Buy This Book: Box Brown’s ‘Andre The Giant: Life And Legend’
If you'd asked me three months ago what my most anticipated graphic novel of 2014 was, I could've given you the answer without even having to think about it: Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, a comic book biography of one of the most famous professional wrestlers of all time. Admittedly, I'm right smack in the center of the target audience for that book, but there's so much about the man that's fascinating, and Brown's work as a Xeric Grant and Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist is top notch -- it's something I feel like I would've been interested in even if I was going into it cold, with no knowledge whatsoever of the world of professional wrestling.
The book isn't out until May, but the book's publisher, First Second, sent over a review copy and I couldn't wait to read it. It's the sort of book that I knocked out in one sitting, and it lived up to every hope I had for it. It's not just one of my favorite graphic novels of the year, but it's also one of my favorite comic biographies of all time.
I first encountered Brown's comics about Andre the Giant in the pages of The Atomic Elbow, a pro wrestling fanzine put out by Robert Newsome that I later became a contributor to myself. In a brief comic that ran in the first issue, Brown recounted an incident from a tour of Japan in 1980 where Andre and fellow wrestler (and Olympic medalist in Judo) Bad News Brown almost got into a legitimate fistfight when Andre cracked a racist joke on their tour bus. The same story appears in Life and Legend, but it's a little different -- the general sequence of events is the same, but the specifics don't quite line up. The interactions between the characters are slightly different. Andre's more aggressive here, and Bad News demands that they stop the bus so that they could hash things out right on the side of the road. There's a moment where Bad News reaches into his bag and Andre thinks he's reaching for a knife -- in one version he's getting out a pack of cigarettes to calm down, but here, he's putting away his earrings so they won't get ripped out when the fight starts. It's the same story, about the same people, being told by the same person, even ostensibly directed at the same audience, but the details are changed.
The reason, of course, is that each story is based on a different recounting of the actual event. The one in Atomic Elbow is based on a retelling from Hulk Hogan, who was also on the tour, while the one that made it into the book comes from Bad News himself, based on an interview before his death in 2007. And that, in short, represents exactly what Brown was faced with when it came to constructing a biography of Andre.
Even though the curtain has been pulled back (and torn down, and dragged out back and burned, and had its ashes scattered in the wilderness), the world of pro wrestling is still one that's been built on exaggeration. With someone like Andre, who led a life where even the facts have been scaled up over the years to something that's beyond belief, hammering out the details to provide a definitive, factual take is a tricky proposition. But then, that's not exactly what Brown does.
That's not to say that Life and Legend isn't well-researched, or that Brown doesn't paint an accurate portrait of the man's life and career. Far from it, in fact -- there's an index in the back where he goes through every scene of the book, explaining what it's based on and citing sources that include WWE's official DVD realeases, wrestlers' biographies, and shoot interviews. Everything that's in this book happened, or at least has people who say it happened, which is about as close as you're going to get. But at the same time, he leans into the idea of the exaggeration. Not that he had too far to go -- That part where doctors had to figure out how much anesthesia to give him by figuring out that it took two liters of vodka to give him a light buzz is actually a fact.
What really sells it, I think, is Brown's artwork, which has this beautifully simple quality that moves back and forth from the cartoonishly wacky to really evocative and emotional. It's the sort of book that moves efortlessly from scenes like the one at the hospital, where the doctors react to the news about the vodka with an actual, honest to God feet-flying-out-of-the-panel plotz to quiet moments where we see Andre at the end of a wild night of drinking, carousing and raising hell, as a man alone in a world that's too small for him, drinking to deal with the constant pain that he was in for his whole life.
What really sells it is the sense of scale that Brown gives to Andre. He always draws him as big, from the opening sequence where a 12 year-old Andre has to ride to school in the back of a flatbed truck because he's too big for the bus all the way through his wrestling career where he's towering over his opponents, but as the book goes on and Andre's legend increases, as he becomes bigger and bigger in the minds of the public (and in real life, due to the acromegaly that kept him growing until the day he died), he fills up more and more of the page.
It's the hands that do it. In almost every story recounted in the book, there's a moment where Brown draws attention to Andre's hands, whether it's by showing him handing someone a tiny dollar bill, covering a whole beer bottle in his fist, or shaking hands, like he does here in Brown's recreation of his appearance on David Letterman:
It works beautifully, partly because it was Andre's trademark -- one of Andre's most famous pop culture appearances was on the Tonight Show where he and Joey Bishop compared their hands, and even WWE's Andre the Giant T-Shirts have a "life sized" handprint on them in lieu of a picture -- but also because it's such an immediately recognizable sense of scale. And again, that's not too far off from the truth. You can look up that appearance and see how huge Andre was compared to Letterman, and even if it's not quite the scale that Brown draws, it feels like it is.
And yet, even though he builds Andre as this massive, larger-than-life being on a visual level, it all serves to do what Life and Legend does best: It shows Andre as a person. Not the giant with a dubious fifteen-year undefeated streak, not as the monster who was bodyslammed by Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III, not as the absent father that was put on blast by A Current Affair shortly before his death, and not even as the drinker and prankster behind the scenes in the world of wrestling. It shows him as all of those, as a person whose life was larger than everyone's, but whose flaws were no bigger or smaller than anyone else's. It makes the Giant relatable without ever undermining him. There's a love in this book, but there's an honesty, too, and it comes through in every scene, even when the truth, strictly speaking, is exaggerated just a bit.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is out this May from First Second, but you can preorder it now, and it's well worth it.