Last week, the sixth and final issue of Mouse Guard: The Black Axe arrived in my pull and hold box. Thus ends a story begun in October of 2010 — that’s two years and five months of waiting on my part. For six issues.
Was it worth it? Oh, yeah. I’ve read and heard a number of theories concerning the reason for the delays: There were printing problems; series creator/writer/artist/colorist/letterer David Petersen makes more money on commissioned pieces so he does that rather than the book; Petersen builds architectural models of the key buildings before he draws them — check this out for proof; and he’s just plain slow. All or none of those may be true, but I don’t care. I always get mad at the delays in Mouse Guard’s publishing schedule, but when a new issue arrives all is forgiven. It’s one of my favorite places to visit, even if I never know when I’ll have the chance to do so again. Actually, that’s not entirely true; any time I want to go back, I just have to open an issue.
Mouse Guard: The Black Axe was concerned with giving us the origin story of the first Black Axe we meet, Celanawe, who popped up in the first series (Mouse Guard: Fall 1152; he’s also in the sequel, Winter 1152) as a grizzled old veteran of an endless war. Here he’s a young mouse of the Guard who learns he’s related to the mythical, “immortal” Black Axe, the champion of all mousekind. Celanawe undertakes a hero’s journey to recover the weapon of the Black Axe (spoiler alert: it’s a giant black axe), and in doing so is forged in the fires of adventure as the next Black Axe.
Oddly enough, Petersen wraps up the quest portion pretty much by issue 4. Issue 5 and 6 are both devoted to what comes after the mythmaking is over, and a young hero must find his way in the world and figure out what comes next.
And honestly, that’s what makes the entire series so rewarding. Petersen works a massive amount of detail into his drawings — I spend a long time just looking at the clothes and fiddly bits each mouse carries around — but it’s the depth of detail he gives his world and his innovative visual storytelling that make the Mouse Guard books so rewarding. In MG: Black Axe, Celanawe learns the genealogy of those who wield the black axe, and Petersen renders those pages in the style of a tapestry; you can see the individual stitches in some of those panels. That’s a much more visually interesting technique to handle a flashback than making the edges of the panel wavy, eh?
And Petersen treats every aspect of his books with that keen eye for enhancing the overall tale. Issue summaries are written in calligraphy in the style of illuminated manuscripts; each mouse settlement has its own unique architectural style; family trees are filled out to seven generations. All of it works together to create a world that has a long past, and an active, mutable present.
And best of all, issue six reconciles all we know currently of the Mouse Guard world and then gives it a little push toward a future that is uncertain but still hopeful. The mantle and the burden of the Black Axe is passed on, continuing the honorable legacy of a warrior who eschews slaughter in favor of mercy, who believes in the rightness of deeds more than in his own might. The Black Axe is dead; long live the Black Axe.