They call it “the business”. That’s the first thing I learned in the wonderful new comic about the life of one of the 20th century’s famous wrestlers. It’s not “the sport”, because that would open up the old “is it real or not?” question, constantly levelled at professional wrestling. It’s undeniably a business, as are all professional sports. And it’s carefully stage-managed to prevent unexpected outcomes, like many professional sports. But it’s also an act: a physically demanding and often artistic and balletic act, but a scripted act, put on for the audience by guys wearing costumes and makeup. So, they call it “the business” and that settles the nomenclature issue.
“[Andre] loved this business and he protected it,” Hulk Hogan is quoted as saying in the first pages of this book. And you do learn a great deal about how the business works, both in the mechanics in the ring and the often dangerous and disturbed characters out of it. The “Andre” in question, by the way, was Andre Roussimoff, a French wrestler with a dangerous hormonal disorder that shortened his life.
You know him as Andre the Giant.
At over seven feet tall and weighing in often over 500 pounds, Andre was hard to miss in the ring. As a child his size was useful when playing soccer, where he could be a formidable goalkeeper just by standing in front of the net. But it was all because of a rare genetic defect called acromegaly, which causes an overactive pituitary gland. In simple terms, Andre never stopped growing, and would never stop, until his inevitable early death from an overtaxed heart. Like the many other challenges he faced in life, Andre faced this one by shrugging it off and getting on with the business.
This new graphic novel Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown tells the complete story of the Giant, from his beginnings to his end, with many less-than-flattering tales and just as many warm memories and exciting wrestling matches recounted blow-by-blow. Box’s simple lines and cartoonish comic style somehow suits the material perfectly, bringing surprising humanity and emotion to these larger-than-life characters. The world of professional wrestling is shown from an insider’s perspective, someone who truly understands the business both in the ring and out of it. We are given useful terminology (such as how “good guy” wrestlers are called “the face” and “bad guy” wrestlers are called “the heel”) and gently shown the mechanics of the ring action with the acuity of a truly expert fan.
Brown, in fact, takes us through much the same journey Andre undertook, when he left his family farm in France (yes, the famous story of Samuel Beckett driving him to school is recounted) and used his size to work in Paris, mostly moving furniture. There will always be that sort of job for a very big, very strong man. He was also well known in those days for picking up and moving cars, sometimes with people in them. In a later famous incident, he actually threw a car with four men in it, wrecking it one boozy night. But Brown allows us to see the difference between just being a “big guy” and being a wrestler, about how the carefully choreographed act has ebb and flow, and stock moves often used very strategically. For example, Vince MacMahon, Jr (famous as the President of the “WWF”) advised him to just stand still in the ring, projecting strength, rather than run around after his opponent. His character, as they conceived it, was an unmovable object, even though early in his career, Andre showed that he could run and bounce and do all the flips in the wrestling repertoire if necessary.
Andre’s first big wrestling breaks came in Japan in the early 70s, and in Europe, where an expatriate Canadian trained him for the North American audience. Andre wrestled in Quebec before the rest of North America, which was sort of rare at the time. His French wrestling name, “Le Geant Ferre” (The “French Lumberjack”) must have helped his popularity in that province. In fact, Andre loved Quebec, where he could drink good wine, eat French food (he owned a restaurant in Montreal), openly speak French and all the while still live in North America, close to the business centres of New York and Chicago.
Whether it was in Japan or North America or Europe, Brown is careful to show how challenging ordinary life was for Andre, even before his size became truly Giant. Just finding a bed that fits and going to the bathroom, particularly in smaller Japanese toilets, was a big issue for him. Having had to cope with that sort of thing every day, for his entire adult life, Andre had quietly come to peace with it, never really openly complaining although sometimes cracking jokes. The jokes are right there in the book, with great full splash pages showing a plane traveling from France to Japan with the single quote, “I don’t think I can fit in the bathroom, boss.” (Andre called everyone “boss”, and after a while, everyone called him the same name. Whole conversations could go on with him using that single noun.)
Out of the ring, the life of a wrestler in those days was long days and nights spent on busses, or in hotels, usually at the bar. Andre’s capacity for alcohol was legendary: he would routinely put away two or three bottles of liquor. Beer had to be served by the case. A truly drunken Andre was a rare sight, but he managed to get into trouble every now and then with his fellow wrestlers, like when he blurted out a racist comment and one of his colleagues challenged him to a fight over it: not in the ring, but a real fight. Knowing how dangerous this could be for both of them, Andre apologized and tried to smooth things over. He always seemed to rather do that: he wasn’t a very physically demonstrative man. He liked to drink, liked to play cards, especially cribbage, and he liked women, fathering at least one child in his various escapades. If there happened to be a French-speaking woman at the wrestlers’ hotel, Andre was as likely as not to follow her back to her room.
One of his most famous appearances, in the 1986 film The Princess Bride, actually caught him on the downswing of his wrestling career, in severe pain due to back problems associated with his disease. But, in keeping with his character, he didn’t complain or grouse on-set. In fact, other than running up a bar tab for $40 000 (much to the ire of Director Rob Reiner), memories of him remain warm in this period, such as his habit of using his hand as a toque for Robin Wright on cold mornings. His famous match the next year, 1987, with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III, was another highlight. Hogan actually lifted and body-slammed the giant, but as he remembers it, Andre had to help him out, getting his body moving in the right way and creating enough momentum to make the move possible. Even Hogan couldn’t actually lift and throw something of Andre’s mass without help.
Brown captures Andre as a generally quiet, very uncomplaining person who bore the many challenges life threw at him with grace. His genial appearances on late night TV made him a celebrity far and above the usual wrestling notoriety, but what he loved most of all were good times, good drinks and his treasured farm in North Carolina, where his ashes are buried today. The book is exciting and funny and moving and ultimately a touching look at a man who played the hand he was dealt for all it was worth.