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The Official Bryan Talbot fanpage / Articles

The One Bad Rat Review from
the Boston Phoenix


Survivor story

Bryan Talbot leads sequential art into deep psychological waters

by Catherine A. Salmons


THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT, by Bryan Talbot. Dark Horse Books, 128 pages, $14.95.


Helen Potter, the runaway waif who haunts The Tale of One Bad Rat, is no ordinary comic-book heroine. Unlike comicdom's archetypal, superpower-endowed gladiatrix who, biceps rippling, dispatches every villain in sight, Helen panhandles in a London tube station. Plagued by suicidal visions, she crouches in a cardboard shack beneath a bridge over the Thames, fleeing a tortured home life we piece together through her scattered memories. Men pose a constant threat -- even Ben, the kindhearted street musician who rescues herfrom a would-be rapist, then offers her a room in his Kensington squat. When his friendship leads to what he considers a harmless kiss, Helen recoils in panic. On the run again, armed only with her pet rat and a subconscious desire to emulate her famous namesake (Helen"Beatrix" Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit and his anthropomorphic band), Helen hitches a ride north to the Lake District. As the London skyline fades from view, a jarring flashback finally unveils the source of her despair: years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father.

British writer/illustrator Bryan Talbot's new graphic novel, released last month by Dark Horse Books but originally available as a four-part series, blazes a trail through controversial subject matter previously uncharted by comic artists. As he points out in the book's afterword, the problem of child sexual abuse is widespread, but talking about it remains taboo. With admirable sensitivity, he crafts an upbeat tale from this gloomy premise. He highlights Helen's recovery, relegating her childhood's grim details to the backdrop. Nightmarish flashbacks and dream sequences that feature a cringing Helen stalked by a horrific feline behemoth provide an adequately explicit window on her past. Talbot keeps his drawing style free of the high-camp anatomical distortions that earmark his work in the superhero genre, avoiding such melodramatic tactics as sound effects, thought "bubbles," and boldface type. To ensure the accuracy of gestures and facial expressions, he cast all the characters cast from live models.

One Bad Rat owes its narrative success to ingenious plot devices. Helen's pet rat supplants the need for distracting internal monologues; she pours out her turbulent thoughts to the non-judgmental rodent, almost as she might to a therapist. The twist that propels the storyline northward is also the force that pulls her up by her psychic bootstraps and out of her family's dysfunction: her pilgrimage to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter's bucolic farm, is the unconscious focus of all Helen's hopes. With a cheap paintbox and a few scraggly brushes, she's made an escapist hobby of copying illustrations from The Tailor of Gloucester, Peter Rabbit, and The Tale of Two Bad Mice (admittedly scavenged for Talbot's title). If Potter's art has been Helen's salvation, the menacing dragon she pens on her jeans leg offers a visual clue to the murky emotional waters she treads.

Whereas the rat represents Helen's conscience, the art of Beatrix Potter embodies her will to survive -- proof that Talbot is a masterful storyteller. He's clearly done his homework, researching therapeutic tools like the "empty chair technique" that underlies Helen's mock-confrontation with her father. But Talbot relies more on invention than raw material. When Helen accepts a waitressing job at the Herdwick Arms Tavern, overlooking the Lake District's craggy knolls, and stocks up on self-help tracts exploring recovery for incest survivors, it sets the stage for a final, literal confrontation with her father that dispels her colossal burden of shame.

Talbot avoids preachy soliloquies and facile armchair psycho-jargon, transposing Helen's recovery from the clinical parlance of the textbooks she buys to her own, far more visceral outburst. As she stands on a boulder in the rain, literally shouting in the wilderness, "I will not be made a victim again; I refuse to feel guilty anymore," the scene before her shatters into kaleidoscopic fragments. The past may hold painful secrets, she realizes, but no one can "steal" her future. Most important, she frees herself as an artist: the final scene depicts her not cowering in a dingy room copying children's-book illustrations, but seated in the grass, sketchbook in hand, at the panoramic summit of Buttermere Hill.

Talbot acknowledges he set out not to address a "worthy" theme, but merely to create a story set in the Lake District, near his native Lancashire. Speaking from his home in the hill-country town of Preston, where he lives with his wife (a PhD linguist and college professor), he explains that his idea evolved around a girl he'd seen begging in a London train station. Trying to envision a scenario in which the girl would head north from London, he questioned, "Why has she left home? The thought occurred, `She's been abused.' Fair enough, that's a common reason for kids to run away. It was only when I started researching sexual abuse that I realized it's far too important to trivialize. It's got to be what the story's about."

