Box Brown On Chronicling Andre The Giant’s ‘Life And Legend’ In New Graphic Novel [Interview]
Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is already one of my favorite graphic novels of the year. In an exhaustively researched, incredibly compelling biography, Brown goes through the major events of Andre's life, both in the ring and outside of it, and he pulls off the pretty amazing trick of making him seem like a flawed and relatable human being while simultaneously painting him as the larger-than-life giant that he was.
Today, with the book finally being released next week, I've spoken to Brown about the research that he did, his experience watching Andre's match against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III over and over, and why he's not Facebook friends with pro wrestler Blackjack Mulligan anymore.
ComicsAlliance: How did you first encounter Andre the Giant?
Box Brown: Honestly, I try to think about when I first got into wrestling, and I remember WrestleMania VI being the first time that I watched WrestleMania as it happened. I remember being aware of WrestleMania V and what was going on and what happened, so I got into wrestling between those two. I must have known who Andre was, but one of my first memories of Andre was at WrestleMania VI, one of many swan songs for him. He and Haku were the Colossal Connection, and they lost the tag team belts to Demolition. Andre had been a heel for a really long time, and he kind of turned babyface. Then he was off TV for a while, after that. Well, for a minute.
CA: So your first encounter with him was towards the end, then.
BB: Yeah, way towards the end of his career. I'd really only known Andre as his WWF persona, where he was a heel with the black singlet with one strap, after he'd been bodyslammed by Hogan. They'd still talk about that. He was just the biggest, baddest dude.
CA: [Laughs] They still talk about that. Every week. So was it a thing where you saw him then and thought "what's his deal?" and had to know more immediately, or did it come gradually over the course of being a fan?
BB: No, I've been a lifelong wrestling fan after that. There's some gaps in the 2000s, I have to admit -- most of the 2000s, to be honest with you. I've gone back and done my homework a little bit, but there was a gap. I think it wasn't until later that I started reading about Andre the Giant's life and got interested in him as a subject for comics, and got super into researching more and more stuff about him. I guess I'd just been goofing off on the Internet, and stumbled across the story of him getting a ride to school from Samuel Beckett.
I thought that would make a cool comic, so I made it into a mini. Then I started looking up other Andre the Giant stories, and there were so many good ones. I was holding his life under a microscope a little bit, and he had this fascinating, tragic, short life.
CA: As a wrestling fan, you always hear those stories. Everyone's got an Andre story. The first one you always hear is how he used to drink bottles and barrels of wine, and they had to use that to figure out the amount of anesthesia to give him.
CA: Did you just keep on hearing them, and did you want to just know which ones were true?
BB: Yeah, there's so many. I think years ago, I saw the A&E Biography of Andre, probably in 2003. The initial interest in his story came from that, because that was a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at his life, and there were all these stories about him drinking a hundred beers. I think that's true -- he's a huge guy, all the guys on the road drank a lot anyway, they were all huge guys. A beer can barely fit in his hand, it'd be like an orange juice glass at a diner. That's what a beer is to him. I could have a million of those.
CA: The way you draw him, the thing that I really notice is that you're always doing these close-ups of his hands, either contrasting with other people or just with the tiny little neck of a beer bottle poking out from his fist.
BB: That was the thing. I watched a lot of footage of Andre, and that's one of the things that, once you start looking at how big his hands are and comparing them to the things in the shot with them, is amazing. He'd shake hands with people and their hands would just get completely buried in his giant hand. I know there's a handprint in stone somewhere, where you can compare your hand to his.
There's a video that I believe the AWA made back in the day, and Andre's in it. You just see a Jeep Wrangler, and you see his hand coming out and opening the door, and his hand takes up almost the whole door. It's a good example of how much larger he is than the average person.
CA: Even the Andre shirts that WWE sells just have the handprint on them.
BB: I was thinking about that. You'd have to take the measurements of the mold and find what the actual size was, because that would be a cool tattoo.
CA: I love the way it's used as this recurring motif in the book. There's a shot of it at the beginning, then you see it again in the fight with Chuck Wepner, where it's even bigger than Wepner's boxing glove. You have him putting his hand on Robin Wright's head to warm her up.
BB: Yeah, that was a common thing. He was on The Tonight Show, and it was so hard to find. There was a lot of footage of him talking about The Tonight Show, so I was trying to find all this footage, like "where is this footage of Andre with Johnny Carson?" But it was during the summer, and Carson had a guest host, Joey Bishop. They'd always compare hands, just as an example. It must've been really shocking to the average person.
Christopher Guest [Count Rugen in The Princess Bride] talks about it. He would try to shake Andre's hand every day, because it was just such an experience. It was so powerful, you'd shake his hand and realize that he could just crush you so easily.
CA: What all did you go through for the research?
BB: Well, I did a lot of things. I have a ton of sources in the book. There are a lot of these shoot interviews out there, there's stuff that's been written in the past, like the Sports Illustrated interview. All kinds of stuff.
One of the things that was really helpful to me was this group of Internet wrestling fans, and it looks to me like it must've been done in the early days of the Internet, like newsgroups. It's that old. This group of wrestling fans, and this guy known as "The Claw Master," compiled Andre's full win/loss record. It had every match he was ever in, whether he won or lost, what city it was in, the date, and who he wrestled. I remember specifically that there's a story about One Man Gang in the book, and One Man Gang talked about what happened to him in the ring. It was a tag-team match with Andre and "Captain Redneck" Dick Murdoch, and they dumped a beer down One Man Gang's throat, even though One Man Gang was a teetotaler. He didn't drink at all, and they dumped a beer down his throat.
Which was pretty cruel! But I was trying to figure out when that occurred, but I had his Win/Loss record right there, so I could find it and see when it occurred, where it was, where to place it in the story. It was interesting, and it was funny -- I found out that it was the next day that he broke his ankle getting out of bed.
CA: Of all the stuff that you went back through, was there a favorite moment? Something that made you see Andre in a new light, or something that really resonated with you?
BB: I remember when I was working on the part in the book where Andre gets in a fight with Blackjack Mulligan. Mulligan wrote about it in his book, which is amazing. He published it himself, so it's not copy edited or anything. So we actually became Facebook friends, and I would talk to him about it, and get the story that appears in the book directly from him.
But then he started replying to a lot of my posts with some... extreme political views that I don't share. So... we're not Facebook friends anymore. [Laughs]
CA: That's such a great story, too, the idea of these two guys who are clearly friends, who get drunk and just want to beat the hell out of each other, but Andre doesn't want him to have his cowboy boots because he might really get hurt.
BB: He didn't want Blackjack to put the boots to him!
CA: The great thing is that it's exactly what you picture when you hear "two '80s wrestlers partying."
BB: These guys just getting drunk and throwing each other through a wall.
CA: But you actually talked to Blackjack Mulligan about it?
BB: I still have the transcript of what we talked about, and man, the language he was using. Just in casual conversation! He didn't really know who I was, he just knew I was working on this book, and he was cutting a promo via Facebook chat about this fight in his friend's hotel, and having to pay like $600 to pay to fix the wall. He was just ranting and raving, and using all kinds of offensive language. [Laughs]
CA: The first time I encountered your stuff about Andre, it was the story about Bad News Brown that ran in the fanzine, The Atomic Elbow. That story's interesting for a lot of reasons, but the thing that I really latched onto was that you talked about how there are different versions of that story from the different people who were there. And if people don't know, it's a story about Andre telling a racist joke on a bus tour of Japan, and Bad News Brown taking exception to it. Bad News Brown, who was also an Olympic medalist in Judo.
BB: Oh my God, the treatment of Bad News Brown. I could do another book on that alone. He was a national champion in Judo in 1968, he fought in the Olympics, he had more skill than anybody in pro wrestling, and they bring him to WWF and make him be "Bad News Brown," a totally, pretty racist gimmick of "a black guy from Harlem." That was his gimmick. Meanwhile, he had legit ability. But that's a digression.
CA: That story being the first thing I encountered with your work on Andre was really interesting, because Andre does not come off well in that story.
BB: The story in The Atomic Elbow was from Hogan's perspective, and the one in the book is from Bad News Brown's perspective. It's not totally different, but there are slight nuances that are in there that I don't think Hogan picked up on. Hogan's view of it is, of course, a little bit skewed, so I used Bad News's, which is probably the closest to reality, since he was one of the parties of the event.
But yeah, Andre definitely does not come out looking good there.
CA: That comes in the dead center of the book, but reading it in The Atomic Elbow two years ago, and being someone who was aware that the book was coming and who was excited about it, I couldn't help but think of it as a prologue. It's like a sample chapter that you'd find in a magazine. And you do a lot of stuff like that -- it's not a romanticized view of Andre. There's a quote on the back, from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats about how you're not portraying him as larger than life, but as he actually was. Was there ever a time when you were wary of including stories like the altercation with Bad News Brown, because Andre's such a beloved figure in wrestling and a friendly giant that people knew from The Princess Bride?
BB: No, there wasn't. I think that moment was not Andre's best moment, but it doesn't define him as a guy. I think all people have flaws, and to not include those things would've been untruthful on my part. To whitewash, let's say, or to make it look like Andre was always a happy individual, or always this kindly babyface that he was on TV, it just wouldn't be true. It's not the case for anyone. Nobody's perfect, and everybody plays the heel and the babyface at times in real life. I think that was the case with Andre as well.
A lot of people talked about him later in life being kind of an ornery type guy. I think it had a lot to do with the pain that he was in, and having no patience for the fanfare that comes from being a pro wrestler. I think he was in a lot of pain just moving around, and he lost his patience for a lot of the autograph signing type stuff.
CA: I almost don't want to spoil it for anyone who reads the book, but there's a moment at the end where Bad News Brown shows up again. Having read that story two years before of it and being aware of that story, I was almost in tears when they were friends again.
BB: [Laughs] In the interview with Bad News, if you watch it, he talks about it in a serious manner, and he tells that story where they made up eventually, and you can tell he'd come to peace with Andre as a guy. I wanted to include that in there, too, as a little bit of redemption for Andre.
CA: One of the big sections of the book is based around the most famous Andre the Giant match, which is the one against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III, in the Pontiac Silverdome.
BB: 93,000 fans.
CA: You do an 11-page recreation of that match, with your commentary on why it's an important match in Andre's life and career. What was that process like? How many times did you watch that match?
BB: A lot. [Laughs] That's actually the only match that I ever convinced my wife to watch with me. But I think she appreciated it, I actually think I convinced her to appreciate the intricacies of what made that match so great for a moment.
One of my favorite things about it is that it's this huge, huge spectacle that sold out the place, and the match itself really worked. But the whole time, Andre is able to go only so far. He had ten minutes, maybe, that he put on of the actual match. Twelve minutes, maybe. But it was spectacular nonetheless. And Hogan, there's no discounting how great Hogan is in that match, selling for Andre the whole time, for almost the entire match.
I watched it many, many times, and I think I started to get into watching wrestling at that speed. You're watching every single move, and considering each decision that Hogan and Andre are making in the ring. It's also when I noticed that Andre is winking to the camera during it, which is one of my favorite moments.
I'd watched that match ten times before I noticed the wink. Every time I watch it, I really enjoy it more. There's this part where Hogan's in the corner and he's selling, and Andre just yells to the crowd "Look at your champion now!" It's this thing that he didn't really have to do, but he's playing it up for the crowd. You can tell he's having the time of his life.
CA: You can't imagine Andre not enjoying being on a stage like that. It's the stage that's finally the right size for Andre.
BB: I think Andre really liked performing. I don't know if he ever told anybody this, he was a pretty quiet guy, really. But I don't see any reason why he would've continued to wrestle and perform in the '90s. He could've retired. He didn't have to go out there anymore, and he couldn't really move. He could barely move and he was in a lot of pain.
I don't know if you remember this, but he would come out at some of his last shows for the WWF with braces, barely getting involved in the match, but he still wanted to be out there. I don't think it was the money. I'm sure he got paid well, but he didn't really need the money. There was no reason to be out there, except for wanting to do it, even though it was so much travel, which was really taxing on him.
CA: One thing that I hadn't really thought of, even though I've known who Andre was for 20 years, was that yeah, that guy wrestled in Japan, which means he was on a plane for hours.
BB: There was one year where he went back and forth to Japan -- back and forth -- three times in one summer. It's insane. I think he really loved Japan. He loved traveling the world, and he had a giant appetite for experience and traveling the world.
CA: I don't know if this is going out on the final version, but the copy I have has quotes from people like Mandy Patinkin and John Darnielle, but it's also got Mick Foley and Jim Ross. Have you heard from wrestlers about it?
BB: I heard some interesting stories. It was reviewed in the Pro Wrestling Torch, which was cool, and I heard a rumor from someone that Chris Cruz, the old announcer from WCW, ordered the book from his local comic shop, and that he ordered two because Bruno Sammartino wanted one. That was super thrilling.
From doing this book, I've realized that there are a lot more people that are interested in wrestling than are letting on. I feel like there are a lot of closet wrestling fans out there.
CA: I would not know anything about that.
BB: You're very out of the closet. [Laughs] But I really feel like everyone kind of has an affinity for pro wrestling.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is out next week from First Second.