Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #160: Andre the Giant by Box Brown

With wrestling, you need to establish your bona fides up front, so I'll lead with this: I saw Andre the Giant lose to Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III. Not live; my bunch of college friends saw it at the mighty Mid-Hudson Civic Center, back when "pay-per-view" meant "go to a local arena and look at a big screen". We were rooting for Andre, even though he was the heel, even though we knew he would lose -- we were heel fans, most excited about Ric Flair or the Road Warriors but happy to see Andre come over to the dark side. We even left the hall like wrestlers ourselves, loudly proclaiming Andre was robbed, the ref was blind, and that he'd be back to take the belt from that pretty boy Hogan. Even in those days before "kayfabe" became an open secret, there were pockets of guys like us: we liked the bad guys because they were allowed to be looser, funnier, meaner, and more outrageous. And we loved that, even as Vince McMahon relentlessly expanded his empire, dumbing down wrestling to sell more plastic junk to five-year-olds.

I also reviewed Box Brown's Xeric-winning debut comic, Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing, for ComicMix when it was published back in 2009. So I might not quite be the platonic best reviewer for Brown's new comics-format biography of Andre, but I'm pretty damn close.

Andre the Giant is a full-scale biography of the man born Andre Roussimoff, told in comics, from his youth in rural France to his early death in 1993 at only forty-six. And Box Brown is the one to tell that story: he's been a huge wrestling fan since youth -- though he's a bit younger than I am, so he might have been one of those five-year-olds I disdained above -- and his strong, clean lines serve equally well for anatomizing some of Andre's most famous matches and for showing the talking heads of a life on the road: waiting, driving, eating, drinking, flying, drinking, drinking, chasing women, and, of course, drinking. Andre was a world-class drinker: he was gigantic to begin with, of course, had experience from very young, and spent most of his life with horrible chronic pain that the alcohol could only dull. But then Andre was world-class at everything he did seriously: wrestling, joking, women, booze. When you're seven-foot-four, you're going to stand out no matter what, but Andre stood out

The only possible major criticism of Andre the Giant is that Box Brown doesn't seem to have done any original research: he has an extensive list of sources, and he's clearly spent a lot of time combing through interviews with wrestlers and judging truth from kayfabe from self-aggrandizing stories. But there's no sign that he interviewed wrestlers, or actors, or anyone else who knew Andre in life. Many or most of the people Andre worked with are still alive, so interviewing them is possible -- for a writer with the time and budget and interviewing skills to get to them all and coax them to tell their stories. It still could happen: maybe Brown's excellent book will inspire some more traditional biographer to do that tough door-to-door work while the old crew is still around.

Reviews of biographies usually either devolve into a potted mini-bio of the book's subject or an extended essay on the better way the reviewer would have written the book: I don't want to do either of those. Andre was a big man with a big life, and Andre the Giant is filled with big stories about him: read it to learn them. He was so much more than a wrestler, or an athlete, or a performer: he was a legend, and a star, and an inherently tragic figure. Get this book to learn more.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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