The Tale of One Bad Rat
The Tale of One Bad Rat is one of those classics of the medium, one of those books that was an indelible footnote in the quest to prove that comics could be about more than just superheroes and melodrama. Whether Bryan Talbot’s intent or not, One Bad Rat became one of the arguments for comics being a medium of communication worth the same level of serious consideration as literature. Or if not literature, then at least the same sober reflection that cinema could garner. In a way, that’s kind of an unfair burden to saddle upon this slim graphic novella.
It’s not that Talbot’s exploration of abuse and homelessness and the by-turns-villainous-and-kind nature of the human animal is in any way bad, because it’s not. It’s more just that the book, as good as it is (in its way), doesn’t do very much to prove the medium. It hints at possibilities and broaches potential, but it doesn’t carry comics quite where they would need to be—at least in order to be taken seriously. Though I will grant that in 1994 this was a good step forward in the evolution of the medium and it’s not as if One Bad Rat doesn’t contribute anything to the argument.
One Bad Rat does two things for the medium. It presents a serious issue in a dramatically plausible way and it incorporates literary allusion in a largely worthwhile manner.
Young and homeless teen protagonist Helen plays refugee from two abusive parents, trying to muddle her way through a world that cannot make sense to a mind scarred so early and deeply by counterfeit love. Over the book’s first half, Talbot offers an empathetic look at how life outside of a home might play out. It’s a heavy read, though not so heartbreaking as it could be, largely because Talbot keeps the real problem off-screen and unspoken for most of the journey. Certainly there are allusions to the sinister throughout, but the true horror of her situation is never laid out gratuitously.
Beyond this, Talbot not only makes Helen an ardent fan of Beatrix Potter (her life and works), but skillfully uses that character-interest to build his story. Helen sees things in Potter-esque terms. For much of the second half of the Tale, she is accompanied by a human-sized rat, functioning as silent confidant. That Helen would grasp onto Potter’s history and millieu so strongly makes good sense in the world of Talbot’s telling and it gives one the sense that One Bad Rat is something more than just one more trite examination of abuse. Beatrix Potter becomes a talisman for Helen, one by which she hopes to find the strength to grow beyond her terrible past.
And it all almost entirely works. Almost.
The first problem is likely less Talbot’s fault and more mine for not having the patience to read dialogue that is written in dialect. One Bad Rat takes place in Britain (specifically in the city and in the lushly-illustrated environs around where Potter wrote her own famous Tales) and some characters speak with one variety or another of British English. And Talbot writes his dialects out phonetically. This is problematic, especially for those readers unfamiliar with the ins and outs of various dialects. It only takes a few moments, hopefully, for a reader to understand that “gel” is just an abhorrent pronunciation of “girl,” but those moments serve to interrupt flow and create a distance between the story and the reader.
There is of course the possibility that this was Talbot’s intent and that Helen herself is having the same difficulty understanding these persons as we are—though she never lets on that this is the case.
The other problem is the final device: a Beatrix-Potter–style tale designed to show us Helen’s growth and vector for rehabilitation. It’s a good idea and is worked into the story well and believably, but it was pages longer than its use merited. The writing was, I suppose, a reasonable facsimile of Potter’s style (though perhaps approximating one of her lesser stories) and reframes Helen’s arc in a sometimes-amusing fashion. Still, it just seemed to go on and on and in the end probably wasn’t worth the effort. (For Helen, it obviously would have been, but she’s still just a kid and even kids who become adept at copying their favourite tales or art styles rarely have the discipline to know when to reign in their excesses.)
Apart from these few complaints, the art is marvelous and Talbot excels both in his depictions of landscape and his framing of scenes. Even (and sometimes especially) his quiet contemplative scenes pack a subdued dramatic power due wholly to the particular vantage he grants the reader. All told, a good book that suffers for the burden that had been unfairly placed upon it as the medium developed (much the same as with Spiegelman’s Maus).
Somebody doesn’t appreciate cats.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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