Oct 16, 2018

Milk Morinaga’s Secret of the Princess: Easily Circumventable Trauma

Secret of the Princess, by Milk Morinaga, is an easy fiction. An easy fiction, is an untruth that soothes, that rewards the audience with an inspiring comfort. Secret is the kind of easy fiction that kids, and sometimes adults, need.

Easily Circumventable Trauma
Milk Morinaga’s Secret of the Princess
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Tradition dictates that queer first love stories go dark, go tragic. The world and its microcosms are set against a new couple, definitely the protagonist, whether they come out at thirteen or thirty-nine. This is an anglo tradition, but since this is a Japanese comic (translated into English), let us be clear that it is as well a Japanese tradition. And, in our cynicism and carefulness, we might consider that a most realistic portrayal, a reflection of callous and homophobic society, family expectations, social negotiations. But, Secret is not a reflection of reality. It’s a demonstration of anxiety designed to relieve it.

By and large, the young couple find that their school handles the queer aspect of their relationship without much troubles. The servants in the wealthier student, Fujiwara’s household are enthusiastic, if not entirely cognizant of what their relationship is. Our protagonist, Miu’s mother is ecstatic that she’s dating an awesome girl. The coming out is slow, as the characters, themselves, are not fully aware of their feelings, their sexualities. But, the slowness is not rooted in an uncaring or homophobic world, so much as internalized feelings of worthlessness or flaw. They’re not good enough to date one another, only to pretend to date one another.

The difference, and why it makes a difference, is that self-criticism can be overcome without external changes. If the witch in Snow White just went at Snow with an ax, it would be much harder for a prince’s kiss, or a bear knocking apple from her throat, to bring her back to life. Poison from a witch, is an easily circumventable trauma, because you only have to apply more magic to solve the problem. Fairytales are, by and large, easy fiction.

As adults, reading, these easy fictions can be frustrating or sometimes boring, but I think we can use the reminder that things can be easy, if we need it less often than children and teens. We have life experience to draw on, a cache of days and nights that followed other days and nights to remind us that the world does not completely end even when things go somehow unpleasantly. Young people have less life experience and the world does feel like it might easily end, that humiliation or exhaustion could be the end.

There are students jealous of Miu and Fujiwara's relationship, there are societal barriers, but the societal hardship bars in Secret are set at a level both girls can jump if they want, and they do. The internal struggle is given greater weight, it has the more serious effects, but it, too, can be, and is circumvented. It has to be, for the purposes of the comic. Fujiwara must acknowledge her nerdier hobbies do not need to be kept private. Miu has to acknowledge she is not only valuable for her eventual achievement as someone’s bride.

Even with drama and things to fight past, Secret is here to facilitate some charming date scenes, to let the girls hold hands and admire each other’s clothes, to make zombie-themed lunch boxes and share secrets that to an adult would seem frivolous but to a teen are possibly world-enders. The comic is here as reassurance, and it is a kind of reassuring that even its neighbors on the shelf might not provide.

Oct 12, 2018

Review: Rainbow Brite #1

Today we turn the Cube over to Samantha Anne, musician, writer, chef, and comic book reader. I got a review copy of Rainbow Brite #1 and immediately opened it up to the Comics Cube family, and.... here's Samantha!

Review: Rainbow Brite #1
by Samantha Anne

Yeah, so. I’ve never reviewed a comic before. 

I’ve reviewed other things, sure – bands, books, recipes. I’ve even written a couple of novels and recorded an album. But no comics. So, when this landed in my lap, the first hour after involved me questioning whether I was even qualified to review a Rainbow Brite comic. 

“But consider the operative words there, Sam.” I told myself. 

Rainbow Brite. It’s been years, granted, but I’m a pretty big Rainbow Brite fangirl. It was the kind of fangirl love that inevitably led to my Lisa Frank obsession in my teens that, even now, still manages to rear its technicolor head from time to time. I watched the cartoon, I had the dolls, and a vinyl album or two…hell, I’m humming the theme song as I write this. So, feck yeah – I’m qualified. 

Now. After reading Issue #1, I was compelled to track down the variant covers and find out as much about the artists involved as I could. Man, I was not disappointed. I managed to find a total of seven variants, almost all of which I wanted to print and plaster all over a full wall of my apartment. The nostalgia of the Rainbow Brite I remember combined with the fresh imagery presented directly from the minds of Paulina Ganucheau and Tony Fleecs made me smile unabashedly as I Google searched, thirsty for more information and graphics about the new incarnation of Wisp and the Color Kids. The covers are honestly glorious. But that’s just me… I love colors. (Maybe just not on me, I think to myself as I realize that I’m wearing black and white for the millionth day in a row.)

Jeremy Whitley, Princeless creator, handled the writing and I legitimately have no basis for comparison because I admittedly don’t know much of his work. But, as kid-friendly comics go, he worked a great story, nailing it in terms of simplicity while keeping it intriguing enough to be a page turner. And really, if simplicity in storytelling isn’t your thing, bear in mind that this, while it certainly is appropriate for all ages, is a kid-forward comic. This might not be for you, but you’ll be okay! That said, I researched his work for all of two minutes and ended up adding six comics to be TBR list – like *that* needed to get any bigger. Tony Esposito, fearless Letterer, provided a great flow throughout the issue, and I can imagine this series being any kid’s bedtime story and a sweet bonding moment between them and their comic-loving parent. 

The art and color are playful, super complementary of one another, and both really clean and pleasing. Valentine Pinto and Brittney Williams are both delightful artists, and it shows in every panel. The drawing is wonderfully bubbly and easy on the eyes, kind of like a cartoon show that makes you feel like you’re 10 again and faking a sick day. The color is fun, bright, and almost prismatic in places, and it really triggered a feeling of anticipation as the story continued to build (I was all “Oh god, I want to get to Rainbow Land!). Also, you should know every artist involved with this issue got cyber-stalked (including Tony Esposito, who actually followed me back on Twitter. Do I… do I send him stuff now?)

