Badass: The Birth of a Legend is by Ben Thompson, who has been running the website Badass of the Week since 2004. He has also written numerous articles on badasses, and this is his second book on the subject. The first book published on this topic, Badass, is about various figures from history (and is perhaps the most awesome use of a degree in history ever). The newest book, which just came out last week, is about various tough men, women, gods, goddesses, and creatures from mythology, folklore, literature, movies, and television.
The book is divided into 4 main sections:
- Gods, Goddesses, and Other Kickass Celestial Beings
- Heroes, Heroines, and Over-the-Top Do-Gooders
- Villains, Sorcerers, Antiheroes, and Psychotic Merciless Bastards
- Monsters, Fiends, Hellspawn, and Worse
Each of these 4 sections focuses on 10 main characters (or in a few cases groups of people or monsters), and some of them feature a little bit more information on a related topic at the end of the section. For instance, one of the featured characters is Baba Yaga and at the end it also has a short piece on another figure from Russian folklore, Koschei the Deathless. Sometimes these are more loosely related, such as Thor’s chapter being followed with a little bit on figures from mythology whose names appear in Final Fantasy summon spells.
Subjects covered are drawn from a wide variety of sources throughout the world, including everything from myths and legends from various cultures, classic literature, pop culture, and even cartoons from the 1980s. Some of the highlighted figures include but are not limited to:
- Oya (African goddess)
- Anubis (Egyptian god)
- Huitzilopochtli (Aztec god)
- Finn McCool (Irish leader of the Fianna Knights)
- Bradamant (female medieval knight from the Orlando Furioso)
- Professor Moriarty (nemesis of Sherlock Holmes)
- Sauron (Middle Earth’s ultimate villain)
- Darth Vader (the universe’s ultimate villain)
- El Chupacabra (mysterious blood-sucking creature)
- Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s classic novel
- Skeletor from He-Man
- Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek
- Skuld, a Norse necromancer and queen
It’s quite a diverse list, and this isn’t even half of what is included.
Badass: The Birth of a Legend is a very fun book, especially if you’re the sort of person who can get into reading about virtually all-powerful beings who can defeat just about anyone or anything they are up against. It uses the words “awesome” and “hardcore” practically every chapter [Ed: I’d say paragraph…] and occasionally goes on tangents – such as about how Skeletor should really ride his giant panther more often and how the author would ride his humongous wildcat to the grocery store if he had one. (I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment.) There are times the author tries a little too hard to be over-the-top funny, but there are also quite a large number of times when it’s really hilarious. Also, it can be rather crude, partially due to various mythological stories having a fascination with private parts and partially to the author’s repeated references to them. Overall, I found it pretty thoroughly entertaining, but don’t go to this book looking for any in depth anthropological studies of the character from myths–it is exactly what it is intended to be, a fun ride told with attitude.
My favorite chapters were easily any of the ones that dealt with mythology because they would usually discuss the legends the characters were involved in that made them so extraordinarily badass. Aside from that, it might even tell some about their origins or other interesting stories concerning them, such as the beginnings of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, whose mother wore a snake skirt (or, as Thompson interprets the legend, a scaly chastity belt) and whose father was a ball of feathers. This was one of the more intriguing myths – the Aztecs were a rather creative culture.
Although I did enjoy the literature parts (like Frankenstein’s monster and the little bit about how Mary Shelley wrote her classic novel on a dare), I didn’t find the TV and movie sections quite as fascinating. I was a little disappointed by the lack of Xena Warrior Princess since she is the epitome of television badasses in my book (with the fact that she could kick just about anyone’s butt and do, well, pretty much anything), but I also think it was good to provide a bit more variety since Greek mythology was already pretty well covered in all 4 major sections of the book. TV was a chance to cover some different types of stories and drew from Star Trek, Dr. Who, He-Man, and The A-Team.
Also, it was a welcome opportunity to learn about some tough women I hadn’t heard of before, such as Bradamant of Clairmont. Bradamant was a knight from the Orlando Furioso, written in the sixteenth century. She was not in need of anyone to protect her – she rescued her boyfriend and was a pretty powerful heroine in general. Another interesting kickass woman was the Norse necromancer Skuld. She was the sister of the titular character from The Saga of Hrulf Kraki and defeated him by calling forth a horde of Viking zombies.
The creepiest characters were easily the ones based on urban legends since there are reports of people who actually encountered them. Now I think Detroit is one of the most terrifying places on the earth and could never go there for fear of seeing a red dwarf and then dying a horrible death. Likewise, I’m now haunted by the thought of El Chupacabra once again, having forgotten about being freaked out of my mind after seeing it on Unsolved Mysteries years ago. This creature kills and sucks the blood out of living beings, but fortunately, it seems fondest of goats.
Badass: The Birth of a Legend is a very fun book – it’s not incredibly thought-provoking although it does provide an opportunity to learn a little about different world myths as well as some useless knowledge such as the existence of St. Skeletor’s Day. It can be crass at times, and some of the attempts at humor do fall flat, but other times it can be laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a very readable, chatty sort of book covering all kinds of tough men, women, and creatures from fiction of all kinds.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.