André The Giant: Life and Legend

André The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown.
By Box Brown

I’ve never been more than a casual viewer of pro wrestling, but even as a kid I was aware of André René Roussimoff, more famously known by his wrestling handle André the Giant. Officially billed at a height of 7 ft. 4 in. and weighing in at 520 pounds, he was the image of what a wrestler should look like - a true giant of a man. Roussimoff’s manufactured rivalry as the heel to babyface wrestler Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea would culminate in their 1987 match at Wrestlemania III. The event would bring an unprecedented level of mainstream media attention to the World Wrestling Federation (now called World Wrestling Entertainment), the last pro wrestling promotion left in the United States after having absorbed all its rivals. Roussimoff’s iconic status was further enhanced by a few memorable film and television appearances, his early death at the age of 46 due to heart failure, and a viral street art campaign created by Shepard Fairey. If there’s any professional entertainer who’s identity has been completely subsumed by his own legend, it’s André the Giant.

As Box Brown tells it in André The Giant: Life and Legend, there’s a certain inevitable quality to Roussimoff’s involvement with pro wrestling. Born and raised in southern France, Rousimoff was neither brilliant, athletic, handsome or charismatic. But he was unusually large for his age. So large that the local school bus refused to take him as a passenger. The young Rousimoff had to be driven to class by riding on the back of the truck of his neighbour, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett. After leaving school, he employed his tremendous strength while drifting between various odd jobs. So the choice to become a wrestler seems to have been arrived at by default. Where else could Rousimoff exploit his size to achieve a modicum of wealth and fame?

But once he fell into pro wrestling, Roussimoff became fully committed to its itinerant lifestyle. Much of the graphic novel portrays life outside the ring being spent hanging out at restaurants, airport and hotel lobbies, or squeezing into the cramped seats of airplanes and buses. This would be a lonely and difficult existence for anyone, let alone someone suffering from acromegaly. Brown’s art is particularly effective here because his representation of Roussimoff is both archetypical and humanizing. He’s drawn a bit larger than he was in reality, but this only heightens the character’s discomfort. He looks awkward in every panel trying to navigate a world not built to accommodate his size. His impressive bulk belying the physical fragility that would eventually contribute to his death.

André The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown.

Unsurprisingly, Rousimoff would inspire numerous anecdotes during his lifetime conveying contradictory impressions about him. Some would exaggerate his freakish power while others would portray him as a gentle spirit. Brown’s remarkable achievement is that he manages to pull together these disparate sources into a cohesive biography. Brown’s aesthetic is similar to that of Seth or James Kochalka. Minimally designed figures outlined with thick strokes and soft contours. This imbues not just Roussimoff, but all the other heavyset wrestlers with an oddly endearing appearance. I’ll assume that most of these stories are already familiar to hardcore fans, but Brown organizes them in such a way that doesn’t require much prior knowledge from the reader.

There’s indeed a great deal of fondness for the subject-matter that comes across the entire book. Brown patiently guides the uninitiated through the world of wrestling kayfabe. Roussimoof’s career spanned an era when the WWF and other promotions still insisted that its matches, and even its wrestlers' ludicrous personas were 100% genuine. Of course any savvy viewer, or anyone who’d been in a real scrap, could tell that the televised fights were staged (or a work, to use pro wrestling parlance), but the promotions had tasked their wrestlers to maintain the act whenever in public. As far as Brown can tell after examining his taped appearances, Roussimoff never broke character, even if it meant flipping someone’s car over when responding to a skeptical fan’s challenge (though Brown admits he’s unsure about the veracity of the story). As Hogan stated in an interview “He loved this business and he protected it.” Some of Brown’s best set pieces are his blow-by-blow analysis of Roussimoff’s more famous matches. They illuminate how wrestlers will sometimes put themselves into real danger in order to sustain the illusion of a true brawl.

Though Brown’s research is extensive, his book is far from the last word on André the Giant. Brown was mostly limited to examining 2nd and 3rd-hand sources, and the resulting biography’s emotional distance reflects his dependence on those sources. While Brown’s willing to streamline some events in order to smooth over conflicting testimonies and better fit the dramatic needs of the narrative, he isn’t able to penetrate far past Roussimoff’s tough exterior. Whatever private struggles he must have had with acromegaly and the rigorous demands of his profession are left off the page. And the reader is only vaguely informed about his soured domestic life. Ultimately, Bown’s André Roussimoff remains an enigmatic presence.

André The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown.

Brown adopts the same circumspect attitude towards the wrestling industry as a whole. When the WWF’s Vince McMahon admitted in 1989 that wrestling matches were artifice, he did so in order to keep state athletic commissions from imposing stricter standards (like conducting proper medical exams or hiring ringside doctors) or from more properly supervising the promotion’s events. The tactic worked to some degree. While some in the wrestling community bemoaned the death of kayfabe, the uncovering of one form of artifice simply allowed the promotion to continue kayfabe on a more subtle plane. What remains largely hidden from the public are the exploitive practices that take a huge toll on the wrestlers they market. Roussimoff cycles from the squared circle to heavy drinking sessions at hotel bars to the surgery table. But Brown's unvarnished account never calls into question the promotion’s ethical responsibility towards its employees. While he mentions that Roussimoff was the highest paid wrestler of the era, he leaves out how the WWF would build a massive "sports entertainment" empire based on his infamous reputation, even long after his death.

Brown does include one scene were a younger Roussimoff meets with Vince McMahon Sr. in New York, who outlines how he’ll turn the burgeoning talent into a legend. “You’re an unstoppable force!! No running dropkicks or leg scissors. You don’t move for nobody.” he commands. McMahon then decides to take Roussimoff on the road. “We keep moving him from town to town so he never gets overexposed… And we let the legend grow. By the time you get back to town you’re ten feet tall!!” However this might have impacted Roussimoff personally whether for better or worse, it certainly proved to be a most profitable strategy for the company.

André The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown.