One of my favorite books of 2009 was Badass — A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live by Ben Thompson. While this site isn’t technically a “review” site I still review the occasional thing that catches my attention, and I reviewed the hell out of this book because I loved it. So when I received an email from the Marketing Coordinator at HarperCollins offering me an advanced review copy of Ben’s latest, Badass: The Birth of a Legend — Spine-Crushing Tales of the Most Merciless Gods, Monsters, Heroes, Villains, and Mythical Creatures Ever Envisioned, you know I friggin’ jumped at the opportunity!
What Thompson has delivered this time around is an object of almost literary perfection.
Here’s the book description from the publisher:
Since the beginning of human history people have created myths, tall tales, superheroes, and arch-villains—men and women who embarked on insane adventures, performed extraordinary feats of unparalleled awesomeness, and overcame all odds to violently smite their foes into bloody pulp. In Badass: The Birth of a Legend, Ben Thompson compiles these fantastical tales from the beginning of time to today and tells them in the completely over-the-top manner in which they were intended, including:
- Rama: The Indian god-king who led an army of monkeys against the King of All Demons
- Thor: The Viking god of thunder and awesome hair, who crushed the skulls of giants with a ridiculously huge hammer
- Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon hero so hardcore he could arm-wrestle monsters’ joints out of their sockets
- Moby-Dick: The hate-filled literary behemoth who obliterated ship hulls with his face
- Skuld: The Norse necromancer queen who summoned a horde of zombie berserkers
- Dirty Harry Callahan: The prototypical modern-day antihero and very embodiment of badass
The book is divided into four sections. The first is Gods, Goddesses, and other Kickass Celestial Beings. Second is Heroes, Heroines, and Over-the-Top do-Gooders. Third is Villains, Sorcerors, Antiheroes, and Psychotic Merciless Bastards. Finally, we have Monsters, Fiends, Hellspawn, and Worse.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and say this book is for everyone. If you’re one of those people who take everything, especially yourself, too seriously, you probably won’t dig it. If you hate adventure, spurn fun, and never rolled a 20-sider in pursuit of glory and plunder, you probably won’t get it. If you can’t look at a picture of Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in 300 screaming and not giggle maniacally before muttering, “Awesome!” then the book might not be for you. But if heroic, mythological stuff like this is your bread and butter, if these stories referenced by the personalities detailed in the book are what started you down your path as a reader, and you get a kick out of truly over-the-top hyperbole and pop cultural references, then you’ll love it. For me, as a guy who as a youth pored through the original 1st Edition D&D Deities and Demigods book imagining my characters fighting all the badasses listed there (and who to this day thinks could write a book titled Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned Playing Dungeons and Dragons with a completely straight face), this thing is like a trigger for all of those memories, taken to the next level of awesome.
For example, here is an excerpt from the chapter on Diomedes, the King of Argos, who fought in the Trojan War. Guys like Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, et al tend to get all the press from that war, but Thompson makes his case for Diomedes performing “towering acts of bone-crunching awesomeness on par with the greatest deeds of any of those mighty warriors.” As everyone surely knows, the Gods and Goddesses themselves involved themselves in the 10-year Trojan War. Diomedes was favored by Athena, but only because he was so mighty. When he was putting an ass-whooping on one of Aphrodite’s favorites, she appeared and ordered him to halt. He took a swing at her and sent her back to her crib wounded and bawling. Apollo then intervened, and while Diomedes didn’t harm the God he still attacked relentlessly until Apollo left the field. That’s when we hit a passage I read over and over again, where Thompson talked about Diomedes’ relentless tendency to simply not care whom he faces when it’s time to throw down:
Never was this more intensely awesome than when Diomedes, the mortal son of some moderately important guy, went straight-up against Ares, the Greek God of War, in mortal combat. That’s right, this guy was so utterly fearless that he fought the deity responsible for warlike bloodshed, and the being whose sole job is to decide who won victory in battle. Diomedes didn’t care. As soon as he saw Ares’ chariot smiting Greeks alongside the Trojans, the king of Argos rushed over to face him. Amazingly, this wasn’t even a hopeless battle — as Diomedes was charging in to do battle with Ares himself, Athena warped down into Diomedes’ chariot, guided his arm, and the Greek hero threw an epic spear that wounded the God of War, sending Ares running back to Olympus crying and howling like a punk bitch. The only analogy I can really make here is that this is like playing a game of D&D, deciding to have your character attack the Dungeon Master, and winning.
If that analogy doesn’t make you howl, then you just don’t get it. If you do, then you know just how truly great this stuff is.
Here is another one, talking about Medea, who is most known for her role in the legendary pursuit of the Golden Fleece by Jason and his Argonauts.
Medea is the sort of hardcore chick that would have spent much of her time in mythological Greece gracing the covers of the most brutal and horrific editions of US Weekly ever published. Her life had all the juicy intrigue — love, sex, betrayal, revenge, divorce, occult dealings, and bad-hair days — and she capped it all off with a brutally overdeveloped love for murder, violence, and flammable substances so profound that if “setting people on fire” were a Facebook status, Medea would have “Like”d it.
Besides being a book that seems like it was written just for me, Thompson delivers a work that proudly displays his own real love for the subject matter, with a twinkle-in-the-eye that makes it obvious he knows just how ridiculous his approach is. Still, that approach is backed up with scholarship; the bibliography is immense, and collects many works I’d not heard of before. For all the hyperbole the details of these subjects’ exploits aren’t made up by Thompson — they are truly representatives of centuries of folklore and myth. It makes me want to pursue some of those books he references, even as it makes me queue up all the movies in my collection that involve heroes kicking ass and taking names.
As for near perfection, as much as I may be amused by the inclusion of dudes like Captain James T. Kirk, or B.A. Baracus, among the heroes, their presence in place of the noticeably absent Conan of Cimmeria is inexcusable. Hopefully that glaring oversight will be rectified in the next book, which I sure hope is on its way.