The One Bad Rat interview
Bryan Talbot, who began his career in illustration in 1969, has long been an innovator in the comics industry. While a complete list of his innovations is virtually endless, these works of note began in 1978 when he created the groundbreaking epic, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright (published in the U.S. by Dark Horse Comics in the early '90s), which was serialized in Near Myths magazine. When these stories were collected in 1982 by Never, Ltd., Luther Arkwright became the first British graphic novel. In 1983, he began working for 2000AD, the seminal weekly magazine, where he and Pat Mills created three books in the Nemesis the Warlock series. For the past four years he has been working with DC Comics on such titles as Hellblazer, The Sandman, The Nazz, and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. He has earned many awards, both in Europe and America, for his unique methods of storytelling, and his most recent work, The Tale of One Bad Rat from Dark Horse Comics -- which out-innovates even Bryan Talbot -- is no exception. In October, this story, possibly Talbot's most important work, is being published in trade paperback form by Dark Horse. Michael Gilman spoke to Talbot about the impetus behind this important story just before he left for a weekend in the Lake District...
Michael Gilman: What inspiration did you receive for you to create a comic about child sexual abuse?
Bryan Talbot: I never set out to write a comic book on the subject. I started looking for a way in to do a story about the Lake District -- which is an amazing place. I've been in love with it for most of my life. There are a lot of different angles I could've gone on, but I started looking at Beatrix Potter, a very famous children's writer -- probably better known in Britain than Walt Disney. She moved to the Lake District and bought a huge chunk of it using the profits from her children's books. Every time she got a new book out she bought bits of the Lake District with the profits. On her death, she left them all to the National Trust. However, I didn't want to do a biography. I thought that a story about the life of Beatrix Potter would in no way make an interesting comic. It was only when I decided to set it in the present day that something clicked with me. Beatrix Potter had a really oppressed childhood, and she was described as being painfully shy. That, for some reason, made me think of this girl I'd seen a few years before on Totenham Court Road tube station who was homeless and begging. That became the first scene in the book, more or less. She was sitting on the tube station begging and this huge bearded Jesus freak was hustling her, trying to get her to go somewhere. Very often stories take on a life of their own, and that's certainly true of One Bad Rat. The child-abuse angle came in because when I was plotting it out I thought, "Why did she leave home?" And I thought, "Well, her father's been abusing her," which is a common enough reason for kids leaving home. It seemed to make sense. I just packed it in there and didn't think much of it. Every time I write any comic, though, I spend a lot of time doing research.
MG: That's good -- a writer should always know more than is told to the reader. What sort of research went into One Bad Rat?
BT: Apart from reading books on Beatrix Potter, books on the Lake District, and books on rats, I read about a dozen books on child sexual abuse. I also talked to some victims of sexual abuse. As I was writing the story I thought, "I just can't have this as a plot device. It has to be the main reason for the story. It has to be what the story is about." So it took over as the theme to the story -- what began as a book about the Lake District became a book about the after-effects of child sexual abuse.
MG: How did writing this comic book affect you personally?
BT: I had a happy childhood -- I wasn't molested or anything -- but the story did affect me. The main thing, apart from being more aware of child abuse, is that it's amazing going to conventions now. There will be people who I'll have known for years who come up to me and the first thing they say to me is, "I was abused," or, "You told my story."
MG: One Bad Rat, despite being centered around a topic that is considered to be quite negative and horror-filled, is, ultimately, a story of hope and the triumph of the human spirit.
BT: When it was first advertised from Dark Horse, one of the distributor catalogues featured the slogan, "Every so many seconds a child's life is destroyed" -- something like that. There was actually someone who wrote a letter to that distributor complaining that "it's terrible to say that an abused child's life is destroyed. You can get over it, you can come to terms with it and live a normal life. It doesn't have to screw you up for the rest of your life." Hopefully, he went on to read One Bad Rat and find out that his feelings were echoed there.
MG: You mentioned Beatrix Potter earlier. Her presence is a major theme running through the story.
BT: The whole story is filled with references to Beatrix Potter -- little minute references all the way through it. You don't need to know anything about Beatrix Potter to follow the story. Every single character in the story who is mentioned by name is actually named from a Beatrix Potter character.
MG: It's been theorized, and could be inferred from some of Helen's comments during the course of the story, that Beatrix Potter had been an abused child herself. Are you a supporter of this theory?
BT: No... nobody can prove it or disprove it -- in Victorian times people never used to talk about stuff like that. But, I doubt it, although she certainly had an oppressed childhood. She was kept prisoner in the family house in London. She didn't have any contact with other children -- apart from her brother Bertrand who was sent away when he was six to go to school. She never actually went to school herself -- her parents were well off and they paid for a series of tutors. But she never had any friends, apart from the animals which she accumulated -- most of which she had to smuggle into the house. Whether or not she was sexually abused... well, she didn't spend any time in her parents' company until she was about eighteen. I doubt whether her father saw her long enough [laughter].
MG: Some people have seen Helen as a reincarnation of Beatrix Potter. Was this intentional on your part?
BT: That's actually there if you want to see it, but basically I tried to put it together -- in my own mind, anyway -- with Jung's Theory of Synchronicity. I wanted to give the impression of two lives touching each other across the years, and how this unspoken connection with Beatrix Potter eventually leads Helen to overcoming her psychological restraints.
MG: From the title onward, rats play a major role in the story. Helen is perceived, at least by herself -- and her mom -- to be the bad rat of the story. Could you explain the significance of this?
