28 October 2010

"The Tale of One Bad Rat" by Bryan Talbot

The Tale of One Bad Rat
Bryan Talbot
Trade Paperback published: 26 December 1995
Originally published as The Tale of One Bad Rat #1-4
Cover Price: $14.95
136 pages

As was the case with Jeff Smith's Bone and Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise, Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat was a work in the comic book/graphic novel medium that had caught my attention years ago during its original publication but for one reason or another I never quite got around to reading it.  Originally serialized in a four-issue mini-series, I think it reads better here in a singular volume.

Teenage Helen has run away from home, tethered to sanity by her affinity for rats and Beatrix Potter.  It doesn't take long before we learn of the horrors at home, and Talbot makes clear in his afterword that much of what Helen says and experiences was lifted directly from his research into abused children and runaways.  Everywhere Helen turns, there's someone attempting to exploit or attack her and while it becomes overwhelming to read, it's a reminder how vulnerable young runaways really are.  Readers should have no problem identifying the authenticity of Helen's tale, and those who have not had these experiences will likely feel alternating waves of squeamishness and gratitude, tempered by humility.

The running theme of Helen's adoration of Beatrix Potter also gives the story much of its structure; she follows the same path that the famed author once traversed, leaving her sheltered life for the open country and her Hill Top home.  It's not a shallow case of celebrity worship; Helen recognizes in Potter's life story a lot of herself, torn between the passion for creativity and the oppression of a loveless family.  Talbot assures us he devoted himself to diligently capturing the physical places as they exist, and again we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of his work.  Visually, One Bad Rat is gorgeous--and given the darkness of its subject matter, it almost had to be.

It's difficult to imagine in a world where Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been a top rated series on TV for years now, but The Tale of One Bad Rat was nearly earth-shattering when originally published.  Underground comics had explored dark themes before; certainly Art Spiegelman's Maus ranks as a chilling depiction of the Holocaust.  But this was published by Dark Horse Comics, by then established as one of the most prominent independent publishers in the comic book industry.  Wizard spotlighted it in their pages, the most exposure the industry had to offer at the time.  Trust me; even readers who had no desire to ever read this knew it was out there and what it was about.

And that was really the whole point: to chip away at the willful denial mainstream society had at the time about acknowledging the Helens of the world.  It seems almost simplistic, given how willing our mainstream entertainment has become with such content in our prime time TV procedural dramas and the proliferation of organizations who have used the Internet to draw attention to these issues.  I wish I could say it hadn't taken me until nearly turning 31 to read this important work, that I'd had the wherewithal to open its pages fifteen years ago.  I didn't.  I can only say that I have finally read it, and that I implore you to do so as well.  It may not be comfortable or entertaining, but it is every bit as important and well done as I was told it was.

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