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A Giant among men

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Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven'

There are few pop culture figures as consistently larger-than-life as professional wrestlers. These men and women are asked to play unbelievable characters and perform impossible physical feats; dressed brightly and tightly, they must create a compelling narrative largely through physicality.

Perhaps the most fascinating figure in the history of pro wrestling is Andre the Giant. Over the course of decades, he worked rings all over the globe. As wrestling expanded beyond its regional nature and became a truly global phenomenon, Andre was right at the epicenter, growing the sport not just through his own exploits, but by helping to elevate the exploits of others.

'Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven' (Lion Forge, $12.99) tells the story of Andre Roussimoff in a way that befits one who is in many ways more myth than man as a graphic novel. Written by Brandon Easton and illustrated by Denis Medri, this is a biography truly befitting a giant.

On a farm in the French countryside, Andre Roussimoff grew farther and faster than any crop. His growth accelerated to such a degree that he was already larger than most full-grown men by the age of 12. Thanks to a fortuitous run-in with a wrestling promoter, Andre's fate was sealed he would enter the ring to make his fortune.

But no one could have expected just how far he would rise.

When he went to Japan, he became an instant success; his combination of size and athleticism was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. He toured the numerous regional circuits in the United States and Canada, his reputation gradually growing into legend. Whether he went by Jean Ferre or Monster Eiffel Tower or any other name, it didn't matter he was a star.

And it wasn't just his work in the ring. Andre's reputation outside the ring was that of a man with prodigious appetites, a man who needed cases of beer and liters of booze to even approach drunkenness. However, that party animal faade was covering a tremendous amount of pain. Andre was suffering from the agony that came with his gigantism; his physiology simply wasn't up to the strain put upon it by his enormous size.

Yet he toughed it out through the birth and subsequent explosion of the WWF (now the WWE), through pop culture landmarks such as his role in 'The Princess Bride'and through a strained and distant relationship with a daughter he barely knew. Through it all, Andre Roussimoff maintained an outlook that celebrated what he had rather than lamented what he did not.

One of the more compelling aspects of 'Closer to Heaven' is the involvement of Robin Roussimoff that same daughter who never knew her father in the way that she wished. Far from being bitter, however, Robin chooses to celebrate the memory of her father and the vast joy he gave to millions of people. Her stories are what give this book its very large heart.

That heart is captured in Easton's story. This is a tale that has been told before, but never in this way. This story strives to paint a portrait of the man; this isn't just about an illustrious wrestling career, but rather about a person whose differences separate him from the rest of the world. How Andre Roussimoff decides to deal with those differences to embrace them instead of reject them is what makes him such a compelling subject.

The title 'Closer to Heaven' comes from a story early in the book, about an encounter Andre had with an old woman when he was 12. This woman told him that his size was nothing to be ashamed of, that it merely meant that he was 'closer to heaven.' For better or worse, those words seem to have resonated for the rest of his life.

The artwork in 'Closer to Heaven' is extraordinary. Medri has captured the spirit of the man, allowing us to bear witness to the slow changes that Andre underwent as his condition altered his body. We watch his evolution from the lightning quick behemoth of his younger days to the lumbering giant of his later days. Yet through it all, the sparkle in Andre's eye never wavers; even at his lowest, we're left feeling hopeful for a man who carries so much hope of his own.

In the end, it seems odd that a graphic novel about a pro wrestler could be so moving and compelling. Yet here we are, left with a book that reveals the many layers of a man whose life and his love for it - was ultimately even bigger than you might expect.


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