May 10, 2014
CR Sunday Interview: Box Brown
First Second Books
has just released André The Giant: Life And Legend
, a comics biography of the late professional wrestler and occasional actor
. It is a story told with great sympathy and clarity by the cartoonist Box Brown
, Brown weds his admiration for professional wrestling as a kind of intense performance art to the insights gained making autobiographical comics to craft a portrait of a sometimes genial, sometimes prickly man stuck in a ticking time bomb of a body. Brown's André suffered the isolation and exploited the opportunities of his genetic lot in life in almost equal measure. In making his book, Brown negotiates the multiple non-realities of the wrestling world, where an interview that simply suffers the regular biases of ego and self-interest is considered so truthful it gets a special name touting its potential truth-telling status. André The Giant
manages affection and respect without sentiment or mythologizing.
One of the later-year Xeric winners, Brown is also the driving force behind Retrofit Comics
, an ongoing attempt to place today's younger, working comics authors in something resembling the serial pamphlet form of a quarter-century ago. I caught Brown during a series of interviews he's been doing in support of this new book, and am grateful for his time and multiple attempts not to fall into boilerplate. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: A first question. You said somewhere, in one of your interviews, that you came to late to comics. And I wondered what your art looked like before you did comics, how you expressed yourself. What kind of art did you make before you made comics?
I was pursuing fiction writing. Poetry. A lot of the stuff that I learned in college: "This is how you go about doing art." Writing, anyway. I never thought of myself as an artist of any kind. A visual artist, anyway.
I feel like before I found comics I was kind of an artist without a medium. I had a bunch of starts and stops where I was trying to do something. I was trying to write a novel. I was trying to learn how to play the keyboard. I was trying to learn how to play a million other instruments. All kinds of stuff like that.
I read comics when I was a kid. Until probably 12 or 13. When I was in high school I got into strip comics a lot more. I was reading Calvin and Hobbe
when I was a little kid. When I was high school I got interested in them again -- not Garfield
as much as Calvin and Hobbes
. I also got into Matt Groening's comics a lot when I was in high school.
I wasn't pursuing much. For a lot of my late teen years and into my early 20s, I was partying a lot [Spurgeon laughs] and not really focusing on anything at all. I think it wasn't until I was 24 or 25, that's when someone handed me American Elf
, the first big American Elf
book. That was the first thing I read where I thought, "I can do this." That made me want to pursue it.
SPURGEON: What is it about comics that fits your skill set, your outlook, you way of approaching things? You obviously tried all of these different outlets, Box, and none of them took. What is it about comics that took?
I don't know. It had enough writing in it, but it wasn't all writing. It didn't have the pitfalls I found myself in when I was trying to just write. I was learning to draw at the same time -- that kept my interest, learning how to communicate better via this comic form.
I don't know. Maybe it was simple enough. Maybe James' work was deceptively simple and I was like, "I can do this." ... I could maybe
do this. When I started drawing, I thought, "These drawings are almost as good." [laughter] Clearly they weren't.
I was talking to I think Sean T. Collins
about this at MoCCA
. I think it was him anyway. We were talking about how the comics medium, it seems like anyone could do it. It seems easy to get started with, anyway, and be able to do it in a way that's accessible. When you're starting to learn the guitar or something like that, there are so many baby steps before you get to play a whole song. The first day you start drawing comics you can do a complete comic strip. There was something about that that appealed to me.
SPURGEON: Were you all in right away? Or was there a point at which in all the comics you've done -- heck, maybe just this book. I don't know how cognizant you are of your entire career. But was there a point at which you thought, "Okay, I'm a cartoonist now." [laughs] Maybe you don't think so now.
I think it was when I was at college... someone referred to me as an artist and to me that was the first time anyone ever did that. I was really excited by that. I liked that. I tried to move forward with it. At that time I was searching for an identity. Once I realized that I maybe had being an artist in me, I really liked that. It was still a number of years before I got into comics.
