Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
Created by: Box Brown
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596438517 (Amazon)
I was in seventh grade in 1987. I was perhaps the perfect age for becoming desperately fanatical over the events leading up to Wrestlemania III. It was the perfect combination of soap opera and athleticism. My brother and I would watch WWF matches every Saturday morning. I would come to school the next week and exuberate over what happened, what would happen next, who were good guys, who were bad guys, and who would win the championships. Hulk Hogan, Nikolai Volkoff, George the Animal Steele, Adrian Adonis, the Honky Tonk Man, Billy Jack Haynes, the Junkyard Dog, the Iron Sheik, Hillbilly Jim, Captain Lou Albano, the British Bulldogs, Ricky the Dragon Steamboat, Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter, the Rougeau Brothers, Jake the Snake Roberts, Macho Man Randy Savage. And Andre the Giant. These men were the lords on the earth. They were tremendous figures—though their feuds often seemed concocted even to a seventh-grade me.
In March of 1987, Wrestlemania III took place in the Pontiac Silverdome to, apparently, record attendance. For whatever reason, my dad took the cue that we loved wrestling and got us tickets to watch on closed-circuit television along with a packed-out crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center.11Where they’ve held Wonder-Con the past couple years. It was easily the most exciting thing I had experienced up to that point. We roared, we booed, we screamed. The hall was electric with fans who were deeply invested in the stuff. I, personally, was there for the Ricky the Dragon Steamboat vs Macho Man Randy Savage grudge match. I was furious with Savage and needed to see vindication for the injustices22Fabricated, sure, but I was only tangentially aware of that back then. he’d earlier perpetrated against Steamboat. And honestly, it was the best wrestling I’d ever seen.
The headlining match in which Hulk Hogan was challenged by Andre the Giant was definitely a draw, but it was secondhand snuff by comparison. The problem was that I just didn’t like the Hulkster. He always felt a bit too big for his britches—he and his 24-inch pythons. So when Andre the Giant began feuding with him, I was like, “Good. Take his stupid belt. Devour him.” Really, I probably just wanted Ricky the Dragon Steamboat to take the belt. In any case, I was expecting a good match, just not a fantastic match. But man, we got a fantastic match. And Box Brown’s biography of the Giant spends a fair amount of time on Wrestlemania III and everything Andre did for Hogan in that contest.
Here’s the real deal, if you care to see it.
I was worried that Brown’s work would have arrived too late for me. After all, my interest in the WWF and wrestling waned sharply after Wrestlemania III. My fandom wouldn’t even survive to Wrestlemania IV. I entirely lost track of all those characters and what they were doing or even whether wrestling still existed.33Pro tip: it did still exist. I couldn’t be bothered. It all seemed a bit too infantile to eighth-grade me—an eighth-grade me who was still desperately longing for news of a potential X-Men cartoon that never materialized. Then a couple years later, I saw The Princess Bride for the first time. The movie was released years earlier, but still a kid, I was rather limited in which movies I had access to. And besides, what seventh grade boy really wanted to go see a movie with this for a poster:
But at last I saw The Princess Bride, and like everyone else in the world I came to adore Andre the Giant and his rhyming. And yet again, out of sight out of mind. I didn’t hear the news of Andre’s death in 1993 and wouldn’t discover it for another decade. The next time I encountered the man was in Shepard Fairey’s Andre- and They Live-inspired OBEY GIANT campaign. Fairey created the piece in 1994,44It was repurposed from an earlier campaign, “Andre the Giant Has a Posse,” after Fairey received cease-and-desist notice from Andre the Giant’s trademark owners.
but I didn’t take notice until 2000. By this point, I still didn’t know of the Giant’s death. All this is to sell you on the fact that I honestly couldn’t be bothered to care about wrestling or wrestlers or the welfare of those persons. It was like how I have no idea what’s up with Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. I just had other things going on. And I didn’t really ever see myself reading a biography of Andre the Giant (or for that matter, a Richard Adams biography either).