So, I did the thing. And I liked it. Not only did I enjoy the visit with a childhood favorite, but I found a ton of artists to follow which, given that it’s Inktober, is terribly appropriate and amazing. Plus, tonight’s pre-writing procrastination will likely include spiraling down a Rainbow Brite-themed rabbit hole, sponsored by YouTube and Google Images. So, there’s that. 

Oct 10, 2018

There's a Spider-Man for Everyone

Has it really been over a year since I wrote a full column about Spider-Man? That's weird, huh? Spider-Man was one of the topics I built this website on, with articles that still get hits to this very day for some reason (no, really, a bunch of you are damn passionate, and that's great for Spider-Man, because that means there's always going to be an audience). It's eight years later, and now I find that I haven't written about Spider-Man, my favorite character, in a year.

But man, have I got feelings about Spidey, though. So much has happened for our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler in 2018, and a whole year has passed, and I gotta talk about it!

Spider-Man Musings in 2018
by Duy

One of the main reasons I haven't written about Spider-Man in a while is because I dropped the comics. One of the first articles I wrote on The Comics Cube is about how ending Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson revitalized the character for me and brought him back to a state where I could believe he could have personal drama, as well as to not have it be so overwrought that it felt like I was reading Strangers in Paradise (No offense to SiP fans; I just don't read Spider-Man for the same thing).

Close to ten years later, I'm looking back and realizing that my preference of that particular status quo is only a part of it; a lot of it actually had to do with creative team and tone. While I think John Romita Jr. is a great artist, I've never particularly liked him on Spider-Man unless he was working on crime genre stories. and the main writer for most of Spider-Man's run in the first decade of the millennium, JMS, has never been written comics that I like. I acknowledge that he's got a solid fanbase, but whenever said fanbase tries to show me examples of his "great writing," I get turned off and it solidifies my stance. Put the same exact creative team on the status quo of the past 10 years, and I'm still pretty sure I wouldn't have read the book.

Even when they broke them up, I didn't read the book right away, as Amazing Spider-Man had rotating creative teams under the Brand New Day line. What got me back on it sporadically was a very specific creative team: Dan Slott and Marcos Martin. Now here's the weird thing about it: at that point in time, 2008, I hadn't read the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run on Amazing Spider-Man in full. I did so soon after, and writing this now, I realize why I loved Slott and Martin's take on it so much. So much of it was evocative of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, not exactly the same beats, but some of the same riffs. Martin, especially, felt to me like Steve Ditko brought into the modern day. Quirky figures, imaginative layouts, and a range of motion. This was an artist I'd follow anywhere, and I thought Slott brought out the best in him.

So it was that Dan Slott's full-time run on the book, starting with Big Time in 2011, got me back fully. With artists like Martin, Humberto Ramos, Stefano Casselli, and Ryan Stegman, it was a pleasure to read. Unfortunately (for me), the one who'd eventually become Slott's main artist was Giussepe Camuncoli, a guy whose art I'm not crazy about. I think his figurework is too stiff for Spider-Man and his facial expressions are kind of robotic, but he was Slott's guy, and you can't fault someone for choosing someone he wants to work with, to work with.

If that were it, I'd probably have kept reading the book, but it coincided with a few things as well:
  • The line had been flagging for me since the end of Spider-Verse, a storyline that was completely in my wheelhouse and yet managed to disappoint me in the end. (I actually wonder how much of this had to do with editor Steve Wacker leaving. We're never really sure how much editors do and don't shape a book, but Wacker is one of the most visibly felt editors in modern comics. He's not on the same level of Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, Jim Shooter, or Karen Berger, but he's up there in terms of logistical planning and talent selection.) 
  • Slott introduced a new status quo, in which Peter Parker was the global CEO of Parker Industries, basically giving him a Tony Stark setup. This is a drastic departure from his classic setup, obviously, but also a logical one given that he's a master inventor. Read the Lee/Ditko run — he's basically inventing things all the time. But it wasn't a change that I wanted to last and it would have had to eventually bring Peter back down. I might have kept reading the book to see this happen, except I used the status quo opportunity to switch completely to trades. Seriously, I have bought three single issues in the last two years, and two of them were only because Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez had interior art in them and I wanted them. And when this status quo was still in place for three or four trades, I decided to spend my money on other comics, like Carl Barks and Don Rosa collections.
  • Camuncoli eventually left the book to be replaced by Stuart Immonen, an artist right in my wheelhouse, for Slott's big finale involving Norman Osborn and the Carnage symbiote. It all sounds intriguing, but by that time, I'd been gone from the book too long. I'll get to all the ones I missed at some point. Eventually. 
I did come back to the book one final time though: Amazing Spider-Man #801, which came out this past May, as Slott closed off his run with the most fitting artist to close it off with. You guessed it: Marcos Martin. Slott and Martin were the team on "No One Dies," in Amazing Spider-Man #655 and on "Spidey Sundays," both comics I want Marvel to print out in an oversized hardcover. I could not pass it up. I had to buy it. 

Of the three things I just mentioned, 801 ranks third in the Slott/Martin stories in terms of how much I loved it. But that is high praise, because that's how highly I regard those stories. 801 was about someone Spider-Man saved early on in his career, who was always thankful to him because it meant he had a chance to say goodbye to his dad. And we get this spread, this wonderful spread, about how Spider-Man saves a world every day, because every person out there means the world to somebody.

Shoutout also to the sheer inclusiveness of this page, another thing
I love about Slott's run and a lot of Marvel over the past few years.

I love it so much. For all that I thought Slott's run eventually went off the rails, this single issue summarized everything I loved about it in the first place. Motion. Emotion. The idea that what you do has an effect on everything. And I wrapped it up and said, that's it, I'm okay with Spidey now. See, when I love a long run on a character, and that run ends, I can stop indefinitely until I get the itch again. The first comic I ever collected was The Silver Surfer by Ron Marz and Ron Lim. When Lim left the book, my interest waned and I trailed off. I have never bought a new Silver Surfer comic again. When Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn left The Flash, so did I, and that's when I realized I wasn't a Flash fan or a Wally West fan; I was a Waid and Augustyn Wally West fan. Characters like Superman and Captain America, I found, I have multiple short runs of, not years-long runs. (The one exception to all this? Thor. I have four long runs of the Mighty Thor — Stan Lee/Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, Dan Jurgens/John Romita Jr., and Jason Aaron/Esad Ribic/Russell Dauterman. That's more than I have of any hero. Shit, maybe Thor is my actual favorite character.) And with that, I figure, that's it. I can say bye to Spidey for the foreseeable future.

