Philadelphia Cartoonist Box Brown Explores the Man Who Lived the Myth of Andre the Giant

In telling his story in such an accessible and sympathetic way, Box Brown helps even non-wrestling fans understand what made Andre "the Giant" Roussimoff so unforgettable.

A lot of people were like, ‘Well, what does it have to do with Andre the Giant?’ …Not much. He’s memorable. For some people he’s scary and intimidating and for other people he’s goofy, and feeble, and sad, and that’s cool that he has that range of interpretation but beyond that, nothing. — Shepard Fairey to Marc Maron on the WTF Podcast, discussing the reaction of some people to his ‘Andre the Giant Has a Posse’ street art, 25 May 2014

Andre the Giant was one of pro wrestling’s first international superstars and remains one of the most recognizable athletes of all time. Outside of wrestling, he achieved a crossover success in films and on television shows that felt unforced in a way that no other wrestler has managed. Cartoonist Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend finds just the right tone to talk about Andre’s over-sized life. It doesn’t set out to tell Andre’s complete life story in detail and anyone going to it for that reason will be let down.

Instead, it pulls together stories and moments from Andre’s life and drops us into the middle of them; Andre’s match against boxer Chuck Wepner, a much-rumored hotel room brawl with wrestler Blackjack Mulligan that has many different versions, and his time on the set of The Princess Bride, among others. It drops us into the middle of his overall discomfort in the world, too, and explores how he coped with both frequent physical pain and a physical appearance that would ensure he could never go out in public unnoticed.

“There was just something about the Andre character,” says Brown. “I was drawn to how he was an outsider, somebody who had trouble fitting in with the rest of society in a way even more than a pro wrestler of the ’80’s would. And Andre has this general overall likeability that a lot of other wrestlers of his era don’t have. People just want to like him and want to think of him as this character, as this gentle giant, just like the guy from Princess Bride and the guy on TV. “

Brown is unembarrassed about his love for pro wrestling and his sympathy for both the character of Andre the Giant and the man behind the persona, Andre Roussimoff. (The wrestling matches that are depicted in the book, as well as Andre’s appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, are set-off by black page borders as if they’re taking place in a different reality, and it’s a highly effective device.)

“When I was writing it, I was very much thinking about people that weren’t wrestling fans and that this might be their only look at what pro wrestling is. I met a woman at my Baltimore signing who told me she had never read a comic book before and she had never seen a wrestling match before, but she was interested in the book as a biography, and she said she really liked it. So if I was able to get her to read it, I felt like I accomplished something there.”

The best wresting combines the showmanship and pacing of a carnival act (older wrestlers often refer to fans as ‘marks’), with the athleticism of any sport you want to name, pure bloodlust, improvisation, and the broad, serialized drama of a soap opera. Serious writing about wrestling that displays any kind of pleasure or enjoyment drawn from the sport is prone to draw what in wrestling would be called “heat” from would-be high-minded readers. When intelligent people write about wrestling, they either lend it too much credibility (in order to justify why they’re spending their time writing about it) or they feel the need to apologize for being enthralled.

“I think that all wrestling fans are, in a way, constantly apologizing for being wrestling fans,” says Brown. “I think it’s kind of a rare thing for someone to be an out of the closet wrestling fan and even as a fan now there are certain times where I’m watching something and I’m like, ‘I hope my wife doesn’t walk in right now,’ because it can be kind of silly and stupid. As a fan, you appreciate that it’s just part of the whole thing. So, you kind of have to win people over in some way when you tell them you’re a wrestling fan.” Speaking in the BBC Documentary, When Wrestling Was Golden, British wrestling promoter Max Crabtree sums up a love for wrestling by saying, “Those people who like professional wrestling; no explanation is needed. For those who don’t like it, any explanation would not be acceptable.”

Working in black and white, Brown follows Andre from his boyhood in Grenoble, France, where he quickly grew too large to ride on the local school bus (legend has it that Samuel Beckett, a relation of Andre’s father, allegedly drove him to school in the back of his pick-up truck), to his early wrestling career in Canada and on to America and Japan, where he became a superstar. Along the way Andre never stops growing larger, and Brown tracks the corresponding loss of mobility Andre suffered and increasing physical discomfort he had to deal with. “I think deep down, he was a lonely person who had difficulty connecting with other people,” says Brown.

Andre’s size was the result of acromegaly, a disorder caused by the body’s chronic overproduction of growth hormone, and it guaranteed he wouldn’t live to old age. (A number of professional wrestlers have had the same condition and one, Maurice Tillet, who wrestled as The French Angel in the ’40s, is rumored to have served as the model for Shrek.) Some of the book’s most striking pages are dedicated to tracking the condition’s progression in Andre’s body. “Pain is a part of daily life,” Brown writes over a drawing of Andre’s body in profile, “his heart overworking from just moving around.”

