Wednesday, July 30, 2014

WGTB Reviews: Andre The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

As a boy who grew up in the 1980s it was impossible to ignore the World Wrestling Federation. Hulk Hogan, Rowdy "Roddy" Piper, Junk Yard Dog, Jimmy "Superfly" Sunka; these names were ubiquitous in the schoolyard and you needed to understand the basics to take part in almost any conversation. For me, while I was never allowed to stay up and watch the WWF Saturday Night Main Event, I never-the-less gleaned as much information as I could about the goings-on of Hulk and crew on the after school and weekend shows that were scattered across television. André the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown tells the story of one of the most memorable characters of the '80s wrestling boom, a remarkably large man named André René Roussimoff also known as André the Giant.      

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Box Brown, First Second, 2014, pp. 240, C$19.99 or US$17.99
Born in Grenoble, France to Boris and Mariann Roussimoff, themselves of Polish and Bulgarian ancestry, André had the rare condition of "giantisim", itself caused by the body's over-production of growth hormone or, to use the medical term, Acromegaly. André's condidition was both a gift and curse and he was 240 pounds (109 kg) by the time he turned 12. At about that same time, he dropped out of school to work on a farm. Eventually, he would apprentice for a trade and find work in a factory before moving to Paris where he briefly worked as a mover. But it was in the French capital that he would be scouted by a local promoter and find the job that would make him a household name: professional wrestler.

André was big as a child but originally only ever envisioned life on the farm. All subsequent art from Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend.
Six months later and wrestling under the name "Geant Frerre", André took the wrestling world by storm and soon was off to Japan. After time in Asia, he made his way to Montreal in 1972. While in Canada, André became a smash hit and soon sold-out the venerable Montreal Forum on a regular basis. But this success was short lived: it became obvious to all that his size meant few could beat him in the ring. This forced André to meet with American promoters Verne Gagne and Vince McMahon Sr. who soon brought the Frenchman to the United States and set up a schedule where he wouldn't wear thin on American audiences. Eventually, André became a sensation in America and as the World Wide Wrestling Federation became the WWF and the 1980s wrestling boom took hold, André the Giant became a key part of that increasingly television-based spectacle. He remained a WWF stalwart until his final on-air performance in 1991 and would pass away only months after that.       

André always towered over his competitors as well as his fans.
Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend walks its reader through the amazing story recounted above. Full of tidbits and antidotes about André's life, as well as insights into the wrestling business and first-hand accounts of the Giant's exploits, this is another example of why comic biographies can be so enjoyably informative. Simply put, I would never read a 240 page book about André the Giant. Sure, he's an interesting person, but limited time means limited books. But Life and Legend took me a fraction of time that a prose tome would, yet in that time I managed to gather a great deal of information, insight and amusement.  
André size often meant that people wanted to take a crack at him and he was bullied quite often. However he sometimes made things difficult for himself too. 
Box's storytelling is fair to all parties involved and while much of the information is taken from secondary sources (which are listed in the Source Notes at the back), the book is well documented and has a good mix of unknown stories and welcome analysis. Indeed, while the book is clearly an informed labour of love of both André and wrestling by Brown, it's not gushing or bogged down by jargon and is therefore accessible to someone who isn't overly familiar with this performance sport. Brown takes pains to document certain key events in both the history of the WWF and André's life, with the match between Hogan and André at Wrestlemania III given special prominence. It's here that the reader comes face-to-face with André's devotion to his business and fans and it's impossible not to appreciate him after reading this.  

Hulk Hogan body-slams André the Giant at Wrestlemainia III. Brown explains what made this event important to wrestling and how hurt André actually was when he performed in this match   
Brown's art is very good and reflects the story of André with compassion, care and sincere interest. As you can see from the posted images, the artwork isn't detailed or photo-realistic, but never-the-less has a dignity, respect and gravitas that is needed to tell the tale of André's life. Things weren't easy for this man. Yes, there were advantages to being big, it was also a considerable burden. Box Brown's work is a worthy telling of this story and a credit to the comic storytelling medium. 4/5 STARS

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