The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse, 1995)

Master storyteller and artist Bryan Talbot wrote The Tale of One Bad Rat as a series of four books in 1988. It went on to win an Eisner and the complete respect of every writer and artist connected with the comics industry. It therefore comes highly recommended, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Talbot originally wanted to write a story about the Lake District of Britain. Along the way he found himself being sidetracked into writing about a young woman named Helen Potter, a 16-year-old runaway and admirer of Beatrix Potter's works, not least because they share the same last name. Hence the title: it's Talbot's "take" on the sort of titles Potter churned out.

This "tale," however, has a darker underbelly. Helen is escaping the sexual abuse heaped upon her by her father. She keeps her sanity intact by talking to her pet rat and by copying the artistic style of Beatrix's watercolors as a way of connecting with a woman whom she feels is a kindred spirit.

And perhaps she was. There is a strong intimation that Beatrix herself, who led a miserable life under her dictatorial father, was a victim of abuse, as shy and lacking in self-esteem as Helen, until she, like Helen, stood up to her abusive parent and left. She headed north to live in what has been described as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, eventually writing what would become classics of children's literature. Having the modern-day Helen repeat her hero's journey, while switching back and forth between the world of the Beatrix Potter and the pastiche stories Helen creates based on the style and imaginings of Beatrix, is well done.

Talbot's use of Beatrix Potter as an inspiration for Helen Potter is ingenious, as Beatrix was perhaps the first author to use pictures and words in combination, making her one of the first graphic novelists.

After numerous misadventures on the street, Helen finds a place to live in the very town where Beatrix once lived. There, in the peace and quiet of the Lake District, she finds healing in the beauty that surrounds her. Through reading self-help books, and with the support of a very kindly older couple who are the proprietors of the inn where she waits tables, Helen slowly begins to heal.

The Tale of One Bad Rat could have been depressing, but it's truly one of the most uplifting stories I have read about such a traumatic subject. Talbot interviewed survivors of sexual abuse in order to make the story as accurate as possible. This research is what lends the book its authenticity. Talbot gives a fictional voice to the complex and heartrending problem of sexual abuse through literary allusion and lushly illustrated artwork. The result is a well-thought out story, imbued with realism and humanity.

The art alone would have made this a classic, if only for the strong, clear precision of the draftsmanship. Moving back and forth between pencils and watercolors, Talbot vividly captures the subtle thoughts and emotions throughout the book. The panel to panel action flows smoothly. The black border around each panel that contains a flashback is a nice touch. It's a classic that has withstood the test of time and, in spite of the difficult subject matter, is both accessible and enjoyable.

review by
Mary Harvey

7 May 2011

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