Several months ago comic writer Bryan J. Glass (Thor: First Thunder, Valkyrie) and artists Michael Oeming (Powers, Bulletproof Monk) and Victor Santos (Polar, Dark Horse Presents) were kind enough to send me digital review copies of all four pre-existing volumes, compiled in six trade paperbacks, of their massive epic Mice Templar from Image Comics. And though my reading has been sporadic and slow due to ailing health, I have finally finished all of the volumes leading right up to the present Volume V: Night’s End, which is presently being released through five monthly issues from Image and will serve as the conclusion of a limited series that has run for eight years.
As those who haven’t read the series can probably discern from the comic’s title, Mice Templar is an anthropomorphic story in a fantasy setting, one that concerns the struggle and ultimate destiny of mice, led by a prophesized but unlikely messianic mouse named Karic. This review is intended to serve as a short primer to the entire series for those who have not read or heard of it yet, and is also intended as a “thank you” of sorts to Mr. Glass and Mr. Oeming for introducing me to their enchanting world.
Mice Templar’s roots in the anthropomorphic tradition
Anthropomorphic comic series are all the rage these days. To name just a few, there’s Elephantmen and The Autumnlands: Tooth and Claw from Image Comics, Wild’s End from Boom! Studios, and of course the unstoppably popular Rocket Raccoon from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Let us also not forget Boom!’s own Mouse Guard which is sometimes confused with Mice Templar in that it is also about anthropomorphic mice in a fantasy setting.
However, despite its current hot status, anthropomorphism is nothing new in comics. Any cursory look through the history of comic publishing reveals a rich array of anthropomorphic titles: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus, Fish Police, Usagi Yojimbo, Omaha the Cat Dancer and Marvel’s Howard the Duck, and this is just skimming the surface. In addition, the cousin medium to comic books, the comic strip, has the likes of Snoopy, Garfield, Mutts and the vintage classic Krazy Kat.
It’s not just comics either. In the world of storytelling in general, anthropomorphism is old. In fact, it’s ancient. Back when our ancestors walked the earth, their early myths were densely populated with every manner of non-human creature: wolves, foxes, tigers, rabbits, turtles, birds, you name it. This mental projection of ourselves onto animals extended so far as becoming the central feature of perhaps the oldest religion known to man, totemism, in which clans bonded socially and spiritually over their totemic animal. This practice is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that it continues today in secular forms like sports team mascots and company logos.
One of the reasons that Mice Templar stands far above many of the other anthropomorphic stories out there is that by its very structure and approach, it seeks to reestablish this forgotten link between modern anthropomorphic stories and the tales that our ancestors told in olden days. For instance, at the end of the monthly issues there are essays detailing the various mythical influences that creators Glass and Oeming have drawn from throughout their series. These essays are also collected in the beautifully compiled trade volumes and make for excellent companion reading.
Suffice it to say that the mythology of Mice Templar is deep, nearly as deep as any internal mythology constructed by the likes of fantasy authors like Tolkien, Martin or Jordan. Glass and Oeming draw from an array of cultures, tapping into the respective mythologies of the Viking, Celtic and Judeo-Christian, to name a few. And while they employ most of the familiar archetypes they also garnish them with their own personal touches. It’s all very wonderful to explore.
All stories by their very nature are connected to old myths, but Mice Templar brings this fact to the forefront such that even those who have not formally studied mythology can come to appreciate the old, old wellspring from which this modern story comes forth. In this way, it is quintessential pop mythology: that is, contemporary pop that is very self-consciously and profoundly mythical in nature.
A big epic about small creatures
Mice Templar is big – I mean, really big. All together, the published trade volumes amount to a total of roughly over 2,470 pages (give or take a dozen or so pages if I’m wrong). This doesn’t even include the final volume, Night’s End, that is yet to be released in trade format. Reading through it you get the palpable sense that this is an epic nearly as vast as classics like Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, would be with A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), and I’ll explain why.
First, though it be about mice (well, ultimately it’s not really about mice), this is not so much a comic for kids. For one thing it’s very violent. Blood practically drips from these pages from the constant beheadings, impalings and limb removals. Next, nice people – or I should say nice mice – often get what they don’t deserve, which might be too distressing for younger readers (and here again GoT seems like a fitting comparison). Finally, Mice Templar is just too complex and detailed for your kids to fully appreciate, though it’s certainly your prerogative if you want to buy it for them. They would likely develop an early appreciation for myth, that’s for sure.
