Comic-Book Classics #1
There was only one comic-book I could begin this series with. I borrowed a copy from a friend as soon as I heard what it was about. It was not enough, it was a book I needed to own. Trouble is, it had been out of print since the mid 90s. With life leading me astray in various directions, I was forced to abandon my search. Then this year, out of the blue, One Bad Rat found me. As I took a break from Nottingham’s FantasyCon, there it was, sitting there in the full glory of its 2008 hardback edition. Page 45 had just gotten another happy customer.
And it was still as glorious as the first time I’d read it. That’s the thing with a masterpiece. It does not date or grow old but accompanies you as life changes you. But enough about me. Let me tell you about Talbot’s Rat.
The story is a young woman’s journey. She is first introduced to us as a homeless beggar, the owner of just the clothes she stands up in –and a pet rat. Rats are a key reference point. Her attachment to them is a constant in her life. When her flesh-and-blood pet is killed, she acquires an imaginary rat-companion and leaves the city for a new life. A physical journey in one sense, in which she travels from the streets of London to the landscapes of the Lake District, but a more important one in an emotional sense. Helen, our heroine, is a survivor of child abuse at the hands of her father. Through her journey she learns what she has to do to rid herself of a past that haunts her: confront her abuser.
Helen’s past, however, also holds the key to her redemption. Through her reading of the works of Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories, she finds the courage to defeat her demons. It is why she travels to the lake district, to be near a woman she admires and the tales she told of brave little animals winning the day against all odds. The book itself has the look and feel of a large Beatrix Potter storybook. Quite fitting for an adult fairytale.
Initially published in the early 90s, a decade when the word “intertextual” was bandied about to describe any sort of layered narrative, One Bad Rat is the real deal. The protagonist slips in and out of Potter reality and into the cold, dangerous contemporary world. As Alan Moore puts it, it “interweaves the charming, whimsical, and above all, the English version of Beatrix Potter with a vision of England as it has become; the soft juxtaposed with the savage; Peter Rabbit in Cardboard City.”
When Helen confronts her father, telling him how she had been hurt by his abuse, she does it in the hills that Potter’s books made their own. She draws courage from the landscape, the example of the author’s life and her new friends, but most of all she uses the narratives of the children’s stories to build herself a new reality. We leave Helen after her confrontation, finally able to put her life back together. To paint, write stories and leave behind the victim she once was.
An impressive feature of the book is the painstaking level of research. Not only did the author read about the subject of child abuse, but he spoke to many survivors and counselors, paraphrasing Helen’s dialogue from the transcripts of abuse survivors’ own stories. In terms of visual style, the research is also immaculate. All the settings depicted are taken from real life locations, all the characters drawn from live actors (and rats). He even consulted a hairdresser to ascertain how far Helen’s hair would have grown in the time it took to tell the story!
If you only ever buy one comic book in your entire life, make it this one. Do it because the narrative is outstanding, because it is so good at what it does that many countries use it to counsel the victims and survivors of abuse. Do it because it’s beautiful object. In your shoes, I’d do myself a favour. Go down to a comic-shop and get it. Don’t fuck about on Amazon, go to a real shop and have a real experience buying a real thing. It might be one of the most precious books you will ever own, so make it’s purchase an event you will remember. I’d try Nottingham’s Page 45. It did the job for me.