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The belated books of 2010: Pulp histories from David Talbot

January 5, 2011 |  1:20 pm

Heroes, democracy and feats of derring-do are the subject of the pulp history series created by Salon.com founder David Talbot. The tall, hardback books are literate graphic novels -- or maybe they're heavily illustrated histories? 

The pulp history series, while dynamic to look at, is a little bit confusing. Which is why these two books landed on my desk in 2010 and stayed there, puzzling me, until their October publication date came and went.

Looking at them, all I come up with are questions. Are they histories with lots and lots of illustrations, are they graphic novels with lots and lots of text, or are they something in between? In tone, they seem to be meant for young adults, but in style, they seem to appeal to people who are much older, who will be drawn to the 1950s and '40s pulp-style images. Who's the audience, exactly? Could it be that young adults are engaged by these vintage-style illustrations?

Talbot wrote the first book, "Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America," about Maj. Gen. Smedley Darlington Butler, a real-life hero with a made-up sounding name. He has enlisted the talents of illustrators Spain Rodriguez and Jeffrey Smith, and writer Gary Kamiya authored the second book, "Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler."

What's interesting is that the pulp history series, so far, is using what appears to be pro-fighting imagery and high-key patriotism to suggest messages that are more complex. Butler left a life of wealth, became a decorated veteran and was approached by Wall Street plotters to lead a military coup against Franklin Roosevelt (Butler turned them down). Butler was a soldier who didn't necessarily do what powerful people suggested he should. In "Shadow Knights," regular British civilians -- 40% of whom were women -- secretly went behind enemy lines in Germany; their story shows a different kind of fighter.

If these pulp histories complicate the ideas of what patriotism requires, the simplistic, old-style images seem to be working against that message. Or maybe they're seeding it? If that's the goal, will the vintage-style images appeal to young adult readers? Is this propoganda or anti-propoganda, and does it succeed?

Or am I overthinking it, and are the books simply unearthing snazzy bits of history and illustrating them stylishly in order to make it fun?

-- Carolyn Kellogg