The Tale of One Bad Rat
Medium: comic
Year: 1994
Writer/artist: Bryan Talbot
Country: UK
Format: Four 32-page issues
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 17 November 2021
Apparently it's the second most requested graphic novel in US libraries, only beaten by Maus. It's won lots of awards, incuding an Eisner.
Its subject matter makes it stand out. It's about child abuse. There's nothing supernatural, superhuman or nerd-targeted about it, although our protagonist (Helen) does have a tendency to see things that aren't there. She's living on the streets in London and doesn't react well to being touched. She'll try to face her demons, but that's how things start.
It's taking its subject matter seriously. It's not a side-issue or a bit of motivating backstory, but instead the whole point of the plot. Talbot read over a dozen books on the sexual abuse of children and built his story around the coercion, emotional blackmail and psychological after-effects. In other words, it's about Helen. She goes on literal and inner journeys, ending up in the Lake District as she starts working through her issues by working out how to voice them.
The story's also strongly about Beatrix Potter. Helen loves Potter's works, thinks about them often and even shares Potter's name. The title's Potteresque. The Lake District country is where Potter lived and what she portrayed in her paintings. The last issue even has a pastiche Potter tale, told in her trademark page size and format, although the illustrations are like the rest of the comic book rather than full Potter-style watercolours. (Beatrix Potter was a highly accomplished fine artist, as can be seen if you ever get a chance to see her nature studies. Lots of pencil studies of mushrooms, drawn in near-photographic detail. Some of the figure work in her books is stiff and obviously drawn from dolls, though.)
Helen's an artist, too, but she doesn't draw original work. All she does is copy Potter's pictures. That's something people say she needs to cure, too.
Talbot's chosen art style is deliberately simple, easy to read even for comics newbies. It reminded me of stained glass windows, actually, with thick black lines partitioning the images into clear, neatly coloured areas. He's also extraordinarily accurate in his rendition of the Lake District. I know those locations. We had our honeymoon there. The Cat Bells, Derwent Water... I've climbed that peak he draws. I was so startled that I showed the comic to Tomoko.
This is a very simple story. It's not funny or exciting, while nothing's at stake beyond its protagonist's future and emotional health. Instead, it's sincere, meticulous and admirably clear about what it's doing. It's affected a lot of people and made the world a slightly better place.