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 Many years later the bow has been replaced by the gat, but the premise basically remains the same.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.

Jonah Hex, Bad Mofo, Achieves Issue 50

When I was a kid growing up in the 70s, Western comics were among my favorites. I was a huge fan of characters like Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt, and The Rawhide Kid. In a lot of ways, these heroes were Lone Ranger knockoffs; masked do-gooders who were usually misunderstood as outlaws. They were basically good guys who always had the pretty girls flocking around them whether they were in “costume” or hanging out in their secret identities (you know, as doctors, lawyers, whatever). My friends and I used to tear-ass around playing cowboys and Indians, shooting the hell out of each other and then getting back up for more. I even had a little cowboy vest I wore until it fell apart; I tore through my share of western snap-shirts too.

The first time I saw the character Jonah Hex, he scared the hell out of me. A friend of mine’s old brother collected the Weird Western Tales comic, and had continued with the character when Jonah got his own ongoing series. These were western stories with a supernatural theme to them, and to me they were just . . . bizarre. And then there was the man himself. Hex was no do-gooder. He was ugly, with a horrific scar on the side of his face that I still get kind of grossed out about. He fought for “the bad guys” in the Civil War. He just wasn’t the kind of guy that a naive little punk like me really related to at the time, but I always remembered him. By the mid-80s his book was canceled, though he popped up in the 90s when I wasn’t reading comics.

Fast forward to 2005, when DC Comics took a chance on a new ongoing Jonah Hex series, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, with art by Luke Ross. Over the years different artists have contributed to the book, but this week DC’s committment to the hard work of Palmiotti and Gray pays off with the release of the special, double-sized issue #50. For fans of the series, and for people who know the comics business (i.e. make money now or get dropped!), this is a certifiable Big Deal. Four years is a helluva run for any book that doesn’t include a lead character that has been around for 30, 40, 50 or 60 years! And a western? Please.

This is a series I hold pretty close to my heart, because it’s one I jumped on board with right from the get-go, which has never happened before, at least not in any sustainable fashion (if only I’d held on to Peter Parker the Spectacular Spiderman issues 1-20 or so!). As comics go, at least a comic from one of the Big Two (DC and Marvel), Jonah Hex is anything but typical. Hex isn’t really a “good guy.” He is a former Confederate soldier turned infamous bounty hunter. He doesn’t speak much. He doesn’t seem to care for anyone, but one expects a dark history, especially when it comes to the horrible scar. We do see glimpses of his inner humanity, but they are fleeting. When Hex is broke, he’s on the trail of a face on a poster. When he’s flush, he wallows in booze and hookers until he’s broke again, piling up more bodies than a Stallone character.

Hex has a moral code, of course — I see him as something of a cross between Clint Eastwood’s western archetype and Omar from The Wire. He is a guy who won’t mess with you if you don’t cross him, but if you do it’s game over. He knows right from wrong and will stand up for it, regardless if that puts him in line with the letter of the law. For those who know his name, he is almost a mythical character.

What I enjoy about the series is it reads like a collection of flash fiction. Each issue of Jonah Hex — with only a couple exceptions (including a recent 6-issue run titled “The Six Gun War”) — has been a standalone story. That isn’t something you see in mainstream comics these days, where it seems every book is part of some sweeping drama that crosses over into every running series. It’s nice to get these tight little stories, and that in itself is a reflection on Palmiotti and Gray’s writing, because 22 pages ain’t much to tell a story that begins and ends all in one shot. I’ve probably re-read more Hex stories than any other, just for that reason. There’s never any question about what has been happening for 10 issues prior to a given book — what you see is what you get. I like that.

I remember reading an article — I think it was during the promotional lead up to Kevin Costner’s Open Range film — where the Western as a film genre was discussed. The films used to be ubiquitous, but you don’t see them much anymore. The premise of the piece I read is that they have been replaced by the cop/crime show, which makes sense to me. I think fans of crime stories would enjoy much of what Palmiotti and Gray are doing with this book. The things I’m enjoying about crime fiction, a genre I’ve only recently immersed myself in, are the very elements I enjoy with this series. Dark themes, multi-dimensional characters, moral quandaries . . . and a lot of fast-paced action and gunplay. Unpredictable women. The stranger riding into town. Crooked law enforcement. Vengeful villains. I mean, it is all here!

Another bonus with #50 is that the art has been provided by Darwyn Cooke, with colors by Dave Stewart. Cooke is arguably my favorite artist in this medium. His interpretation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter via graphic novel was my gateway into crime fiction, and I haven’t looked back. Darwyn has a blog of his own about Jonah Hex #50 that is well worth checking out, where he discusses how it came to happen and where his artistic inspirations for the work came from.