Except for the fact that the succeeding writer, Nick Spencer, put this in his second issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

Antonio Nelson Ruiz is a friend of mine, and while he won't tell me exactly what his contribution was (is he under an NDA? Only Antonio can know for sure), I find it incredibly funny that it happened in the storyline that finally reunites Peter Parker with Mary Jane Watson. Antonio and I differ on where we stand on the Peter/MJ thing; for me, it's a preference that they're not married  (not necessarily that they're not together, though I still would like to see them make an actual, full attempt to create a third "real" girlfriend for Spider-Man); for him it's a selection. And this was a storyline in which Spider-Man split off into a different personality from Peter Parker, so it seemed like it was going to eventually end with their breakup again, which even I thought would be too mean for fans who waited really long to see their favorite couple back together.

But then that storyline ended, the next story started, Antonio still got his credit, and Boomerang moved into Peter's apartment as his new roommate, and now I'm starting to think this was Antonio's idea.

It's definitely an interesting take on Spider-Man, and I'm gonna let people enjoy it, even if it isn't really clicking for me. Spider-Man is for everyone, and is open to many interpretations.

2018 was also the year of Infinity War and the entire Comics Cube Family was on board for that particular roundtable. What took me by surprise was that almost unanimously, the most powerfully emotional moment was Spider-Man dying.

Strangely, it didn't really hit me in the gut, probably because I'm too deep into the material to really appreciate Infinity War (or any comic book movie, really) as a story. But it was incredible to me to see how much that moment resonated for people, and how important it was for them. And this is a different version of Spider-Man than any we've seen before, as well. This is a young Spider-Man with heroes to look up to, being mentored by an established hero, with friends in school and who's more of an actual nerd than an outsider. Really, he's closer to Miles Morales than any comic version of Spider-Man.

By far my favorite Spider-Man product of 2018 has to be the PS4 game, and once again, it's a completely different version of Spider-Man. A graduate student who's recently broken up with Mary Jane, Peter is reminiscent mostly of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield put together, in the sense that he's got Garfield's scientific acumen from his movies and kinda sorta even looks like him, but he acts more like Tobey Maguire, if Tobey Maguire were more mature and less annoying in those movies.

The game works with an open environment, which is no stranger to Spider-Man video games, as the Spider-Man 2 game on the PS2 had it. It has Spider-Man's unique set of powers, which has always made him the perfect video game superhero to me. You can replicate Batman's skill set onto a generic video game character. You can replicate Superman's. You can replicate Wolverine's. But you can't replicate Spider-Man's without it feeling exactly like Spider-Man's.

And it's got a story that is tight and well thought out, cinematic and emotionally engaging. It ties Dr. Octopus with Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, and involves villains such as the Kingpin and the Shocker. It's the most immersive version of Spider-Man yet. And again, it's a different version. I love it.

Spider-Man is for everyone. If one version of Spider-Man isn't for you, another is. There's an animated movie coming out at the end of the year called Into the Spider-Verse, which deals with a Spider-Man multiverse, focused on Miles Morales. I can't wait to see it. At this point in time, Spider-Man is a palimpsest, a piece of fiction that has been written and revised so many times and has fragmented into so many audiences. There is a Spider-Man for everyone. In a weird way, the only "canon" that truly exists is the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko run; every single version of Spider-Man comes from that.

Which brings us to 2019. Starting January 2nd, Back Issue Ben and I will go back to the beginning and take every Wednesday to discuss an issue of Spider-Man, from his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 all the way to, we hope, Amazing Spider-Man #200. We'll look at things like what aged the best, what didn't, our favorite panels, bits of trivia, and other things. We're going to track how Spider-Man evolved in small but significant ways, and we'll do it every week, as regular content.

If you're a Spider-Man fan, join us. Leave some comments. We'll have a good time.

In the meantime, enjoy Spider-Man. Somewhere, out in the ever-expanding marketplace, in your local comic shop, on Amazon, on Netflix, wherever... there is a Spider-Man story for you.

Oct 5, 2018

Roundtable: Standing With Mark Waid and His Comics

What's Your Favorite Mark Waid Comic?
Comics Cube Roundtable

BENMan, I have to try and remember everything he’s written. It’s probably not my favorite, but I love how he and the rest of the writers made me care about a whole cast of characters I never would have before in 52. There’s no way that comic should have been that good.

MIGS: This is a tough one, but I had to pick Daredevil. Not because he's one of my top 3 favorite superheroes, its because his run was very different from the previous creators who wrote the series. In Bendis and Brubaker's run, we have a grim and gritty book. But in Waid's run, it was just like Matt Murdock's early days when he battled colorful villains. His run was kinda refreshing to the character. It gave the book a new identity.

DUYIt's hard for me to pick a favorite too, but if I had to, it's one very specific issue of Daredevil, the tenth issue of the 2014 series. Waid had tackled real issues, specifically those of mental health, prior to the issue, but it's in this one where it deals with Daredevil and depression, using the Purple Man to really amp up the condition. Much of the issue focuses on Daredevil, and from the start of the issue it's made clear that depression prevents you from reaching back to people who are reaching out to you.

It's in this issue that Waid and Chris Samnee pull out a trick I've only seen one other time. Matt Murdock brushes off his girlfriend, Kirsten McDuffie, and goes to bed, and the story ends, Daredevil logo on the lower right and all. And then it's the letters page.

And then it's the next page. Matt finally calls Kirsten, who, it turns out, is waiting by his door, waiting for him to reach back out to her. It's so powerful, moving, and touching.

EDRICK: Empire. Waid just captures evil perfectly in this series. Hope it continues as long as Waid is actively churning out comics.

BEN: It’s probably Daredevil, if only for this panel alone.

TRAVIS: I reread the issue where Ikari beats him, the other day, and wow, I'm 38 years old, I've read the entire arc already, and they got me afraid for Matt Murdock on the reread!

