David is the artist, illustrator, author, historian, librarian, poet, and creator of the rich and fabulous world of Mouse Guard. First published by installment, the hard bound collection of his initial series entitled "Fall 1152" received two Eisner awards. The year after it's release, it won "Best Publication for Children" and "Best Collected Hard Bound Series for 2008".
David won the Russ Manning award for most promising newcomer in 2007. His new hard bound collected series entitled, "Winter 1152", a continuation of the story, has enjoyed four weeks on the New York Times best sellers list for graphic novels hard bound.
So, what is behind his success?David shared much in our conversation. We discussed the early days when he was first getting started. He shared his experience with success, and included much more for aspiring creators to benefit from. He spoke with us on the phone from his home in Michigan.
VSS: What was it like David, in the initial stages of development, working on the first installment of Mouse Guard, working the day job, and balancing other priorities in you life?
David: The day job was an hour away from home, and in the beginning it was a challenge. My wife was an incredible support... The first issue that I printed myself took about six months to complete, and during that time, an hour commute to the job, eight hours on, another hour back, eat diner, do what needed to be done around the house, try to spend some time with the wife, and then up late working on the book. It was quite a challenge.
After Archaia picked up the title, and I began working even more intently on the book, my duties around the house were taken over almost completely by my wife. With her help I was able to devote my time solely to working on the day job and then devoting myself to what we hoped would mean some security for us in the future. And in the beginning that was very hard because your having to devote so much time to something that your really not sure will pan out. And so it took about two months for me to produce the second installment, but it wasn’t until the hard cover came out, that I was able to actually quit the day job and fully devote my time to the development of the book.
VSS: What advice do you have for people who are still in that phase of their work?
David: Work hard at fully developing something, and don’t be afraid to fail, especially in the beginning... Even if in the first 24 pages it tells you “I’m not ready,” that’s good! Better to find out now, and brush up on the skills that you need to, figuring out what went wrong.
Jane Irwin and her husband Paul Sizer are both independent artists & authors are outspoken on the subject of how to break into the business and how to self motivate. They say the method is, draw something and fail. Draw the next thing. Fail. Everything you work on is going to have something wrong with it. Every mistake you’ll look back on and say, "So that's why that didn’t work, I could have done that better, that's where the story fell apart," and you will learn from it. The most successful illustrator is going to tell you that even in their most recent work, that they know they failed at something.
VSS: One thing that I’ve noticed in successful properties is that they were in development for years before they ever made it to the bookshelf. You were working on Mouse Guard for over ten years right?
David: I worry that maybe my best creative years might be behind me, but there was a period in high school and early college when the ideas were coming so fast and so furious, that I’ve got a huge backlog of material. I have a dozen comic series that I could be working on. But Mouse Guard was the one that was most personal, it felt more real, like something I could really sink my teeth into. So when I was getting ready to start working on something of my own it came up as, not the only one with the potential to be successful, but which one of these do I believe in. Which one of these do I have a connection with. If I’d chosen one for another reason and didn’t feel as connected to it, I couldn’t have sustained it, and it would have shown in the work. So it was through that long development, with those characters running around in my head for ten years, without anything really getting down on paper, that when it was time to start work on Mouse Guard, there was an element that felt like I was starting from scratch. Especially in respects with continuity. But because nothing had been published yet there wasn’t any established continuity,
no history until I sat down to really start developing it. There were points where I had to make new choices to take the characters in new directions, or blend different aspects of the story together, change up the chronology from what I had originally envisioned. So even with all that prehistory & development there are times in the actual writing where you have to stop and make decisions.
VSS: So there is more to the Mouse Guard universe that we can look forward to seeing?
David: Oh certainly. Mouse Guard is going to be one of the things I keep coming back to for the rest of my life.
VSS: When did you realize that you were ready to start seeking a publisher?
David: That kind of happened by accident. I had printed the first issue of Mouse Guard and it had sold well at my local convention. At that point I had never been to a large convention, I had a couple of copies left and decided I was going to go to San Diego. Not as a guest or anything, just as a fan. A guy from back home who was in comics journalism bumped into me there and asked, “So are you here looking for a publisher for Mouse Guard?” And I said, "No of course not. It’s a weird, square little book about mice with swords. You really think Marvel is going to be interested in that?" He said there were lots of independent publishers looking for something different. He suggested Archaia, and that they were looking for unusual fantasies, which sounded like what Mouse Guard is. When I went over to the booth, I found out that the head of Archaia was Mark Smylie. Years ago Mark had given me a portfolio review and was really helpful, kind and patient. He took time away from his artist alley table to spend time with me. So here in San Diego, I thought that I would approach him again for a review, not thinking of getting a publishing deal.
He took a look and said he would really like to be the one to publish it, and that he would run it by his business partner. People ask me why I went with Archaia. It’s partly because they were the first I ever talked to, but mostly, it was because Mark impressed me right away with two decisions he made on the fly about the book. He asked me, “Would you want to change the format of the book?” It's an 8”X8” comic, shorter than most, wider than most, and I said, "no", Which was pretty bold of me at the time. Here I was being offered publication, and to just blankly say no was pretty gutsy.
He looked at me and said, “Good! That’s the right answer!”
So while I was at it I thought I’d ask, “If we do publish, could we keep the company logo, the barcode and other stuff off of the front and put it on the back?” He flipped it over and looked, then said, “Yea I don’t think that would be a problem.” He understood instantly the artistic impact that I wanted the cover to have, and he like the format that I had come up with. I realized, this is the right place for me!