In the book's afterword, Talbot cites statistics indicating that one in three girls will endure some form of sexual abuse prior to age 18. He also hints, in conversation, that publishers shied away from One Bad Rat's content until Dark Horse embraced it. Even for its author, the book represents a departure from business as usual. Talbot gained fame, in the early '80s, for his award-winning sci-fi epic The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. He's also drawn several episodes of the comic-strip forebear to Hollywood's much-hyped Sly Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd, and Mask, a two-part Batman installment for DC Comics. He's worked on Hellblazer, Sandman, and The Nazz for DC, drawn strips for countless periodicals, and held three international, one-man Comic Art exhibitions; Adult Comics calls him a pioneer of the graphic novel. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. His prolific writing and illustration credits run the gamut from mainstream-superhero series to cover art for the Tolkien Society magazine to Encounter with a Madman, an animated television production for Granada TV Arts. He even landed a short-lived gig designing catalogues for British Aerospace.

This project demanded a radically different approach. Inspired by "comics that tackle serious issues" -- notably Maus, by Art Spiegelman, and the British graphic novel Spiral Cage, Al Gurdison's account of his battle with the crippling genetic disorder spina bifida -- Talbot strove to make One Bad Rat "as rich and as deep as any text novel. I went out of my way to avoid sensationalizing. A lot of comics are totally melodramatic: with superhero comics, that's part of the enjoyment. It's like watching a pantomime. The expressions are all exaggerated; so is the body language: characters stand with their legs spread four feet apart, gesturing wildly with their hands.

"In the science fiction/fantasy and superhero genres, it's perfectly legitimate to make things up as you go -- designs, sets, costumes. Usually I create on the page. But because this was a realistic comic, I took all the melodrama out of it." Every detail of lettering was important: "Instead of using bold, like a lot of comics do, for emphasis, we stuck with italics. That made it look a lot more intelligent. I took out things that people who aren't used to reading comics would see as clichés, or having to do with childish comics -- no `whoosh' marks or think balloons, which always look a bit silly." Using live models helped, "especially with the sexual-abuse scenes. I had to make sure they weren't titillating at all." Studying the models allowed him to "concentrate on the faces, and on the pain felt by Helen."

The Beatrix Potter subplot also grounds the tale in reality. A member of the Beatrix Potter Society, Talbot has visited Hill Top, and Potter's birthplace in London. His research revealed deep parallels between his emerging portrait of Helen and the real-life Potter, who "changed character completely. There's no evidence she was sexually abused, but she was certainly emotionally abused. She was brought up in isolation; she wasn't sent to school. She was more or less a prisoner in the top floor of her house. Her only friends were the little mice and animals she'd catch and bring inside." Excruciatingly shy until she broke free from her parents, in her late 30s, Potter underwent "a complete change" once she moved to Hill Top -- which she purchased with the proceeds from her books. "All the accounts of her in later life say she was absolutely hard as nails, and didn't take crap from anybody."

The response to One Bad Rat has been overwhelming. While he was gathering data, Talbot recalls, "people I'd known for years suddenly said, `Oh, I was abused,' and we'd never talked about it before. A lot of what Helen says is either direct quotes or paraphrased from transcripts of abuse survivors." Since the book's publication, "it's quite amazing. I get one or two letters a week from survivors who've read it and really enjoyed it." The back cover lists abuse hotline numbers in the UK, the United States, and Canada; child-abuse treatment centers have solicited copies for use with their clients. During Talbot's recent US promotional tour -- which included a book signing at Boston's Comicopia -- he was approached by treatment centers in Baltimore and Philadelphia. "From what I can gather, it's effective in getting the kids to talk about themselves. If they identify with Helen's experience, it's easier to talk about their own."

Talbot confesses he's touched by how many survivors claim he's "told their story. Not one said I'd gotten it wrong. The only artificial bit, which I freely admit, is the fact that, for dramatic purposes, I have Helen's recovery happening in a very short period of time, whereas in real life it would take years. I did an interview for a New Jersey paper, with a psychologist. I kept thinking, my God, he'll find all the mistakes. He was quite complimentary but agreed it would take a lot longer. He finished his article with a plug for psychologists -- you know, `Although Helen does this on her own, you really need the help of a professional.' " Talbot tends to agree, though he muses, "There's a quote from Beatrix Potter, something about `the strength that comes from these hills.' We all have the innate ability to heal."


This article came from the Boston Phoenix originally.


The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot