I just finished reading a magnificant comic book–one that I think everybody I know should read. Please don’t stop reading just because you’ve seen the words “comic book.” I’m not talking about muscle-bound morons slugging each other or zapping people with ray guns. Read the next two paragraphs. If you’re still not interested, that’s fine, but at least give me a shot here.
Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat concerns a teenaged girl, Helen Potter, the so-called bad rat of the story.* Helen runs away from home to escape abusive parents: a father who molests her and a mother who hates and screams at her. Helen goes to London, where she begs for coins in subway stations and sleeps rough in a cardboard box under a bridge. As do many incest survivors, Helen comes to despise herself. Rather than blame her abuser for her pain, she internalizes it and suffers deep guilt and surpressed anger.
But being homeless and alone in London places Helen at great risk and, one night, a strolling MP encounters Helen in a park and tries to rape her. A group of seeming street toughs comes to her rescue and she gets to know one, Ben, rather well. He earns her trust as a friend, but when he attempts an innocent kiss, she freaks out and leaves. Her abuse at her father’s hands has made her distrustful of physical contact.
I won’t say much else about the plot, except that Helen undergoes tremendous personal growth through the course of this story. Talbot tells Helen’s story in a way that is realistic and harrowing but still, ultimately, optimistic. Talbot, in writing this story, conducted extensive research into sexual abuse and interviewed various survivors. His story shows there’s a pathway out of guilt and self-loathing.
The Tale of One Bad Rat made me cry, which is something few comics do anymore. I was so caught up in Helen’s story that I actually felt empathy for her. She was such a realistic character–her motivations and reactions seemed so true-to-life–that I identified with her and her emotions. As I’ve mentioned, Talbot spoke with survivors of similar experiences and their words, their emotions, and their responses inform virtually every decision Helen makes and every word she speaks.
Talbot mentions in the afterword that he chose to model his characters and settings on real-life people and places. Expect to see people and places that look very much like the world you inhabit. Again, this isn’t a superhero comic. This is London, not Superman’s Metropolis. The streets don’t gleam and not everyone is buff and beautiful. Even those who are buff and beautiful aren’t necessarily the good guys.
He includes photographs of his character models in the afterword and these pictures demonstrate what a wonderful job he did in creating realistic characters. And I think it was a wise choice, because that grounding gives the comic a basis in the reality we know. Even if we’ve never seen a London Underground station or been to the Lake District, the details in these scenes make them seem wholly realistic. This choice benefits the book by bringing the reader into the world and life that Helen inhabits. I almost felt I was viewing her world through her eyes, in a way.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is a haunting, surprising book. I expect Helen Potter and her story to remain in my head for some time to come.
The title derives from young Helen’s hero, children’s-book writer/artist Beatrix Potter. Beatrix wrote a book called The Tale of Two Bad Mice and she also used the fortune she made from her books to purchase up chunk after chunk of England’s Lake District. Upon her death, she willed her now-extensive holdings to the National Trust, placing them into the public’s hands. The Lake District plays a pivotal role in this story.