A graphic novel grapples with Andre the Giant | Book Review | Chicago Reader

A graphic novel grapples with Andre the Giant 

Like pro wrestling itself, Box Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is a mix of both truth and histrionics.

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You can hardly blame Philadelphia comics creator Brian "Box" Brown for his infatuation with professional wrestling. By the time he was a toddler, Junkyard Dog, Ricky Steamboat, and Hulk Hogan were household names. They pummeled one another in nationally broadcast matches powered by a promotion machine that, according to Sports Illustrated, produced "a showbiz package so flamboyant that it makes the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade look like a Russian funeral procession." Everyone watched wrestling back in the 1980s.

Following up his wrestling-centric comic Number 1, published early this year, Brown's Andre the Giant: Life and Legend tells the story of the pro wrestling icon and actor Andre Roussimoff, who was born with acromegaly, a condition that produces an excess of human growth hormone, causing protruding features, above-average height, and swelling of the internal organs. Roussimoff was brought up in rural France, where doctor visits were uncommon, and it wasn't until he was in his 20s that a physician in Japan diagnosed him. Cardiac complications stemming from the disease led to the seven-foot-four-inch, 520-pound wrestler's death at age 46 in 1993.

Brown's enlightening black-and-white portrait—which, like pro wrestling itself, is a mix of both truth and histrionics—is of a mostly affable Roussimoff, with the artist-author illustrating spare but charismatic exchanges between the Giant and his contemporaries along his lumbering ascent from farm boy to phenom. Save for Brown's carefully transcribed wrestling sequences, exposition is minimal. Close-ups against largely featureless backdrops emphasize the clean, solid lines that define the wrestler's blocky face, positioned atop an ever-widening neck. Brown lends support to the well-known gentle-Giant characterization of the Princess Bride star, but it's tempered with an uncompromising depiction of an offscreen Roussimoff—his crude, prickly, boozy side that emerged after years of taunts and a rocket ride to fame as a sideshow attraction.

During an interview on Late Night With David Letterman, Roussimoff admitted to having polished off 117 beers in one sitting; Brown depicts bottles of beer rendered miniature in the wrestler's meaty paws. Splash pages spotlight grandiose event bills or full-body portraits of the increasingly hulking Roussimoff, with Brown's sporadic cross-hatching and grays accentuating girth in the Giant's forearms and pecs. Pages in black distinguish the breathless play-by-play of match action from scenes set outside of arenas, where all-night postevent benders turn ugly or just drunkenly peter out. In the final pages, however, an older and more benevolent Roussimoff hobbles in front of TV cameras in great pain. Capped by a half globe of puffy hair, he speaks affectionately of his North Carolina ranch, specifically of the surrounding forest, where giants are prone to wander in search of peace and quiet.

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