time I add background mice, they become interesting to me and the fans as I figure out what makes them different than existing characters. Also those characters, because they start life as background dressing, are visually more interesting than my main cast, and that leads me to ask questions about them and where they are from. The role-playing game (designed by Luke Crane) also helped me. I wrote out ideas for Luke about the path a mouse must take to become a Guard (and different roles one can play within the Guard)…so I use that as a structure to help me define characters as I’m including them in the stories now. To help me keep everything straight I have a spread sheet with character’s birth dates, death dates, when they joined the guard, cloak color, who was their mentor, what city are they from, etc.

As a writer and artists, which aspect of comic creation do you find more challenging, the writing or the art?

It’s the step between the two that is the most challenging for me. Figuring out page laouts, how much text I should fit on a single page, the panel shapes (and getting them all to fit jigsaw style), the pacing, where page turns should be in the story, and making it all fit in my allotted page count. I enjoy the drawing part and everything that goes with it and I enjoy the writing part and idea stage…but getting loose ideas and script converted into page layouts I find to be like an alchemy that I always fear doing.

 How did you first pitch Mouse Guard?

I didn’t really. I self-published my first issue. I did that because I had no comic experience, and wanted to dip my toes in the water. Self-publishing was pretty much my only option with my skill/experience level and the book I wanted to do. At that point I also had no idea if it would work at all. If I finished that first issue and decided that comic storytelling wasn’t for me, I could walk away without a publisher being angry at me, or already having solicited 4 more issues. After I did well with that first self-published issue though, I did take it to Archaia when I heard they were looking for “unusual fantasy” books. I didn’t do much pitching though, I let the single issue speak for itself. If the publisher couldn’t figure out what I was trying to do in the first issue, it wasn’t worth getting published anyhow.

 You are a big advocate of having your own unique artistic style and tone, how can new young artists find their own artistic style?

I think it’s important for them to get exposed to a great deal of work (which can be hard after they have found their ‘favorites’…I know I was a kid like this too) All types of art styles, storytelling methods, story & genre types (and of course drawing from life and models too). And after they have tried emulating their favorites, it’s time to close the reference books, and just draw. Draw a lot. Their natural tenancies will come out of this and shine past the emulated tricks. Sure some of what they like about their favorite artist’s style will come through a bit, but it will be filtered through their own artistic thought process and decision making. Once they have started down this path, it’s important not to draw while looking at the other artists work….pull it off the shelf and review it, but put it back on the shelf so you have no opportunity to cheat on your own creativity and just copy their work.

I tell artists to try and decipher what it is they like about that artist…what those types of lines or shadows or renderings or panel layouts evoke in them…why the artist did that and made those decisions. If they come up with answers, then they need to focus on the answers about the work instead of the work of other artists when learning to draw like themselves. And the biggest clue is that it should feel comfortable. Drawing like yourself shouldn’t feel like hard work, you shouldn’t need to pull reference down every hour to make sure you are on the track you want. It’s almost more about giving yourself permission to draw in a way that looks like how you naturally draw and NOT like what else you see in comics.

modern taxWhat comics have inspired you as a writer and artist?

Hellboy, Rick Geary’s books about Victorian murder, the original Turtles series, Blacksad, Cursed Pirate Girl, and though it’s cliché to say, Watchmen. Each of those showed me something about storytelling both written and visual, about setting tone, having a clear story and method of delivering it, and how to set up a believable world.

What do you think is the best way for new writers to develop a deep mythology for their story like you have done in Mouse Guard?

Start small and build is part of the key. Also know what all the components of mythology are, reading Joseph Cambell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces is a great insight into how all the building blocks of myth are the same, just re-arranged each time to make something new. It’s how Gilgamesh and Star Wars are using the same storytelling cues, but are totally different stories. It’s also a trick to make sure you aren’t just following those cues like a recipe card for ‘mythology story’ where you churn out a re-hashed cliché. If your characters are dealing with a mythological element in the story, try and give them different reactions to that element…some may embrace it, some may not believe in it, for others it shakes all of what they know to be true. Character reactions to the myths are as I, important as the myths themselves.

Any last minute advice for aspiring comic creators?

Go forward and do it. Make a comic. Set a reasonable goal, say 1 issue or 10 pages, whatever the goal is make sure it’s both challenging and still do-able. With storytelling, exposition can be a killer for readers, jump into the meat of the story and explain as you go. If you wait until you think you are ready to do this, you won’t ever start. You may also fail and not like what you come up with, but in doing the 10-23 pages, you will learn about what you want to do next time, you will be a better storyteller by the end of that goal.

You can find links to purchase Mouse Guard here. To follow David and his creative process head over to his blog, DavidPetersen.blogspot.com. You can also find the official Mouse Guard website here.

This interview republished with permission from Panel Bound and author Matthew Manarino.  Please check the site out at http://panelbound.com/.

 

 

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