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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Andre the Giant, Life and Legend

I remember Andre the Giant. I wasn't a huge wrestling fan as a child, but I do have some vivid memories of my uncle and I watching late 80's and early 90's wrestling television programs such as the WWF's Saturday Night's Main Event and whatever equivalent the NWA (and then later WCW) would offer. Those days, Andre Roussimoff (billed of course as "Andre the Giant"), the towering 7 foot tall, 600 plus pound grappler was a tough sight to behold: holding onto the ropes for support and barely able to manage walking to support his large frame, much less hop around the ring and body-slam his varying opponents. I only caught Andre at the tail end of his career as he was nearing his inevitable end, and by the time it occurred, professional wrestling was a fleeting memory for me, never to come to the forefront of my mind again. 

I say this to give you a bit of grounding in how I approached Box Brown's graphic novel biography and tribute to Rousimoff's life and times. I came into reading Brown's work not as a fan of the wrestling, or even Andre in particular, but as someone who had a level of fascination with the pop cultural imagery that surrounded this central figure posthumously. It's hard to imagine a world where zeitgeist touchstones like The Princess Bride or the work of artist Shepard Fairey (of the famous Andre-"OBEY" street art) doesn't exist. So, the idea of learning more about the man that inspired all of this loving adoration was immensely appealing.

Brown's graphic novel hits all the high notes you'd expect, though doing it through shorter vignette-type storytelling; Andre's adolescence in rural France, his first wrestling match, and his rise to fame and movie-stardom. Brown has pulled together a compelling portrait of a good-natured man facing a shortened life-span due to his ever growing body. Brown, whose artistic style brings artists like Seth and James Kochalka most immediately to mind, has crafted an unflinching look at the man that pulls few punches regarding his personal foibles.

This is probably the element of the book that works best. Too often in the biographical realm an author feels a sense of obligation to his subject, glorifying their accomplishments and making them a more mythical figure than they ever were in life. Brown keeps his touch a fairly personal one throughout, humanizing without deifying. The same Andre we see in earlier portions of the book, striking up a conversation with street walkers and pulling off pranks with his friends, is the Andre that later becomes a dead-beat father and tries to race bait one of his fellow wrestlers using the N-word. It's a fully formed portrait that breathes more life in the subject than any surface level, corporate sponsored documentary would ever bother with. 

Brown also utilizes the medium to visualize Andre's pain as his body - ironically, the key to his meteoric fame -  grows beyond the ability of his organs to support it. But Brown's efforts here are a unique mix of "show and tell" that only sequential art could produce. The author's portrayal is one of sympathy, showing an Andre constantly in motion, traveling from one corner of the world to the next and utilizing alcohol as one of his few means of coping. You would think such a vaudevillian lifestyle would loom over a man who can barely fit into plane seats, but his Andre carries a positive outlook and demeanor throughout, even when faced with some significant physical adversity. Calling everyone "Boss" and making friends everywhere he goes, Brown's Andre is quite the character the behold.

The copious amount of research involved in the book is apparent. Compiling a number of anecdotes from various sources, including fellow wrestler biographies and documentaries, as well as Youtube clips and archival video, a full chronology is developed and it indeed inspired me to even go take a scouring of the internet to see Andre battle the boxer Chuck Wepner, or view David Letterman's famous chat with "The 8th Wonder of the World". Occasionally, this is where Brown falters just a bit, in that he spends a number of pages attempting to explain some of the minutia of professional wrestling, including a full break-down of a match that Andre participated in (including rules and holds). I assume this is intended to give the non-wrestling audience some grounding in the form, but it felt more like filler when it's surrounded by stronger character-based material. 

Incidentally, while Brown spends a lot of time explaining in-ring activity, he occasionally lapses on some of the players that come in and out of Andre's life. I'm sure many of these people are representations of real figures that were or are a part of the business, but far be it from me to be able to tell you who "Pat" is, or any of the others who don't get a specific "editorial box" explaining who they are. The latter is a more minor complaint though, as I can accept the artistic reasoning that people flew in and out of Andre's life all too brief life as it was constantly in motion, and minute details may not matter as much.

What's more important is that the book is imminently readable and quite recommendable. Brown's art is stellar, and the subtle evolution of Andre over the course of the 230 pages that make up the book is very well composed. It's an engaging and well-balanced story that I was able to ingest in one sitting. Despite his giant frame, Brown never forgets the strained beating heart at the center of the tale, and the art quality provided to tell the tale is worthy of recognition, rendering the life of this massive man with creative precision.

Rating: B+

Andre the Giant, Life and Legend is available from First Second Books and will be released on May 6th, purchasable from Amazon.
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