Given how detailed and complex it is, Mice Templar is one of those comics that I feel are best served by reading with the trade volumes, especially if you’re approaching the series for the first time. To begin with, the series is nearly over so it’s much easier to buy six books than Wotan knows how many single back issues (I’ll explain who Wotan is in a minute). Also, when I’m reading monthly comics, I can usually carry over the gist of the previous month’s events but I often forget some of the finer details, especially if I’m reading numerous titles each month. Mice Templar, however, is a comic that relies a lot on its finer details, and the forgetting of some of these details can lead to confusion in later installments. Of course, if you’ve already been following along with the monthlies, it wouldn’t hurt to go back and binge reread the entire series using the trades for a more immersive experience. Finally, the trades simply allow for less breaks in the sprawling narrative.
But even if, for whatever reason, you begin partway into the series, the beginning of each new volume provides a recapitulation of the story’s key events so far. Therefore, while not ideal, you could probably get away with starting at any point in the series thanks to this feature that the creators have helpfully added.
A rodent cast of thousands
Well, okay, it’s not quite a cast of thousands but the major characters, it would seem to me, number nearly as much as the major characters in Game of Thrones. And again like GoT, the sides that characters take and their alliances are not always as obvious as it might seem at first.
While there’s no need to run down each of the major characters, the few you should know about for the purposes of this review are Karic, Leito, Cassius and Pilot the Tall since it is their respective journeys that I found the most interesting. Karic, as previously mentioned, is the prophesized messiah of the race of mice currently oppressed by the tyrannical mouse king Icarus who has allied himself with the rat and weasel races in order to secure his power. Leito is Karic’s lifelong best friend, and for me personally his journey was the most interesting and sympathetic of all. Cassius and Pilot are both mentor figures to Karic but there are numerous twists that I’m obviously not going to reveal.
Beyond these mice, the two towering figures whom we rarely ever see but play such an important part in the mythos of Mice Templar, are the “good god” Wotan and the “bad god” Donas. The name Wotan is obviously derived from the Germanic god of same name (otherwise known as Odin in his Norse version) and the serpentine Donas is very much a Luciferian figure, again pointing to Mice Templar’s self-conscious grounding in old myths.
That’s all you really need to know in the way of characters and plot as I like to reveal as little about the plots of stories as I can get away with in my reviews, but rest assured there’s a lot more to it than I’ve outlined here.
Not perfect but still superb
Despite all the praise I’ve thus far given it, Mice Templar isn’t perfect. I found myself confused to various degrees on more than a couple occasions, for instance. In the later volumes, namely Vols. 4.1 and 4.2, certain events feel rushed and jarring, even somewhat disjointed. And some of the decisions that certain key characters make in key moments are not always entirely convincing, with resulting conflicts feeling forced at times.
The art, done in Vol. 1 by co-creator Oeming and thereafter taken over by Victor Santos, is beautiful and stylish all throughout, with colorists Wil Quintana, Veronica Gandini, and Serena Guerra doing a commendable job coloring a world that would have probably been too dense for the eyes if it had been done in black and white (one little detail I enjoyed was the respective blue and green cloaks of Karic and Cassius which reminded me of the blue and green lightsabers that often differentiate, though not officially, padawan from Jedi master). And James H. Glass makes terrific use of different fonts in his lettering to distinguish between the different races. But at times the art makes it hard to follow the flow of action, especially during combat scenes. There were times when I couldn’t see how X led to Y, but I simply gave X panel the benefit of the doubt, trusting that it made sense somehow even if I didn’t get it.
On the other hand, the creative team more than makes up for any problems with intermittently jaw-dropping panels and spreads like this one:
Besides, I’m not a reader who ever expects perfection from even the most highly anticipated works. I only want the strengths to outweigh the weaknesses and to mostly have a good time, and Mice Templar fulfills both conditions quite impressively while also providing more than just a good time. By the time you finish a few of these volumes you feel like you’re also on an epic journey together with these characters.
Not since reading Richard Adams’ Watership Down can I easily recall reading or viewing another anthropomorphic story that is quite as ambitious, as rich in its own internal lore and mythology, as Mice Templar. And given that Watership Down is one of my favorite books of all time, that is high praise indeed.
Congratulations to the entire Mice Templar team for eight years of modern myth-making. For Karic!