The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Devil Dog” by David Talbot

For those of us who totally got it when Michelle Obama said her husband’s campaign marked the first time she was proud to be an American, it can be hard to look at American history without seeing a glaring record of xenophobia, racism, and oppression. So Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America offers a rare pleasure: that rush of honest-to-goodness, blood-stirring pride in the honor and integrity that really can be a part of this great nation.

David and Margaret Talbot, a brother-sister pair who respectively co-founded Salon and write for The New Yorker , are the creators of the new Pulp History series. Their project of bringing writers and comics artists together to portray “history in all its terrible and beautiful glory” begins with Devil Dog . The brother Talbot tells this story and he does so in the colorful, splashy style of boys’ adventure stories of the early part of the 20 th century; soldiers are forever “rushing like thunderbolts” into battle or “burning with fever”, and getting their heads blown off, too. Talbot recounts the life of war hero turned peace activist, Smedley Butler, with help from Spain Rodriguez, author and illustrator of Che: A Graphic Biography , whose illustrations and comics panels bring this story to brilliant visual life.

We see Butler, a blue-blooded Philadelphia Quaker, join up with the marines and quickly become a war hero in foreign lands, and then we read of how he became a real hero back home in the U.S. Butler led veterans in the Bonus March, a protest movement that eventually led to the creation of the GI Bill. Later, he was approached by a group of powerful Wall Street millionaires who considered Franklin D. Roosevelt a socialist, a radical, and a danger to the United States (familiar, anyone?) and who planned to seize control of Washington. The story of this proto-fascist and highly organized plot makes for a jaw-dropping, and frightening, story. Butler deftly handled these men, bringing the story to the press, and later going on to write his anti-war tract War is a Racket .

Though the format and the language make an obvious appeal to boy readers, Devil Dog is great reading for just about anyone. And the second book in the series, Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler , is just as grippingly told by Gary Kamiya and as boldly illustrated by Jeffrey Smith. The dedication at the front of Devil Dog is “to those who fight in American wars and to those who question why we constantly fight them,” and its final line, “Boys dream of war. But men can dream of peace,” leaves us with a sense of the complexities of war and of history itself. You’ll close the book thinking what a fantastic idea the Talbot siblings had and, by golly, you’ll be proud to be an American, too.