The first day I drew comic strips I drew like five. [laughter] I drew at least one every day after that. There was something immediately about it that became worthwhile to me. I was doing them every day while I was working full time. I was spending so much time reading about comics and reading comics and making comics. At some point I felt like I had a double identity, working at this shitty job -- it was a career-based gig. I was either going to be this guy working this job or I was going to be a cartoonist. When I decided I didn't really want to do this job anymore and I wanted to be a cartoonist, I think at that point I was like, "Fuck it. This is it." That's when I really started identifying. When I started feeling I was in the wrong place at my job, I started identifying as a cartoonist. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: Can you describe the initial impulse to do comics about André? You did a couple of André stories for mini-comics, as I recall.
I did a couple of short stories. A couple of mini-comics.
SPURGEON: Do you remember your initial interest? I'm interested in the fact that you came into comics maybe more a writer than an artist. I can see the visual appeal of André, but what was it that said, "I need to do comics about this guy."
I had stumbled upon André The Giant's Wikipedia page at one point. I had an interest in wrestling, I started... maybe in late 2010, I'd discovered this series of interviews this company had put, these really low-rent interviews where they interview old wrestlers you hadn't seen in forever and they're telling these old stories.
So I got interested in all the behind the scenes stuff. They're telling you stories about events you've seen. They're talking about Wrestlemania 5, and you know what you saw; they're explaining why all this stuff happened. It became really fascinating to me. At some point I heard a story someone told about André and I started really looking into his life.
Before I got into comics I saw the André The Giant A&E biography?
His story was tragic to me. He died really young. He was in a lot of pain later in his life, but he was so celebrated, so famous... it seemed to me there was a really strong difference between what we're seeing on TV -- André The Giant, specifically -- and what was really going on in his behind the scenes life.
Also the story about him getting a ride to school from Samuel Beckett
. That was the first story that made me go, "I have to put that into comics." When I first made it, I didn't care about the truth of it. That sounds really cool, I like the idea of them two talking. What would they talk about?
I had been making these comics that were kind of half-truths. The more I got into that the more I got interested in the facts of the matter, and trying to tell the story... his life story was interesting enough. The actual truth of the matter was interesting.
SPURGEON: I remember at one point you were shopping this around -- I remember an editor of our mutual acquaintance telling me he'd seen it. How much did you have done, how much had you conceived before you took it out?
I had done about a hundred page. I had done two mini-comics; that was probably 50-60 pages. I kept doing more. This was around January-ish. There wasn't a convention coming up. I didn't have any interest in making the last bunch into a mini-comic yet.
I had completed maybe 40 more pages before MoCCA was coming up. I didn't sent them around. I sent it to Fantagraphics
-- I send them everything. [laughs] Eric [Reynolds] has always been very friendly to me and very kind.. So I sent it to them, and they said they'd read it. I also sent it to Calista Brill at First Second, whom I had met maybe a year before when I pitching my Everything Dies
series. I sent it to Calista and Calista was pretty interested in it quickly. By the time I even heard back from Fanta I had already signed a deal with First Second.
SPURGEON: When you do a biography, a lot of what goes into it is a reflection of what material exists out there that you can use.
SPURGEON: I know that pro wrestling is kind of a mess when it comes to this sort of thing. Not only do you have this layer of non-reality -- you came at the end of that period where there's fake reality. You use some of the shoot interviews, which can be weird and self --aggrandizing and not trustworthy as history. Some of the written stuff I imagine is odd to deal with as well. How did you negotiate those unique research challenges?
I just had to use my best judgment about people. My general theory is that if they're still in the business, or somehow profiting from the business, they are -- even in a shoot interview or in a book, it can be somewhat suspect. They are keenly aware they are a product. Even when they're supposed to be speaking truthfully about a situation they may hold things back that might hurt them from getting a job or working in the future. I got a chance to talk to a few people. You just have to use your best judgment on what people are saying. Using a Hulk Hogan interview -- he's telling his version of a story, he was there during the Bad News Brown incident. He's telling his version of the story, and then I get to hear Bad News' version of the story. And they're not quite the same.
A guy like Hulk Hogan, who is definitely still involved in the business, wouldn't be maybe as truthful as some guy who isn't involved with the business anymore, who isn't still looking to build his character.
There are all kinds of pitfalls like that. I had to use my best judgment. I tried to get right what I could get right. It was my best judgment, really.
SPURGEON: This book takes place as a series of vignettes, and this may be an obtuse way to ask this question, but how much authorial direction did you have to place on the story, and how much do you feel the story revealed itself to you? Were you cognizant of dealing with certain themes, or did you learn about him as you went along and did they then eventually become apparent.