Two pages later we see Andre flat on his stomach with his back stapled together after surgery to relieve spinal pressure. He grew to weigh over 500 pounds and though he wrestled until almost the very end of his life, he had little mobility left. When Andre’s ankle breaks as he’s simply trying to get out of bed, Brown depicts the moment with a “Snap”, followed by a panel with four small stars depicting the pain and Andre uttering a simple, “Uh-oh.” It’s a beautifully understated moment.

For a man who spent his adult life traveling around the world from wrestling match to wrestling match, Andre couldn’t fit in a non-first class airplane seat or even into the bathroom on a plane (he’s rumored to have taken enemas before long flights, as he confesses towards the book’s end). He couldn’t go to movies or sporting events or even go outside without being instantly recognizable.

One early scene in the book has a young Andre being goaded into a fight by two drunks in a bar in France (he settles things by flipping their car over, with them in it) and a later one has him being unable to go to out in Las Vegas without drawing stares and catcalls (“Look at this fucking guy,” says one patron). On the book’s fifth page, there’s an excellent panel of Andre on an airport moving sidewalk, towering above the other travelers and surrounded by blank word clouds. The panel’s text is a quote from fellow wrestler Hulk Hogan saying that, “I watched when he’d walk ahead of me at the airport. I heard people say horrible things and make fun of him. He lived in a cruel world.”

Throughout the book, Brown has to deal with the knotty problem of chronicling the life of someone whose entire career was dedicated to exaggeration (Andre was billed as the “8th Wonder of the World”, stepped over the top rope when entering the ring instead of between the ropes like everyone else, and even his listed height of 7’4″ was an exaggeration) and who worked in a field that mixed-up unbelievable athleticism, violence, and chicanery in the service of riling up fans and whose participants have little incentive to tell the truth. “It’s the nature of pro wrestling that this is the type of story you get,” says Brown. “That’s why it’s partially a legend. All stories are subject to your own judgment.”

Another problem with finding any kind of truth is that so many of the stories involve unbelievable amounts of drinking. There’s a well-known story of Andre drinking well over 100 beers and passing out in a hotel hallway and instead of moving him, the staff threw a piano cover over him. He’s also rumored to have drunk 14 bottles of wine before his match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III.

Over eight pages, Brown depicts Andre in a Dallas bar refusing to button-up his shirt, and having to ultimately back-down a group of police officers (“I don’t think our cuffs will fit that guy,” they ultimately decide). “I didn’t want to shy away from any of the stories that weren’t complimentary of Andre,” says Brown. Andre gets called an asshole on at least three different occasions and we learn about the child he fathered and then never saw. “He’s not without his flaws, as we all are,” says Brown. “I think when people die young (Andre died at 46 from congestive heart failure while in Paris attending his father’s funeral), or die tragically, we can easily look back and make them into something they’re not by only remembering the good things. I tried not to do that and to take Andre as a rounded individual that made mistakes and was dealing with extraordinary circumstances, himself.”

The story ends with Andre traveling back to Japan for a final series of matches, even though he can barely perform in the ring and in a way, the book serves as an epitaph to the end of an era of wrestling that died not long after Andre. Many of the other wrestlers who appear at different points; Dick Murdoch, Blackjack Mulligan, Terry Funk, One Man Gang, Harley Race, Ken Patera, and Bad News Brown, all spent time in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation but like Andre, they wrestled all over the globe and came up in the profession as part of independent promotions.

Since the early 2000’s, pro wrestling has largely been the sole province of the McMahon family as the rechristened WWE bought-up or bankrupted the competing regional territories. The success of Wrestlemania III in 1987 and Andre’s main event match with Hulk Hogan at that event helped shore up McMahon’s empire in the late 80’s. Brown, depicting Andre’s exit from that match after allowing Hogan to bodyslam and pin him in front of a massive audience at the Pontiac Silverdome, writes, “Andre immortalized Hulk Hogan and sent the wrestling business into orbit. That night, Hogan became a god and Andre made it happen.”

Though mainstream pro wrestling has been effectively monopolized, there’s still activity at the local level as small promotions crop up in specific cities and areas. “I think in the wake of WWE taking such a huge market share,” says Brown, “it’s allowed for this kind of DIY-level independent scene that is redefining what pro wrestling is in it’s own way and what pro wrestling can be and it doesn’t have to always be something that’s littered with stereotypes and silly things. Or, whatever WWE is; it doesn’t have to be that. It can be anything. I think, in that way, wrestling is in a good place.”

Since Andre’s death in 1993, professional wrestling has already promoted a number of big men, but there’s really ever only going to be one Giant. In telling his story in such an accessible and sympathetic way, Brown helps people outside of the wrestling world understand what made Andre “the Giant” Roussimoff so unforgettable.