A giant walks into a bar. Orders a big glass of booze. Across the room, two barflies size him up. “Man, he is really a freak. For real,” one guy says to the other guy. But his buddy’s seen the giant stomp around the local wrestling ring, and he’s dismissive. “If you watch closely, they never even hit each other,” the guy says. “That wrestling shit? It’s fake!!” So the bartender says, “I’d shut up if I were you,” and the guy, he says, “What’s he gonna do?? Fake fight me??” The giant stands up. The guys flee into their car. The giant flips the car onto its roof.
At least, that’s how the story goes in Box Brown’s new comics biography of André Roussimoff, the 7-foot-4, 500-pound man who performed as Géant Ferré, Giant Machine, Monster Roussimoff, and Monster Eiffel Tower before cementing his legacy as André the Giant, the “eighth wonder of the world” and perhaps the most famous professional wrestler who ever lived. André the Giant: Life and Legend attempts to tease André Roussimoff the man out from André the Giant the brand and, along the way, peel back the artifice of professional wrestling to reveal its consequences outside the ring.
Brown admits upfront that the task of capturing Roussimoff’s larger-than-life story into his puny black-and-white panels is almost inconceivable. “Yes. It’s ‘fake,’ ” Brown writes of wrestling in the book’s prologue. In an industry where the truth is “elastic” and the narrative is bent to promote the wrestler “as a product,” all wrestling backstories require a deep dive. But “stories about André the Giant can be especially hard to judge,” Brown writes. “Stories about him were unbelievable just due to the extraordinary circumstances of his life.” Everything we know about Roussimoff reads like a tall tale.
When Roussimoff became the Giant in 1973, most fans had wised up to wrestling’s tricks, but the wrestlers themselves never told. (That bar scene played out in 1960s Paris, where Roussimoff—who had previously put his body to use as a farmer, woodworker, factory worker, and furniture mover—got his break.) Roussimoff worked in the heyday of “kayfabe,” a wrestling term bummed off of an old carnival tradition to describe the performer’s commitment to suspending disbelief in front of his audience. In Roussimoff’s day, “for a wrestler to come out and admit that wrestling is not actually a real fight would be breaking the social contract,” Brown writes. Revealing the mechanics of the craft “was simply not done.”
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the curtain got tugged back an inch. When state athletic commissions attempted to impose standards on professional wrestling, the WWE’s Vince and Linda McMahon—who had consolidated regional wrestling competitions into a national scheme, and introduced them to a syndicated television audience—argued that their version of wrestling constituted entertainment, not sport. That allowed the organization to get by without conducting physical exams of wrestlers, employing ringside doctors, or submitting to state athletic board supervision—but it also cracked the fourth wall. The Internet’s rise demolished the facade. And the McMahons quickly converted the end of kayfabe into a lucrative exposure opportunity. The WWE began producing wrestler “shoot” interviews where performers spun yarns from beyond the mat, and sold its own videos and books codifying the tales. Professional wrestling matches may have been choreographed, but these behind-the-scenes tell-alls were supposedly unscripted—about as real as reality TV.
By that time, Roussimoff was already dead. His body’s growth finally outpaced the capabilities of his heart in 1993, and his legacy was forever suspended in the shape of a gimmick. In panel after panel, Brown shows Roussimoff downing giant drinks, releasing giant laughs, emitting giant farts, and talking big. In the background of this hulking image, Brown sketches in complicating details—fans heaving garbage from the stands, barflies goading him into violence, late-night talk show hosts reducing him to a sight gag, and doctors delivering increasingly alarming diagnoses.
Roussimoff was an easy target, and in Brown’s telling, that made him sympathetic to the little guy even as he was susceptible to the grotesqueness everyone seemed to expect from him. (In one tale, Roussimoff gives a homeless woman dinner money, then crudely jokes that he’d like to eat her out). “That’s the only story they tell about him: How mean he was,” Hulk Hogan said in a 2010 interview that Brown illustrates to kick off the book. “People don’t get it. … There was never a situation where he could be comfortable. He was a seven-foot-four giant. … If you really understood what he went through and what he was all about, he was a gracious person with a kind heart.”