BEN: The illusion of danger is not an easy trick. But also,it was high quality across the board and had probably the best roster of artists ever for such a sizable run. Along with Waid’s traditional understanding of character and finding new angles to explore out of the groundwork laid before him. Like Duy said, the scenes dealing with depression were really powerful.  I’d also like to go back in time and remind everyone how, when that creative team was announced, Marcos Martin was by far the more popular and more highly anticipated artist, but then Paolo Rivera killed it on that first arc.

TRAVIS: Waid wrote my favorite Captain America story, with the final issue of his first run with Ron Garney. Cap, under fire, on the run, stopping to cut slaves free of their chains and refusing to board a rescue vehicle unless they take all of them, as well.

Image result for captain america 454

He also wrote my favorite "statement on the DCU" with The Kingdom, which had breadth, delicacy, and insanity that set it apart from so many similar comics, and completely flipped what I dislike about Kingdom Come.

JD: Kingdom Come is my all time favorite comic. I was a die-hard Marvel kid and it turned me in to a life long Superman fan. Mark Waid opened up the “other side”, the DCU, for me. After reading KC I had to find out who all those characters were or who they were amalgams of. Kingdom Come was my first step in to the DCU’s rabbit hole, forever enriching my comics experience, and I have Mark Waid to thank for that.

TRAVIS: If "Crisis of a Letter Column" is his (it's during his last Legion run), he also wrote my favorite Crisis.

BEN: Daredevil may arguably be his best work, but my favorite probably is his Legion of Super-Heroes reboot. He did the best job of updating and preserving I’ve seen in a reboot, and I think he gets credit for making Brainiac 5 perpetually annoyed, which is my favorite depiction of him.

JEFF: I really enjoyed his Daredevil and Hulk runs but his original short stint on Captain America with Ron Garney is still my favorite. Bringing back Sharon Carter was such a great move, and she's been a great supporting character on the book (and back then the book suffered from a lack of interesting supporting characters). I love the panel where Cap has his shield at the Red Skull's throat and asks him to tell him there's a way he wont kill him, Skulls reply is a simple "Isn't there always another way?"

Whether you like Gruenwald's old rule back then about Cap not being allowed to kill, I like how Waid threw that moral question at us on taking a life, even one as evil and irredeemable as the Red Skull. For Cap, the ends never justify the means, which is something that doesn't seem to be in style these days. Operation: Rebirth and Man Without a Country are two Cap stories I always highly recommend. Both the writing and art are some of Waid and Garney's best work.

MAX: Flash and the first half of Irredeemable for me. Irredeemable got me back into comics and was a pretty well-thought-out response to Warren Ellis superheroes. There’s a bit where Waid addresses the negative side to the idea that heroes should hand over all the tech and knowledge they discover for society to benefit, which was a big part of The Authority. Poisoned chalice type stuff. Though that’s only a small part. i liked the inspiration for the series: what if superheroes weren’t mentally equipped for all the pressure that comes with that responsibility? The series ended up undermining that by the end, but the start was really powerful stuff.

DUY: I have to say that Waid and Brian Augustyn's run on Wally West is and will always be "my" Flash. I thought I was a Flash fan. Turns out I wasn't, because The Flash isn't enough to get me to read a comic. Then I thought I was a Wally West fan. Not true either, because I actually don't care for most depictions of Wally West. So it turns out I'm just a Waid/Augustyn Wally West fan. And I'm cool with that.

Oct 1, 2018

Interview: Mouse Guard's David Petersen

A little under ten years ago, I was in a bookstore and an eight-by-eight-inch comic with lush orange colors called Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 caught my eye. I bought it and the detailed, classically illustrated artwork as well as the story it told blew my mind. In a world where animals are all intelligent, mice have to adapt in order to survive. The Mouse Guard protects them.

Mouse Guard's world-building is so intricate and developed and I wanted to know how much thought went into it even prior to pencil being put to paper, other aspects of the craft, and future plans, including the long awaited Weasel War of 1149. So without further ado, here's David Petersen.

An Interview with Mouse Guard's David Petersen

Duy: Why did you pick talking animals in the first place for Mouse Guard? Did they come before the fantasy setting, or did you always know you were going to use mice?

David Petersen: No, I didn’t always know I was going to use mice. Mouse Guard grew out of a high school idea that I had, where I wanted to do a talking animal story with a medieval setting. And it was originally called 1149, for the year, but that’s all it was called. It wasn’t such-and-such Guard 1149; it was just 1149. And it had lots of different kinds of animals. It had a fox, a bear, a ferret, a tiger, a rabbit, a duck — what   it didn’t have were mice. So it was about me wanting to do a Wind in the Willows, Disney’s Robin Hood, that kind of thing, set in a medieval time like a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. It wasn’t until college that I dusted the idea off again, made some changes, and that’s when the mice came in.

It sounds like the mice came pretty late in the game. The world of Mouse Guard is so fully defined to me, in terms of geography, jobs, politics, the whole thing. How much of it did you actually have worked out before you even started page 1 of Fall 1152?

The mice came late, but when the mice came in, it’s almost like it became a new project, because all the other stuff went away. When I made the switch, it’s also when I decided that instead of talking animals with human proportions — like the characters from Disney’s Robin Hood, where they’re very much standing upright but they just kind of have an animal head, some fur, and a tail, but otherwise they’re human in stature — that’s what 1149 was.

When the mice came in, that’s when I decided to make it more like Aesop’s Fables, where the animals are actually animals, and all the predator and prey relationships would be there. That’s when I realized that mice are so vulnerable that they would have to have some special attention paid to them, so I can develop a culture where it’s believable that they could exist in this world. And that just took over, and everything else kinda went away.

From that point, the idea that there were these ranger mice that patrolled – very quickly, three characters came out of that: Saxon, Kenzie, and Rand. Saxon being the offensive, Kenzie being the brains of the outfit, and Rand being the defensive mouse, so the three would act as one. I first drew those mice in 1996, and I didn’t write and draw the first issue of Mouse Guard until 2004, so there was a lot of time there for me to let ideas develop. I wasn’t actively working on Mouse Guard. It reminds me of how the filmmakers for Lord of the Rings were talking about how they were building Hobbiton the first time, for Fellowship of the Ring. They went out there and they dug into some hillside and put everything in, and then they left it. They abandoned it for like a year and then let everything go to seed. So when they came back, it looked like it had always been there.

