Every single professional wrestling enthusiast has heard the question, ”Isn’t it fake?” Or, if they’re being a dick, “You know it’s fake, right?” Sometimes, if you ask, you might just get slapped across the face. If you’re talking to me, you’ll get a complex response*. Yes, the outcomes are predetermined. And yes, they’re not really punching one another. But, no, you can’t fake the amazing dives or the nasty chair shots, and fans generally treat it as a very specific form of storytelling. It’s a lot like if The Avengers were a sports movie. You know it’s not real, but you get into the story just like how you would Rocky.
There’s a certain need for wrestling fans to justify their low-art obsession — older comic book readers should know that feel* — but there’s a fine line between justifying in the face of cultural stigma and simply explaining the significance for the sake of context. Box Brown opens his biographic novel Andre Giant: Life & Legend with a foreword (not unlike the first paragraph above) that articulates the appeal of wrestling — presumably for the librarians and parents to whom publisher First Second Books typically caters — but it’s also a way for him to set up his approach to his subject and better explain one of the more intriguing elements of professional wrestling: the idea of “reality.”
Life & Legend is not a cheap-and-tidy “biopic” style account of the rise and fall of the man born Andre Roussimoff. Rather, Andre Giant’s life is conveyed through a series of vignettes, presumably due to the project’s origins as a series of minicomics, but surely another factor was the limitations of writing about wrestlers of the pre-Internet era — even crossover megastars like Andre Giant. As of May 2014 you can still read CM Punk’s Livejournal posts from 2005, but in the old days — Andre’s days — very little was written down and documented, and the need to preserve the Fourth Wall in wrestling known as “kayfabe” was so strong that wrestlers back then had to live their characters and make sure they were never seen with their in-ring rivals in public**.
To tell Andre Giant’s story, Brown had to resort to what he could find — conversations with anyone still alive and willing to talk to him, recorded matches, vintage VHS tapes, the handful of articles written about the man, other wrestler’s memoirs, Princess Bride DVD extras, and “shoot interviews,” in which wrestlers would talk frankly about their careers and share juicy stories about backstage drama, and even those aren’t completely truthful. And, for being one of the most iconic and beloved wrestlers of all time, Andre Giant’s Wikipedia page is short on details when every other wrestler’s wiki page depicts every single feud they’ve ever had. Oral tradition is the name of the game with the older wrestlers, so many tales have died with the storytellers, as Brown found out, and the ones that survive get exaggerated and mythologized, turning wrestlers into these traveling folk heroes (or villains as the case may be), Hercules types who performed great feats of strength but also did all sorts of crazy shit because they were musclemen with probable repeated head injuries.
Andre Giant’s life, above most wrestlers, lends itself to such mythologization. He was a large child who bus drivers refused to service, so he ended up riding to school in the back of (THE) Samuel Beckett’s truck. As a performer, billed at 7’4” and 520 pounds, Andre was so gigantic and powerful that Vince McMahon Sr. had to loan him out to various territories and promotions because the World Wide Wrestling Federation had run out of credible threats. Andre even apparently ran up a $40,000 bar tab while shooting The Princess Bride. He’s a dude whose win-loss record the WWF actively ignored to say he was undefeated circa Wrestlemania III, and I think we’re all pretty much okay with that, right?
Life & Legend is full of stories like this, but Brown stays true to the title by balancing out the damn-near-unbelievable stuff with more grounded anecdotes***: the harassment by fans, the mother of his child not wanting to live with his constant traveling, the ugly racist joke that drove a wedge between him and Bad News Brown and the later rapprochement, the time he poured beer in the mouth of an abstinent One Man Gang, and the way his size hindered his ability to do routine physical activities we take for granted. Andre Giant was an undefeated goliath, but Andre Roussimoff was a man whose acromegaly made him one of the largest and most iconic athletic performers of all time while simultaneously causing his demise.
Wrestling loves to blur reality and fiction. These days, the past several years of WWE programming has been referred to as “the Reality Era,” where everything is fair game. Paul Bearer’s death was (controversially) incorporated into the CM Punk****/Undertaker Wrestlemania XXIX feud. Daniel Bryan and Brie Bella are now married in real life and on television. Actual parents of wrestlers are attacked to make the feuds more personal. WWE even has a reality show — the fakest kind of TV show you can have — that fuels some of the plots in their women’s division. One of the most invigorating moments in recent televised professional wrestling is a speech that broke kayfabe so defiantly that it had fans and regular people alike wondering, is this real?
Reality is a misnomer, in wrestling as in everyday life. Punk’s promo***** was real in that he said what was actually on his mind, but it was staged in that WWE management gave him permission to do it and the production crew knew not to cut off the guy’s microphone the moment he “broke script.” We sit down to watch a movie — using our free will to knowingly experience a work of fiction — but we still become movie babies when the fake story isn’t real enough.
The reality/fiction divide extends to the very making of Life & Legend. In his foreword, Box Brown is upfront about the dubious nature of making a nonfiction comic book, pointing out that he has no idea what the tour bus he rode in looked like or where Andre Giant was standing (or if he even was standing) in a room, so he fudges it and draws whatever works for the scene. It’s a surprising bit of honesty — especially considering this is before you even start reading what would generally be termed a “biography” — but it’s necessary to put a reader in the right mind for a book that depicts Charles Schultzian kids gathering in a playground to share rumors about Andre Giant (“I heard he ate a guy once!”)
Even Brown’s illustration embraces this approach. His characters resemble their real-life counterparts as much as his style — a little James Kolchaka, a little Paul Grist, and the confidence of Charles Burns’ solid black inks — should care to allow. If there were no words you could assume that the big guy with the horseshoe mustache is Hulk Hogan. Andre Giant himself fluctuates in size from panel to panel as Brown requires, appropriate for a figure who’s depicted in the comic as being perceived differently depending on beholder and context, and as a person whose body grew uncontrollably for his entire life. It’s technically a black and white book, but Brown appropriately lays down gray tones that create a sense of lighting but also highlight the way he attempts to reconcile “truth” and “myth.”
Reconcile is a shitty word for that, as if the two are necessarily at odds. Let’s go with something more wrestlingy. Let’s say “unify.” There’s no need for binaries — Andre Giant is both legend and reality, and wrestling both real and fake, and it’s impossible to extricate one from the other, as leaning too hard on one does the whole a disservice.
*But will probably be unfamiliar with the term “that feel.”
**WWE wrestlers are still required to do this. Earlier this year my friend was working out at Gold’s Gym the day WWE came to town and the whole place was SWARMED by bad guy wrestlers.
***It’s just occurred to me that you could also apply the structure of Life & Legend to a comic book biography of Bill Murray.
****Punk is also responsible for the best bad guy moment of all time in another moment that involved real-life people.
*****I know I’ve been harping on his Punk guy — sorry, he’s the dude who got me back into wrestling after a decade away — but one last thing: when he abruptly quit the WWE in January 2014 nobody was really sure if it was a plot thing or not.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic creator living in San Diego, CA, responsible for the webcomic The Ghost Engine (with Eric Zawadzki). He puts out comics through Loser City and frequently wears hot-pink Converse sneakers. He’s got a bunch of shit in the works.