Rat's Tail: Bryan's Afterword
Text by Bryan Talbot: this is the authors afterword to One Bad Rat.
Once upon a time I had the notion to write and draw a story about the English Lake District.
I'd been in love with the place since I was fourteen, after my parents bought a "static caravan" on a trailer park in the Winster Valley for holidays and weekends. On the days when we weren't motoring around the beauty spots and tourist magnets, I spent hours exploring the immediate area; Bowland Bridge, Strawberry Bank, Ravensbarrow, Cartmel Fell are all there as depicted in Bad Rat.
I could have produced a documentary comicbook. There's certainly no lack of material. The Lake District has the widest range of geological features and types of scenery in such a small area in the world. Wordsworth's "beauty lying in the lap of horror", its lush valleys and spectacular crags were an inspiration to the English Romantic Movement. Dr Johnson, Shelley, Dickens, Ruskin, Turner and many others all have connections with the area.
Then there's the huntsman John Peel, Arthur Ransom and Stan Laurel. Donald Campbell, who crashed whilst attempting to break the world water speed record on Coniston. And Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, poet, co-founder of the National Trust and friend of the family of the young Beatrix Potter...
Now, Beatrix Potter, an expert at telling stories using a combination of words and pictures, there was a correlation. Not being familiar with her work I began to research, starting with Margaret Lane's The Tale of Beatrix Potter and a visit to Hill Top. However, I didn't want to do a biography, I was just looking for a way in.
Potter was an oppressed child. Not sent to school, starved of affection, she was kept a virtual prisoner on the third storey of the family house. As a young girl she was "unnaturally lonely", "exceedingly shy and tongue-tied" in company and her only true friends were the small animals she accumulated, studied and drew.
I was reminded of a teenage girl I'd seen begging on a platform of Tottenham Court Road Tube station. She looked excruciatingly shy and was being hassled by a huge, bearded Jesus Freak...
The rat theme seemed natural for it. We'd had a pet rat ever since my son Alwyn had pestered us into getting him one. Harpo was so cute and intelligent that he immediately became the family pet . (There's a photograph of him on my shoulder in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright #10, Valkyrie Edition.) Beatrix Potter had a pet rat, famous through the dedication in her "rat book" The Tale of Samuel Whiskers; "In remembrance of 'Sammy', the intelligent pink-eyed representative of a persecuted (but irrepressible) race. An affectionate little friend, and most accomplished thief. " And The Tale of One Bad Rat sounded exactly like a Potter story.
Producing a proposal for the story with a colour cover illustration based on my recollection of the girl at the tube station, I sent a copy to every publisher in Britain who produced illustrated books. It occurred to me that, since the story was non-genre, it had the potential to have a mainstream appeal. These were all returned, mostly by return of post, mostly unread. The submission editors had reached the words "graphic novel" or "comics" in the covering letter and cut off.
I did receive offers from comic companies. Michael Bennent, then editor for DARK HORSE UK, liked the concept and we had a meeting with publisher Mike Richardson at the Alexandra Palace Comic Convention. I'd worked with Dark Horse before and had a good working relationship with them.
At that time I was right in the middle of writing and drawing a Batman story for DC and so Bad Rat to wait. And I still had lots of research to do. By this point I'd read a few books on the Lake District, four about rats and approximately a dozen on Beatrix Potter. It was time to have a quick look at Sexual Abuse...
When putting together the proposal, I'd worked on the basic structure; a homeless girl with a synchronistic link with Beatrix Potter who follows Potter's escape into her new life in the Lakes; a vehicle for my initial idea. The plot demanded a reason for her leaving home. Without much consideration, I typed in "fleeing sexual abuse at the hands of her father". It was glib but, I thought, pretty reasonable. After all, it's one of the most common causes of teenage homelessness. And it seemed to fit the character of the shy protagonist.
I read over a dozen books on the sexual abuse of children and its effect on psychological development. In fact, one book would have done. The same sort of coercion, an emotional blackmail, takes place and the same results, the behavioral symptoms, recur with monotonous regularity. Reading transcripts of accounts by sexual abuse victims, even by those from different countries, you'll find the same situations described and the same feelings paraphrased. The utter selfishness of the abuser is a common denominator, not class, race or creed. The psychological after-effect - despair and withdrawal, low self-esteem, feeling worthless, dirty and bad - is another and can last for life.
It's been estimated that one in three girls will be molested before they're eighteen. Approximately 90% of that abuse is committed, not by the stereotypical stranger in the raincoat, haunter of the schoolgates, but by a close male relative. And less than one in twenty of reported offenders are prosecuted.
This issue was far too important to marginalize. I realized that I needed to change the story. It became Bad Rat's raison d'etre and the chief concern of the plot.
The story dictated the illustration technique. This is true for every comic I've worked on; I've always tried to vary my drawing style to project the different atmospheres required by each individual story. With BAD RAT, this meant a drastic stylistic change. Because of the content and the mainstream nature of the story, I felt that it needed to be clear and accessible, easily readable by those without an acquired knowledge of comic grammar.
Usually I "create on the page". Working in the genres of science-fiction or superhero adventure comics it's perfectly acceptable to make up characters and landscapes. I felt very strongly that I had to ground Bad Rat firmly in reality, basing all the characters on real people and all the scenes on real locations. I casted the story and used some of the methods of Frank Hampson; a mixture of invention, photo-ref and life drawing.
Within a week of having to start pencilling I still hadn't found the model for Helen. Invited to give a lecture on comic art at a local college, I mentioned this to the organiser, Peter Hartley, head of Drama. By the time of the lecture, Peter had three of his students lined up to audition for the role. I was astounded. There was Helen, as I had imagined her, in the person of Kate Housden. Kate was indispensable to this project. As I was telling Kate about Bad Rat , Ben walked past, literally Ben as described in detail in the script. I told him about the Ben character. "Oh," he said, "my name's Ben!"
The location shots I did over a couple of years, sometimes having to stop drawing to take the train to London or drive to Cumbria because I didn't have the correct reference. I followed Helen's walk from Chelsea to Kensington to the site of Beatrix Potter's natal home in Bolton Gardens, bombed during the London blitz. Like Potter, I occasionally resorted to artistic license to "improve" the composition of some of the Lake District scenes although the majority are faithful renditions. In answer to several queries, the view at the beginning and end of the book is of Crummock Water and Buttermere from just below Haystacks.
Sometimes stories really do take on a life of their own. Instead of creating a comic about The Lake District I ended up writing and drawing a story about Child Sexual Abuse. And I'm glad it turned out that way. This has been the most worthwhile book that I have been involved with and the best comic work that I've ever done, not to mention the hardest work.
"The first step towards prevention and to provision of supportive services for the girls who's who've been abused is bringing abuse into the open." "Incest is not taboo. It seems to be that talking about incest is the real taboo." The Sexual Abuse of Children Miriam Saphira
It's only recently that abuse has been openly discussed in some small way in the media and there's a backlash of opinion about even this. People don't want to hear it, don't want to have to think about it. I can only think of three, perhaps four examples in the comicbook medium that have ever tried to deal with it, even in passing. This backlash is often expressed in dismissive terms as if we all know about the subject now so there's no point bringing it up again. Sexual abuse occurs a great deal more frequently than murder, but watch TV for a night, pick up a novel, go to the cinema and what do you see?
The fact is that, because the media largely ignores it, this abuse can still go on unhindered. It can only work in a conspiracy of silence. Most of the victims, the younger the more likely, believe that this frightening, confusing thing is happening to them alone. They dare not talk about it to anyone and become lonely, and alienated. Much of Helen's dialogue concerning her feelings is taken or paraphrased from transcripts of interviews with abuse survivors.
The more child abuse is discussed in society or fiction in whatever medium, the more likely it is that the victims will realise that this is something that happens all the time and that they will be able to speak out, be believed and get it stopped.
9 May 1995
Also check out the Lake District thumbnail gallery: there are photo's of some of the locations Bryan used in One Bad Rat alongside the panels in the comic where they occur, and also see the Rat's Whiskers, Stephen Gallaghers foreword to One Bad Rat. Also worth a look Bryan's acknowledgements for the comic.
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