Last Christmas, my family gave me a Kindle. I hadn't bought a book since, and didn't think I would again until I came across the first two installments of Pulp History, a new series of graphic histories from Simon & Schuster. The brainchild of Salon.com founder, David Talbot, and his journalist sister, Margaret (I wish we hadn't been told in the first sentence of Talbot's 'Acknowledgments' that they hatched the idea in a bar...), the first two titles are Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America by Talbot and underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, and Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler by Salon's executive editor, Gary Kamiya, and illustrator Jeffrey Smith.
Fans of Bernard DeVoto and Doris Kearns Goodwin who might be expecting a meticulously detailed, and sober, chronicle of these somewhat obscure pages in history are probably going to be disappointed, but let 'em sulk. Talbot and Kamiya's histories are, after all, billed as "pulp" -- the words "UNBELIEVABLE AND ALL TRUE!" trumpet the series' sensationalist strategy on the books' back covers. You want Robert Caro? Have at it. This approach to history may never win Pulitzers, but that doesn't appear to be its aim. It's too busy kicking ass.
A spread from "Devil Dog" by David Talbot, illustration by Spain Rodriguez
Talbot's fast-paced encapsulation follows the storied life of Smedley Butler, from his experiences in 1900 during China's Boxer Rebellion to his exposure in 1934 of an alleged plot by Wall Street fat cats such as J. P. Morgan and Irénée du Pont to remove President Franklin Roosevelt from office. It seems the nefarious financiers were secretly raising money to oust FDR, who they considered a dangerous radical and a threat to their freedom to make obscene amounts of money. One can only wonder what Butler would have made of the Supreme Court-sanctioned shenanigans that occurred during the last election cycle.
Despite the arresting and cheerfully lurid illustrations by Rodriguez, as well as the numerous historical photographs and examples of ephemera that pepper the pages of designer Norma Tennis's handsome layout, it's the language that drives the action in Devil Dog. Talbot is deliberately breathless in his descriptions of his hero, whom he early on calls a "bantam rooster of a boy-man." Later, he tells us, "Butler stuck his sharp beak in the other man's mug." The text is straight out of Film Noir, which the layout obligingly augments with a movie poster of a minor Humphrey Bogart film. It's juicy, page-turning history -- no boring parts; just the good stuff -- whose anecdotes are made accessible through maps by the book's designer, along with plenty of sex and violence.
Cover of "Shadow Knights" by Gary Kamiya, illustrations by Jeffrey Smith
Kamiya's Shadow Knights, which has no acts or chapters but is organized by diary-like datelines, is more like a scrap book. While the visual tone of Smith's illustrations is more painterly than Rodriguez's, his imagery is not necessarily more subdued -- the first Smith illo we encounter depicts one of this title's heroes, Harry Ree, attempting to gouge a Gestapo agent's eyes out. The scope of the book differs from Talbot's too: Devil Dog follows one man's exploits over the course of some 40 years; Shadow Knights focuses on just four, 1940 to 1944.
A spread from "Shadow Knights" by Gary Kamiya, illustration by Jeffrey Smith
On a line-by-line, word-by-word basis, Talbot's style is more sensationalist than Kamiya's, so you could say Devil Dog is truer to its newly created genre than Shadow Knights. Still, I preferred the way Kamiya's overlapping narratives followed Churchill's citizen soldiers, who were known collectively as the Baker Street Irregulars. Along with Ree, we meet an Indian wireless operator stationed in Paris and a tough group of Norwegian commandoes. In telling their stories, Kamiya's tone may be more traditional than Talbot's, but he knows the importance of a good cliffhanger.
For more information about the first two titles in the Pulp History series visit pulphistory.com.