Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (2014) - Box Brown (First Second)
I have a confession to make: I used to watch wrestling. Yeah, that kind of wrestling: Hulk Hogan, Junk Yard Dog, Skandor Akbar, Doctor X, all those guys. And Andre the Giant. I even saw him live when I was a kid, watching him polish off ten guys at once. So when I heard that First Second was going to publish Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown, I knew I had to read and review it.
I also have to confess that before reading this graphic novel, I had never encountered Box Brown’s work. I’ll further confess that upon an initial reading, I was somewhat disappointed. Brown’s black-and-white artwork is clear, simple without being simplistic, and very easy to follow, yet I felt something was missing. Something.... well, big. Like Andre himself.
Andre the Giant opens with several pages depicting wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, reminiscing on his fights with Andre. Those early panels sum up the book quite well; the rest of the story expounds on what Hogan has already told us. Life was hard for Andre. His enormous size made it a certainly that he would almost never be comfortable anywhere. Various people had differing opinions of the seven-foot-four, 500 pound giant, but, says Hogan, “Most people don’t understand the big picture.”
We see Andre Roussimoff as a young man, growing up in Molien, France in the late 1950s. He was so big, the school bus driver refused to allow him on the bus. If you needed to change a tire, you didn’t need a jack; Andre simply lifted the appropriate end of the car for you. He called everyone “boss” as if each person he met was somehow someone to be obeyed.
(photo from First Second)
Yet we also see many scenes of Andre behaving badly. Some of them involve cruelty to others and some are just harmless mischief. My favorite scene involves Andre refusing to leave a bar after closing time. While Andre’s still drinking, the bar owner calls the cops and four officers soon arrive. One of the cops, staring in amazement, whispers to the others, “I don’t think our cuffs will fit that guy.”
The book’s source notes show us that rather than a standard biography, what Brown has given us is a collection of various encounters with Andre the Giant from various people. Often these accounts differ because people see different sides of the man in different situations and at different times. Rarely does Andre talk about his hopes and dreams, fears and demons. Oddly enough, one of the times he’s most candid is in a setting where he’s both seen by the most people and taken the least seriously: The David Letterman Show.
These snapshot episodes of Andre in and out of the ring remind us that, as much as we’d wish it to be otherwise, we really don’t know the public figures we love and admire. We might think we know Andre from his wrestling appearances and from his near-legendary performance as Fezzik in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride, but we really don’t. So much of Andre’s life was spent on the road, in hotel rooms and bars. On one plane ride, Andre confides to wrestling interviewer/announcer Gene Okerlund, “People think I have a wonderful life. They see me travel all over the world... eating at the best restaurants, drinking fine wine... They point at me... kids laugh at me... They’re afraid of me... People look at me and think... what kind of man is he??”
At first I thought the bits and pieces of Andre’s life in this graphic novel didn’t really add up to anything cohesive. Then I went through it a second time and realized maybe that’s the point. Andre the Giant - like the world’s tallest man Robert Wadlow (at 8 ft. 11 inches) who died in 1940 at the age of 22 - is one of those people who captured the interest (if not the heart) of the world for a brief time, then was gone. As with most celebrities (especially pre-Internet), we see them doing what made them famous, and that’s all we see or know about them. Although in many ways an understated book, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend shows us that there’s so much more to famous people than what we see on the surface. These days we can find out just about every detail of any celebrity online, uncovering any element of mystery or curiosity. But maybe those pre-Internet celebrities were, in their own ways, trying to tell us something important - even urgent - about themselves, something we could’ve learned if only we’d paid closer attention. Brown has done an admirable job of helping us remember that this particular cultural icon was something more than a cultural icon. He was also a very human soul, just like the rest of us.
(Many thanks to Gina at First Second for providing a review copy!)