Box Brown explores the life of Andre the Giant in graphic detail

A trading card of Andre from Brown's memorabilia.
A trading card of Andre from Brown's memorabilia.
Posted: May 22, 2014

THIS WORLD was too small for Andre the Giant. It seems our perception of the legendary wrestler was, too. With his latest project, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Philadelphia-based cartoonist Box Brown sets out to humanize the man who once tossed the real-life Rocky from the ring with ease.

A graphic novel may not seem like the best medium for presenting what many considered a "mythical creature" as a man who could experience love, desire and regret. But Brown said he told Andre's story the only way he knew how.

The project was inspired by many Andre the Giant tales Brown gleaned from interviews with retired wrestlers - some self-conducted, others from television shows and documentaries.

In the process of turning these tales into lively comics, Brown took some creative, often humorous, liberties.

"There are only so many details you have," he said. "So to depict [a scene] in comic form, you kind of have to improvise a little bit."

Still, Brown made sure to avoid illustrating only stories that glamorized Andre.

Early pages draw an innocent caricature of Andre - born Andre Rene Roussimoff in 1946 - as he began his wrestling career in his native France in 1969. But the reader is soon acquainted with the not-so-glamorous side effects of being the world's most recognizable wrestler.

The book depicts the daughter that Andre rarely saw and his nasty, alcohol-fueled tirades against fellow wrestlers.

Brown devotes as much space to these aspects of Andre's life as he does to Fezzik, Andre's beloved character from the film, "The Princess Bride."

"We're all imperfect," Brown said, "but we all can be respected and loved as well."

As a whole, the book serves as an affirmation of Brown's love affair with professional wrestling - one that was born in New Jersey in 1990 as he watched the World Wrestling Federation on television with his grandparents.

Through the dawn of the new millennium, Brown was an avid pro-wrestling fan. But by the time he graduated from the University of Scranton in 2002, his interest had waned.

Brown spent much of the next decade establishing himself as a cartoonist with nonwrestling projects such as his Web comic, Bellen!, which ran from 2006-10, and Everything Dies, a satirical effort that followed.

In 2011, Brown started Andre, watching "shoot interviews," in which retired wrestlers spoke out of their ringside personas. Many had colorful tales about Andre.

Soon after, he decided to combine his skills as a cartoonist with his resurging curiosity about arguably the most iconic wrestler of all time.

"Since I met him, he's always been talking about Andre . . . and this kind of being like a dream project for him," said Rob LeFevre, manager at Brave New Worlds, an Old City comic-book store.

LeFevre and Brown met about six years ago when Brown came to a Brave New Worlds open art exhibit as part of local cartoonist ensemble Philly Comix Jam.

Today, Brave New Worlds prominently displays Andre the Giant: Life and Legend on its website.

LeFevre said Philly's comic-book scene thrives underground, and Brave New Worlds stocks many local, independently made comics. But the chance to celebrate a local project that has gotten as much national traction as Brown's is "pretty rare," LeFevre said.

On May 10, the New York Times featured Brown's book and on Saturday he tweeted: "Reeling from the response to Andre. Feeling the <3."

 The book's publication is well-timed, LeFevre added, since it's "become a hipster cool thing to be into wrestling these days."

There's a naivete that often accompanies public opinion about pro wrestling, Brown said. His book battles those misconceptions as much as it aims to tell a to-scale tale of the Giant's life.

Several scenes break away from the dialogue-driven storytelling of a typical comic strip to offer blow-by-blow insight into some of Andre's biggest bouts. Most notable are the beatdown of Chuck Wepner (re-enacted in "Rocky III" with Hulk Hogan) and his fabled showdown with Hogan at WrestleMania III in 1987.

Allowing Hogan to win was just one act in a career full of performances that former Daily News wrestling columnist Michael Tearson likened to dancing.

"Two or more people doing some moves that they work with each other on to tell a story. That's pretty much how you describe ballet, isn't it?" Tearson said.

When Hogan body-slammed Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III in what many have called the apex of '80s wrestling, everyone in the stadium - about 93,000 fans - booed and taunted the 7-foot-5 man whose reign as heavyweight champion had just come to a crashing end.

It has been 27 years since that iconic fight, but the organization now known as World Wrestling Entertainment tends to dwell on it endlessly, overshadowing all that Andre did for the sport in the decade prior, Brown said.

But at April's WrestleMania XXX, the victor of a 30-man battle royal received the Andre the Giant Memorial Trophy, a behemoth prize that's nearly twice the size of the Stanley Cup.

Brown said he hopes this is the start of a rich WWE tradition, but there's still work to be done in honoring Andre Roussimoff.

"Part of me thinks there could be so much more done with him," Brown said. "I think it's due."

There's a 230-page Andre the Giant graphic biography that was published in early May by a cartoonist from Philadelphia. That's a pretty good start.

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