Say what you will about Pro Wrestling or Sports Entertainment or whatever you want to call it, at its
best it is high form American Theatre spinning tales that reach into our collective unconscious, telling us our stories again and again, bearing witness to the passions of the imagination, serving beauty in its brio, mining our fears, transcending our aspirations while thudding on the the canvas wearing short shorts. At times, Pro Wrestling can equal Shakespearean heights of pathos, Homeric moments of heroics, and Dali-like surrealist absurdity. It is soap-opera. It is high brow done low brow. It is story-telling. It is myth making. And it has captured the imagination of fans in ever-growing number throughout the world.
I am one of those fans.
Apparently so are a number of comic book fans and creators. Someday we will all band together and create a small army whose sole mission is to put crooked politicians in the camel clutch. Anyway, one of those comic book creator fans is Box Brown. Wrestling has been part of his comic milieu for years now, and his fandom has culminated in his book, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, the focus of this review.
Now, the normal first step in a review of this sort is to talk about who Andre the Giant was and why he is worthy of a graphic biography. But this is the age of the internet , so I’ll let you do all the searching you want. Also, it’s Andre the fucking Giant, and if you don’t know who he was you have been living under some sort of polystyrene enclosure with your fingers plugged into your ears humming the hits of 1953 in a nasally baritone.
So let’s talk Andre the Giant: Life and Legend.
As Brown says in his introduction, “I took some unavoidable liberties – and used some artistic license– in the storytelling of this book.” Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is as much about the choices Box Brown makes as it is a narrative of the life of Andre. Choices such as what is the narrative focus, how to frame the story, what to leave in, what to leave out, perspective, line-work, shading, all of these stand as testament to Brown the artist, not Brown the biographer.
There’s a certain ironic genius to starting a biography of Andre the Giant with a 2010 interview with Hulk Hogan, one that ends with “Most people don’t understand the big picture.” Then follow this to a flashback to Andre’s childhood challenges and the day he got a ride to school with playwright Samuel Beckett. It’s about setting a tone through choices and demonstrating artistic intent through that act.
This is a big book about a big man. As an artist, Brown is trying to both humanize and mythologize his subject at the same time. I guess my question to you, Lilley, is, does he succeed?
Lilley: Humanize and mythologize? At the same time? That’s a big ask, but I think Box Brown is too smart to try for that. My reading of this is that as an artist he’s found himself trapped in the biographers’ pit, telling an unknown story. I’ll get to that.
Unlike you, Elkin, I’m no rasslin’ devotee. As a kid I thought it was goofy that these guys didn’t actually hit each other, and as an adult I find the work and showmanship admirable, inspiring even, in much the same way I admire professional dancers, but will probably never seek out dance events. I was into WWE for a little while during The Rock’s peak circa 2001, but that kind of makes me a wrestling pariah, doesn’t it? I don’t know.
Andre the Giant, however, is different. He was in The Princess Bride, one of my favourite movies, and he was a massive, massive dude. Having grown up as the biggest kid in class right up into University, I feel a weird affection for people set apart by size. Andre, with his lived exaggerations of the pros and cons of outsize life (he made Arnie look small, but could and did break his ankle getting out of bed), is therefore a definite twinkling in my cultural night sky. I’m not alone in that, because humans are perhaps uniquely responsive to scale, and fans of the visual arts especially so. We’re fascinated by big things, things beyond the scale of the everyday, and Andre was all that.
But that’s the problem with Andre as subject for a biography. He was a huge guy, and bore the constant attentions his hugeness warranted with far more grace than could have been expected. He worked hard to entertain millions of people (at work and off-duty), and prolong the suspension of their disbelief, despite ever-worsening ailments which were part and parcel of his meal ticket, that huge frame. He fathered a daughter, with whom he never really evolved a relationship. And he died prematurely (by regular size standards), claiming to have enjoyed life, having made a very good impression on most people, and a less good impression on some others.
So then, after that admittedly reductive summation, what is there to do with a graphic novel biography of Andre? Well, you’d want to focus on the incredible feats of strength, the epic battles in the ring, the prodigious consumption of food and drink, and the crushing lows of illness, injury, and loneliness, wouldn’t you? Brown addresses all of these, but there’s something curious about having such a larger than life subject realised in Brown’s cartooning style. Brown’s seeming simplicity, the starkness of much of his composition, makes for precise storytelling and excellent control of pacing, particularly when building to or coming down from one of his full page images, like the one that accompanies Andre’s diagnosis.
However, and here I refer back to your opening paragraph, Elkin, Brown doesn’t play Andre’s exploits as spectacle. Returning to “humanizing and mythologizing”, mythological deeds (the $40k bar tab, the hundred beers, the masterful wrestling performance even painfully soon after back surgery) are humanized by Brown’s framing. They’re incredible to everyone else, but to the reader they’re just who Andre is. In Brown’s telling, there’s no narcissistic agency behind his extraordinariness, or so it seems, as his continued choice of profession is never questioned, even when it comes between him and his illegitimate daughter. But in humanizing Andre, eliminating the performativity from much of his life outside the ring, he lessens the impact of Andre’s outlandishness. Which is what reeled us in to begin with, isn’t it?
