An Unbearable Lightness of Being: Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat

Tackling taboo subjects like incest and child sexual abuse in fiction come with their own set of ill-defined and invisibly drawn boundaries– How much is too much? How much objectivity is allowed before it becomes an inhumane, or worse, gratuitous portrayal? More importantly, what is allowed, and what is not, in such painful renditions?  Add to that a visual medium like a graphic novel, and the issue compounds exponentially- the graphic nature of scenes can get visibly uncomfortable for those who might have undergone such prior trauma, or those who prefer their truths boiled down. Which is why Bryan Talbot’s The Tale of One Bad Rat is such a seminal piece of work in this arena – this is no long-winded execution of a sensitive topic glorifying the victim complex. This is a sublime, mature, and wholly lovely handling of a serious subject which is bound to make many uncomfortable.

The story starts as we come across Helen Potter, a runaway teenage girl on the hideout from abusive parents, trying to make her way in an increasingly hostile, frightening and bewildering world out there. The first half of the book is dedicated to navigating those scary pathways that a teenage girl left to her own devices is bound to encounter in a predatory world, though it is never quite made clear until the very end who or what she is running away from. It is heartbreaking in a way that only the most endearingly naïve of human actions can be.

One of the key strengths of this book is the way it plays upon the titular “rat”, and how it lends symbolism in so many ways. Helen’s pet rat, a harmless, comforting creature, is her one source of comfort, and the only being she relates to, as she is misunderstood and neglected, much in the way rats are in society in general. Juxtapose the word “bad” against it, and you open up a Pandora’s box- who really is “the bad rat” here? Is it Helen, who like many other child abuse survivors, blame themselves for their trauma? The literal rat, whose associations with dirt and disease, automatically slots it so? Are they the figurative rats, humans who prey on the vulnerabilities of the young and the innocent? Or is it simply the case of The Tale of One Bad Rat, an imaginary lost Beatrix Potter book? The book is a layered delight in this case.

The other equally, if not more so, strong point of the book is the way it interweaves Beatrix Potter’s life with Helen’s. It’s nothing as simple as parallel narratives of two lost girls – oh no, Talbot is more deft than such a cliché. Helen is drawn to Potter’s works not merely as an escapist tactic or more superficially, as those who shares the last surname, but because she relates to the prisons that held them both down (they both had dysfunctional pasts they sought refuges from in art). Helen runs away from an abusive situation without quite thinking through the repercussions of such an act, but it increasingly becomes clear to her throughout the book that she needs to seek out Potter’s haunts in order to find a semblance of order in her own life. It is in this journey mapping Potter spatially, that she also traverses an internal journey of becoming stronger and finding her own voice. Liberally aided by her talent for art, the comic also makes a statement about the therapeutic purpose that it serves.

Helen’s confrontation with her father/abuser, is somewhat problematic, and might not go down well with a lot of readers. While nothing as straightforward as forgiveness, the scene basically spares the father of from any sort of punishment, or even any great self-revelation, as his brief moment of regret is negated by revolting self-indulgence the next moment. Helen’s reaction, personally, does not come off as strong enough- the way she lets go of her father’s culpability in his crime thwarts the sense of poetic justice which our collective mythology as comic book lovers instills in us. On the other hand, to give Talbot some credit, he endows Helen’s character with an amazing level of maturity for a teenager, and for one who has been through what Helen has been, it is incredible. But what disturbed me personally, perhaps, is that nagging sense of doubt that the paedophilic father might just attack another vulnerable victim- it’s a thought nauseating enough for one keenly involved in such issues to feel angry towards Talbot for.

But what really redeems the resolution is the rather heart-warming way fantasy and reality blend over.  Helen’s story comes to a conclusion as she sits atop Hill Top (Potter’s home) and proceeds to sketch a painting of the surrounding countryside, even as the eponymous “The Tale of One Bad Rat” runs parallel via some lovely artwork.

There is a kind of beauty that blossoms from the darkest of humankind’s experiences. The Tale of One Bad Rat is a product of that philosophy, a powerfully moving and mature tale of survival.

by Sabitha Sudarshan
Sabitha works in advertising, and though she started reading graphic novels and comic books only once she turned 22, she’s taken to it like fish to water in just three years!