And that’s kinda how I think about it. I’d built some structure: Saxon, Kenzie, Rand, the idea of what the Guard is, et cetera. And then I just let it go to seed in my mind before it was time to actually do the comic. And a lot of the other world-building stuff you’re talking about, like cities, relationships between towns, or things like that, or if I was gonna focus on weavers or carpenters or things like that, that just came organically out of working on the series.

So you’ve mentioned  Lord of the Rings and Disney’s Robin Hood, and we know you come from printmaking, so were you influenced mostly by comics, or did you always have ambitions beyond comics? We know Mouse Guard has been optioned for a film.

I’m influenced by all sorts of things. I grew up reading a lot of comics. I was definitely influenced by Eastman and Laird’s run on Ninja Turtles. I was influenced by Dave Cockrum/John Byrne era of X-Men, I was influenced by the Jim Lee run on X-Men. I was a Wildstorm kid. Hellboy was a huge thing that kind of changed my life about understanding what comics could be. But I’m equally influenced artistically by classic Golden Age illustrators, like NC Wyeth, John Tenniel, EH Shepard, and Edmund Dulac.

I really like how your style looks so different that’s out on the shelves. That was really one of the things that drew my attention to it. This is way back in 2010, this hardcover 8x8 book. Archaia’s got such a good track record for production. What made you pick those dimensions, 8x8?

Thank you. So way before I started Mouse Guard, there was another person who had gone to Eastern Michigan University, where I went to college. She was a couple of years older than me. When she graduated, she had done some comics work professionally – her own self-published work. And I thought that was really impressive, so I talked with her a little bit about that. She gave me some advice about how, if you’re thinking of writing and drawing your own comic, don’t pay to have it published. Do a mini-comic, do a zine. I know it doesn’t feel like you’re doing much when you’re doing the zine, but trust me. Because you’ll learn all of your storytelling mistakes when you see them in print. So don’t cut your teeth on how to do this craft by paying for expensive printing. Pay for cheap photocopy print.

So with that in mind, I was like, if I go to my local convention to try to sell a zine or a minicomic, everybody in that convention at that time – this was the late 90s or early 2000s – everybody there was doing minicomics. It was the thing. I thought, I’m not gonna have any kind of big backdrop or banner if I go to a convention, nobody knows my name, so why would someone walking down the middle of the aisle at a convention come to my table to look at my little white rectangle? ‘Cause I’m not gonna be able to see the artwork from a distance without some kind of a backdrop. Why would they come to look at my little white rectangle instead of somebody else’s little white rectangle?

So I started thinking of ways to try to set a book apart without changing production costs. And you know, a minicomic is an 8-and-a-half-by-11 sheet of paper folded in half. And I realized if I took legal paper and folded that, you get something that’s a little bit wider. And I liked it, I liked what it did. I played around with it a little, I figured  out what it would do with panel dimensions. I thought it was really interesting and would set the book apart. So by the time I got around to doing the first issue of Mouse Guard, print on demand had become a thing. That didn’t exist before, but it was suddenly a thing, and the print-on-demand company that I had some familiarity with said, “Custom sizes, no extra charge.” And I said, ooh! I know what I’ll do. I’ll make it the other format. That way, when I do landscape images, like establishing shots of nature and stuff, they won’t just be a sliver on a page. Because when you do a really thin horizontal piece on a traditional comic page, they’re very thin, they’re very small. They have very little impact. But if I do it this way, I’d be able to use a third of a page for one of those kinds of panels, and it’ll have some real meaning. And I decided to make it the same dimension across as tall, so when I had to do any math for the reduction, because you do comics larger than printed, I only had to do that math once, because it was going to be the same across as it was tall.

So I did the 8x8, and then when I showed the self-published issue to Archaia, Mark Smylie, who was head of Archaia – let’s be honest, there were two people at Archaia, Mark Smylie and his business partner, when I showed  it to him – but when I showed  it to Mark, he asked, “Do you want to keep it in this format?” And I thought, “This is where this conversation is going to end. He’s not going to want to publish a square book.” And I said, “Yeah, I would want to keep it in this format,” and he nodded, “That’s the right answer.”

You were expecting that he wanted you to say, “No, we can do whatever format you want.”

Yeah yeah. I mean, sure, I’d be open to changing it to publish it, but he apparently liked the proportions and he liked that I was someone who would stick to my guns, I guess, and not be afraid to say that to a publisher. I guess, I’m speculating. I don’t really know what he liked about that answer, but he did like that answer.

You’re known for creating models in order to work out the geography and architecture of your setting. Is this something you’d recommend to other artists? And why do you think we don’t see this type of thing quite often?

I think we don’t see it because of the time. I think there are either comic book artists who are inherently good at it, or they draw comics where it’s just not as important, either because of the style of the artwork or because the backgrounds are abbreviated, or it just doesn’t read the same way, like if you’re talking about a monthly superhero book. They also a lot of the time don’t really have to create new locations, other than, this is an office, this is a warehouse, this is a whatever. Sometimes they do, but it’s based on very real-world modern architecture. So they can use a lot of photo reference, they can use Google Sketchup, or they can just easily draw it in perspective, because they’re good at that.

I’m not as good as that, and I don’t like fiddling around. I find that I work really well with my hands, and I actually design better in 3D than I do in 2D when it comes to things like that. So I can quickly sketch up a room by quick-gluing sticks and cardboard together, and have a 3D representation of all the proportions. How tall vs. wide, what the curve of this arch is, or how thick the columns are compared to the doorway… all these kinds of spatial relationships, I can do better by designing it in 3D than I can in 2D. And like I said, I work with my hands better, so instead of using a computer-aided model, I like doing it practically. But it does take time, and not everybody has the luxury of taking that much time when they’re working on a book.

I would encourage people to think about space and think about architecture in their books.  I think it’s really easy to make simple models just by taking a shoebox and you can put in doll furniture, Lego people…

Action figures.

