The Power of Kayfabe: An Interview with Box Brown

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The accolades continue to pile up for artist and graphic novelist Box Brown. Aside from his Ignaz Award, his publishing house, Retrofit Comics, continues to put out quality independent graphic art. And aside from all that, of course, Brown’s labor of love, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (First Second Books, 2014), spent three weeks on The New York Times best-seller list for graphic novels. Not too shabby.

Yet despite the book’s success and Brown’s own growing profile, one can’t help feeling from reading his work or hearing his interview responses that he’s still just a kid wrestling around in the backyard with a towel tied around his neck for a cape. But it’s perhaps this endearing, earnest quality that enabled Brown to present such a successful portrayal of a wrestling legend, blending the good, the bad, and the ugly in an appropriately giant-sized—yet surprisingly humbling—fashion.

Of all the larger-than-life figures in the world of professional wrestling, what was it about Andre that inspired you to interpret and tell his story?

It was the tragic nature of his life. Also, I think I identify with how he was kind of a loner. He had trouble fitting in the world around him and I think I’ve always kind of felt the same. Then the other side of the coin was he was a literal larger than life persona and character. He was artist who practiced his craft until the day he died. I can only hope to do the same. I admire him for that.

I’m interested in your thought process behind including “legend” in the title of the book. Is use of the term “legend” in some way a commentary on the kayfabe world of professional wrestling during Andre’s time, that there’s a blending of fact and fiction that gets at some greater truth?

I think using the term legend was kind of a catchall for all of that. Obviously, Andre himself is considered a legend in the business. But also the stories about him are so outrageous that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Even the absolutely true stories about Andre are amazing! And even still they get exaggerated over the years. And, the nature of kayfabe leads to stories becoming legend. Even I in actuality am not totally aware of what’s actually true or not. I did my best to present everything factually but I could have been worked by the stories that are out there. So, if the book is about the legend of Andre, it’s all okay. The book is very much about the impression of Andre or the impact of the Andre character as much as it is about the man himself. And, a lot of the stories in the book are second-hand, so they truly are the spoken history of the guy. The impression of the guy. I think that’s pretty close to legend.

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Another question about kayfabe for you: going back to its roots in the carnival days, professional wrestling has always been an insular world. Did you encounter any difficulty accessing credible sources on Andre when researching this project?

Oh sure, I think I alluded to it in the question above. The “Black Jack Mulligan” story was recounted in Blackjack’s book, his shoot interview, and I personally interviewed him, and I’m still not totally sure what’s what. But, interviewing Ax from Demolition was kind of a dream. Bill Eadie was very genuine.

Two subplots in the story that intrigue me are Andre’s heat and subsequent reconciliation with Bad News Brown and Andre’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his daughter. Why was it important for you to include those aspects of Andre’s life?

These were negative aspects to the guy that I uncovered in my research. I very much did not want to hide from that or change that. No one is perfect, no one lives their lives perfectly. To create a book that said that of Andre would make him seem less human, which is the opposite of what I was going for.

Given the decline of the territory system, which tended to extend wrestlers’ careers and the seen-it-all nature of the Internet, would Andre be as big of an attraction today? I’m thinking of contemporary “giants” in wrestling like the Great Khali and Big Show. While popular, those wrestlers’ matches are by no means appointment television.

Andre was very much a product of his time. He worked the territory system the same way the NWA champ did. He went from town to town but even more and even faster. This is what enabled him to become a national star in the days of regional stars. The Big Show in many ways is a superior athlete to the Giant. Andre was severely limited in his later years, and he wasn’t the best promo, let’s face facts here. But you could say that about a lot of the guys of that era. We’re in a different time now.

What’s hardest for you when attempting to tell a story—either with words or images?

It’s all one big mush in my brain. I can’t really do one without the other. Some days, writing and plotting is difficult. Some days, the drawing is. But they’re both challenging and rewarding to me, and I see them as the same activity.

From filmmaker Darren Aronofsky to novelist Stanley Elkin to poet W. Todd Kaneko to yourself, professional wrestling seems to be a fertile ground for narrative artists. What is it about wrestling that speaks to so many storytellers?

It’s only function really is to tell a story. It’s a world where fiction and reality are blended so you see a story playing out as reality in real time. I could go on and on about how great wrestling is or how great it could be. The problem is once you truly realize how great wrestling is and you have that transcendent experience of watching something great in pro wrestling, it’s like chasing the dragon. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment of greatness. A lot of times it’s less something specific and more experience of all of the small pieces working together.

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The paneling and your use of shadow and light are quite striking. It’s particularly effective at capturing they way wrestling used to be lighted—smoke-filled arenas with a lone spotlight chiseling two wrestlers and a ring out of a slab of darkness. Is that type of imagery and play of shadow and light something to which your technique is suited, or did you find yourself altering the way you work to capture that old smoky arena feel?

No not at all, it’s just how I draw, I think, and my lack of wanting to draw a crowd.

Another question for you on technique: so much of professional wrestling (at least contemporary wrestling) relies on spectacle and action to tell a story; it’s very cinematic in that way. But your work seems to capture the stillness—those moments between the flash photography and the body slams. Is that a conscious choice on your part? Is the ability to freeze the frame, if you will, an advantage of working in your medium?

I think that’s just how I work. If another artist did a book about Andre, it may very well have been more about action and motion. But I think because of the way I work, my comics tend to be meditative. In this particular story and in breaking down wrestling matches, I think it really lends itself to comics and working slowly. Each wrestling match, if it’s good, is sequential just like a story. It often happens faster and more under the surface, so people don’t always pick up on the little moments.

What first drew you to wrestling?

I don’t know really. It was just so different than anything else. You know there are very few things even remotely like it. It was like Saturday morning cartoons, then wrestling came on, and it was nothing like cartoons really. It was just this cool weird thing. Magazines also ended up being a huge way I interacted with pro wrestling. So the whole reading and looking at wrestling images was very natural to me, and I think to a lot of fans of my generation.

So you hail form the fighting city of Philadelphia. Were you an ECW fan? What wrestling did/do you watch?

Oh of course! I grew up in New Jersey, and I think I saw my first episode of ECW around midnight on a Saturday night in 1996/7? I was hooked immediately. I went to two house shows in 97 and 98. Followed WWE always. I watched wrestling on ESPN after school in the late eighties and read magazines. So I was kind of trying to follow every single thing that was wrestling for a long time. I kind of faded out in the early 2000s but still kept tabs on stuff. Got back into it probably around 2010.

What would your gimmick be if you wrestled? Would you work heel or face?

Oh, I’m more of a natural babyface. When I was a little kid, my character was “The Metal Man,” and I was a wrestling metalhead. Finishing move was the flying knee drop off the top rope.

Do you have any new projects you’re working on?

My book An Entity Observes All Things is debuting at the Toronto Comics and Arts Festival in early May, published by Retrofit/Big Planet. It’s a collection of personal/sci-fi stories. I’ve also been lucky and been able to do a bunch of posters this year for the great Jim Ross and The Mountain Goats. I really enjoy doing poster design. It’s really fun.

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Dan Mancilla is an author and educator living in Michigan. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Saturday Evening PostThe Chicago Tribune, Barrelhouse, BULL: Men’s FictionPassages Northamong other journals. His current project is All the Proud Fathers, a novel-in-stories about the city of Black Hawk—a Rustbelt city where professional wrestlers, gypsies, magicians, carnies, and gamecock-raising taxidermists sometimes live in harmony in-between the fantastic events which are a regular part of town life.

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