There is a way to direct a biography, but there's also a way to have someone's life reveal itself to you.
I think it was probably more the latter. But both. You look at a guy like André The Giant, the ending of the story is already done. The ending is stamped. He died at 46. He had his tragic life there. This is one thing I kind of learned with pro wrestling. When there's something going on in real life. Say your guy, your wrestler is coming out to the ring and being cheered even though he's a bad guy: you lean into that. If the people want him, we'll turn him into a babyface. They like his beard? He'll grow an extremely long beard. You lean into the storyline as it presents itself.
I think that's kind of what I tried to do here. His life was tragic but also he kind of lived it to the fullest as best as he could. I really related to that. I fear death. I'm keenly aware that there's a death clock sitting over my head -- and I'm healthy. This is a guy where his death clock was 40 years before mine. He was aware of that at a young age, too. So he had to live life to the fullest.
I think that's interesting. Anything he did was interesting. Also, you look at the guy: André was presented to the public in a certain way, always. Even when he was a bad guy, he was presented as a gentle giant -- particularly after the Princess Bride movie came out. And it's fairly well known among professionals wrestler that especially later in his life he was kind of an ornery guy. So I thought that was a really cool dichotomy. What would that be like? You have to be nice to people all of the time, but you're actually annoyed by them.
He was in pain, is what it came down to. He was a disabled guy.
SPURGEON: One thing that's interesting to me about wrestler as performers -- I assume this is true of all performers, but maybe super-true of wrestler, is the back and forth nature of their agency. They may lean into the crowd's reaction, but they depend on the crowd's reaction as well. Further, they're dependent on being booked a certain way, and dependent on certain relationships they may have with this wrestler or that wrestler enjoying a surge in popularity -- even something as basic as this guy wanting to work with you or that guy wanting to work with you.
That seems to me a constrictive almost terrifying way to chart a career, being that kind of routinely dependent on other people.
Now it's kind of different. The way they shoot the show now, you develop your own character and they're kind of telling you what to say, in a weird way. But in the day, you were pretty much in charge of your own character, writing your own character, doing your own promos -- no one was writing those for you. So really -- you had to be good in the ring, you had to be all of that stuff, but as far as developing your character the guys that were the best at that and worked really hard at that were the most successful.
But yeah, you're right. There's a million [laughs] things you have to negotiated to become a star. It's not just developing a character. It's maybe like that in other forms of entertainment. There's a ton of business there, as well, all of this business you have to negotiate. Thinks of all the musicians there have been where no one's heard their stuff.
The art of pro wrestling isn't' just developing your character, the art of pro wrestling is learning how to negotiate this insane business world where you are expected to put the company above all else, all other things -- yet when it comes to getting paid and taking your care of yourself, you're totally on your own! It's like this strange combination of libertarianism and communism. It's very much a difficult thing.
I think... I don't know. I like to think that those kinds of things aren't a big deal in my own field, but maybe they are. There's an element to kayfabe in almost everything.
SPURGEON: Where is the kayfabe in comics?
You have to get your stuff out there, you have to navigate the field. You can't just do your work -- well, you can. There are people that have put their work out there, like on the Internet, and gotten lucky. Or maybe they're just that good. There's a certain amount of hustle involved, I think.
SPURGEON: Giants are interesting in wrestling in terms of how they're booked. In the old days, a lot of how they were used depended on there being a bunch of regional promotions. A giant would come in as an outside threat to the lead babyface, have a program with him and then leave. They could go from promotion to promotion.
You present André's big match with Hulk Hogan as the important moment in André's career that it was, and it struck me that it was also a transitional event in that it marked a shift to this more national model that was taking over at the time. He was making himself obsolete; he participated in the transition of an entire field away from people like him.
SPURGEON: Could you talk a bit about how you saw him within his field? Your biography is more personally focused, but clearly he was a key figure in the development of pro wrestling.
That moment was a big moment for pro wrestling. They had done Wrestlemania I and II. II was kind of weird event that took place in three different venues -- they kind of went crazy with Wrestlemania II. Wrestlemania III was in this huge stadium. They had to sell it out, and they had to hit a certain number on Pay Per View. It was definitely a huge moment.
