By Maureen Tai, 13 January 2019
“Pro wrestling is theater. People are hungry for a story. Every match, no matter how poorly constructed, tells a story.” – Andre “the Giant” Roussimoff
I remember coming across a pro-wrestling match on TV when I was an anxious high schooler in Canada. I watched oil-slicked, beefy men-monsters grapple, headlock, punch, kick and throw each other around under glaring lights, egged on by cheering crowds that included, to my incredulity, children. I didn’t understand the entertainment, and I must confess that I still don’t. But a slim non-fiction graphic novel, Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven has opened my eyes, and my heart, to one of pro-wrestling’s great heroes. Underneath that hulking mass of flesh, there was a man with a soul, a mind, doubts and feelings like any one of us. This is his story.
Andre is born the middle child of a farming family in France. It appears to be an idyllic childhood, until he is pulled from school to help on the farm. Soon enough, his gigantic proportions – he is a six footer by the time he is twelve years old – causes others to gawk. Andre realises that he has outgrown his home, both literally and figuratively. One day, while watching a local wrestling match, he is noticed by a sports promoter – he’s hard to miss – and taken on as a novice wrestler. Andre reinvents himself as “Geant Ferre,” then “Monster Eiffel Tower,” and after Canadian ex-wrestler Frank Valois becomes his promoter and business manager, “Andre the Giant” is born. Andre’s wrestling career has begun.
The rest of the graphic novel charts Andre’s ascendancy from being a local hero to a global phenomenon, showcasing the key highlights from his career: his successes in Japan and Canada, followed by his domination of the US leading to his nickname, the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, an appearance as the Sasquatch on the TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man and then as a giant in the movie, The Princess Bride, culminating in a historic face-off with Hulk Hogan in 1988. Interspersed are the darker, more tragic circumstances of Andre’s life. He finds out early in his career that his abnormally large size is not a miracle, but the result of a pituitary gland disorder. His body is too large for his heart to handle and his life expectancy is halved before it has a chance to start. Andre’s flirtations with the excesses of fame and success become life-long habits and his reliance on alcohol as a salve for his deep-seated unhappiness (and towards the end of his life, as a pain reliever) is laid out starkly in the sepia-toned pages. His relationship with his only daughter is described in her own words on just one single page, mirroring its real-life brevity.
Andre’s extraordinary yet poignant story is sympathetically told in masterfully executed illustrations – anyone who can make pro-wrestlers look luminous is a genius – and in thought-provoking prose. Beyond the lurid theatrics and hyperbole of the pro-wrestling world, was a gentle giant searching for happiness and a meaning to life. His body was both his saviour and his nemesis, but in the brief time that Andre the Giant walked the earth, he touched the lives of millions.
For ages 8 and up.