Bryan Talbot, The Tale of One Bad Rat (Dark Horse Books, 1995)
Though The Tale of One Bad Rat is not a fantasy, it feels like one.
It's structured as the hero's journey of quest fantasy. And though all the seemingly magical events exist only within the heroine's imagination, because it's a graphic novel, we see them as clearly as if they existed in the objective world. There's no visual distinction between a painting of a real giant rat walking down the London streets, and a painting of an imaginary giant rat walking down the London streets.
More, the book taps into many of the motifs and emotions of fantasy: strange lore and unsolved mysteries, endurance in adversity and triumph in escape, an enemy who must be faced, companions on the road, animal friends, a haven in the country, healing after long suffering, and, suffusing everything, a sense of wonder.
If that list makes you think of Tolkien, you're not far off. But the author whom this book really reminded me of was Charles de Lint. Imagine an English de Lint writing and illustrating a mainstream graphic novel without a trace of preachiness, and you'll have imagined it about right.
The Tale of One Bad Rat is about Helen, a teenage runaway who wanders England accompanied by her pet rat. He's not a magic rat or a talking rat, but an ordinary hooded rat, friendly and full of ratty personality. But he looms large in Helen's mind, which is filled with rat lore and images from Beatrix Potter books.
In London, Helen meets a charming Geordie runaway and leaves her mark on his life when she tells him about Rat Kings. As she's leaving London, an Indian man tells her how sacred rats cured his cousin. But wherever she goes, she is haunted by diamond-sharp memories of her abusive past, visions of horrific futures, and nightmares of violent acts and giant cats.
Her journey comes full circle when she arrives at the town where Beatrix Potter lived. In the countryside which inspired Potter's stories and drawings, which in turn inspired Helen, the girl and her rat (which is now big enough for her to ride) must face the past they fled before they can begin their future.
Talbot's art is realistic and expressive, with a few forays into Potter pastiche. He used models for his illustrations of the main characters, to capture individual people rather than archetypes. His art is beautiful, now dark, now bright, sometimes eerie, sometimes moving, occasionally adorable in the best sense of the word, and always truthful, unpretentious, and sincere. The same can be said about the book as a whole.
[Rachel Manija Brown]