BT: Helen is the bad rat of the story. At one point her father, after she scratches his face, calls her a vicious little rat. Many abused children think of themselves as bad, that they did a bad thing. Researching these child-abuse books, the same things come up again and again -- the feeling of being an alien or being a freak, different from everybody else. A lot of the stuff that is said in the story is either quotes from people who have been abused or paraphrases of things they've said. In the story, Helen goes through the different stages that, according to psychotherapists, are necessary in order to overcome some of the after-effects of child sexual abuse. Obviously -- for dramatic reasons -- I put it in a shorter period. Realistically it takes years to get over the mental anguish of abuse. The tie-in with the rats is that everyone thinks that rats are bad -- the general perception of rats is a very negative one. Her perception of herself is bad. Another correlation is that rats are born survivors, and survivors is a term used to describe child-abuse survivors. And, of course, Beatrix Potter had a pet rat. As far as the title, it just seemed natural. Also, for the purpose of telling an entertaining story, the rat was a great storytelling device. It meant that I didn't have to have a single thought balloon in the whole book. Helen could speak any of her thoughts directly to the rat.
MG: What are your goals for The Tale of One Bad Rat, as far as what effect you hope it will have on child sexual abuse?
BT: What I mostly wanted to do with Bad Rat was to tell a good, entertaining story. I think that part of the enjoyment people will get from reading the story will be simply being in the company of Helen, not just this ray of hope concept. In regard to what I want to achieve with child abuse, in some of the early press releases Dark Horse put out, Mike Richardson was quoted as saying that he hoped that even if one person reads this and makes them not abuse a child, then it'll have been worthwhile. One of the points of the story is that the people who do this sort of thing are so selfish and self-centered that they don't want to change. What it may achieve is an awareness. A lot of the victims of child sexual abuse -- the younger victims especially -- think this is only happening to them. They think that they're totally isolated and on their own. They can't tell anybody, because they won't believe it's happening. People don't realize how common this is -- about one in three girls is molested. Obviously, the more child abuse is discussed in society and fiction -- movies, comics, and text fiction -- the more stories the more people realize that this is happening all the time. And that means that more and more victims will realize it's not just happening to themselves. So that's a positive thing. There's actually a couple of child-abuse centers in Britain using the comics now.
MG: That's really good. One Bad Rat is a great example of the way comics can be used as an educational tool.
BT: Absolutely. Some of the kids that the centers get in find it hard to start talking about themselves -- they find it hard to relay their experiences and feelings. So they are showed the comic, and they can identify with Helen. They begin talking, and because they're talking about Helen and her experiences, it enables them to start talking about themselves. That's great.
MG: For these reasons, do you think that the comics medium lends itself to portrayal of difficult subjects, like this?
BT: Yeah -- it's a really powerful educational tool, as well as being an entertaining one. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics showed how well you could use comics for education. Also, there's Art Spiegelman's Maus. You would have thought that a comic dealing with the Holocaust would be grim and unreadable, but it's not. Five minutes after you begin reading Maus, you've forgotten you're reading a comic. So, yes, comics can be used as a very effective educational tool.
MG: This book has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of readers -- both inside and outside the comics industry -- thereby being able to effectively break into mainstream literature. Was that a goal of yours once you started this?
BT: Definitely. As we know, comics doesn't have any mainstream -- or, rather, the mainstream of comics is superheroes. It's all genre-based -- superhero, fantasy, science fiction, detective, western. There are some projects that attempt to break out of this, like Alan Moore's Big Numbers or Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch. I'm sure that One Bad Rat would appeal to a lot of people in the mainstream who don't read comics. Most people just don't want to read superhero comics. I'm not saying that all superhero comics are bad -- you can have excellent superhero comics like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. But the vast majority of them are written for male thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds with power fantasies. When you're over twenty, you want to move on to something with a little more substance.
MG: Once you knew of its mainstream appeal, did you tailor the book in any way to make it more accessible?
BT: I tried to take a lot of things out that people who don't usually read comics may think of as being childish in some way. I think the thought balloons probably fall into that particular category -- as do sound effects. There are no sound effects during the whole story. Other than that, the rat, again, was just a good device -- when it was alive or even when it was there as the imaginary rat. Helen could just speak her thoughts to this rat.
MG: How have people reacted to the comic, both inside and outside the comics industry?
BT: It's won a couple of awards -- the Comic Creator's Guild Award for best short series of 1994 and in March it was awarded the U.K. Comic Art Award for best new publication. Other than that, I did have quite a few letters and little cards from people in the business while the series was coming out saying "Great!," "Good work!," "Congratulations on Bad Rat," and such. It's amazing the number of people in the industry who have shown Bad Rat to someone who doesn't usually read comics, and has come back to me with a really good response. For instance, Ed Polgardy of TeknoComix gave it to his grandmother to read, and she's probably never read a comic in her life, but she loved it. She's a voracious reader of novels and she's very choosy. A lot of people -- especially women -- can relate to the story.
Interview by Michael Gilman
This content originally published by Dark Horse, and is used with permission.
Other interviews with Bryan on the site include: Bryan Talbot the best kept secret in comics: an interview with Bryan originally published by Popimage in December '99; and an interview with Bryan conducted by an Italian fan named Lorenzo by email; and finally, Slipping through the parallels with Bryan Talbot by Brad Cook - an amazing piece of work, as it's an interview with Bryan told by Hiram Kowolsky on this parallel!
The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot