Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Tale of One Bad Rat #1

The Tale of One Bad Rat #1, October 1994, Dark Horse Comics
by Bryan Talbot
Blogger's note: Entry for Friday, April 4, 2008.
I purchased The Tale of One Bad Rat #1 because of its stark, simple cover, which, I didn't realize at the time, mimics the look of Beatrice Potter's classic collection right down to the font. (Thank you for the observation, Comics Worth Reading.) I hadn't realized plenty of things about The Tale of One Bad Rat #1 before I read it -- namely, that I've been a fool to have waiting this long. The Official Bryan Talbot Fanpage notes that this series is the second most requested graphic novel after Maus, which makes me wonder why I've never heard of it before. For all of the comics that I've read in- and outside of this A Comic A Day challenge, am I still that out of touch with this medium as a whole?
Fortunately, the best comics make sure it's never too late to catch up. Bryan Talbot's Beatrice Potter inspired urban fairy tale about a suicidal, delusional, homeless young woman is as viable today, fourteen years after its original publication, as it was then, when Neil Gaiman described it as "a story of strength and pain and survival." One Bad Rat is definitely a vivid portrayal of homelessness, as Helen, its protagonist, wanders the streets of London, feeding and protecting her pet rat from the cold while fending off seedy offers from street evangelists and recruiting prostitutes. Interestingly, through Helen's paranoia, we the readers perceive these characters in the same light, as potential offenders that strive her exploit her vulnerability. When a band of streetwise ruffians rescue Helen from yet another grabby transgressor, she takes a risk and trusts them enough to board with them, where her peculiar visions and painful memories prevent her from positive social interaction. By the end of this first issue, one wonders if Helen will ever find a place that feels like home.
Well, what can I say about this story that Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore haven't? It's obviously a masterful, insightful piece of graphic storytelling, with narrative skill that matches fluid, expressive illustration. What I appreciated most about One Bad Rat was its ability to capture the determination of adolescence even in the face of abandonment and dire circumstance. Helen's relationship with her rat is reflective of her own need for acceptance, as she undoubtedly projects her own shortcomings onto the supposed grotesqueness of a rat. In this issue's first act, a child reaches to pet Helen's rat until her mother dissuades her in disgust, a physical manifestation for how many of us feel when we encounter a homeless person, whether we admit it or not. The dangers of the world are more apparent to these people -- the spheres of stability that surround us have been stripped away from these people. In many ways, their lives are like fairy tales, but in all the wrong ways. Even the smallest of threats could have some serious consequences.
Which is why it might just take one bad right to survive it.

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