It was a huge moment for Hulk Hogan, too. He was definitely a big star, He was the next most well-known guy in the business. It was definitely different for André -- it was looked at as a passing of the torch. André was at the tail end of his career. Hogan was at the apex of his popularity, really. It's something that all wrestlers do. You build up your own popularity for so long, and there's a natural thing that happens with fan where they're tired of seeing the same thing all of the time so you have to turn heel, or you have to leave for a while. It's fairly common.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you were looking for you wished you were able to find?
I definitively would have liked to have gotten more of the story of his daughter, or at least talk to her. Her mother has passed.
SPURGEON: Did you reach out?
I did! I reached out to a lot of people I didn't quite get.
There was one guy that appears in the book physically but I never provide his name. He was a referee named Tim White who was André's handler. He seems very close to him. Especially late in his life. I would have loved to have talked to him. The people I talked to, even though they were friends with André, felt he was closed off to them.
He was a drinking buddy; he was into playing cribbage. I talked to this one guy, Bill Eadie, who was a wrestler and worked with André. He was Ax from Demolition. He said that André was very quiet about that stuff. He didn't say anything about his family life or anything like that. I think that Tim White seems to have had a closer relationship with André that I would have loved to get more into what he was like as an emotional human being.
But he's dead. [Spurgeon laughs] There's always so much he can get.
SPURGEON: You use a lot of different narrative strategies page to page. Sometimes you use a grid, sometimes you use a staggered. Sometimes you use single pages. You really kind of shift and move things around. I wondered how much of that was strategic and how much that was intuitive.
I would say it's mostly not strategic. Usually when I'm making a comics page, I think about them individually. To a fault, even. I just want to tell whatever needs to be told on the page in a dynamic way but also a straight-forward way. But yeah, I don't know. I tried to tell each individual story like it needed to be told.
SPURGEON: Drawing André... I think it was Chris Sims that suggested you may have portrayed André differently on the page as the story progressed. Was there a recurring visual approach, something consistent in terms of how you depicted André?
I wasn't concerned about depicting him the same size in every panel -- in terms of scale. I always wanted him to be the biggest thing on the page, and to accentuate how big he was. When he's in the ring it's not as easy to see how huge this guy was. But when you see him get out of a car, and you see how big his hand is in comparison to the car door... he was so huge. So in the book I always wanted him to be this enormous, enormous figure.
Christopher Guest said that every day during The Princess Bride
he would shake André's hand and it was a crazy experience, to have your hand be engulfed by this enormous hand. I wanted to keep that scale, have him be foreboding or shockingly large as much as I could.
SPURGEON: I was struck by a small group of pages where you talk about his body, and how the acromegaly is catching up to him. You looked at his body and his head and his profile. You talked about him aging prematurely. I thought that those were very effective pages. They're striking. I wondered how you came up with the solution of making paneled pages out of these static images.
I think it was kind of by accident. [laughter] Definitely extending the lines across the page was accidental. The idea of breaking up his body into separate panels in my thumbnails, it just kind of worked, I think. His body is really being sliced up here, having surgery done.
I don't know, I just thought it worked.
SPURGEON: Floating panels on the black background, what does that set apart?
Those are all the times when I'm depicting actual wrestling events. They're a bit different in the story. I'm not telling the story as it is, I'm actually making commentary. I wanted to set them apart. Also it's much easier making the crowd just be black and not have to draw individuals in crowds. [laughter]
A lot of this is based on -- not taken from, but inspired by -- how Jaime Hernandez depicted pro wrestling in Whoa, Nellie!
SPURGEON: Did you use visual reference whenever you could?
I was watching those matches move by move. I was pulling screenshots, too. I recommend this to anyone trying to draw the human figure: try drawing wrestling moves. They're contorting their bodies in ways you never would do in any other case. I thought it would be a worthwhile pursuit for anyone to try and do that.
SPURGEON: Plus we'd get more wrestling comics out of it.
I think there are a lot of closet wrestling fans out there that kind of quietly pay attention to what goes on in pro wrestling.
SPURGEON: In a lot of cases, that's a glass closet. You can see them in there.