VSS: How did you feel winning the Eisners?
David: It was really amazing! With the Eisners being the 'Oscars of comics" it was certainly something I wanted, but never thought that it would come so soon! I had been at the Eisner ceremony the year before when I won the Russ Manning award for most talented newcomer (aka where the heck did THAT guy come from!?!). I saw the Eisner statues and winners of that year and it only solidified that I wanted one. So to come back only the next year to receive two nominations and win both of them was huge!
VSS: Looking back David, from where Mouse Guard began to what it has become, have you seen a progression, or change in your work?
David: I got a chance to talk with Mark recently, about the first encounter when I showed him Mouse Guard. Looking back at old work and seeing its flaws and where it failed. Cringing at some of the stuff in that first issue, wishing I could be like George Lucas and go back and redo a lot of the old stuff. I realized that I would never move forward if I kept going back and Mark said “Well you know, for all the debuts, the first tries that I see as a publisher, Mouse Guard certainly stands out as being one of the best, most professional I’ve ever seen.”
VSS: Presentation then is very important isn’t it?
David: It is extremely important. When I went to college and took a 2D design course, I remember thinking, ‘I have no Idea what I’m doing in this class. I’m understanding the assignments and doing well but I didn’t understand how it was supposed to be benefitting me.
Looking back though, I think that 2D design coarse was one of the most important classes I ever took. A third of the grade was on craftsmanship. We were hand painting pieces of paper, glueing them down to make patterns. He didn’t want to see any brush strokes on the paper, there couldn’t be any rough edges from a dull exacto. If you put down rubber cement and didn’t pic up all the stray globs that oozed out, that was a down grade. You had to have a cover sheet on the final piece and it all had to be labeled properly. Thumb prints on the cover sheet putting it upside down, “Why does this matter?”
Now I realize that making sure that anything associated with your work is clean & polished makes a huge difference in how it is perceived... It’s easier today with digital media to go in and clean up your work, but the underlying principle is still there, the need to really pay attention to your craftsmanship.
VSS: Any do’s & don’ts on approaching publishers at a convention or is mail in submission something to think about?
David: I would say that in person is always going to do best. There is only so much you can get across in an email or mail in. Putting it in someone's hands & shaking that hand, you just can’t do better than that. In approaching publishers, remember that it is a professional interaction, you want them to take you seriously, you want your work to be taken seriously, and so you want to be polite but not shmoozie.
Answer all their questions, make sure they have a way of contacting you. You don’t want to be overly aggressive. Don’t come back to the booth the next day and say, “Well? What did you think? Did you get a chance to look it over?” Annoying.
Email or call after a convention, ask to know the status of your piece. Get to know something about the person you are submitting to. Know their name, and whether (or not) they've ever been an artist in the past. What titles are they known for. Having that familiarity to know who it is your talking to, instead of just walking up to the booth and saying, ”Can I talk to the guy in charge of publishing books?” Do a little bit of research.
VSS: David do you have any advice in regards to contract negotiations for those who are new to all this?
David: The most valuable part of a contract, is the IP (Intellectual Property) rights. Make sure you retain them in whole if at all possible. Timeframes are also important in contracts. You don't want something that can keep your property tied up with someone if they are not doing what you need. A timeframe on publication and the overall contract keeps everyone honest. Unfortunately, a lot of legaleese makes it's way into contracts (as if it's not already the language of most contracts) and it means you need to get a lawyer involved to approve contracts for you. If it's something you really believe in (your property) it may be worth hiring a lawyer who understands intellectual property and read and negotiate for/with you.
VSS: Any interesting interesting experiences at the conventions since Mouse Guards success?
David- Well there was the time I made a little girl cry. One of the things I mentioned earlier about learning during the process, about getting the work right. I’ve found that at first, I took too much for granted. For instance, one of my main characters name is Kenzi. And in my mind Kenzi is a male and so never thought that I would have to explain otherwise. In the first 10 issues, I never used a pronoun in reference to him so this little girl read into it that Kenzi was a girl, and she had been playing as Kenzi all along and so when I explained to her that Kenzi was a boy I made her cry.
There have been people walk up with Mouse Guard tattoos.
VSS: Isn’t that copyright infringement? :o)
David- Ha ha! I’m not at all a tattoo person. One thing I have always refused to do. If some one asks for a commission sketch and happens to mention that it is for a Tattoo I just stop. I ask them,"Don’t you know that's permanent? It wont wash off!" So no, I don’t want that responsibility. I’d fret over every line, worrying.
VSS: It’s quite a complement though isn’t it?
David: It’s an incredible complement, but my gosh!
One other thing that my wife likes for me to mention, knowing how she loves to keep me grounded, is this woman who came up to me at a convention and asked to see David Petersen, and I flipped my name badge over and said, "I’m David Petersen", and she started to scream! Like the Beetles were in town or something. Just screaming, “Oh my Gosh! Oh my Gosh! Davis Petersen! Oh My Gosh!” I thought, what am I to be expected to do here? Anyway, it turned out all she really wanted was an autograph, but after she left, my wife leaned in and said, “You're still going to take out the trash at home!”
"Mouse Guard" is published by Archaia, one of the most successful independent publishers of original, artists owned and developed properties around. From progressive, hard hitting, mature themed works, to all age and children appropriate titles. Archaia is making a name for themselves and their talented stable of artists in the popular arts arena.
as well as his official Mouse Guard site; http://www.mouseguard.net/