The Tale of One Bad Rat
by Bryan Talbot
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Best Graphic Album: Reprint
I had exactly one problem with The Tale of One Bad Rat (which should tell you right away that this review is going to be positively glowing). The main character is a very troubled young woman. She's almost certainly schizophrenic and at the beginning of the book she seems to be right on the verge of a final break with reality. Authors like to simplify such psychological issues for the sake of the story and in this case I think it was a misstep given the details that reader saw. I had a few other problems in mind but as I thought back over the book I decided that they worked in context which made The Tale of One Bad Rat a very interesting book.
Helen is a runaway teen on the streets of London. She fled her family due to her abusive parents and now the only living thing that she can stand to touch is a rat that she carries with her. Helen also has hallucinations and focuses on suicide. She also shuns people, or did until a gang of wild kids invite her to stay at a house they're squatting in and that starts her on a new path.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is all about getting inside Helen's head. Talbot puts a face to her fears and depression that makes the story compelling. Helen also has an obsession with rats and Beatrix Potter and uses that to relate to her own life. She finds comfort in the uglier aspects of Potter's early life and Helen finds herself following in Potter's footsteps. Helen latches onto Potter and her anthropomorphic rodents as a lifeline. It is a good depiction of a mentally ill girl and Talbot pulled him into her world.
Talbot plays with a variety of stories about Helen in the course of the book. Initially it's the story of an urchin on the streets of London but he takes it to many different places. The most striking is a segment near the end of the book with her story told as a pastiche of a Beatrix Potter. Helen moves through these changes in story as she undergoes her own changes. She's never the same at the end of one segment as she was at the beginning and it's that development that makes The Tale of One Bad Rat so compelling.
The artwork does a decent job of supporting the story and when Talbot wants to fit in Potter illustrations he's up to the task of making them look natural. He does draw some very masculine looking faces for his women which threw me off at a few points. Early on the first time we see that Helen's mother was also abusive I initially thought it was her father wearing make up which would add a whole other layer to the psychological aspects of the story.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is a compelling look at child abuse and its consequences. Talbot may have chosen a simple climax but the rest of the character examination was worth it. I doubt I'll want to read it again any time soon but I am glad that I read it.