I wonder whether this points to the central issue with Andre as a subject, that the vast majority of what is known about him, occupies a territory in pop culture that is a niche within a niche, na
mely professional wrestling in the pre-internet age. So although millions of people are aware of his existence, and recognise the name, are they interested in the field of endeavour from whence he shone? Meanwhile, wrestling fans of that era are unlikely to learn much from a biography, because Andre was seemingly private to an extent that suggests either transcendent wisdom or the simplest of appetites and needs. Or both. So do you write about the wrestler, with all the baggage (readerly disdain, limited appeal, perceived niche interest, and all the necessary intricacies of the wrestling universe) that brings, or do you write about the Giant, and risk finding less to remark on than his thirst? It’s a false binary, one Brown sensibly ignores, but Elkin, do you think he took the most rewarding third way?
Elkin: Isn’t this third way the humanizing and mythologizing dance that Brown is choreographing here? Yes, Lilley, it is the myth that brings the interest, but it is the human that allows the story to resonate. If this is the third way, then I think it’s pretty rewarding.
Great biographies help us understand their subjects through explorations of life minutiae and intersection with the Zeitgeist. Great works of literature elicit understanding on a human level, exploring thematically whatever it is we fool ourselves to be the human condition. The combination of biography and art is the result of authorial intent, masterful choices, and an innate understanding of story-telling. This is what makes Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend successful. While ostensibly about its subject, the wrestler, its also an exploration of us, our expectations, suppositions, and need for sense-making.
We bring to a biography of a larger-than-life type character our own a priori understandings of what our attraction to this subject is. We read the life from our own comprehension of what drew us to reading it in the first place. As we go through the book, we match our conceptions with the information presented and then reassess not only how we feel about the subject, but also how we feel about ourselves for our interest. In a book such as the one Box Brown has created, we have the added experience of decoding the junction formed between words and pictures, each having their own potency which is then amplified in their collision in our consciousness. As we make sense of what we are experiencing, we reformulate our understandings of ourselves and our interaction with the world.
In his nearly 50 years of life, Andre Roussimoff had “eaten more good food, drunk more beer, more fine wine. (He) had more friends. And (he had) seen more of the world than most will.” Yet, Brown is able to distill all that experience into the essence of the Life and Legend that surrounded this giant. He captures a sense of Andre the man by using broad strokes. By keeping the strokes broad, he universalizes Andre. It’s sort of like what Scott McCloud talks about in his book Understanding Comics, how the act of abstracting features in cartooning makes the subject more identifiable as the self. As McCloud says, “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled … an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it!”
So, is Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend worthy of your time, money, and attention? It’s an easy answer if you’re a wrestling fan or even just an Andre the Giant fan. The answer to the question gets more murky if you are not. Still, if you are person who is interested in expanding your definition of self and your understandings of the world, then I would say the answer remains resolutely yes.
Lilley: Hands up anyone who wants to own up to not being “interested in expanding your definition of self and your understandings of the world”? Anyone? Bueller?
Make no mistake, this comic is worth your time. What I do think is worth considering is the contrast between Brown’s documentarian style (and that’s not a fancy made-up adjective, the dude consumes documentaries and does his research right) and the lack of documentary evidence Andre leaves behind. If you take the time to hunt down the Letterman interview that features in Andre, it is revealing to contrast Brown’s ascription of emotion to Andre with what comes off the screen. That’s not to say that Brown is fabricating, or embellishing. He’s empathising with a subject he’s spent more virtual hours with than most readers will have done. However, it’s the contrast between these moments of empathy and the matter-of-factness of Brown’s line that leaves me unable to acquiesce to your “mythologizing and humanising”.
The success of Andre lies in Brown’s refusal to judge, or, often, to interpret. When Andre forces beer down the throat of a teetotal colleague in the ring, the aftermath is muted, closed captions above an airplane shuttling offender and offended on to the next masquerade. When Andre decides he wants to leave his shirt open in a bar, he uses silence and his immensity to stay unbuttoned, even in the face of the law, yet it’s hard to infer smugness or braggadocio from Brown’s colossus. When he puts the phone down on the mother of his child, having recused himself from fatherhood, and sighs, it is the quintessential Brown-ian moment, utterly recognisable yet resolutely open to interpretation. Utterly recognisable because it is resolutely open to interpretation.
Elkin, when you invoke the oft-debated McCloud you hit it on the head. Andre is a testament to Box Brown’s mastery of abstraction. Andre’s features are simplified, without becoming any less “other” than they were in life. The world as depicted by Brown contains only the pertinent details, directing the reader’s focus implicitly. The result is, to my mind, neither humanising nor mythologizing. Brown simply documents what can be documented, and fills blanks as inconspicuously as he can.
Whether this makes for great biography, I’m not sure. Intellectually, I admire Brown for his dedication to some kind of objectivity, despite what is obviously a huge personal affinity for
Andre and his world. Yet to pursue “the facts” in such a fabricated realm, and concerning such a private person, seems to me almost counter to the spirit of Andre’s life. If there’s one thing Andre was an exemplar of, and could be inferred to have understood, it was “the show”, the power of spectacle. To address his unique existence in determinedly unspectacular fashion, while an understandable choice, seems almost perverse. Objectivity is, after all, a lie. There is no documentary truth to be told, and one is left wondering whether Andre was interested in even his own truth, so heavy does it often seem to weigh upon him. I suppose what I’m saying, Elkin, is that rather than being a Life or a Legend, I’d rather Brown had used Andre as a lens. What could the renown of a prodigious consumer say about our culture? What might the worship of such a man say of our aspirations? Or of the fetishism of might and menace at the turn of the internet age?
I can’t fault Brown for the way he accomplished what he set out to do, and for the thoughtfulness with which he remembers Andre. But I will say that if you check out his Number 1, you’ll see him working unfettered by any truth other than his own. For my money, that’s the real deal.