Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Feh! Let's go to the movies instead." Andre the Giant: Life and Legend review

"You're gonna be big, son. Bigger than... say, Dave. What's the name of that guy who's really big?"
"...Andre the Giant?"

- Newsradio

The nearest I ever came to being a fan of wrestling was during my childhood in the 1980s when the WWF would broadcast on Saturday afternoons. This was back in the days before 24-hour cartoon broadcasting was possible so, with the day's cartoons finished, my siblings and I occasionally kept the TV on for wrestling. There were all manner of sporting events on Saturdays, yet for some reason I found the WWF a little easier to watch. At that time, I was blind to its status as a "non-sport."

At any rate, it was there that I first saw Andre the Giant.

Although I haven't bothered to watch wrestling in the decades since, nostalgia eventually overpowers all of our memories and so, yes, I do occasionally entertain wistful memories of Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and the rest of their kind. But it wasn't mere nostalgia which compelled me to sample Box Brown's graphic novel Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (published last year by First Second). Simply flipping through the pages and seeing how he had dramatized Andre the Giant's life, I instantly wanted to read it for myself.

It doesn't tell Andre's story in a completely thorough manner, instead dramatizing events from Andre's life in mostly-sequential order, sourcing these moments from interviews and video recordings of the man himself. Consequently, when one person's anecdotes end on one page, a new anecdote begins on the next. It's the comic book equivalent of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Telling the subject's story in this fashion allows writer-artist Brown a way to distance we readers from the material, rather than filling those empty spaces with linking material. It must have been a conscious creative decision and I think it works quite well, as some anecdotes about Andre are funny, some are dramatic and in others he comes across as a rather unlikeable person. It serves to better illustrate the complexity of him as a human being, rather than reducing him to a feel-good Hollywood story.

Speaking of Hollywood, yes, the Princess Bride is covered in several pages worth of anecdotes. My favourite is Rob Reiner's reaction to the size of Andre's bar tab. As this film appearance has become what he's now best-known for - and likely will remain so for generations to come - it's nice to see a few anecdotes included, although the book itself is about 80% concerned with his career as a wrestler.

I'm not entirely certain why there seems to be such a large overlap between comic book fans and wrestling fans; I didn't realize it existed until I came online and discovered critics such as Paul O'Brien were as passionate about the wrestling hobby as they were comics. In my early days online I made many friends who would fill up chat logs with wrestling references I never understood. And yet, to my surprise, there is one story in this book which I had (partially) seen for myself - it comes near the end as Andre turned on his friend Hulk Hogan to set up a grudge match between the two. I was actually stunned to find in Brown's adaptation of Hogan wounded expression something I dimly recalled seeing on television back in the 1980s on one of those lazy Saturday afternoons.

Considering the overlap between fans interested in comics and those interested in wrestling, it shouldn't be too surprising to note any of the many attempts to adapt wrestling into comics. And yet, each time these efforts have flopped. Perhaps Box Brown has shown the way to a better union between the two sub-cultures; who knows, perhaps one day I'll snap up the comic book biography of Rowdy Roddy Piper?

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