Review by Fiona Jerome
After being sexually abused by her father, shy, emotionally-reserved Helen Potter lives a dark, frightening life on the streets of London, with only her pet rat for solace. Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat takes Helen on a journey of discovery and defiance across England to discover the home of another sad and lonely little girl who grew up to become Beatrix Potter. Like Beatrix Potter, Helen has intense empathy for animals, and as she explores the Lake District landscapes that shaped Potter’s life, she finds the courage to try and face her past trauma.
Extraordinarily moving, Bryan Talbot’s socially informed tale is rooted, as all his best works are, in a profound understanding of history and landscape. His drawings of the Lake District in particular are detailed, beautiful, and instantly recognizable to those that know the area, and as with previous works such as Luther Arkwright he draws on local knowledge and legend to enrich his storytelling. Talbot’s inspiration often starts with places and this, combined with a deep love of traditional English illustrators, enabled him to develop his drawing style for this series. In his earlier works there are occasional moments of stiffness and awkwardness. Here Talbot imbues every panel with a sense of poise and although there is a certain rigidity implicit in the use of extensive photo referencing for both backgrounds and characters, the drawing style is deeply emotional and evocative. It also uses very simple storytelling techniques, as Talbot was aiming at an audience outside comic readers, an audience that might not be familiar with the conventions of comic book storytelling.
Talbot’s art in The Tale of One Bad Rat harks back to Edwardian children’s books and well-loved artists like Alfred Bestall, illustrator of Rupert The Bear, with is heavy outlining of key figures and elements, and bucolic detail in the background. There is, at times, an almost stained glass window effect. Talbot also carries off some excellent pastiches of Beatrix Potter herself, and contrasts what we think of as an appealing and cosy style with his disturbing subject matter.
Bryan Talbot’s approach to is quite unique, and intensely personal. He began by wanting to do a comic set in the Lake District, but after reading books on child abuse knew that this would be the heart of his story. He used an ‘outsider’ animal as a conduit for his heroine’s feelings, drawing on years of rat-keeping in his family to produce characterful yet anatomically correct images and using his knowledge of rats to show the extraordinary relationship between Helen and her pet.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is a quiet story about what is sadly an everyday occurrence, told with admirable reserve and reverent care. It is powerful and empowering, even in its quietest moment