Most of the comics series published today revolve around superheros, with the occasional divergence towards science fiction, fantasy or horror. As a result, the vast majority of trade paperback collections are in these genres. Most graphic novels, on the other hand, are either autobiographies (Stuck Rubber Baby, Blankets and even, in a sense, Maus) or experimental indie projects, rather genre defying in nature (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron comes to mind). It seems that in spite of its potential to tell all kinds of stories, prejudice and current readership limits graphic story telling – at least in English - to very few styles and types of stories.
But once in a while, an artist takes a bold step, or perhaps the publishers let down their guard, and we're awarded with the rare gem of a good story that just happens to be told in sequential art, shaking off the shackles of expectations and custom that the medium has become burdened with.
This is the case with The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot, originally published by Dark Horse.
We first encounter our hero, Helen, begging for money in the Tottenham Court Road underground station and contemplating suicide. All, it is rather obvious, is not well. And, indeed, Helen has low self esteem, can't bear to be touched and doesn't trust anybody. All classic symptoms of sexual abuse victims. Helen, however, is not only typical, she is also unique: by degrees, with ups and downs on the way, she learns to trust people, and is resolved to face her issues rather than let her past smother her present. Unlike so many others, Helen manages – with the help of kind strangers, an iron will and an active imagination – to reforge her self and her future.
Talbot spent years researching The Tale of One Bad Rat: he read up on sexual abuse, on Beatrix Potter (Helen's role model in more than one way), on rats; he found reference models for all of the main characters; he took hundreds of photographs of scenery and buildings. He did all of this on his spare time, and thus, without the time constraints of mainstream comics. The result is spectacular on many levels. The story is well paced, humane, believable, and interweaves several themes effortlessly and to much synergic effect; the characters have distinct speech patterns, unique body language, rounded personalities; and the art… Ah, the art.
In the art front, like in everything else, Talbot did everything himself: pencils, inks, layouts, colors, it's all Talbot. The Tale of One Bad Rat's art is very different from Talbot's usual work – for instance, this is the first time he used colors, and to splendid effect – and here, too, it's a labor of love. But even though the backgrounds are all realistic and every facial expression expresses the character's mood precisely, Talbot uses the art to serve the story, avoiding cheap melodrama.
- Talbot sets the mood
The Tale of One Bad Rat is an important book on an important subject, true. But it's also an important landmark for graphic storytelling, demonstrating the medium's potential for providing an empathic, engaging, profound reading experience. It's recommended for everybody interested in comics or graphic novels, but for those that still think books with pictures are for children it's an absolute must.