Thursday, June 4, 2015

Humanizing A Cartoon Legend: Andre The Giant: Life And Legend

Box Brown's attempt at making sense of pro wrestler Andre the Giant's life was a noble attempt that tried a number of different techniques, but it ultimately doesn't quite cohere. This is not entirely his fault, and in fact it has quite a lot to do with his attempt to make this look at Andre something more than just a recitation of tall tales. However, in doing a book on a wrestler who died in the early 90s, he started with a foundation laid over quicksand. Pro wrestling is a spectacle that's part live-action superhero comic, part improv performance and part circus. Its job is to sell a lie to a crowd that wants to believe it. Brown notes how difficult it is to do credible research, given that it's difficult to discern whether or not the sources of information are telling the truth or spinning tales.

It does help that Brown drew the book in his trademark stripped-down style that's a descendant of the Chris Ware/Ivan Brunetti aesthetic. The simplicity of the figures is given some weight by a heavy used of spotting blacks as well as a fairly thick line weight for his character designs. What he sacrifices in depicting the visceral qualities of watching wrestling (especially a live match) he gains in creating narrative clarity and continuity. There were times that I wished for multiple visual approaches in the book, much like Brown used a variety of narrative approaches.

The book is essentially less a narrative than it is a series of biographical vignettes. The amusing story of Andre being driven to school as a teenager by Samuel Beckett was simply too good not to put in the narrative, even if it only served to provide a tiny bit of detail regarding Andre's early life. It's clear that Brown was not trying to write a hagiography, because he points out a number of unsettling incidents regarding the wrestler: being an absentee father to a child born out of wedlock, making a racist comment in front of an African-American wrestler, or getting drunk and frequently surly with those around him. This is all done to paint a portrait of Andre as human, above all else, capable of ugly behavior.

At the same time, there's not doubt that Brown overall is enormously sympathetic toward Andre. All wrestlers have a larger-than-life persona to some degree, but as someone who saw Andre wrestle live a child, Andre the Giant was something else altogether. It's almost as though one couldn't quite believe their eyes when they saw him in the ring, which is why he added so many comedic gimmicks in his matches. The fact that he was constantly stared at, mocked, challenged, etc. ate at him. Brown gets at his constant, aching loneliness. The problem was that the tonal shifts in the book are so sudden and jarring, and there's so little stringing together the vignettes other than the interstitial material that Brown himself provides, that the book sometimes reads like a writer trying to do a "realistic" version of Superman who has a lot of unseemly personal flaws. Brown is the only one in the book who's not trying to spin tall tales, which makes his analysis of a typical Andre match and a late-career appearance on David Letterman so interesting. A book filled that kind of analysis would not have the same kind of appeal than the book that Brown wrote, but it might have been more cohesive and perhaps accurate. This is a book where many of its parts are fascinating, but the book isn't greater than the sum of those parts.

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