While I was writing for the Pulse, I had the opportunity to interview via email a number of creators whom I had admired for a long time. One of these creators was Bryan Talbot, creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, Alice in Sunderland, and Grandville, among many other classics. Sadly, the piece on Bryan Talbot never made it to publication before my association with the Pulse ended. Now, I get to change that. And I need to thank James Robertson, curator of the great Bryan Talbot site, for setting this up for me back in 2008. If you are at all interested in the works of Bryan Talbot, check out www.bryan-talbot.com, it is a wealth of information and art.
For Your Consideration: Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat
By Chris Beckett
The Tale of One Bad Rat
Written and Drawn by Bryan Talbot
136 pages, full color
Dark Horse Press, 2010 (2nd ed.)
What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):
Helen Potter is living rough – begging for food on the London streets as the chill of December sets in. A teenager, she has run away from home, following a similar path of her hero – Beatrix Potter. Her only friend is a pet rat. Living in Helen’s coat, it keeps her company as she tries to survive and figure out what to do next.
Walking along the banks of the Thames one evening, Helen is accosted by a drunk who tries to take advantage of her. Luckily, a group of boys roughly Helen’s age come to her aid, relieving the old sod of his wallet and Rolex in the process. They invite Helen to stay with them in their squat. She begs off initially, but the rain thrumming on the box she calls home changes her mind, and Helen makes her way to Kensington.
Helen finds comfort here for a while but is still plagued by the visions that have pursued her since she was young. She whiles away her days re-reading her Beatrix Potter library and copying the drawings found within. Helen feels a strong connection to these books and to their author. She tries to fit in with the others but when one of the cats kills Helen’s rat, she moves on once more, leaving the city behind to follow Beatrix Potter.
Heading into the countryside, Helen Potter is joined by a large apparition of her now-deceased rat. In the Lake District, Helen finds what she has been seeking – the peace needed to come to terms with her past and what her father did to her. With the understanding Helen gains from her self-reflection, she comes to realize that she must confront her father in order to finally move on with her life.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is a brilliant piece of fiction that feels far too real. Not just an expertly crafted piece of drama, One Bad Rat is also an important and relevant narrative that speaks to one of the most important and discomforting issues of our day – child sexual abuse. Tackling this subject is not an easy task – tread too far one way and one can be accused of “preaching,” while falling too far on the other side destroys the integrity of the work. But Talbot is at the top of his game with One Bad Rat and manages to weigh each of these priorities – telling a good story while conveying an important message – in order to produce an incredibly powerful comic.
The pacing of One Bad Rat is delicate, with Talbot teasing things out in an unhurried fashion. He intersperses the contemporary narrative with flashbacks, giving readers insights into Helen’s past, which in turn illuminate her current state of mind. Through these memories, the audience learns quickly what her home life was like. It’s not pretty and explains a lot about how readers have seen her act prior to this revelation. Uncomfortable with new people, unable to trust them, Helen is afraid of getting close to anyone and has an understandable problem with people trying to be affectionate with her.
Over the course of the story – originally broken up into a four-issue mini series – Helen grows as a person. She comes to grips with her past, moving beyond the guilt she once felt to anger at being taken advantage of. In a moving scene, Helen climbs the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain half a mile high, and, in the rain, releases her pent-up frustrations, screaming into the darkened sky. This is the turning point, the moment in which she knows she can finally confront her father.
Talbot is also an accomplished artist, and his work is as crisp and clean in One Bad Rat as in any of his other works. His landscapes in this tale rival Geof Darrow for their detail, and the facial expressions of his characters are second to none. There are some scenes that go on for pages sans dialogue, and Talbot conveys the emotion and the meaning of these scenes beautifully through the body language of the characters. It’s a classic example of using restraint to enhance the storytelling.
Talbot also utilizes the nine-panel grid with a facility rarely exhibited by other comic artists. In order to control the pacing of the story, he warps the nine-grid, stretching some panels right to the edge of the page while other smaller panels are overlaid on larger ones expanding across the background. He also combines panels to create larger ones when it suits the story, giving readers the comfort of the nine-grid while pushing at its boundaries to enhance the storytelling. It’s subtle but engaging, a master storyteller using all the tools available to create an important work of art.
