The Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum in London has original artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat, a four-issue limited series comic created by Bryan Talbot between 1994 and 1995. It was published by Dark Horse Comics and soon after a collected edition was released. This graphic novel is featured in the exhibition The Great British Graphic Novel (20th April – 24th July, 2016).
Bryan Talbot (b. 1952) had been in love with the English Lake District since he was a teenager. At one point he had a notion to write and draw a story about it. At first, he was not sure of the type of story that he wanted to write. A documentary comic book? No, it did not feel right. Maybe something to do with Beatrix Potter, the famous writer and illustrator of children’s books? Maybe, if only as a way to introduce the place. He began to do research and, as often happens, one thing led to another, and the ideas began to flow. For him it was the story of Beatrix’ childhood as an oppressed child who lived a lonely life that clicked with him. Her story reminded him of the time he saw a shy homeless girl who was begging at Tottenham Court Road Tube Station and how she was hassled by a bearded man. The rat theme became only natural, as Beatrix’ first pet was a rat and the Talbots also had one of these bright furry creatures as a member of their household. Bryan then proceeded to write up the proposal for his graphic novel and he recounts how that happened:
“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.” (Talbot, Afterword, 1995).
Bryan then sent his proposal to every publisher that he could think of, even regular publishers of illustrated books, because he believed that his story could potentially have mainstream appeal since it was non-genre. Yet, the whole concept of ‘graphic novels’ was still fresh and many publishers ignored the proposal or sent it back unread. In the end it was the editor of Dark Horse Comics UK, Michael Bennet, who liked the concept and it was agreed that it would be published by them.
Yet Bryan could not go on to work on the story just yet, since he had previous engagements that he had to take care of and he felt that more research was needed, especially on sexual abuse. And that is when the story began to change. Bryan felt that the topic of sexual abuse was too important to leave it as a minor detail in the background story of his main character. It became, like he said, the “raison d’ếtre” of the entire comic. (Talbot, Afterword, 1995).
Due to the seriousness of the topic, Bryan felt that the style of his comic had to be grounded in reality as much as possible. He also wanted it to be easy and clear to read so that people who had never read a comic book before, and therefore were not familiar with the visual vocabulary of the medium, could read it. For this purpose he used a simple, naturalistic style with painted colours. Moreover, his characters were based on live models and he took plenty of photographs of the real places that he wanted to include in his story to have as reference (Talbot, Afterword, 1995).
It was then that the story of Helen Potter, who had been sexually abused when she was a child, came into existence and her journey of self-discovery and healing was laid out. Through her story, Bryan tried to convey the feeling of distrust, the hatred of being touched that these trauma survivors experienced; how difficult it could be for them to form any kind of relationship, and the obsessional imagery that can so often accompany them. All of these he conveyed without over dramatizing the problem, and yet he made perfectly clear the damage caused by the abusive parent.
This graphic novel is one of the classics that demonstrated that comics could tell stories that went beyond superheroes. The Tale of One Bad Rat has fuelled the argument to accept comics as a medium of communication that deserves the same amount of earnest consideration as literature. This graphic novel presents a serious issue in a dramatically plausible way without resorting to gratuitous imagery of the horrors that Helen went through-which are mostly shown off-screen. One Bad Rat also incorporates literary allusion in a largely worthwhile manner. Moreover, there are plenty of metaphors and visual imagery, like Helen’s pet rat, that can be connected to important and pervasive ways of conceptualizing illness and disease (Lupton 2003, 54). In his Afterword, Bryan Talbot mentioned that talking about child abuse is still taboo in the media and everyday life, and that not talking about it does not stop it from happening, which actually happens in even more alarming numbers than murders. His graphic novel talks about it in a realistic and non-melodramatic way, and as such could be an important resource for those working on preventing or helping victims of sexual abuse. As a matter of fact, The Tale of One Bad Rat is used in several child abuse centres in Britain, America, Germany, and Finland as an “alternative handbook” of child sexual abuse and its after-effects. See a thank you letter written by a fan to Bryan Talbot on this matter.
The Tale of One Bad Rat won an Eisner Award, a Comic Creators’ Guild Award, two UK Comic Art Awards, two US Comic Buyers’ Guide Don Thomson Awards, a Parent’s Choice Award and a Squiddy – the Internet Comic Award – for Best Graphic Novel. It was also nominated for The National Cartoonists’ Society of America’s Rueben Award, a Harvey Award, a James Tiptree Jr. Award and a British Library Award. In 1998 it appeared in the New York Times annual list of recommended reading and is a set text in some schools and universities. It has been translated and published in ten countries and it is the second most-borrowed graphic novel in libraries right after Art Spiegeleman’s MAUS.
The Tale of One Bad Rat
Even though The Tale of One Bad Rat was first published in a four part mini-series, the story is divided into three parts.
In the first part of the story we are introduced to a teenage girl, Helen Potter, who is begging on the streets of London. Her only possessions are a pet rat by the name of Ratso and a number of books by Beatrix Potter. When we see her for the first time, Helen is contemplating suicide and we are shown her suicidal fantasy. She continues to roam the streets, still imagining ways of ending her suffering when she is molested by a man, who turns out to be a Tory MP. A group of street urchins save her by mugging the man and she moves in with them. While there, she takes some time to visit the house of Beatrix Potter, the woman whose books have helped her escape somehow from her childhood hell. In a flashback, we learn that Helen was running away from an emotionally uncaring mother and a sexually abusive father, which explains why she has such a difficult time trusting any one or just getting touched. On the street, she is later spotted by the Tory MP, and he sets the police on her. She ditches the police and returns to the place where she was living with the other runaways, only to discover that their cat has killed Ratso. In despair, she embarks on a journey north by hitch-hiking.
The second part of the story shows Helen’s journey to the Lake District, following in the footsteps of Beatrix Potter. She has started to see some parallels between her life and that of the author. During her trip, she is accompanied by a giant vision of Ratso, her rat, which acts as a secret confidant that allows a glimpse into Helen’s emotions and state of mind. As she continues to hitch-hike north, more memories of what happened to her begin to surface showing her deep emotional scars. Meanwhile, the driver of the last car that gives her a ride tries to demand sexual favours from Helen and starts touching her. In a panic, Helen fights him off and they have an accident. Helen manages to get out and starts aimlessly wandering until she passes out near a strange building.
When the last part of the tale begins, some time has passed since Helen collapsed outside of a country pub after the accident. Not only has she been taken in by the owners of the pub as a waitress, but she also lives at the pub. During her breaks, Helen walks the hills of the Lake District followed by the vision of her giant rat. She starts to read self-help books trying to come to terms to what has happened to her and how to begin her healing process.
Meanwhile, the pub’s owners, the McGregors, have been taking care of her and they have been treating her as a daughter. In one of her walks she finally breaks free of her past by shouting her rage, which shatters the frame of the panel itself in a kind of in-world catharsis. When she returns, she is determined to confront her parents. She asks for help from the pub owners. Her parents make it to the country pub and they act as if nothing has happened except for a silly teenage girl that has run away from home. Helen takes her father to a private place and challenges him to face what he has done to her. He acts like nothing is wrong because he never “penetrated” her and that he just “loves” her, but Helen manages to say what she needs to say and both return to the pub with the father in a state of mild shock. Back at the pub, Helen tells her parents that she is going to stay in the Lake District, which makes the McGregors, her new surrogate family, very happy.
At the end, Helen’s life seems to be more fulfilling, especially after she manages to get to Beatrix Potter’s home at Hill Top and she is seen discovering a fictional story of A Tale of One Bad Rat by Beatrix Potter. Among the mountains, Helen begins to draw her own story. The last image is that of Helen with the giant Ratso, drawing a magnificent view of Buttermere and Crummock Water in the Lake District.
Aldred, Elaine (2012). “Bryan Talbot. A Life of Constant Curiosity and Experiment.” In Strange Alliances: Great Writing Comes in Many Guises. Retrieved on April 17, 2016.
Gordon, Joe (2014). “Director’s Commentary: Filming the Comics Creator.” Forbidden Planet International Blog. Retrieved on April 17, 2016.
Hahne, Seth T. (N/D). “The Tale of One Bad Rat.” In Good OK Bad: Home of the 3 Star Review. Retrieved on April 18, 2016.
Lupton, Deborah (2003). Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease, and the Body in Western Societies. London: Sage Publishers LTD.
Talbot, Bryan (1995). The Tale of One Bad Rat. Milwaukee, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics.
Talbot, Bryan (1995). “Afterword: Once upon a time I had the notion to write and draw a story about the English Lake District.“In The Tale of One Bad Rat. Milwaukee, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics.
The Official Bryan Talbot Website. Writer and Artist: Comics, Graphic Novels and Illustrations. Retrieved on April 18, 2016.
We would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work. This blog post has also been produced with the financial support of the University of Exeter.
*All images and characters that appear in this site are copyright of their respective holders, and are used for informational purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended.