By Jared Cornelius
It's not really a secret to anyone who knows me that I'm a wrestling fan. It's not a passion I wear on my sleeve, but in the 31 years I've been alive, I've been a wrestling fan more of those years than not. As a child I remember reenacting Razor Ramon and Shawn Michael's famous latter match on my bed. I remember watching WWF VHS tapes of WrestleMania and Summer Slam thinking these larger than life heroes and villains were actually real people. I remember being a Hulkamaniac, going nuts when the Hulkster hit the ring. But as a child of that age, no star was bigger in a literal sense than Andre The Giant. The massive Frenchman stood as a goliath to a full grown man, let alone an 8 year old boy. So for me, picking up a copy of Box Brown's Andre The Giant: Life and Legend was a no brainer.
Life and Legend's story takes us through the wondrous life of Andre Roussimoff, better known as professional wrestler Andre The Giant. Brown tells tales from all throughout Roussimoff's life, from his time as a humongous 12 year old boy in the French countryside to his first excursion to Japan, to his untimely passing in 1993. Brown's tale of the 7'4 500lb Frenchman is a delight, starting with young Roussimoff's life as a child and young adult in the French country side.
His early years set the tone of the book, which is undeniably charming, as we see how the French goliath dealt with issues like a flat tire, or the simple task of driving a car. This section was so whimsical it made me want a book that was dedicated just to Roussimoff's younger life in France. The story moves at a brisk pace, and it's not long before we find out how Roussimoff began his career in the squared circle and became a huge star in wrestling.
The stories in Russimoff's life are also made even more appealing due to the fact that the people he associated and with are from the larger-than-life world of professional wrestling. Legends of the squared circle like Terry Funk, Stan Hanson, Hulk Hogan, and Bad News Brown all help tell stories about Russimoff that range from racy to tender. It helps complete the picture that Russimoff was a human being with passions, feelings, and failings.
I said earlier that I could read a whole book just based on Russimoff's childhood, but one of the nice parts of Life and Legend is that it doesn't linger. We're briskly swept through Russimoff's life, stopping to hear about a story at Madison Square Garden, or a story of him being drunk. The stories are all in a chronological order, but never focusing on one moment for longer than is needed. It never purports to be the complete history of Andre The Giant, but the "definitive biography" of the giant. Another charming aspect of the book is the wrestling glossary and the minor explanations that populate the story. Even if you're wrestling illiterate, Brown's glossary will help you tell, "Heel" from "Face" with no problem. It was a fun solution for those who don't steep themselves in wresting culture.
One of the things that I felt really makes Life and Legend so charming is the art. I think Brown really deserves a hand for what I found to be a wonderful art style for telling his story. Brown's style isn't unlike that of Double Fine's Scott Campbell, or Michael DeForge's Adventure Time back ups. The simple black and white make the book feel like it came straight from the independent scene, the kind of book you might find randomly at a local comic con. It has a really crafted feel to it, like everything was done with a masterful expertise in simplicity. Wrestling's history is colorful to say the least, and while Brown's style is cartoony, it feels so authentic for a story of a giant professional wrestler, it's almost comical how perfect it feels.
At the end of the day, the word charming kept popping back into my head, whether I was thinking of the art style, the story, or the little wrestling glossary. It's very clear that Brown has a passion for the subject and gives us a true life tale that comes from not only a place of fandom, but also from the heart. Brown never sugar-coats that Russimoff had his failings just like a normal-sized man, but carefully balances it with the fact that he was many things.
Russimoff was an absent father, a good friend, a drunk, a lover, a fighter, a Frenchman, and so much more. Brown makes the story clear that Russimoff was no super human, he was a tremendous man in a tremendous body, who unsurprisingly had a tremendous life. I usually don't go right out and say it, but Andre The Giant: Life and Legend is one of my favorite books this year, and I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you to go buy yourself a copy.
Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey's coast who still remembers Terry Taylor as the Red Rooster. If you'd like to let him know your favorite wrestling gimmick contact him on Twitter @John_Laryngitis