As for Dave Stewart, he’s just the best there is at what he does. Considering the work he’s done on Dark Horse‘s Conan series (simply one of the Greatest Things Ever), you know the man has my eternal worship. Cooke’s thoughts on Stewart’s work on this issue make me all the more excited for this issue to arrive in my eager hands come Thursday.

Buy the Damn Thing Already

So besides the opportunity for me to gush about something I think is cool as hell, what is the point of this particular blog post? I am of the opinion that all things awesome, especially creatively, should be rewarded. People love their entertainment — art, movies, books, TV, video games, et al — but unless you are someone who has a runaway blockbuster hit, the money sucks. So getting the word out about significant benchmarks is important to me.

This series is an example of an artistic endeavor succeeding in the face of steep odds. It’s like seeing an underground band I love getting a great opening spot on some huge band’s tour and then blowing the headliner off the stage night after freakin’ night. I love Batman, but there are about 10 Batman books and only a couple of them are worth a shit. Non-superhero books don’t live long these days, and this story ain’t no superhero book. It succeeded on the merits of everyone involved sticking to their guns (pun mostly intended), and I commend that and feel it deserves notice to people outside of the comics community.

Looks like the effort is going to pay off in other ways too, because the Jonah Hex movie starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich and Megan Fox is scheduled to open on July 12th, 2010, and it looks awesome. Seeing Josh in No Country for Old Men and picturing him as Hex pretty much makes this film my most anticipated watch of the summer. So suck that, Iron Man 2!

     

Do yourself a favor and get on board, so that when the movie comes out and is a hit you can be all smug and act like you’ve been a Hex fan for years. Go out to your local comic shop and buy a goddamn comic book this week. While you’re there, pick up a couple more. Take a look at these preview images from #50, for crissakes; you know you want this thing!

PEEPSHOW — By Leigh Redhead (Book Review)

Peepshow (Outfit Crime, 2009) is the first novel by Australian writer Leigh Redhead, and yes, that is her real name. It is the first of three novels featuring Detective/Stripper Simone Kirsch. Simone originally wanted to become a police officer, but her history of working in the sex industry saw her bumped from consideration, so she chose the next best thing: a private investigator’s license.

Her PI career takes off with a boom when the owner of a local strip joint is murdered and Simone’s best friend Chloe, a dancer at the club, is kidnapped. Simone makes a deal with the kidnappers; if she can find the real killer in two weeks, Chloe will be spared. Her investigation takes her in and out of rock clubs, strip clubs, fetish clubs, and onto the floor of a sex industry conference. Meanwhile she’s dodging wise guys and crooked police, all while still having to earn enough of a living to make her rent.

Based on Ms. Redhead’s true life biography, it is clear she is drawing from much personal experience in depicting the scenes of this book, and it shows in the level of detail. The story has strippers, sex, drugs, and rock n . . . er, mostly country music. And that’s one of the things I loved about it! The fact that this book, by an Australian writer, references so much of the country music from my collection (Steve Earle, Vanessa Williams, Johnny Cash, et al) made it damn fun. And a scene toward the end where all these dive bar/strip club dwellers convene at an outside barbecue in broad daylight and how odd they look, to Simone, out of their element — classic! It reminded me of the summer I helped my wife build a straw bale house in Tucson, AZ. The day of the wall raising — when a couple truckloads of straw bales had to be stacked up in a shape resembling a dwelling — several of her friends from the Tucson music community showed up dressed as they would for a night on the town. Redhead’s description of her literary BBQ harkened back to this event from my own life so perfectly that I was grinning ear to ear.

The book is fast-paced, and if there are maybe a few too many coincidences moving the plot here and there, they are to be forgiven because the story is such a rollicking good time with so many memorable characters. Simone is an excellent lead and fun to spend time with. I enjoyed the Aussie slang employed throughout, and also liked to see the inner workings of the world of peep shows and strip clubs.

There are at least two more Simone Kirsch crime novels, and I’m hoping that The Outfit sees fit to reissue them as well.

Next Time You Make a Mistake I’m Gonna Ride Off and Let You Die

I didn’t get as much done last week on my big writing self-challenge, but I did accomplish a lot. I got a little sidetracked toward the end of the week when the Independent called and asked if I’d do a story/interview with Lita Ford for the upcoming show with Queensryche next week.

I was all over it. I was a big fan of Lita back in the day; she wrote some great songs and could unleash righteous shreddery on her BC Rich axe. In fact, interviewing her was probably trumped only by the interview with Ace Frehley.

Yeah, big hair 80s! That article will run in Thursday’s Independent.

Montana Festival of the Book

I attended two events at last weekend’s Festival of the Book, and both were fantastic. The first one was Thursday afternoon at The Wilma; “The Last Good Kiss: An Appreciation of James Crumley.” The authors involved were Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Given Day, etc.), George Pelecanos (The Night Gardener, The Way Home, writer/producer of HBO’s The Wire, etc.), Laura Lippman (Life Sentences, Tess Monaghan series) and James Grady (Six Days of the Condor). They are all top, TOP shelf writers, and it was a fun and inspirational panel. Lehand and Lippman did most of the talking, and their banter was witty and entertaining. Crumley clearly meant a lot to all of these writers, and I enjoyed myself. Since the panel I have read Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, which Lehane called “the greatest American crime novel ever written.” I enjoyed the hell out of it. I’d post more of the quotes I wrote down, but don’t have my notes with me. I’ll just say that for where I am with my writing, this panel was perfect timing.

The panel was moderated by Michael Koepf, longtime friend of Crumley. All in all, it was a couple of the best hours I’ve spent.

Julia got home from San Francisco late Friday night, then Saturday we went down to the Festival to see “The Wire: An Interview” with Pelecanos again and David Simon. Simon also happens to be married to the aforementioned Laura Lippman. Anyway, it was an interesting discussion on our latest favorite program, HBO’s The Wire. It was cool to hear how their processes for writing the show worked, the filming, all of it. Very interesting and informative. Another great event.

On the Road in Nebraska

I’m catching up on this thing from a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s bigger than I imagined it would be. This is actually my first time to set foot in this state, though I’ve literally been in site of it a number of times. Here’s the glorious view outside my window.

That was taken when I arrived on Tuesday afternoon. Shortly after arriving I went hunting for something on which to feast. I found it on just the other side of the mighty Missouri river in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

It hasn’t been too exciting so far. Here’s the view outside the room I spent my day working in. These yayhoos make radios or something.

After work I managed to find a little culture, though.

You know I made the most of it.

Not the World’s Most Important Glass Ceiling, but the Mofo is Still Broken

Saw this article Friday afternoon over at Bleeding Cool (which is essentially a news gathering site for the comics industry): Amanda Conner First Woman To Make Wizard’s Top Ten Hot Artists List. I’ve probably been talking about comics too much lately, but this is still a big enough deal that I feel it’s worth mentioning here, given how much of a boys’ club this industry has historically been. From Rich Johnston’s article:

Wizard Magazine, the Entertainment Weekly of comics has been running its Top Ten Hot Artists and Top Ten Hot Writers List since the magazine started, reflecting the whims of the market, the readers, the retailers and the publishers over who is and is not in demand. It’s a cruel, harsh unforgiving column but its hard to deny to reflects a certain majority taste in comics. And while some women have broken into the Top Ten Hot Writers list, no female comics artist has been deemed “hot” enough to warrant inclusion in the Top Ten Hot Artists, despite many finding success, especially in the manga market. But, apparently, manga doesn’t count. And so the Wizard Top Ten Hot Artists List has remained an all-male preserve.This week, that all changes, as Amanda Conner joins the list in this Wednesday’s edition of Wizard Magazine. Her work on Power Girl, while just as excellent as her other recent work, has nevertheless found new eyeballs, and that’s what matters to The List.

I’ve become a big fan of Amanda’s work — I love the broad, cartoony style she delivers. That may sound silly, but she has a way of making the stories fun even when serious events are going down. In particular I love the emotions and expressions she captures on the faces of her characters, whether they are human or animals (as in this scan from the current issue):

Amanda first caught my attention with her work on the Supergirl strip that ran in Wednesday Comics, which just wrapped up last week. That strip was lighthearted and a lot of fun, and is what inspired me to start picking up Power Girl.

Power Girl is written by the team of Jimmy Palmiotti (Amanda’s husband) and Justin Gray (the Supergirl strip was also written by Palmiotti), and it is a team that, combined with Amanda’s art, really delivers on the fun side of what superhero comics can be. Not only that, but they have taken a character that many have considered something of a joke, for a couple quite large, obvious reasons, and given her some real personality and depth. Frankly, with a couple exceptions, the superhero genre hasn’t been doing a whole lot for me lately, probably because the companies with the market cornered continue to do these sweeping, world-changing crossovers that drive me up a wall. Power Girl isn’t in the middle of all that, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Congrats, Amanda!

I don’t know what kind of a living these creators make, but I’m glad they’re out there making it. They’re worth more to me than some jock who can catch a football, that’s for damn sure.