One thing that lingered about the book is in addition to this melancholy aspect to André's life, there's this real sweetness in terms of how seriously you take his accomplishments as a wrestler. The approach isn't about the fake reality -- you're up front about the choreography of that, but you genuinely admire the achievement and what he accomplished as a performer.
SPURGEON: Is this the way a lot of people look at wrestling now? Do fans appreciate these performers that way?
There are two types of wrestling fan. One is 90 percent of the audience, that's like little kids and stuff. They're into wrestling for what it is and that's all. There's 10 percent of the audience who's into it as craft and have a step back from what they're seeing. I would imagine I'm in that 10 percent category.
But I think for the other 90 percent, this would be... I don't know anyone over the age of six that's watching these matches and thinking it's real.
SPURGEON: They've been playing around with these notions for about 25 years... they seem presented the way they used to present Marvel Comics, where there's this open "wink wink" approach to the goings-on.
What I was wondering specifically is that as that's become a way of presenting these performances, does your approach line up directly with that 10 percent of fans, or would they prefer to do things differently?
Without talking myself up too much, I think there may also be a subset of that 10 percent that watches wrestling academically, kind of. There's professions that have built up around covering wrestling as it is now.
You look at a guy like David Shoemaker, the Masked Man, who writes a blog for Grantland
. He doesn't cover it as if it's real, he covers it from a business perspective. Guys like Dave Meltzer cover it solely from a business perspective. There are a lot of fans interested in that aspect of it, but I think there's just as large a group of fans that don't even know that exists, that don't know this side exists, that would be interested in it if exposed to it.
I don't think there are going to be people reading this -- at least I hope not, that's my intention -- that are totally dumbfounded that wrestling isn't a real situation. I don't think I'll be blowing anyone's mind that way.
SPURGEON: There is a melancholy aspect to this book, Box, in that André is portrayed as a person that can't control his appetites, his is successful but he's mostly an independent contractor and the market pushes him in different directions. Now one way you could have handled this is to talk about the limits of André's life as an indictment of what he did for a living. But what I got from the book was your admiration for him as a performer, and your respect for how people reacted to him. Was there ever an impulse to indict wrestling for the damage it did to this man? Did you have to think through the life that way.
I have such respect for him as a performer. I think about characters like that as a comedian. They're telling jokes but they're also learning the reactions of the crowd, and how to work with that. I think of the pro wrestling performances the same way.
If you look at comedians, they have tons of bad stories behind them. Drug overdoses, suicides, things like that. I'm not saying it comes with the profession, but when you have a single guy with no family he's aware of, there's pitfalls he can fall into. Is that because of the business? Maybe. But they chose that lifestyle. My perspective on it is that everyone has done shit in the past that is not positive. It doesn't make you a heel, it doesn't make you a bad person all the way. It's just that people have shit that they do and maybe regret. Nobody's perfect.
I didn't want to at any time say that it was pro wrestling that did this to André, because André was doing it to himself. Maybe his hands were tied in a way. He got started very young. He got started at 18. What could he do after that -- I'm sure he could have gotten a job as a bouncer. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Did you find anything personally affecting about his story? Maybe something that surprised you?
[long pause] The thing that stood out to me with André a lot is the face that he kept going after he was really... injured enough to barely be able to move. Even that Wrestlemania 3, his body was like that then. He went as long as he could in that match. It's only 12 minutes long. And they succeeded. They overwhelmingly succeeded in what they were doing.
He had this drive to keep going, even though he could have retired. He could have done anything he wanted. He could have retired and traveled the world the rest of his life, eating these spectacular foods. He was a foodie. [laughter] He could have done that. I think of that myself. You think of what society tells you is good: you work a certain amount of time and you retire and then you go on to what you really want to do. You fish or whatever. Golf. I don't ever see myself doing that. I don't want to do that. I don't see myself as saying, "Oh, one day I'll be so wealthy I won't have to make comics anymore." What the fuck else am I going to do?
I think André during that time, he was in a lot of pain. He was near death, really. That's what he wanted to do. I feel like performing is really what made André feel satisfied. When he was out in the ring and putting on a good show, that was his satisfaction in life. The fact that he never quit and never retired and did it up to the day he died was inspiring to me. [laughs]
SPURGEON: I want to ask you a Retrofit question or two.
