27 June 2011

The Tale of One Bad Rat, or, thoughts on teaching adults to read comics

 I was talking to my housemate last night about Watchmen, raving about it as I tend to do, and following Pádraig Ó Méalóid in scorning the Zach Snyder film based on the book. I'd not say the film is a travesty, but I think Pádraig was almost exactly right to have said:
'It looks a lot like the original Watchmen book, but has none of its grace, or beauty, or subtlety, or sinuously beautiful timing. Watchmen is the most perfect graphic novel there is, and a huge amount of work went into making it that way, and attempting to streamline that for the big screen was never going to work. Alan Moore said it was unfilmable, and I have seen that he was completely right.'
Anyway, I wittered away about why I felt the film didn't work -- how it had fundamentally missed the point of the book, misunderstood the nature of the book's characters as created by Moore, seemed oblivious in all but the most cosmetic of ways to the how the fabric of the world of Watchmen differs from that of our own world, and been unable to play to the book's strength. It has strengths, to be fair -- the credit sequence was funny and clever, the casting was excellent, and every so often the sets were spot-on, but in the main I thought it missed the point and substituted brashness, gore, and gratuitous violence and nudity where Moore and Gibbons had been elegant, subtle, and often just matter-of-fact. 

At this my housemate pulled me up, as someone who had liked the film and never read the book, saying that he'd liked it and didn't agree with me, so I went and got the book and tried as best I could in a hasty way to point out how the book works, panel by panel. I wished I'd Gibbons and Kidd's Watching the Watchmen to hand, but I did my best.

My housemate's intrigued now, and is tempted to buy the book for himself, but I'm a bit wary of him reading it just yet. Watchmen, to be frank, isn't a book to start a new comic-reader on. It's too complex, too sophisticated, to dependent on familiarity with the form and its grammar. 

Years ago I went to a talk by Bryan Talbot, back when he'd just written The Tale of One Bad Rat, where he talked of how he'd been amazed in the aftermath of his avant-garde The Adventures of Luther Arkwright to learn that there were people who couldn't read comics, who found them complex and hard to follow. How does one read a page? How does one read a panel? What do you read first -- the picture or the speech balloons or the captions or the thought bubbles or a combination of them all? It was with this in mind that he wrote and drew The Tale of One Bad Rat the way he did.

The Tale of One Bad Rat is about as legible, and sad, as beautiful, and as hopeful a comic as one could ever hope to read, and it's become one of a handful of comics I like to show people who don't read comics if I want to show them how good work can be done in the medium, work as valid as anything in film or prose. Originally intending the book as a story of a girl obsessed with Beatrix Potter who runs away to the Lake District, Talbot needed to explain why she ran away, came up with the idea that she'd been abused, and then decided that if he was going to involve child abuse in the story then he'd better do it properly.

He did the work, and the result is a masterpiece, utterly nailing the distrust, the difficulty in forming relationships, the hatred of being touched, and the obsessional imagery that can so often haunt abuse survivors, while nonetheless showing paths to healing and being a beautiful and gentle ode to Beatrix Potter, the Lake District, art, and rats.

As a primer in what comics can be and what comics can do, it has very few rivals. I rather wish I had my copy here. It's something I'd like to show people so they can understand.

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