REVIEWS

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

9781596438514On the March 10, 2014, episode of WWE Raw, Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea told an arena of fans about a recent fit of inspiration. Reminiscing about a 1987 match with Andre the Giant, Hogan came up with “an idea that was so intense that I couldn’t wait to come to Monday Night Raw and tell all my Hulkamaniacs … In honor of one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time, we’re gonna have an over-the-top, thirty-man Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, brother. At Wrestlemania XXX, there’ll be thirty superstars in the ring. Every one of them is gonna want to make history and win the coveted Andre the Giant Memorial Trophy.”

We can assume the idea for the Memorial Battle Royal or the Andre-shaped trophy came from Hogan only in kayfabe (in-story) terms. He had just re-signed with World Wrestling Entertainment in order to host the most recent Wrestlemania event, and had not exactly been serving as a member of the WWE creative team. But that’s academic—at this point in professional wrestling history, a physical (swingable, smashable) symbol of Andre’s legacy was probably unavoidable. Andre Roussimoff was fated to iconography.

A truism about most of pro wrestling’s biggest stars—Steve Austin, The Rock, Ric Flair—is that the characters they inhabited were heightened versions of their authentic selves. But no other performer found a persona with the inevitability of Andre. In an environment that demands its stars larger than life, he arrived fully formed. Andre was a giant and thus he played a giant.

Andre’s stature, literal and figurative, means there’s an endless supply of anecdotes available about Roussimoff. Some humanize him; some read like folk tales. Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, a cradle-to-grave comics biography, is the latest work to explore the tension between, well, Andre Roussimoff’s life and his legend. Across a series of vignettes, Brown moves from Andre’s boyhood in rural France to his rise to fame to his early death from heart failure.

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Few performers in the wrestling industry ever reached Andre’s level, though some were at least promoted that way, which is perhaps why Brown begins with an excerpt from a 2010 interview with Hulk Hogan. Hogan and Andre orbited each other during a period of peak popularity for wrestling, with Hogan toppling the Giant at Wrestlemania III. Despite Hogan’s talent for self-promotion, he’s contrite in this scene, and a keen observer of Andre’s experience: “There was never a situation where he could be comfortable.”

Brown’s opening sequence intersperses standalone renderings of Andre (with a cane, on a moving walkway, surrounded by chatter) and panels that frame Hogan as if he were a documentary-film talking head. These panels depict Hogan slightly from the side, the top quarter of his body visible—an approach that lends Hogan a kind of instant credibility. This choice registers as bizarre once a reader reaches Brown’s source notes, the first of which reads: “I’m not sure how truthful Hogan is being throughout this interview. He tends to exaggerate all of his stories.”

Brown may have staged his opening in this manner to approximate how Hogan was filmed throughout the 2010 interview—I have not seen the footage—though of course he did not have to. The decision is functional, maybe even intuitive, but it still reveals the complications involved in telling Andre’s story. Brown relies on secondhand accounts of Andre’s life (which, to state the obvious, would have been unavoidable). At worst, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend sometimes reads like comics-as-transcription as a result.

Brown has done a fine job of aggregating anecdotes about his subject; this is a telling of the Andre the Giant story that requires little prior knowledge of the person or his profession. He also mediates his many sources through a controlled, consistent aesthetic. Brown works with a thick, black line; minimal hatching; and a manner of depicting characters, even the massive ones, as sets of soft contours. One of the book’s successes is Brown’s design for Andre himself—the wrestler looks at once like a flesh-and-blood human and like an icon. Brown examines Andre’s interiority less well.

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Although Brown manages to pull together multiple histories of Andre, he seldom pulls new insights from them. What we have are too many scenes that read as too sketchlike in nature. For example: Andre was reportedly quite proud of The Princess Bride and would often rewatch it. Thus the book includes a vignette in which Andre and fellow wrestler Terry Funk watch the film, and then a cheery Andre suggests they watch it again. This is what’s confounding about Brown as a biographer: he has consolidated his sources into a discreet work in a new medium and yet sometimes seems to lack the willingness to make a statement.

Andre the Giant is strongest during sequences in which Brown gives himself the most creative latitude. In a spread depicting the effects of Andre’s acromegaly (which contributed to his distinctive size and features), Brown includes a full-page illustration of Andre’s body, setting it against a blank background and dividing the page into six panels. On the opposite page, he uses the same approach with a drawing of Andre’s head, dividing the page into quadrants. The effect is a subtle sense of medical urgency, a depiction of Andre’s worsening condition without leeringness or sentimentality.

Also effective: sequences in which the book’s gutters switch from white to black and Brown depicts moments of in-ring action. Not because Brown’s making room for headbutts and body slams, though I’m on board for those too, but because he allows himself a more obvious authorial presence. Throughout most of Andre the Giant, Brown limits the content of captions to year or city or time of day. In the book’s black-gutter scenes, however, he guides readers through the paces of a wrestling match, deftly outlining the fundamentals of pro wrestling as storytelling—or, in the case of Andre’s 1976 novelty bout with “Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner, analyzing the industry’s tenuous balance between falsehood and reality. (“They kept Wepner in the dark to keep his reactions real. Also, after the fight, if people ask if wrestling is real, and they will, he can truthfully answer ‘yes.’”)

Brown’s restraint pays some dividends too, as with the book’s treatment of Andre’s daughter—and of Andre as an absentee parent. Between the diagrams of Andre’s aging body and an illustration of Andre undergoing back surgery, Brown includes a splash page of Andre sitting poolside—appearing as relaxed as he does at any point in the book—and explaining to a friend why his daughter doesn’t visit him. (Problems with the mother, Andre says, whom he saw infrequently and whom readers scarcely meet.)

Depicting this moment as a full-page image not only disrupts the narrative about Andre’s health, it also gives Brown a chance to acknowledge his distance from his subject—we are not with Andre in this moment, not really. Brown isn’t passing judgment here, but the page alerts readers that there is room for ambivalence about the situation and much we can’t know. This—and later, the appearance of Andre’s daughter—underscore Andre’s loneliness, his shortcomings, and the impact he had on other people in not-obvious ways.

And, yes, if Brown’s muted voice sometimes works in the biography’s favor, certain instances of creative license also fall flat. Samuel Beckett is alleged to have driven a young Andre to school at some point in the late 1950s, a piece of trivia no account of Andre’s life should be without, but a conversation between the two titans of their forms does not exist on record. When Brown opts to imagine an exchange between Andre and his driver, the result is Beckett telling the younger man, “Maybe one day I’ll see you up on a stage”—a winky bit of foreshadowing and a stock line.

A few years ago, surveying the body of anecdotes about Andre Roussimoff, wrestling critic David Shoemaker noted that “every detail of Andre’s life is subject to fantastical reinterpretation, and failing that, normal human error.” Many of Brown’s errors, such as the clunky line he gives to Beckett, are minor in nature. But, despite the book’s accomplishments, they add up. Brown’s choices as a biographer are likely to makes readers wish for a work of bolder reinterpretation—a bigger story from a louder voice.

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One Response to Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

  1. I can see your perspective, but beg to differ. I found this book a page turner. Like balladeer, Brown admits picking through Andre the Giant myths for those that ring true to him. The fine thing about any illustrated graphic novel style biography, or history is how we get cues from the drawing style as to just how literally we should read the text.

    The artist’s drawing style often gives the reader a sense of how stylized or romanticized the storyline might be. Box Brown’s work seems, to me, a perfect fit for this particularly over-sized life story.

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