Yeah, things like that, as long as they’re in scale with one another. Even if you don’t use it for the perspective, just use it as a visualization technique, almost like previz in a movie. You can suddenly realize, if you use the camera on your phone or use a digital camera or whatever, you can get in there and figure out, oh, this angle works really well for telling this moment in the story. Or if I want to do this kind of overhead shot, it works better in a horizontal panel, or it works better in a vertical panel. I think it’s a really easy way to move your eyes in a scene where you don’t have to do hundreds of thumbnails. But it’s not like some necessary thing or everyone should do it or whatever. But I think being aware of a sense of space is important, and coming up with good design is important, and if you struggle with that, you might consider doing some model work. I find it really rewarding.

"I can’t think of anything that I’d be more excited about to work on as a long-term project than Mouse Guard."

It’s interesting to me because the only other artist I know who regularly does any model work is Chris Ware, and your styles couldn’t be any more different.

Gabe Rodriguez who did Locke & Key has some Google Sketchup models of Keyhouse from Locke &Key. And I know some people who have used them once, like Jeremy Bastian has done two models, total, for Cursed Pirate Girl. But his are very rudimentary – he made one out of Lego, but he made it out of big chunky blocks, not even the thin pieces to get subtlety. He just wanted to kind of mass up this structure and say, “There, that now makes sense for the size.” The colors were all different. It looked cobbled together, like you went to a Lego Store and just took whatever  bricks were on the table. But that’s all he needed. That’s how good Jeremy is, because he just needed that. James Gurney – he’s not a comic book illustrator – he’s done models. He’s more doing models for lighting reference because he’s doing oil paintings with very realistic and very specific lighting requirements to see how light bounces, where shadows fall, and things like that. He’s another person who builds his own models of things for reference.

Your world-building is so intense that you’ve even created songs. “The Ballad of the Ivory Lass” was on loop in my playlist for a while because I think it’s so good. Do you have help creating these tracks? Is that actually you on the record?

No, it’s not me singing; it’s a friend of mine who the character of Kenzie is based on. Kenzie actually sings that in Winter 1152, and my friend Jesse, who Kenzie is based on, has done a lot of musical theater. So I said, hey, I have this ballad, but I might need some help though. And he actually had the melody for, not necessarily for “The Ballad of the Ivory Lass,” but he said, “Hey, I’ve got a melody I’ve been toying with.” And I think I changed a few notes, but yeah, I wrote all the lyrics to that. I think I recorded a version just to tell him where I changed the notes a little, like this is gonna go up instead of down, at the end of this phrase. And then he and I worked together to get a recording of it. I was more like his audio engineer. I don’t perform on it at all. I was the one who suggested using the recorder that was at the beginning, the whistle-flute sound at the beginning of that track. But no, that’s all his performance. I wrote the lyrics.

There’s a couple of other songs. There’s the funeral ballad in Winter, and I said, hey, let’s do it the same way again. And he didn’t get back to me in time, so I ended up using another song as a temporary melody, and then wrote the lyrics for the funeral ballad, and then I had to come up with a new melody, which was really hard ‘cause I had the other melody already stuck in my head associated with those lyrics. We came up with the new melody, and we hadn’t recorded a version of that yet.

There’s a song in Black Axe that I did the melody and the lyrics for. And there’s a song in Legends of the Guard volume 2, called “The Timber  Mice.” The artist who did the work on that, Justin Gerard, I was having a hard time getting him to come on board to do a Legends story. He had done a comic once before for some other anthology, and he was intimidated by the amount of work. He’s a traditional illustrator who will put a ton of effort into one image. So the idea of breaking that up and doing a lot of smaller images, and maybe not taking quite as much time on each one, but still making it read clearly… he was having a hard time coming to grips with doing something like that again.

So I said, “I’ve got an idea. What if I did something that was like a song, where almost sheet music would be on the page, and you would just do a spot illustration per page?” And he said he’d be up for that. Normally, Legends issues, the anthology part of it was all done by other people and I kept my head out of it, unless someone asked me for help, and usually when I helped, I just helped. I didn’t work on it. But with that one, I needed more content. I needed the song. So I reached out to a jazz musician that I know and I said I needed something that was a little like a bedtime children’s song, more advanced than “Pop Goes the Weasel,” but something in that kind of vein. He quick-recorded four very different options, and I said “Yeah, I like number two!” or whichever number it was. “Can you send me the sheet music for that, with all the notations?” I hand-drew all the notations so it looked medieval, and I wrote the lyrics to fit that music. Then I sent that off to Justin to say here are the four moments that we need illustrated.

I guess to answer your question shortly, yes, there are songs. They’re kind of a mix of how much I do, but I always do part of it. I always do at least the lyrics.

Since you brought up Legends of the Guard, what do you think draws people into Mouse Guard? You don’t see a lot of non–Big Two comics that get a lot of people other than their original creators working on them.

Well, I think that’s not entirely true. I’m sure if you opened the gates to some other comic to have an anthology, you’d get people pouring in. A Turtles anthology, a new Hellboy anthology, whatever it is. You’d get lots and lots of creators wanting to be a part of it. I don’t think that Mouse Guard is unique in that way. I think the unique thing is that I said, Hey, let’s do an anthology.

So it’s just a matter of opening the doors.

I think so. The first question people usually ask about Legends is “How hard was it for you to allow other people to work in a world that’s so synonymous with you? This is your world. It’s not even like there’s a writer and an artist and you both share it. This is all you. This is your project, and now you’re letting everybody have a little piece of it.” But I was okay with that, because that was the point. And I had worked in some caveats so it would never be a problem. The fact that all the stories are Tall Tales and Legends really helped, because that means if they write something that feels off, or draws something that feels off, it doesn’t feel like it fits in my world or that’s certainly not how I’d handle that situation, it’s okay. It’s a Tall Tale. So it was easy, and I picked nearly everybody who went in. There were a few times when there were some suggestions because of the publisher. But everybody was somebody I would feel comfortable with, or I would’ve said no. In fact, there were a couple where I did say no. When somebody suggested, “Oh I think you should ask this person.” And I don’t think that’s the right fit.  But I already vetted everyone who went in, because I knew of their work for the most part.

You mentioned that you created Saxon, Kenzie, and Rand at first. So when did Lieam come in?

Boy, it’s hard for me to know the exact timeline, but it’s a couple of years later. I like basing characters, at least to some degree, on people I know, even if I’m just taking one of their attributes and saying, this is the so-and-so character because they’re smart, or this is the so-and-so character because of that, or whatever. And there was a friend of mine who I’d met, I think in high school maybe once. He’s several years younger than me. He was a freshman when I was a senior. But after I graduated – I was still in town because I went to community college – so some of my friends who were just a year behind me, still in high school, knew him. So he kind of became a part of my circle of friends after I was already out of high school, and I liked the kid a lot. He impressed me. His name’s Emerson, and he became a good friend. And so I wrote in Lieam as an Emerson character, this kind of younger,tag-along character who had a lot of potential. That’s who Lieam was, this young character who’s probably too young to be hanging out with the older kids, but he’s cool enough or he has enough potential that the older kids go, okay, you can hang with us, it’s cool.

And he becomes arguably the main character.

Yeah, that took me by surprise! So I ended up including Lieam in the first issue, when I was starting the series. I had lots of headcanon of some timeline stuff. And part of the problem was that the stories with Rand were very, very big. They had to deal with the Weasel War and all this other stuff. And I thought, those are too big of stories to use, (1) for a first-time creator, and (2) for new readers to get into the series to understand what the hell is going on. We had to get past mice with swords having adventures for a little bit before I could drop something bigger.  So doing a story after Rand, or with Lieam, meant I could do a smaller adventure story.

But Lieam, because he’s young, because he’s a little inexperienced, becomes the gateway for the reader to have things explained. If all the characters were experienced, and they were like “Ho ho! Why are we doing this?” “Well, this is why we are doing this, just like we always do, this is our procedure.” That comes off really forced and fake. It’s hard to get info to the audience that way. But because Lieam is inexperienced, older characters can feel the need to explain to him, or he can ask questions, and those questions can be answered for the reader. So Lieam became a great way to do exposition without it feeling forced. Once I started working on the series, that first issue where he kills the snake, how do you go back to being the little brother character after that? And by the end of Fall, I was like, oh, he’s actually really important now. So the Black Axe book became all about him being chosen to be the Black Axe.

You touched on something that was gonna be my next question, and you probably hate this question. But how are the timelines looking for the Weasel War of 1149?

I do hate that question. I had started working on it last year. It was going slowly, but it was progressing. There are pages drawn, there’s a script written. I’ve got the cover for issue 1, and there was real progress being made. It was slow for that reason, but also, my mom has Parkinson’s and had moved from living alone about an hour north of us to living about five, ten minutes away from us in assisted living. And at first I thought, oh, this is going to be great because when there’s a problem I don’t have to drive an hour to go fix it. She’s only ten minutes away. And it just meant that I was always ten minutes away, so I should come and fix everything. And her health was getting worse; she was getting less compliant with taking medications and working with the staff. I guess that was a couple of years ago now. It just meant that working was hard, because I was never able to just fully invest a day in work. I had to keep going, getting interrupted, and it was emotionally draining.

But last year, for lots of reasons, the care facility wasn’t really up for the level of care she needed. She needed more than they can provide, and her personal finances ran out, and so she now lives in our house, and my wife and I are her full-time caregivers. So with all of that, it’s just impossible to actively work on the series. So we’re trying to figure out some ways for me to maybe work part-time on it, like have some dedicated days of the week when I know I can be working on it and hope I can dig into a story and not lose  my train of thought on intervening days, and also try to find something that’s a better, long-lasting permanent solution from her.

I’m sorry to hear that.

It’s okay. I’m very appreciative of the fact that there are lots of impatient fans that as soon as they understand why, they’re like “No, take your time, we’ll wait.” I’m very fortunate that my fans keep telling me the mantra “Family first,” which is very nice.

So if every one of the Mouse Guard characters is based on people you know, is there one based on you?

Yeah, Saxon.

Do you play him in the Mouse Guard RPG?

I have! I actually got docked points by Luke (Crane, game designer of the Mouse Guard RPG) because I did some very un-Saxon-like things towards the end of the campaign. I kinda went against his instincts and did things that were not very Saxon-ish. He was like, “You actually lose some points in the rules for that.” And I just said, “Oh, I guess you’re right. That wasn’t very Saxon of me.” ‘Cause Saxon is based on some of my worst traits. Saxon is based on some of my role-playing game characters that I’d tend to play when we’d play other games like Shadowrun or D&D.

But Saxon’s not… a bad person…

No, but there’s some arrogance there. Yeah, some of that arrogance is justified, he’s good at what he does, but it’s not infallible. He’s not infallible, and so I feel like he acts like his arrogance is. He’s a leap before he looks kind of mouse, he’s quick to anger. And those aren’t necessarily great traits to have. They’re not bad, entirely. They have their benefits. It’s why the Saxon and Kenzie relationship actually works well, and I have Celanawe actually comment on it, in that Saxon is too quick to those things, and Kenzie is too in his own head and trying to think logically and trying to come up with the perfect plan. Something bad will happen because Saxon forces it to happen, or something bad will happen because Kenzie’s inactivity will allow something bad to happen. But when the two are looking out for each other, it balances out a little.

I find it hard to believe that you got docked points for a character you created based on you!

He was right, though! He even said… I did the action, I think I let a squirrel go with a warning, didn’t lose my temper, and came up with a logical way to keep the squirrels out in the future. And the gamemaster is like, “That is the most un-Saxon-like response to what just happened.” And I was like “Weeeeell.” And he said “Come on, Saxon would have at least cut that squirrel and threatened him not to come back. You were kind of being more like Kenzie there than Saxon.” And I said, “Yeah.” And then he pointed out, “For most of the adventure, you were Saxon, and at the very end you kinda wrapped  it up.” But I said “I just didn’t feel like I wanted to cut that squirrel. It just felt kinda harsh.” And he said “But Saxon would’ve.” And I said, “Yeah, Saxon would’ve.” So it was entirely fair and justified.