So when I tell you that I found Brown’s telling of the Giant’s life engaging and enjoyable and illuminating, you can be pretty sure I’m not writing from within the golden glow of nostalgia. Box Brown has composed a portrait of the imposing man’s life that draws together a number of fascinating pieces, illustrating the terror and wonder of Andre’s too-short life (he was six years older than me when he died of his giganticism. If I have one complaint, it’s that I wanted more. Another hundred-and-fifty pages of vignettes of this man’s life. Even though there’s a lot here, the Giant remains an enigma, as much a mystery as you or I.55Though if you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you may actually know more about me than I now know about Andre the Giant.
What Brown does well is balance a variety of portraits of the wrestler in such a way that these contrary reports of the man’s actions and demeanor seem less a conflict and more a variegation of a life lived in the depths of unreal struggle. No matter how good and pure Andre may have been (and we want him to be good and pure), no one can stand up under the degree of fear he generated in those around him combined with wealth and power and popularity and come out shiny and clean. That he does so well as he does, remaining loved and remembered by a good number among his friends, is a reminder that despite the faults, he was generally a good-hearted man.
Still, those who wish to recall him wholly as the good-natured Fezzig from The Princess Bride may be disappointed with the scuffing to his reputation here. Heavy drinking, womanizing, disinterested and deadbeat fatherhood, and the occasional drunken racial slur (a la Mel Gibson). These are among the nicks on his armour. But interestingly, Andre is such an unreal figure that these very human flaws serve to humanize him.
And that’s probably the biggest power of Brown’s toolbox. He visually brings home just how ridiculously large Andre is in comparison to those around him. My wife is miniature set next to me. She is a foot shorter than me and I double her weight. The difference is striking when we stand closely together. I am not a small man. And yet, Andre had nearly a foot-and-a-half on me and was nearly three of me in weight. That would be daunting for anyone to confront. Brown’s work often invokes the term monster—and that’s exactly the sense that his drawings, for all their almost Ware-like simplicity, describe. Andre is monstrous. Yet for all that, Brown remembers to display how human he really is. Was. However we refer to the deceased who are also fictionalized66To clarify the point, this is non-fiction. But as in all biography, license is taken for the sake of story. Things are depicted in particular ways. The world bends to the storyteller’s pen so that this version of things might be the truest version of things. Truer than life is the goal of every thorough biographer.
I mean, I made that up just now, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. characters in a book.
If visually Andre is a monster, Brown is careful to keep his fragility of spirit on display as well. Even in some of the exuberances of his personality (the drinking, the fights, the belligerence), it’s easy to interpret them as reactions from within the social prison his form created for him. Hulk Hogan himself even offers this perspective within the book. We see happy moments, sad moments. Moments from Andre’s perspective, moments from the vantage of his co-workers in the ring. It’s a solid mix and gives meat to the bones of his spirit.
Brown plays his storytelling rather straightforward. He jumps from location to location, skipping time liberally to cover forty-six years in a pretty brisk hop. He doesn’t seem to be playing any narrative tricks prompting nuanced or complex readings of the material, which is probably fitting. Andre, for all his mystery, is still a simple and straightforward picture, and anything that would distract from that would likely be a disservice.
Probably whatever you remember Andre for, that episode from his life will be represented. The pivotal pericope, however, intersects perfectly with my own experience of the Giant. While we get scenes from Andre’s rise in the wrestling world, his match with boxer Chuck Wepner, and the filming of The Princess Bride, it’s Andre’s title match against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III that occupies the most space and is perhaps most lovingly recounted. And Brown does a great job recreating the details and a kind of play-by-play of the contest while simultaneously providing background and insight into what was going on within the scene. He brought to life something I had once witnessed but didn’t quite apprehend—and that was a lovely thing to come across so many years later.
I mentioned earlier that I wished there had been more pages in Brown’s work here. That’s not to suggest that Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is poorly conceived or that it leaves too many strings untangled. Merely, I hoped to describe that my enjoyment of the book was such that I wouldn’t have minded more of the same. I often feel this way about graphic novel biographies. It’s such an easy, fluid means to access the lives of others that these lives can often feel as though they are flitting by too quickly—as if they are underliving their value. I felt this way with Ottaviani and Wicks’ Primates as well. (Though not, curiously, with Ottaviani’s Feynman, which was thick for its short page count and perfectly essayed.) All this is to say that if Box Brown decides to biographize the life of Richard Adams, I would not turn down the opportunity to happily read that one too.
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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