One Bad Rat review: from Popimage
The harrowing but optimistic story of a girl's battle with child abuse
Writer and Artist: Bryan Talbot
Reviewed by Alasdair Watson
This is a book that ought to change the way you look at comics. If you do not own it, or have not read it at least twice, then stop reading this review and go out and buy it now. If you cannot buy it right now, have your retailer order it in for you. If they cannot or will not, change retailer instantly, because they are clearly too stupid to be human beings, and certainly do not deserve your money.
If you're still here, then obviously you must have read this book. If you haven't, then fuck off and buy it now. I'm not saying this for emphasis, or to get a laugh. Fuck off and buy it. I mean it. Now. This comic alone justifies the years of god-awful spandex-clad dross that Marvel and DC have inflicted on their readers.
This comic alone is reason to put up with the spotty-faced overweight 15 year olds who slavishly drool over the latest superheroine to run around in a thong with her tits hanging out. If that's what's required to support an industry that can produce THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT, then hell. It's all worth it.
This is a remarkable story, on several levels.
Purely technically, as a comic, this is shining stuff. I thought I had a good grasp of the techniques required to put a comic together. But within the first 5 pages, Talbot showed me enough new tricks to make my hair stand on end. Just look at the way he goes from the idyllic scene that opens the book across to the London underground, then makes use of that same scene in subtly different ways later on to bring home the changes that have occurred since. Now tell me that's not dead clever, and find me a mainstream American comic that uses techniques like that. Stylish, visually lovely, and beautifully effective.
Look at the fades into and out of flashback, so utterly natural, an elegant depiction of how most of us wind up wandering down memory lane. It comes within an inch of carrying the reader with it, with just a few subtle clues that this isn't the present any more.
The story is a very real journey around England, from its cold concrete and green hills, through rain-soaked motorways, to pleasant leafy city streets and high rise hellholes. If you want to get a feel for what Britain looked like in the early 90s, this is the place to look. In his afterword, Talbot says he spent ages obtaining reference materials, basing everything on real people and real locations. It pays off in spades. Being a Londoner, I was able to identify the Tube station the story opens in straightaway. Hell, if they hadn't refurbished the place I could probably have picked out the exact spot on the platform that Helen is sitting on. Suddenly I know I'm not reading some frivolous little tale, but a very serious and very real book. That atmosphere is maintained right the way through, seemingly effortlessly. Not once does suspension of disbelief fail. Not even when confronted with a giant invisible rat.
Despite its realism, this is not photo-realistic art like the Alex Rosses of this world churn out. I suspect it has very carefully stayed away from photo-realism; the more iconic nature of the art serves to better bring us into the story and see ourselves in the place of Helen. An extension of this is that when we first meet Helen it's not very easy to decide on her gender, or even her age beyond "young," and it's some pages before she's finally clearly marked out as female. It's touches like this that work so well to build the story, the horror and the hurt later on, while keeping it so clearly in the real world. We've all seen kids sleeping rough, and been unable to tell what age or gender they were. They were just one more face in the crowd to us. So is Helen and her story. And there's the horror of it.
Pay attention, because here's the best bit. What we have here is a comic tackling an Important Subject, in a credible adult manner. It does it better than some of the "proper" literature I've read on the subject of child abuse. And certainly a sight better than the endless parade of emotional chatshows and public scab-picking exercises. In fact it does it so well that there are an increasing number of places recommending it as a resource for dealing with child abuse. Christ, I know people it has helped. I don't think it's possible to pay the work a higher compliment than that.
And yet, I don't see comic shop owners pushing this on their customers. Why the hell not? This is the perfect comic to open some 15 year old eyes to the fact that there's more to comics than Psylocke's latest near-transparent piece of arse-floss. And they might even learn a thing or two. In juxtaposition to the serious, cold and hard fact of child abuse, the book contains a warm sort of storytelling magic, through the Beatrix Potter elements that are worked into it so beautifully, a very British feeling that chimes beautifully with Potter's style of work. Potter's work isn't to my taste, but I can see its warmth and beauty, and Talbot does a fine job of catching it.
I said this book would change the way you looked at comics. It will have you wondering why every comic you read isn't as good as this. It will have you disgusted and sickened that this isn't being made into a lucrative movie, while drivel like X-MEN gets the full treatment. That's OK. That's a good attitude.
I tried very hard to find something bad about this comic. I really did. And while it's true other works are as good as THE TALE OF ONE BAD RAT because they have excellent art, or a firm grasp of structure, or because they too tackle a serious issue in a credible and useful manner, I know of no other that does all of them at once. Not as well as this book.
Alasdair Watson is Technical Editor of PopImage
Also take a look at the One Bad Rat homepage where I have grouped together all of the content I could find that relates to the Tale of One Bad Rat.
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