You’re working with talking animals. How do you avoid unintentional comedy? When the mice get on the rabbits, that’s something other creators would’ve done over the top, done it comedic, or done it too serious and it’d come across comedic unintentionally.

I guess I don’t even think about it. There’s some humor in there, but I think it feels real. Like the rabbits have thick accents, and they use some replacement words, like they call the mice “squeakers” instead of “mice,” and while they’re talking between themselves, they almost think that the mice can’t understand them. And then Saxon basically says “We can hear you, you know.” Except he’s saying, “We can understand what you’re saying! We’re right here!” And I think there’s some comedy in that, but it’s not meant to be like silly comedy.

We still see a lot of stuff these days in comics about whether or not it’s still kid-friendly, and a lot of it is about the gore. I would say Mouse Guard is really kid-friendly, but you’ve got stuff like someone getting their leg cut off, they’re getting stabbed… aside from the animals, what do you think keeps it friendly for all ages?

All those things have consequences, for starters. When characters die, or when Conrad’s leg comes off, the characters react to that, and it’s permanent. It’s not just GI Joe cannon fodder where they just fall or more of them stand up and come back, or the wound didn’t really count, he’s fine. Or they get shot with one of those lasers and they go “Ah!” and then they get back up and go “I’ll be all right, let’s keep going.” Or mainstream superhero stuff where superheroes die and they’re brought back two issues later. There are permanent consequences for every one of those things in Mouse Guard, and I’m just not a big gore guy. So I don’t tend to show the gore of what’s actually happening. When Conrad’s leg gets severed in Black Axe, I had to show it. There was no way to not show it. But in other books, there are times when characters die and it’s kind of done off screen. You don’t see it, you see the reactions of the other characters. Conrad was in a huddled mass of crabs, and we just knew that he was gone. There’s one word balloon where he goes like “Grcckkkk”, and that’s it.

There’s one in Black Axe that I’m really proud of, which is when the crow dies. I’ve had lots of fans tell me how horrific and graphic – they’re praising me, “That was so horrific, so graphic, and it made  me cry, and I can’t believe you drew how bloody that was.” They’re referring to all this gore, and I’ll flip it open and I’ll say “Where? Show me where.” Because if you look at that scene, I don’t show the crow ever getting hurt, really. You see  its face looking shocked, you see the fishers biting on feathers, but it’s not like the body, it’s almost like loose feathers, and then a couple of drops of blood  in the air. But you never see a wound on the crow, you never saw a dead crow. I think the real kicker is it’s a lot of really close, tight panels that imply violence, and a big panel of M, the crow’s handler, weeping, and Celanawe’s narration saying, “I can’t imagine what it feels like to have an animal blaming you for its death.”

So it was the horror of what goes on in the reader’s mind, not what I drew. It’s workarounds like that, almost like a Hitchcock thing. Their reactions, and what goes on in the reader’s mind is more horrific than anything I could draw.

Can you tell us anything about the movie?

Nothing more than what’s already been talked about.  I can recap. 20th Century Fox has the rights. They are anxious to be working on it. They are every positive, and things seem to be moving nicely. Gary Whitta has written the first draft of the screenplay, and Wes Ball has been brought on board to direct. He directed the Maze Runner movies, and he’s a director the studio has a lot of faith in. I’ve met with him several times, he’s a big fan of Mouse Guard, he’s anxious to get it going. And we have Matt Reeves, who directed the Planet of the Apes films, on board as executive producer. The plan is for it to be all motion-capture. So having someone like Matt Reeves on board is really important, because he’s a guy who knows how to handle that kind of technology, coming from the Apes films, but still tell a story, kind of see an overall vision for how to balance those things, or how to do a movie that is in actuality all effects, but doesn’t feel like an effects movie. And Wes, having come from the Maze Runner books where it’s a beloved, young-adult fiction series and treating that as a franchise, very special effects—heavy, he’s the kind of guy who should be doing Mouse Guard.

You’ve worked on Wind in the Willows as an illustrated adaptation. Any more plans to do adaptation work?

Nope, no plans. That one was a bucket list one. And it was a real challenge. That’s also part of why Weasel War didn’t get started several years ago. It was a bucket list project that I really wanted to do, and it took much longer than I thought. It took a long time, and I can’t think of another project right now that I would be as passionate about as something like illustrating Wind in the Willows that would make me not work… If I’m gonna work on a long project, it would be Mouse Guard, I guess is what I’m saying. I can’t think of anything that I’d be more excited about to work on as a long-term project than Mouse Guard.

How about a short-term project? I’ve seen you do variant covers for TMNT, you did something for Strangers in Paradise. Anyone approach you to do an issue of an ongoing comic?

I know I’ve been asked by IDW to do some Turtles interiors, and I kinda feel like I’ve been asked by a couple of other publishers to do others. Usually though, they ask me to do a one-shot graphic novel, not so much a one-shot issue. But yeah, I just always have to decline just because I have to be working on Mouse Guard.  My fans have been waiting long enough, I’ve been waiting long enough.  But even doing an issue is too long, I think, for me to take time away from doing Mouse Guard. But doing things like variant covers, it’s nice. It gives me something to do that’s kind of different. Right now, with my situation taking care of my mom, it’s the perfect kind of thing, because stopping and starting throughout the day because you have to go take care of her and see what’s going on – and with the dementia stuff, it can be emotionally draining as well – and then coming back to your desk and going, “Where was I?” Doing that in the middle of a cover is very different than doing that in the middle of a story and trying to pick up all the subplots. What were people in the background doing? Do I need to change something here? How does this tie in to the panel from two pages ago? You know, all those kinds of stresses. Whereas with a cover, it’s a straightforward image. It’s this one image, so there’s a lot less of that stuff to keep track of.

So doing all those variant covers for Turtles, I’m doing a lot of those covers right now for Dark Crystal. It’s the perfect kind of job, it keeps my hand moving, it keeps me drawing, it keeps people knowing I’m still alive, it keeps the income coming in, and it kind of fits with what’s going on in my life right now.

Thank you for your time.

Thanks for the interview.

Need to get started on Mouse Guard? We can get you started: