Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Box Brown

Philadelphia-based cartoonist and professional-wrestling superfan Box Brown, who released Andre the Giant: Life and Legend last week, can easily recall his earliest memory of Andre the Giant. Given his graphic novel's deeply empathetic, warts-and-all portrayal of the gigantism-afflicted wrestler, who stood 7 feet 4 inches, weighed around 500 pounds, and wrestled almost nonstop from 1963 until his death in 1992, it is appropriately bittersweet.

"My first memory is him almost in retirement," Brown remembers. "It was Wrestlemania VI, and Andre turned on his manager, Bobby Heenan, and ended up getting a cheer on his way out of the ring. This was one of Andre's last matches."

While the roots of Andre the Giant: Life and Legend go back to that Wrestlemania event in 1990, when Brown was 10 years old, the book's creation began with a small, fascinating detail from Andre's life that Brown wanted to explore: As an adolescent in France, Andre did not fit on the bus and so a kind neighbor drove young Andre to school in a pickup truck. That neighbor, it turned out, was playwright Samuel Beckett.

"I thought that [the fact that] Andre got a ride from Samuel Beckett would make a cool comic," Brown says. He quickly knocked out a mini-comic loosely based on that anecdote and printed up 50 or so copies to sell at 2011's Small Press Expo (SPX), one of the country's premiere indie-comics conventions held in Bethesda each fall. After that, he continued working on low-stakes Andre comics between the release of his major works, like the teen angst one-off Fuck Shits and The Survivalist, about a right-wing conspiracy nut whose doomsday prediction comes true.

Over time, he accumulated about 100 pages of Andre comics and realized "it had become a biography," Brown explains. He pitched the idea of an Andre comic book bio to First Second Books, a graphic-novel publisher known for smart, quirky nonfiction (they've released comics on Richard Feyman; Mark Twain; and Laika, the Soviet space dog, among others), and they dug the idea. So Box began buttressing his already-deep knowledge of the sport with rigorous research (there are four pages of endnotes and 28 sources cited in the bibliography of Andre) and redrew the mini-comics to fit a more complex portrait of Andre.

If this moment when Samuel Beckett crossed paths with a young Andre hadn't actually happened and was invented by Brown, it would almost seem too on the nose. Indeed, Andre comes off like a ridiculously tragic character from a Beckett play. His body-pulling him apart from birth, further distorting his features, and moving him toward an early death-is as darkly comic a representation of life's cruelty as those crippled characters in Endgame.

Or consider the Beckett-like absurdity of a scene in which Vince McMahon Sr., who founded the American World Wide Wrestling Federation (which would become the WWF, which would become the WWE), informs Andre, a properly trained and incredibly agile wrestler, that he should do less in the ring, so as to look even less human: "Stop running around that ring right away . . . You're an unstoppable force! . . . No running dropkicks or leg scissors . . . You don't move for anybody."

Here is a wrestler who put in the work to wrestle properly, and who transcended the limits of his massive body being told to just stand there like an ogre and do nothing. Andre agrees to McMahon Sr.'s requests because wrestling was about the only thing that gave him purpose, and becoming a larger-than-life caricature meant he would wrestle more because he'd have a clear-cut shtick. Later in the book, in a scene meant to parallel the interaction with McMahon Sr., Andre, recovering from back surgery, receives a fervid call from Vince McMahon Jr., now running dad's business.

McMahon Jr., far more feckless than his pops, wants Andre to fight Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III. "A match like that could sell a lot of tickets . . . that's a big pay day, boss," McMahon Jr. tells him. "My back is still healing, lemme think about it," Andre responds. What follows is a Terrence Malick movie-like moment of pause that observes Andre at his North Carolina farm, meditatively driving an ATV, sitting on a dock, and accepting the inevitable decision to go ahead and do the match despite the health risks. He calls McMahon Jr., dutifully declaring, "I'll come back and play the villain. My back is in a lot of pain, still. I'll go out and work as long as I can in the ring."

This is brilliantly subtle way to present the complex obligations Andre felt to "the business" as well as an acknowledgement that being in the ring filled a huge void for the big guy. Still, Brown never lets Andre devolve into a too-somber outsider's view of wrestling as an all-tragedy-all-the-time grind like, say, Darren Aronofsky's affecting but overwrought movie The Wrestler.

Brown's book actually invokes Roland Barthes' infamous, high-minded investigation of wrestling "In the Ring," from his seminal lit-crit classic Mythologies, published in 1957.

Andre originally began with a Barthes quote ("The function of the wrestler is not to win: it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him"), though a typo removed it from this edition last minute; you can see a page has been razor-bladed out of all copies of the book. Brown promises it will return in the next printing.

Barthes-like interludes titled "Anatomy of a Wrestling Match"-printed on black paper to stand out from the life narrative-analyze "move by move" how a wrestling match is orchestrated by those in the ring. These scenes pull the curtain back and reveal wrestling's central contrivances ("They roll out of the ring to recover. This is called 'selling.' This makes Andre look strong."), but they aren't smugly exposing the obvious (that wrestling isn't real). No, they elevate two dudes in their underwear clobbering away at each other into what Brown considers "performance art."

A couple of pages illustrate the effects gigantism had on Andre. Here, Brown divides the page into a panel, which we understand to signify "comics," but Andre's body and face take up the gutters between the panels too, as if he's too large and cannot be contained by typical graphic-novel grammar. Sobering narration surrounds the fractured frames: "He's thirty-nine. They told him he wouldn't see forty. His brow and jaw have grown more pronounced."

Wisely, Brown answers all of the empathy-engendering sequences with moments where we see Andre at his worst. Every bunch of pages, there's a reminder that Andre has a daughter (the result of a one-night stand) that he barely ever sees. And there is a lengthy montage that is a tour de force of assholism. Running 27 pages, back to back to back, we see Andre call out "Niggers!" to African-American wrestler Bad News Brown; tell the mother of his child matter-of-factly over the phone, "I couldn't be any kind of father to your baby," lying to her and himself; and sexually harass a woman at a party; and subsequently get in a hotel room-wrecking brawl with someone who dares to tell Andre he's being kind of a dick.

"When somebody dies, you only say these great things about them, and everyone kind of forgets that sometimes they were kind of an asshole, you know?" Brown points out. "I think it's important to remember the person as a whole, rather than just the good things. It shows more respect for the person."

Box Brown appears at Atomic Books May 15. For more information, please visit atomicbooks.com.