June 9, 2014

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Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
Written and Illustrated by Box Brown
First Second Books

When you think of AndrĂ© RenĂ© Roussimoff (better known as Andre the Giant), what do you think of? If you're a wrestling fan, maybe you imagine him looming over opponents in the ring, or his friendship/feud with Hulk Hogan. Or you might remember his memorable turn as the gentle giant Fezzik in The Princess Bride*. He loomed over popular culture as a larger-than-life figure until his death in 1993, and even still, his image remains a popular choice for outsider artists (any time you see an Obey shirt or sticker from artist Shepard Fairey, you're looking at Mr. Roussimoff).


But what was it like to actually be him? It's one thing to say that someone was larger-than-life**, but what would it be like to live that life?

Artist/writer/comics creator Box Brown has taken on that "giant" challenge, in Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, a moving, thoughtful, wonderfully illustrated story.  This is a thoroughly researched biography which doesn't attempt to cover every episode or event in Andre's life, but instead highlights significant events in his life to create a sense of who he was, based on interviews, stories, books, video, and some amount of creative interpretation. The end result is a story which illuminates while still retaining the mystery of a giant among men.

Brown's art here is black and white and can fairly be described as a "cartoon" style; he successfully balances both humorous and serious elements in his art. While the depiction of characters is not "realistic" in nature, there is a great deal of emotional honesty in the art; Brown's ability to convey feelings in facial expressions and scene-setting is first-rate. One vivid example of this is his recreation of Andre's legendary match against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III in 1987; this episode conveyed a dramatic moment in the ongoing WWF (now WWE) storyline where longtime friends Andre and Hogan were depicted as having a falling out that led up to this dramatic match which filled the Pontiac Silverdome. This battle was one of the most intense, exciting and dramatic matches even seen on television; two giants battling in a sea of people. Brown vividly recreates the key moments from this match, and (as someone who remembers watching this match as a kid) skillfully brings it to life again. Given the deceptively simple, stylized cartoon nature of the art, this is remarkable work.

The story of Andre's life is told by Brown in a straightforward chronological manner. The book begins with excerpts from an interview with Hulk Hogan about Andre the Giant. The story next moves back to when he was 12, as a child in France. Already, Andre is too big to ride the school bus so he gets a ride in a truck (apparently from playwright Samuel Beckett) to school, and he stands out.  We see Andre's life, from his early days as a wrestler in Montreal, to his great success in the 1970's and 1980's (and we see savvy promoters help create the "Andre the Giant" persona and mythos) in Japan, America and all over the world.

Brown is honest about his subject and his faults; Andre drank a lot on the road, he could be cruel to others at times, and he made some questionable choices. But through all of this work, Brown's knowledge of the wrestling industry, and his real understanding of (and empathy for) Andre the Giant come across. This is a person who can't go anywhere without being noticed, and who constantly gets commented upon. He can't comfortably fit in cars, he needs two seats on a plane, and because of his medical condition (acromegaly) he would continue to grow throughout his life and experience significant discomfort on a constant basis. Through all that, Brown shows us Andre's commitment to his work as an entertainer, all the way up until the end of his life.

It's clear that Brown is a fan of wrestling, even without following his Twitter feed every Monday. That love of the sport makes this biography shine. Regardless of whether you are a wrestling fan, this is a terrific read. A compassionate, skillfully illustrated story of a complex man, who took a difficulty and made it into a strength. 


* On my list along with The Godfather, Star Wars, Casablanca and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as most quotable movies ever.

** Here Andre and Wilt Chamberlain make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like a little guy.