Wrestling with greatness: Box Brown's 'Andre the Giant'

Born a poor, put-upon peasant ridiculed by those around him, he would grow up to become one of the most recognizable figures in his profession, his worldwide fame leaving an indelible mark upon the chilhoods of more than one generation. But his greatest strength, that which made him such a powerful presence on the world stage, was also his greatest weakness; that which so defined his life would ultimately kill him.

You can't make this sort of thing up, and in telling the life story of Andre Roussimoff, better known as Andre the Giant, cartoonist Box Brown doesn't have to make anything up -- although he may have to massage some anecdotes to better fit the format of a story, or imagine visual details where none were provided. In other words, Brown has to "put over" his narrative, to borrow some of the wrestling jargon that appears throughout his story (and is helpfully contained in a glossary).

Brown's bio-comic Andre the Giant: Life and Legend opens with an illustrated version of a 2010 interview with Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea, a man who worked with Andre for years in professional wrestling, and became one of its most popular faces during a storyline in which Andre graciously decided to play the heel, the villain to Bollea's hero.

"There was never a fork or a knife .... even a bed!" the cartoon Bollea says. "There was never a situation where he could be comfortable."

And from there we flash back to Andre's childhood in Molien, France, where, at age 12, he was already too big for the school bus, and had to either walk or get a ride in the back of a pick-up truck. After finding a job in which his incredible strength and size were an asset rather than a handicap — working with a moving company — he discovers an even better one: professional wrestling.

This allows the man, who at his biggest stood at almost seven and a half feet and weighed close to 600 pounds, to travel the world. While visiting Japan in 1970, he visits a doctor for the first time, and learns some bad news that will unfortunately define much of his life that follows: He has acromegaly, and will continue to grow, so that he'll age prematurely, his organs and his joints will be under constant strain from trying to keep up with his growth, and, his doctor predicts, he won't live past age 40.

His profession, which involved constant travel and constant physical stress as he dished out and received mock beatings from big, heavy men, probably didn't help much, but Andre did live past 40, making it to almost 47 before finally passing away in his sleep.

Although there are both heroic and tragic elements in Brown's telling of Andre's life, his is hardly a hagiography: Andre can be mean, he can be rude, in one notable incident he can be racist, and in another he's portrayed as a neglectful, absent father; of course, he also drinks. He drinks almost constantly, and he drinks a lot. Brown shows the Giant taking his first drinks directly after getting that fateful diagnosis, and for much of the rest of the book, when he wasn't performing, he seemed to be drinking, either to help distract him from the emotional pain his death sentence gave him, or to help numb him to the physical pain he was in, or perhaps a mixture of the two.

And, because of his enormous size, it takes a lot of alcohol to get Andre the Giant blackout drunk.

Brown's simple, minimalist artwork — which here evokes the more recent work of John Porcellino, Jimmy Corrigan-era Chris Ware and, most especially, that of Seth — works to soften the occasionally dark subject matter. Although the story is told in stark black and white, it's more white than black; there's little in the way of shading, and the panel borders and backgrounds are almost always white, save when Brown is drawing Andre in the ring or at night.

While Boller, who delivers a sort of unreliable narrator's introduction, tells us he "heard people say horrible things and make fun" of Andre, and that the Giant lived in a cruel world (a line Brown illustrates with a panel of the older Andre striding through an airport, ignoring the empty speech bubbles all around him), Brown constantly shows us that he was a man just too big for the world he lived in.

That is particularly apparent when he's in Europe, drinking espresso in a cafe or squeezing into a tiny car, but even in America, even among the huge men and bigger-than-life personalities of professional wrestling, Andrew the Giant was still just too big.

Brown dramatizes that by always somewhat exaggerating Andre's size. Whenever he holds an object — a telephone, a beer bottle, money — it seems tiny in his massive, paw-like hands, and whenever he reaches out to shake hands with someone, as he so often does, their tiny hands disappear into his own (there's a close-up panel of him greeting Christopher Guest on the set of The Princess Bride in which Guest's hand seems to be about the size of Andre's forefinger; when he shakes hands with David Letterman, the talk-show host's arm seems to disappear up to the elbow in Andre's fist).

Brown has found a fascinating subject with a fascinating life, and told his story in a fascinating, deceptively simple, relentlessly compelling manner.

As biographies go, then, Andre the Giant is an ideal one, regardless of its medium.

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