Sure. Let's crowbar some Retrofit stuff in there.
SPURGEON: [laughs] It's not crow barring; it's a sudden left-hand turn. Although there's a connection: we mentioned with André the fact he was an independent contractor that in many ways had to seize control of his place in the business. Does doing Retrofit, and being exposed to the business side of comics in that way, the infrastructure of comics, knowing what exists and what's possible, does it change your attitude towards making comics.
[slight pause] Kind of. [pause] Maybe. I've learned a lot of things about what sells and what people are looking for, possibly.
SPURGEON: Is there a specific lesson that sticks out?
Just the idea of... when I first got started, I thought all of the material was good so it would stand on its own by being good. I don't know that I understood how much marketing matters and how much the creator's name mattered. If people knew who this persons was, it was a big deal.
Working for Retrofit, the most satisfying thing I get out of it was working with other artists and learning about their process. I've learned how they go about making their comics -- what they consider a finished comic. That to me is really rewarding, and I feel help with my own work working with these other artists.
It is difficult. And it is fun. I like being involved in the business side of things. I think that's appealing to me about comics as an art form -- that there is such a business aspect to it. My sister is going to have her PhD in poetry. Poetry is all academic, basically. There's a very small commercial aspect to it. If comics were like that, I don't know that I would have been that interested in it. I like the idea of commercialism in comics. That's probably sacrosanct or whatever. But I like that aspect of comics -- I like releasing something to the public in somewhat commercial form. I like experiencing that way.
SPURGEON: This should appear TCAF weekend. There's a commercial function at a show like that for you, the author. There's an audience that will buy your books or not, that will interact with your or not. Is that a big part of it for you? Is that something you suffer through? Is it something you enjoy?
I definitely sit at a show like let's say SPX, I love everything about that show, but I very much like that it's a good show sales-wise for us. Where you go to a show where you make back your table money and maybe a couple extra dollars, when it's over you're happy it's over. It's a long day's work. You can be satisfied that you made a lot of connections, and talked to people, and picked up a lot of books. Etcetera. There's definitely, when you're investing your money into it, and you come back and something sold really well, a very good feeling. Maybe better than the whole idea of connecting with people or something like that. They aren't very much tied. I've been to a lot of conventions where I didn't make very much money back. And it definitely affected how I felt about the comics show. Even if it was a fun time.
SPURGEON: I think we all prefer to make money over not making money. Is it just the achievement of getting a work over?
There's definitely a real-world aspect to it. Let's face facts here. This is how I pay my rent -- which is due pretty soon. [laughter] That's a big deal. And you make a big investment in traveling. Stuff like that. I don't want to say that's the only reason I do shows -- it's definitely not. After you go to a show like TCAF... there are a lot of expenses with TCAF. It's in another country. You have to get your hotel room. It may not be as profitable as SPX or the Brooklyn show for me. When I leave a show like SPX or TCAF, I feel regenerated being around other artists. And readers. You're celebrated when you're there. In many ways that's the whole reason why we're doing it -- to connect with your readers. To have somebody understand these emotions that your feelings. At the same time, I still have to make a living. It's a weird dichotomy.
SPURGEON: Have you found the formula, then? Does what you have right now work for you? Will you continue with the books, and working with other cartoonists? Is it more where you have to lean in, as you mentioned, and figure out what's best for you based on what you're facing?
If someone came along and said they'd pay me what I'm making now to just make one book a year? I don't know. That doesn't sound fun to me. When I was working on André, as much as I enjoyed working on it, it was extremely taxing for me to focus so much on one project, and for a really long time work on it without showing it to anyone. It was hard for me. It was difficult. It was one of the most difficult things I've done in comics.
I guess I'm impatient, and I get bored with the same thing over and over again and I want to do new things all of the time. I want to have a million things going on at once so I never have to sit down and wait for anyone.
* Box Brown
* Box Brown On Twitter
* André The Giant: Life And Legend, Box Brown, First Second, Softcover, 240 pages, 9781596438514, May 2014, $17.99
* Retrofit Comics
* cover to the new book
* photo by Tom Spurgeon (TCAF 2013)
* cover to e-book collecting early Brown work
* various imagery from the new book
* one final image from the new book (below)
posted 7:00 pm PST
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