Though the linework and layouts in One Bad Rat are impressive, the coloring is what really stands out for me with regard to Talbot’s art. There are many pages where it feels like he is using watercolors to achieve his effects. Much of the color feels it was applied with a brush, giving the art a more natural feeling than the flat coloring found in so many comics. The overall effect is that I find myself drawn in even more because of the classical beauty of the art. Even fifteen years removed from its initial publication, these four issues stand out against the “rest of the crowd” found on the comic racks in 2010.
An Interview with Bryan Talbot (originally conducted in 2008)
Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?
Bryan Talbot: I've been reading them since before I went to school, before I could read, in fact, following the stories without the words. I started drawing my own comics when I was about eight. I just continued reading them as I grew up. I love illustration. I also love stories. With comics, you get both! What could be better?
Beckett: What was your inspiration for The Tale of One Bad Rat and what aspirations did you have for the book?
Talbot: The original idea was to set a comic in the English Lake District, a place I know very well. One day I visited the house of Beatrix Potter, the writer and artist of children's storybooks who died in 1943 and it occurred to me that she told stories using a mixture of words and pictures, as did I. After researching her, I didn't think that I could make an interesting graphic novel based on her life. The recent movie "Miss Potter" made it interesting by cheating - they just made things up, departed from the truth somewhat. I didn't want to do that.
Then I saw a teenage girl begging in a London subway station. She was being harassed by this huge Jesus freak, who was trying to get her to go somewhere with him. She looked so mortified, as if she wanted the ground to open and swallow her up. It put me in mind of descriptions of Beatrix Potter at her age: "painfully shy". That became the first scene in the book.
Beckett: How much research went into the creation of One Bad Rat, and was it difficult for you to work on a book dealing with such uncomfortable subject matter?
Talbot: It wasn't all that difficult. I just had to make sure that I wasn't being preachy or simplistic. I was careful not to make her father, the abuser, a two-dimensional monster. Like the vast majority of abusers, he's just an ordinary guy who's so selfish and thick-skinned that he doesn't consider his daughter's feelings.
I did a great deal of research. I read about a dozen books on the psychological after-effects of abuse, though one would have done. They all repeat the same things in different words. I also read transcripts of abuse survivors talking about their experiences and talked to friends who had been abused. The same phrases are repeated again and again, both in survivors’ descriptions of what they felt and still feel and in the coercive language of the abusers.
When I was plotting the story, I needed an excuse for her to run away from home. Sexual abuse is often a reason for kids running away and I put it in, almost without thinking. It was only after I'd done the research that I realised that this was far too important to be a marginal story device and that it had to be what the book was all about.
My primary concern was to tell a good, gripping story
I also read over a dozen books on Beatrix Potter.
Beckett: I like how you broke the story up into different sections that fell at natural points within the narrative Town, Road, & Country. But these didn't fall within the prescribed 32 page increments when initially published. How did you approach the initial mini series and were any revisions necessary for the story to work in the standard comic format?
Talbot: No, it was just a matter of where to cut the story. That's why the comic page count varies in each edition. The story was structured as a novel. The book is really in two halves, Town and Country - a reference to Beatrix Potter's tale of the town mouse and the country mouse. Road is just a short linking sequence.
Beckett: You are an artist who has managed to achieve success within the comics medium on your own terms. That said, what advice would you give to aspiring creators hoping to break into comics?
Talbot: Persistence seems to be the overriding factor. If you have the talent and really want to do it, don't give up. Bad Rat was rejected by every publisher of illustrated books in Britain. This is before the current boom in graphic novels, when "comics" was a dirty word.
Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?
Talbot: I'm writing the next CHERUBS! book, which is now being drawn by Mark Stafford. The first graphic novel in the series was published recently by Desperado. Mark is the hottest Indy comic artist in the U.K. and his work on CHERUBS! is amazing. I can only compare him to an Evan Dorkin or Bob Fingerman, though his style is clearly his own. The book is a supernatural comedy-adventure, featuring a bunch of gonzo cherubim loose in New York on the eve of the apocalypse.
I'm also about halfway through my next graphic novel. It's called GRANDVILLE (published by Dark Horse, 2009) and is a steampunk detective-thriller.