Over my many years reading comics, I have found that the best books have art that complements the story. A rollicking fantasy tale should have ethereal watercolors and wide panels for landscape views, while gritty noir fiction should have strong contrasts with tight frames to depict the narrow confines of a city. The artwork dictates the mood of a comic, providing the reader with a visual to influence their emotions while reading.
On the extreme end of art complementing a story are books where unsettling visuals match a dissonant narrative. Worlds where logic doesn’t always apply, characters who have lost touch with reality, certain time periods may have never existed; these story elements tend to shine brightest with surreal art and harsh panel layouts. So when Valve decided to create a comic around a rather offbeat side character from the Portal series, it would seem natural that the art would be as jarring as its protagonist.
Lab Rat tells the story of Doug Rattman, the sole employee of Aperture Science who managed to evade the deadly GLaDOS as she killed off her creators with neurotoxin. Most players of the Portal series are more familiar with this scientist as Rat Man, a derelict living in the walls of Aperture Science whose only presence comes in the form of hidden murals and messages. This comic depicts Rattman’s behind-the-scenes efforts to help the player-character Chell in defeating GLaDOS. Suffering from schizophrenia, his only friend a Companion Cube; Rattman manages to bridge the gap between Portal and its sequel by giving up his own freedom to keep Chell safe.
Just like the main character of Rattman, the artwork of Lab Rat is unstable and chaotic. Uneven (and often nonexistent) panels form the bulk of the comic, giving the reader a sense of a world without form. Jagged line work and harsh contrasts make Rattman stand out from the sterile backgrounds of Aperture Science. An even greater contrast is provided by the structured art of each flashback to Rattman’s past, when he was heavily regulated through medication. The entire comic presents an ambiguous world that only seems to follow the present rules of Rattman’s complex mind.
Speaking personally, comics like Lab Rat tend to make me uncomfortable. The unsettling artwork and often harsh stories of these books are not my preferred choice of reading material. In spite of this preference, I would definitely recommend Lab Rat as a supplementary piece to the Portal games. Getting even a strange glimpse into the events outside of the main game series is a welcome treat. Per their usual generous nature, Valve has posted the entire comic online as a free-to-read story. So be sure to check it out, for the story of the person who is still alive.
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