At Comic-Con International: San Diego, Print checked in with artists working in the Exhibit Hall all weekend. Print’s series “One Page,” which you can find in our magazine, features an artist describing one page they designed––whether it’s a cover or an interior.
In the world of comics, David Petersen is best known for his creator-owned series Mouse Guard, which chronicles mice who protect their kin from elements and predators. Petersen has been writing and drawing the series for almost ten years, nabbing awards and a deal with comics publisher Archaia Entertainment along the way. At Comic-Con, the Michigan native talked with Print about a page from the Mouse Guard book Baldwin the Brave & Other Tales. It takes place in Thistledown, just one of many territories shook by war.
What’s happening on this page?
Petersen: It’s the first page of a story called “Service to Seyan.” Seyan is somewhere between heaven and Elysian Fields for the Mouse Guard. Before it goes into the actual story, a young mouse we know is told a morality tale. In the first panel, we’ve got an establishing shot. I wanted to show a city that is listed on the map but has never been shown––Thistledown. I had some fun playing with the architecture and looking at what I have already done with the architecture. These are much more tower-like structures rather than things that are low to the ground or already inside of a tree, rock or cave. These are out in plain air. There are thistles growing around them. It was cool to put in those thistles to show some scale.
Then there is a shot of two characters. The mouse that we know is Gwendolyn. She’s very young and sitting at a spinning wheel. Her stepmother, as you find out in the dialogue, is an adoptive parent. The last panel is Gwendolyn asking a question about what happened to her real mother. It’s got a little emotional tenderness there. She’s peeking out just behind the spinning wheel, so there’s a kind of child-like vulnerability to her.
Can you walk me through how you put together this page––step by step?
Petersen: What I tend to do is, I have a script of what needs to happen on that page, but it’s not broken down into panel one, panel two….It’s not until I start doing the visuals that I really figure out panels or “that’s too much to cram into one panel.” This page, it’s become a go-to panel configuration. Although it gets rotated and mirrored, it’s a three panel composition with one either tall, skinny or horizontal panel; a square panel and then a small- to medium-size panel. It turns out that those beats work perfectly. I wanted to do a different kind of visual for the structure for the city [in this page] and vertical made a lot of sense. Then I needed to immediately establish the two characters that are talking, so the big square panel works for that. And then the last panel was dictated by the other panel. It’s a small panel but it gives room for intimacy.
I do all of that in pencil and then I scan those pencils. I draw all of this stuff separately. None of these things were drawn like a page. They could have been drawn on separate sheets of papers. It wouldn’t have been uncommon if I drew the two mice separately, then scan it all and digitally composite it together. I can make subtle changes. If tried to draw it all together and then I realized I needed the mice close together, because I misjudged the size of the panel, it’s way easier to start making adjustments or resizing things. I can make sure it fits in my panel borders and with all the other text.
How do you color your pages?
Petersen: I do color it digitally. Part of it is an ease necessity and some of it is a speed necessity. For the most part, digital drawing––I’m not into that. I guess I don’t completely understand why people some do it, especially the people who forgo any physical art at all. That’s such an important part of the revenue stream. It also opens doors like gallery exhibitions and schools. I was invited to a school for a talk and they wanted to put my originals on display so students could look at them. If I didn’t have physical inks, I don’t know if they would have liked just prints.
You mentioned the three-panel composition and beats of this page. Can you talk to me about the squareness of your books?
Petersen: A long time ago, I had toyed with the idea of doing a mini comic. At my local show, everybody did mini comics, which is where you take an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper, fold it in half and you have a booklet. That was the thing. I thought that somebody walking down the middle of the aisle wasn’t going to be able to tell what my book looked like like versus my neighbor’s; my neighbor might draw terrible, and someone might be attracted to my artwork, but they wouldn’t know unless they were right on top of it. I thought if I took legal size paper, folded it in half, I had something … that allowed for horizontal panels that looked like a David Lean, CinemasSope establishing shot. It’s Doctor Zhivago. Lawrence of Arabia. If you try to do a big panorama on a traditional, tall comic book page, it looks like a toothpick. It has no impact.
When it came time to do Mouse Guard, print on demand was a viable option––custom sizes, no extra charge. I decided instead of having to do the math twice for reduction and enlargement purposes, I would just make it the same dimensions. I would make it square.
More work by David Petersen:
Read more from Rich Shivener’s One Page, Comic-Con Edition series:
Delve into the vibrant history of contemporary illustration with Fifty Years of Illustration by Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts. Whether you want to learn more about the flagrant idealism of the 1960s, the austere realism of the 1970s, the superfluous consumerism of the 1980s, the digital eruption of the 1990s, or the rapid diversification of illustration in the early 2000s, get an in-depth look at the historical contexts pertaining to the important artifacts and artists of the illustration industry in the latter half of the 20th century.