When I first got the offer to review the book Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live by Ben Thompson, I thought it was going to be about Melvin Van Peebles or Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song or blaxploitation in general but it turns out that it’s a sort of expansion of Ben Thompson’s website, Badass of the Week, wherein he profiles somone from history whose drive for domination or their particular artistry when it comes to mayhem makes them stand out somehow. What sets this book apart from other catalogs or a trip to Wikipedia is that it’s history filtered through the sensibility of a 15 year old whose entire worldview is colored by online gaming, the Something Awful Forums and bargain bin energy drinks whose buzz is measured in cups, rather than tablespoons, of sugar. Meanwhile, this same hypothetical 15 year old somehow managed to work out the credits to earn a Master’s degree in historical minutiae.
Thompson, who graduated cum laude from Florida State University with degrees in history and political science recounts, chronologically, the more interesting parts of the lives of conquerors and warriors. Badass is a series of nutshell descriptions of the lives of people ranging from the well-known, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and Alexander The Great to people you may have missed like Liu Ji (hard partying Chinese bandit who organized the oppressed poor and ushered in the Han Dynasty), Mary Read (the baddest girl to sail the Carribean, jacking lewtz from anything that looked remotely like a boat) and Peter Francisco (A force of nature that demolished British solders during the Revolutionary war with a 5-foot broadsword, dubbed a one-man army by George Washington).
To call Thompson’s writing energetic is grossly understating the point. Animated is the better word. Though he’s simply telling you some non-fictional stories about things that actually happened and people that actually lived, much of it is almost too good to be true and his means of telling you, including a preoccupation with people getting punched in the face and having their nutsacks torn, is a compelling means of turning pages. History can be a tough pill to swallow when presented through the clinical presentation of a high school text book but were you to pepper your classsroom lectures with references to Starcraft and refer to Leonidas and the 300 Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae as pwnage and you might keep the attention of an overstimulated room full of teenagers. High points include quotes about the condition of lodgings after Peter I of Russia split town with his entourage (They drank. A lot. Unsurprisingly, Peter died from liver failure in his 50’s.) and Julius Caesar capping off his influence over Egypt by slam drunking the hell out of a basketball, something he certainly had never done but it drives the point home just how bad Caesar was and precisely how aware of this status he was. On the downside, Thompson’s gag is fairly repetitive and by the middle ages, hearing about some great historical conqueror punching the faces in of all who oppose him gets tiresome but the pace tightens again and the jokes eventually become fresh and you wind up learning something in the process.
Badass by Ben Thompson reads like a history book written by Robert Hamburger, the fictional personality behind the Official Ninja Website, aka Real Ultimate Power. Be prepared to bask in absolutes such a ‘totally sweet’ and ‘righteous’. Discount claims about historical personalities flipping out and playing bitchin’ guitar solos from tops of mountains because they didn’t do that, but they did subjugate entire cultures of people and shape the landscape as we know it. Thompson flavors every second of badass history with Frank’s Red Hot and Monster Energy. It’s a compelling read that you could probably burn through in an entire afternoon. This is the book you were missing out on when none of you entered the Badass book giveaway. Dicks.