This review first appeared at Suit101.com in October2009.
The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot
This graphic novel for young adults is used for therapy in child abuse centres across the world but its visual artistry makes it a storytelling classic.
Picture Credit: Recent Dark Horse edition © Bryan Talbot/Dark Horse Comics
In a four-page self-justification, ironically labelled The Rat's Tale, within The Tale of One Bad Rat, Talbot defends graphic media, especially the comic, as valid forms for telling serious, mainstream stories rather than being merely entertaining. The critics agreed, and showered this book with accolades.
Recently republished, it has been awarded two UK Comic Art Awards, a Comic Creators Guild Award, two Don Thomson Awards, an Eisner Award, a Parents Choice Award, and the Internet Comic Award for Best Graphic Novel. It was nominated for a Harvey Award, the National Cartoonists' Society of America's Rueben Award, and a James Tiptree Jr. Award, has been published in a dozen languages and is employed therapeutically in America, Britain, Finland and Germany.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Tale of One Bad Rat is the adoption of a female cultural icon Beatrix Potter (herself a neglected child who kept a journal of her misery) as narrative motivator, and of a female hero, Helen, the child sexual abuse victim who’s mental, emotional, and physical journey the reader shares.
Paying Tribute to Children’s Classic Book Illustration
A disclaimer at the front of this book declares a satirical intention, and Talbot produces a postmodernist, style conscious creation, presenting the critic with an interesting combination of parody, pastiche, and intertextual reference.
He makes ironic use of the clear, bright visual styles and trademark blue-line edging of popular comic classics emerging in the 1920s Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin and Rupert the Bear. This technique provides a complex illustration of the pain and isolation of the victim of child-abuse juxtaposed not only against the safe values inherent in the style, but against narrative and visual references to cosy Beatrix Potter texts, and Potter’s beloved Lake District.
Helen's triumph is that she endures through all the traumas, trials and tribulations which beset any hero on their quest, and evolves from rebellious schoolgirl inarticulacy to young adult artistry, not omitting her angry confrontation of her father. Eventually the fragmentation of self which Talbot narrativises heals, Helen's newfound wholeness skillfully presented by Talbot in the diegetic allegory, The Tale of One Bad Rat, authored and illustrated by our hero, a pastiche of Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.
Illustrating Psychological Pain
Talbot's technical mastery particularly exploits perspective, concentrating on the viewpoint character or on whatever she is concentrating on, be it visible to, or visualised by, her. Perspective also conveys mood and emotion that might take many paragraphs of text-only narrative to describe.
This imaginative and innovative graphic artist creates stunning visual dramatizations of internal (psychological) action. Saturations of black and red express anger, danger, sexual innuendo, but the layering of meaning is too sophisticated to seem clichéd. The layout of claustrophobic, horrific scattered frames that yet remain in correct geometric relationship to the underlying nine-frame grid keeps focus on the victim’s feelings. For instance
- A red bedroom blind with the black Peter Rabbit silhouette cast upon it in powerfully emotive and ironic contrast as her abuser menacingly rattles the doorknob
- The terrifying cat who converts Rat from sympathetic reality to symbolic fantasy
Developing her own artistic talent as she goes, Helen travels a long and challenging personal road to free herself from her trauma, echoing the journey historically made by Beatrix Potter from London confinement to country freedom. Talbot captures the emotion and conveys its conclusion vividly.
Zigzagged steel fencing on the grimy Motorway approach from where Helen's journey to renewal begins is visually mirrored later when, rescued by loving foster parents in Beatrix Potter's Lake District, she mounts a zigzag path on a clean clear hillside, putting herself in perspective against the eternal peacefulness of the sheep-grazed Cat Bells.