The Tale of One Bad Rat

Since the  site still isn’t up, I ventured over to, a site that has a wealth of topics and information, where I stumbled on Erik Larsen’s latest One Fan’s Opinion  column.

In the column, Larsen, best known as the writer and artist of Savage Dragon, laments how difficult it is to get non-comics fans interested in comics — even the really good ones.

He explains that many people can’t get past the notion that comics are just superheroes bashing one another or total kids fare.

After many tries with one friend in particular, Larsen asks for his readers’ input on the perfect comic for a non-fan who doesn’t want funny animals or spandex-clad oafs.

Taking the challenge, I offered him this suggestion:

Dear Erik,

The one comic I think you might want to try, or at least suggest, is “The Tale of One Bad Rat” by Bryan Talbot.

The story is set in modern times as a teenage girl struggles with the aftermath of being sexually abused and ignored. She seeks refuge in the Beatrix Potter stories she read as youth. As a coping mechanism, she begins to see a giant rat who helps her sort through her problems.

The book came out quite a while back, but it’s both heartfelt and agonizing. So much so that its left an impression on me years later.

Here’s what Booklist’s Gordon Flagg had to say about “One Bad Rat”:

Unlike most graphic novels, this powerful new effort is neither genre fiction nor autobiographical, but a compelling tale of childhood sexual abuse and recovery. Its heroine is teenager Helen Potter, who has run away from an abusive father and whose path to recovery takes her from a squat in London to refuge at an inn in the British countryside. Along the way, she meets characters and situations that Talbot derives from the work of Helen’s namesake, Beatrix Potter, whose life he symbolically links to Helen’s. Talbot’s vivid, realistic full-color illustration brilliantly evokes the story’s settings, yet even more effective are his compassionate characterizations. Although Helen’s eventual decision to take responsibility for her recovery seems somewhat facile, her ultimate triumph is genuinely inspirational. This graphic novel has the potential to affect a large audience, notably including counselors and others who work with abuse survivors. 

And just in case you’re still not convinced, here’s another review from an reader:

“Once upon a time, there was a very bad rat…” So begins “The Tale of One Bad Rat.” And though it would seem a classic Beatrix Potter beginning, this tale is not hers, but is actually a graphic novel written and illustrated by British artist Bryan Talbot. For those unfamiliar with the term, graphic novels are essentially thick comic books, often collected from a series of individual comics. It’s a format not entirely dissimilar to Beatrix Potter’s own, and the similarities with her work do not end there.

As in many of Potter’s tales, Bad Rat’s main character is one of unfortunate circumstance who has to see her way past the wicked foxes and ill-tempered farmers of her life to find her happily ever after. Instead of using an actual rat, though, Talbot introduces us to Helen Potter, a wildly imaginative, homeless teenager, whose only possessions are the Beatrix Potter books she took when she ran away from home and whose only friend is her small nameless pet rat.

Helen’s world on the streets of 1990s London is not an easy one. She gets by panhandling and through the kindness of her fellow street kids, but is plagued by occasional bursts of her own imagination. Among other things, she sees visions of possible ways to end her life, can see historic versions of her surroundings, can envision people as their animal counterparts and even imagine a giant version of her own pet rat. She views herself as a bad person-a bad rat. This psychologists tell us, is often the case among those who, like Helen, have been damaged by the all too common nightmare of parental abuse. It is the exploration of this important problem that forms the foundation for this story.

Like her namesake, Helen’s finds pleasure in drawing-whether doodling on her pants or copying Beatrix’s illustrations from her books. Helen finds hope in the parallels she sees between her life and Beatrix’s. She wishes more than anything else to leave London for the Lake District village of Sawrey, where Beatrix herself lived much of her life. After some unfortunate incidents involving the police, this is exactly what Helen does. Escaping London for the peaceful Sawrey brings her some happiness, but it does not allow her to escape her past. Finally facing that past and her abuser becomes Helen’s ultimate quest toward her happy ending.

In “The Tale of One Bad Rat,” Bryan Talbot has created a modern version of a Beatrix Potter story, filled with colorful true to life characters and villains every bit in Mr. McGregor’s league. The story also serves as a love letter to the English Lake District and its various villages-a land of lush green mountains that were a passion of Beatrix Potter’s for much of her life and served as the setting for many of her tales. He has also created a work about the terribly important issue of sexual abuse-especially considering that government studies estimate that one in three girls will be molested before they’re eighteen, and that statistic is based only on the few cases that are reported. And while Bad Rat is ultimately an uplifting tale of survival, it reminds us that not everyone lives happily ever after.



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