BADASS — By Ben Thompson (Book Review)

I can’t remember the last time I had as much fun reading a book as I did reading Badass — A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live (Harper Paperbacks, 2009). Not fun in the same sense as a book with a rollicking good plot or edge-of-the-seat story; I mean fun as in pick the book up, read ten minutes and laugh at least once or twice.

The book is a collection of short 2 – 5 page essays on forty of “the most ball-crushingly awesome historical figures to ever strap on a pair of chainmail gauntlets and punch a Yeti in the face. From Julius Caesar and Vlad the Impaler to Horatio Nelson and George S. Patton, this relentless onslaught of badassitude is guaranteed to get you so pumped up that you will want to quit your crappy job, smash your office desk into splinters with your forehead and start a new career as a professional face-wrecker.” These aren’t just men being profiled either, there are plenty of women here too. The book was born from Seattle author Ben Thompson’s website, Badass of the Week, where similar profiles, if with a bit more colorful language, are delivered every week.

If it sounds like history for the Maxim Magazine crowd, or for 14 year-old World of Warcraft players, that’s fairly accurate. I’d still urge you to give it a chance, provided you have any interest in history and you have a sense of humor. Reading at night, I interrupted my wife’s sleep more than once with my giggles, and often she shared my mirth when I’d read aloud what had made me snicker. Usually it was over a particularly hyperbolic description of a subject’s deeds, or even the blending of modern culture with episodes of historic significance. For example, in a sidebar to the chapter on William the Conqueror:

Many modern gangs such as the Crips and Bloods owe a lot to the Normans, who were the first group to hold their bows sideways just because it looked cooler. I think that’s why they developed the crossbow. Many years later the bow has been replaced by the gat, but the premise basically remains the same.

The book is divided in four sections: Antiquity, The Middle Ages, The Age of Gunpowder, and The Modern Era. There are sections on weapons too, as well as badass mythical beasts. Thompson’s descriptions of some of the various battles that the subjects of the book participated in are interesting because we see the evolution of warfare. The brief descriptions are also a gas to read. In the chapter about Frankish hero Charles “The Hammer” Martel, we learn this about the defense of the city of Tours that Martel staged against the Moorish armies:

Now, the strength of the Muslim army was the Moorish heavy cavalry, a crotch-thumping unit of superpumped-up mounted warriors with great stats who had been trampling the crap out of the Christian knights in Spain and bringing pain and suffering to anybody misguided enough to face them. Nobody had yet been able to stand up to these fearsome warriors without having their gallbladders utterly flattened, but Charles Martel had a plan. He positioned large masses of heavy infantry along the forest at the top of a large hill, forcing the enemy to fight on terrain that favored the Frankish men-at-arms. He had his spearmen form up into defensive squares to protect themselves from being outflanked and lock their shields to create an unbreakable wall of unforgiving steel. The Moors went lance-first into these formations several times but were unable to smash their way through this unyielding hedge of armor and spears. Once the army was worn down, Martel himself, uttering his battle cry of “Stop — Hammer Time!” led the decisive charge that shattered the Muslim army and left their commander coughing up his own prostate. The Saracens fled the field, leaving behind their plundered loot and prisoners.

It’s not all silliness, though. In an interview with the Seattle Times, author Ben Thompson, whose own bio is couched in Dungeons and Dragons-like statistics (though he actually graduated cum laude from the honors program at Florida State University with degrees in history and political science), was asked how closely he stuck to actual historic events when compiling these stories, and how heavily he relied on Wikipedia. Thompson responded:

“No, I did not use Wikipedia. I didn’t put anything down that I couldn’t find two or three corroborating sources, and I have about 350 books in my bibliography at the end. So it’s all the real deal.”

There are fascinating tidbits of historical fact scattered throughout, especially concerning little-known historic figures, like Peter Francisco, the 6’6″, 300# giant who fought in the American Revolution (often with a broadsword given to him by George Washington). Or Wolf the Quarrelsome, brother of legendary Irish High King Brian Boru, who “rocks, because he only appears in history twice, and both times he’s kicking ass.” I was particularly interested in 1870s-era lawman Bass Reeves, a former slave-turned-badass, who spent his career in the rough-and-tumble Indian Territory, home of present-day Oklahoma.

In thirty years of service, Bass Reeves arrested more than three thousand fugitives — including one trip to Commanche country where he single-handedly captured and brought in seventeen prisoners.

Not only that, but Reeves was never shot once in a career that saw him kill fourteen men in gunfights and wound dozens more.

Each chapter has a sidebar that details other nuggets of information about the time the subject lived in, or other elements relevant to the period. In the sidebar at the end of the chapter about American World War I hero Henry Lincoln Johnson, we learn:

Archduke Franz Ferdinand hated the sight of creases or wrinkles, so any time he appeared in public he demanded to be sewn into his suit. Unfortunately, this ended up being his downfall — after he was shot by a Serbian assassin in Sarajevo, he was unable to receive prompt medical attention because the medics couldn’t get his jacket off without cutting the entire suit apart.

Other sidebars are a little less serious. Following the chapter about the woman pirate Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean as part of a crew that later took on a second woman, Mary Read, despite women being considered “bad luck” on pirate ships, Thompson notes the following:

Some historians think that Anne Bonny and Mary Read were lesbian lovers and not just friends and comrades-in-arms. These people need to stop watching so much porn.

If all this sounds maybe a little juvenile, that’s because it pretty much is. That doesn’t make it any less awesome, though. Inappropriate gas passing is juvenile too, but it’s still goddamn funny. The chapters all get a little similar in the outlandish descriptions, but when read a few at a time they are a lot of fun. I read a few excerpts to my 16 year-old son, and I actually caught him reading bits of it on his own. The portraits accompanying each chapter are suitably badass too. The extensive bibliography at the end is a treasure trove of books for further study, if one is so inclined, which I find more than justifies the price of the book.

This is an excellent book to have on hand to just pick up and flip through, as well as get a good chuckle now and then. It had to have been a blast to write. I bought a copy to give to the local women’s boutique clothing store that my wife does business with. I figure the little side table next to the “man chair,” where beleaguered husbands and boyfriends wait while their women browse through rack after rack of clothes, is a perfect spot for this book. I know more than once it saved my good humor at the end of an otherwise tedious day.

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