Artist/writer David Petersen, an Eastern Michigan University alumnus, has recently been nominated for the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for Mouse Guard: The Owlhen Caregiver & Other Tales, which is part of his New York Times best-selling Mouse Guard series of acclaimed graphic novels.
“I’m surprised and honored to be nominated for an NCS Reuben Award,” said Petersen, a Flint native who lives in Ferndale with his wife Julia. “This was my first time submitting my work for review, and I did it on a whim per the encouragement of fellow artist Steve Conley (creator of The Middle Age). He’s an NCS member and regularly submits his work. He suggested I should do the same this year.”
Introduced in 1954, the Reuben Award is the highest honor bestowed by the NCS. Notable past winners include Peanuts creator/artist Charles M. Schulz, Dick Tracy creator/artist Chester Gould, Cathy creator/artist Cathy Guisewite (a University of Michigan alumna), The Far Side creator/artist Gary Larson, Calvin and Hobbes creator/artist Bill Watterson, FoxTrot creator/artist Bill Amend, The Simpsons creator/artist Matt Groening, et al.
This year’s Reuben Award winner will be announced in September. Petersen, who has won three Eisner Awards for Mouse Guard, wasn’t expecting to be nominated.
“I didn’t think I’d be nominated with my first entry,” he confessed. “The Owlhen Caregiver story means a lot to me, so it’s really special to receive the recognition.”
The Creation of Mouse Guard
Set in the 12th century, Mouse Guard is about a brave band of warrior-mice that protects their fellow mice from danger when journeying from one mouse village to another. The three principal characters – Saxon, Kenzie, and Lieam – are similar to the Three Musketeers. There isn’t any campiness – Petersen portrays them as fierce and formidable warriors.
“I wanted to make it serious. I wanted to do actual animals – no Disney-fication. I kept all the appropriate predator/prey relationships. What’s the smallest animal? Mice. They’re small enough without going to a weird insect level,” Petersen said. “From a story perspective, they’re survivors because everybody in the world wants to eat them. That’s the idea of Mouse Guard.”
A Deeply Personal Story
The Owlhen Caregiver is a deeply personal story for Petersen, which he dedicated to his late mother, Sharon.
“The Owlhen story is a short tale meant to explore Mouse Guard characters when they were younger to see what kind of morality stories they were told as a child to grow up to be the mouse we know from my other books. It’s a story within a story. This one is all about being a caregiver – our youngfur Delvin is watching his mother care for his dying father, and she tells him a story about an owl who once cared for a mouse as they slowly died from illness. It’s a story about compassion and love as the living come to terms with the inevitable process of having to observe death. And that last gift the living can give to them,” explained Petersen.
His friend Nate was the inspiration behind Delvin in this story.
“I’d jotted down the story seeds many years ago when my friend Nate was caregiving for his father in the final weeks of in-home hospice care,” recalled Petersen. “But the story became fully realized after Julia and I were the full-time caregivers for my mom as she declined rapidly from Parkinson’s Disease for three years. In the end, she was completely unable to do for herself in any way, so every task became something we did for her. It was exhausting, frustrating, and sad – but also a pure act of love.”
The Owlhen Caregivers was Cathartic for Petersen
“The best part of creating this story was to resonate with something meaningful,” said Petersen. “The end-of-life care and the brutal emotional burden of watching your loved one slip away as you make them comfortable is something so many people experience, but don’t tend to talk about. I love that when I’ve talked about my experience with my mom, so many fans who’ve gone through it or are just starting to go through it find comfort in knowing they are not alone and how so many of the specifics are universal. It’s a deeper level of storytelling in Mouse Guard than just swords and snakes.”
Petersen spoke about the hardest part when it came to creating The Owlhen Caregiver.
“What was the most difficult was managing the story-within-a-story art aspect,” said Petersen. “The fairy tale part was all drawn in a style to emulate a Russian illustrator from the early 1900s named Ivan Bilibin – and while his work is very readable, it becomes hard to do more than two panels per page and still have it make sense. Most people think the hard part world be the emotional connection to the story opening up old wounds with my mom, but I found that part cathartic.”
The Weasel War of 1149
Petersen is currently hard at work on Mouse Guard: The Weasel War of 1149. He’s also illustrated some Usagi Yojimbo covers and streamed artwork on Twitch. Weasel War marks his first full-length work on Mouse Guard since The Black Axe came out in 2013.
“We’ve released a short story collection, some anthologies, and other Mouse Guard odds-and-ends between then and now,” he said. “But when Julia and I became full-time caregivers for my mom, that was all we could really do. Mouse Guard had to take a backseat. I still did work on the series here and there in a few spare moments, but there was never enough time to get into a good creative working groove to produce enough content to publish. And even though my mom passed away at the start of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made it easy to get working at full speed again since I’ve had to alter my income stream away from conventions and more towards online sales and livestreams.”
Petersen continued: “I kept working on Mouse Guard even when there wasn’t anything new being published. I draw art for prints that focus on backstories and worldbuilding, I type notes and outlines for things yet to come, and I wonder about the corners of the world of Mouse Guard I’ve never explored. But there is a practical day-to-day workflow to drawing a complete story as comic pages that takes some getting used to if you’ve been away from it for a while. I always forget how hard it is to un-rust those specific gears every time I let too much time slip by.”
The Best and Purest Outlet
FOX optioned and subsequently purchased the rights for a Mouse Guard motion capture movie with a budget of $180 million. It was in production and some of the cast had already filmed scenes on a mo-cap soundstage, according to Petersen. However, when Disney purchased FOX, the project was cancelled.
“So, the rights are locked up right now,” said Petersen. “It was pretty devastating, but not just for me, rather for the director and the hundreds and hundreds of crew that worked for (more than) a year on the project and then were all out of work. Hopefully, someday we’ll be able to get it up and moving again – but I always see the best and purest outlet for my stories is for me to write and draw them myself.”