MOUSE GUARD: THE OWLHEN CAREGIVER & OTHER TALES

Cartoonist: David Petersen

Publisher: Archaia

A large owl looks out from the image, yellow eyes directed at the viewer. Before her, sword drawn and shield in the other arm, is a gray mouse in profile, as if he is protecting the owl from a threat off the left side of the page. He is wearing colorful clothing vaguely reminiscent of a Russian Cossack. In the background is a large wooden house with spires that each seem to be based on large nests.
Mouse Guard: The Owlhen Caregiver, Cover, David Petersen

WHAT IS IT?

This comic is a welcome return to the world of Mouse Guard, in the form of three stand-alone stories about the tiny inhabitants of that fantasy-inspired animal world.

The mix of contemplative tales and adventurous intelligent animals is most reminiscent of comics like Usagi Yojimbo or novels like Red Wall, and The Tale of Despereaux.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

(Minor Spoilers)


All of the stories in Mouse Guard center on mice living in a loosely connected society that resembles medieval Europe, an existence made possible for these meekest of woodland creatures by the extraordinary efforts of the mice of the Guard. This issue is a collection of tales passed down within that world. “The Owlhen Caregiver,” told by a mother to her son, is an ancient tale of an owl whose sole steward falls deathly ill and comes to require constant care. “Piper the Listener,” a book about a patient adventurer, recounted by a lonely young mouse, who attempts to learn from creatures different from herself.

Lastly, “The Wild Wolf” is a cautionary tale, told by an old mouse to young wanderers seeking a thrill, about the costs of going into the wilds.

Together, these three tales cover themes of loss, understanding, and the price of wisdom in a way that’s both heartwarming and deeply heartfelt.


WHAT WORKS?

  • For a comic book about mice in a pseudo-medieval civilization in a small corner of the forest, Petersen’s writing manages to give every interaction and story the feel of believability and depth.

  • The default art manages to blend detail and expression in a unique style, but what really shines in this issue are the pages that experiment with imitating illuminated manuscripts or old woodcut prints, evoking ancient texts and old storybooks. The use of style and color is just wonderful to look at.

  • Petersen uses color differently in each of the tales, enhancing the shifts in illustration in two of the tales by shifting the palette used and clearly separating the present from the past with gold and sepia tones in another.

  • The lettering is crisp throughout, the default dialogue incredibly clear and a good match to the art, and in the first two tales, is adapted to match the form that the story takes: medieval-style block text and flowing hand-written script.

  • All of the Mouse Guard books are printed in a square page format, and this definitely adds to the storybook feel, here. It also encourages a different sort of pacing and layout than in most other comics.

  • The creator once said that the only visual differences between his mice were their clothes, gear, and coloring, but over the years, he's clearly gotten better at using more subtle techniques, because each of the characters here feels entirely their own person.

  • I loved the way that “The Owlhen Caregiver” treats its rather serious subject, crafted to lead the reader slowly to an emotional punch that coincides with a character’s realization about how the story relates to their own situation.

  • Fables and other stories with animal protagonists, Mouse Guard among them, can feed into narratives of “the other” and certain antagonists being “born bad.” In that context, “Piper the Listener” is a refreshing little story paired with gorgeous art.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK?

  • Small Content Warning: “The Owlhen Caregiver” deals directly with the issues of end-of-life care, death due to serious illness, and coming to terms with loss.

  • The handwritten script used for lettering in “Piper the Listener” is stylistically on-point and legible, but anyone who has trouble with medieval script or flowing handwriting could definitely struggle with it.

  • “The Wild Wolf” contains a plot element that fits just fine in context of the setting’s folklore, but for those without that context (or familiar with all of the Mouse Guard Free Comic Book Day issues) it seems to come out of nowhere.

  • The length and storybook approach of each tale can make the issue feel like a very brief read overall, and some readers may find it a bit light for the price.


Within a medieval-style wooden building, in a small candle-lit room on the second floor, a young mouse in loose clothing and holding a large ladle worries at his mother about not tending to their customers. His mother insists that her husband, the young mouse's father, is very ill and needs them; a friend can tend the customers well enough for now
Mouse Guard: The Owlhen Caregiver, page 2, David Petersen

WHY SHOULD I READ IT?

If you are a fan of the series already, then this is definitely more of what seems to keep drawing people to this small and vibrant world. It does not continue any sweeping stories from the main volumes, but it gives the reader new & deeper glimpses into the world they already know & love.


For everyone else, or those not sold on that alone?


David Peterson has said that one of the things that makes Mouse Guard different from traditional fantasy is that no one really knows what a human fighting a dragon is like until the story tells them, but everyone can imagine what a mouse’s chances are against a snake.


In a world where there are mice that stand up to the snake anyway—where existence is fragile and the Guard’s motto is “It matters not what you fight, but what you fight for”—what stories might they tell? What lessons would they take from those tales? If pondering the answers and exploring that space appeals to you, then you should read this book.


Appropriate for younger readers and adults, this collection is a welcome read and shows the care that Petersen puts not only into his engaging art but into storytelling that respects its subjects as much as it cares deeply about what its audience takes away from the work.


WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

If you like the writing:

  • Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

  • Redwall: The Graphic Novel by Brian Jacques & Bret Blevins

  • Bone by Jeff Smith


If you like the art:

  • The Wind in the Willows: With Illustrations by David Petersen by Kenneth Grahame & David Petersen

  • The Mice Templar by Brian J. L. Glass & Michael Avon Oeming

  • Lake of Fire by Nathan Fairbairn & Matt Smith

ABOUT THE CREATOR

David Petersen – Cartoonist

  • He got his degree in Fine Arts from Eastern Michigan University, where he specialized in printmaking!

  • The idea for Mouse Guard is something that he’s been working out since high school, changing and adapting it as his skills and experiences grew.

  • To help make the buildings and the world feel more real, Petersen has said that he sometimes build models to base his illustrations on.

HOW DO I BUY IT?

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