By Sam Newhouse
While cartoonist Box Brown travels the country promoting his best-selling comic biography, André the Giant: Life and Legend (First Second Books), the original pages sit in a large plastic storage bin on the floor of Brown’s studio in his West Philadelphia home. In between book signings and freelance jobs ranging from Adult Swim posters to album covers, Brown spoke with me in his studio. He was drawing what he said were his first new pages of comics in several weeks – panels of a man having a panic attack.
Whether you care about wrestling or not, André is an absorbing flight through its subject’s fascinating, abbreviated existence as the most popular wrestler of his day. Brown’s drawings move fluently from a cast of several professional wrestlers and their dramatic on-stage battles to gracefully simple cityscapes similar to the drawings of Osamu Tezuka. From André’s birthplace in the hills of southern France to a life spent ping-ponging between the wrestling arenas of the U.S. and Japan, Brown’s biography shows the famed wrestler and occasional actor find success in the world of wrestling, but little lasting happiness. The seven-and-a-half-foot tall, 500-pound giant is depicted as a lovable man who could at times be cruelly indifferent, and as someone whose famed size and strength led to his death from heart failure at 46.
Box Brown spoke about André, the design behind the book’s narrative, and the state of comics today.
Sam Newhouse: Do you identify with André the Giant?
Box Brown: I do. He was an outsider. I think he felt many times that he didn’t fit in, the same way that somebody might feel like they don’t fit in in high school, but he was forced to feel that way his whole life. At times, I’ve felt like I didn’t fit in with the people around me, and there’s aloneness that comes with that.
The thing I admire about André is that he never quit. Even to the detriment of himself, he just kept going forever, even to the point where he always had to have a hand on the ropes, just so he could stand up. I kind of see myself like that, if I’m 90 years old or whatever, I still am going have to be able to drag the pen with my hand. [mock-weakly drags pen across paper]
SN: In a previous interview you said you were fascinated by the similarities between comics and wrestling. How do you see these two things overlapping?
BB: Professional wrestling is an art form. At its heart it’s a form of performance art. It gets absolutely no respect. You could walk into the most lowbrow sports bar in the world and probably half the people in there will think wrestling’s even more lowbrow. To call it an art would seem preposterous, but it is – the artists are so unique, and their bodies are their canvases. It requires such a dedication to your art form.
I think of comics as very similar – people see comics as this lowbrow art form, where it’s just for kids or it’s just for the lower Cro-Magnon part of society or something, but I think it can be transcendent and I think wrestling can be transcendent as well.
SN: Wrestlers (and wrestling) in reality already look really cartoonish. Is the way you drew André just your style or did you adapt it to do wrestlers?
BB: My style is me trying to draw as realistically as I possibly can. That’s just how I draw, that’s the only way I could have ever told the story. I never went to art school so I have a lot of gaps in my artistic training. I adapted André’s story the only way I knew how to do it.
SN: Why does the story never go inside André’s mind? You just show things happening to him.
BB: A lot of the book was influenced by documentary film, and I think the best documentary film allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about what they’re seeing, making it a really even-handed case for whatever it is they’re doing without showing any kind of bias.
I could never go inside André’s head. I could only, using tone, pacing, and facial expressions, imply what I thought he was feeling and let the reader pick up on that emotion.
SN: There is one scene in Portland that comes close to exposing André’s psychology, indirectly illustrating his issues with women – specifically his total estrangement from his daughter and lack of financial support for her.
BB: I didn’t want to shy away from that because I knew that it existed. It was something that happened and I didn’t want to whitewash anything. I didn’t want to place judgment on it either. I support the idea that a man should pay for a child – he should have taken an active role in her life. But what happened is what happened and you don’t always do everything right.
SN: You include parts where he says he can’t be any kind of father to the girl, and tells friends that he can’t deal with his child’s mother…
BB: Who knows how close the friends he had really were. Surely anybody that was working with him had a motivation for him to stay in wrestling because any time he was on the card they would sell out the building. I’m sure there were a lot of people telling him, ‘Whatever, she’s just looking for money, who knows that it’s your kid?’ That’s not making excuses for what he did. That just is what happened.
I think that in a way André knew that it was a massive flaw. He was the one who missed out, and I think he knew that. You know, he actually references his own child in a Sports Illustrated interview right after she was born. He talks about maybe having a giant grandson one day. I think he was thinking about her and possibly feeling like he really wasn’t capable of being a father because of his condition. He may not even have felt like a fully developed person in his own right that could have ever been a father.
SN: André seems like a person who was compelled to be on tour wrestling all the time, even though it prevented him from maintaining a normal life.
BB: He did it to himself. I feel like he could have retired many times. He had plenty of money, he could have retired and done whatever, but he started doing this when he was 18. What do you do? It’s tough for athletes now, any athlete. You’re a pro athlete for like 5 years, 10 years. The best guys can be in there for a while, but it’s still not a 30-year career.
It’s like if I aged out of making comics at some point. It’s right there and you feel like you can do it, but nope, you’re out man, sorry. You still feel like you’re the master of the craft, you spent all this time getting better at it, and working your ass off at it, and then one day you have to find a new purpose and focus.
SN: It’s almost like he wouldn’t retire because he would have been lonely and wouldn’t have had anything to do except wait to die.
BB: I mean what do you do? He could have retired and had a life with his daughter. But maybe he didn’t think that was possible, I don’t know if that was the case. Maybe he just didn’t man up. Who knows what it really was.
I think if you would have asked him about his daughter and if he answered truthfully, he definitely would have regretted his choices. I like to think that, anyway.
SN: This book is also hilarious and that seems like part of his character too – the guy is telling jokes all the time.
BB: People did call him a gentle giant. He was really a very well liked person. In spite of all his faults, he still was super-charming and super-friendly and very gregarious at times, and generous. That’s what ultimately makes it a tragedy. He did such extraordinary things, but in many ways he was unable to do the things that we take for granted.
SN: Do you feel like it’s a good time to be working in comics?
BB: There are people that say it’s a terrible time to be working in comics because print is dead, and there’s only one distributor, Marvel… There’s a ton of shit that sucks, there’s tons of problems, but there’s also tons of awesome things.
A guy like me probably never would have had a career in comics. So much of what I built my career on was the internet. I never would have even gotten into the comics if I couldn’t post my strips on the internet. There was no venue like that, if you couldn’t get it in a newspaper, you couldn’t post something that you just made and potentially thousands of people or hundreds of people might see it. There are fewer gatekeepers.
I think the alternative and indie comic scene is as vibrant and robust as it’s ever been. It’s becoming more diverse and interesting, there are more approaches to the medium than there’s ever been, there’s a lot of new and interesting outlets to present your work in ways that there never were before. It seems to me that it’s as good a time as any.
People always romanticize the past. I have plenty of friends who are a little bit older than me that say things like, ‘It’s terrible now! There’s nothing! It’s impossible to make a living!’ and this and that. You gotta be able to change with the times, and its not always easy.
Sam Newhouse is a writer living in Philadelphia.