For wrestling fans, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when kayfabe—the custom in which in-ring rivalries are scripted but portrayed as real life—was an industry secret. An ever-changing business under the influence of the WWE (formerly, the WWF) and a better-informed fanbase have thinned the proverbial veil that separates the fan from the “reality” of wrestling. Although this happens across sports entertainment, it’s particularly interesting in the wrestling world because kayfabe has been an open secret since the 1990s. An actor can talk about playing a role, while a wrestler will still present in-ring performance as kayfabe, even as it’s quickly juxtaposed by photos of them having lunch with a supposed rival.
Perhaps that is one of the many reasons Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven isn’t the first book about the iconic wrestler, and it likely won’t be the last. Andre Roussimoff, the man who towered over opponents in the ring and charmed film-goers as Fezzik in The Princess Bride, was from an era where the private man and the wrestler were seen as one and the same. As far as fans were concerned, who Andre was in the ring he was in the outside world, too. What we know of him now doesn’t come from a tell-all autobiography or late-night drunken tweet. It all comes second-hand from those who performed with him, traveled with him, and drank with him.
Andre grew up in the French countryside and was six-feet tall by the time he was twelve. The quintessential gentle giant, he often struggled with the impossibility of living without calling attention to himself, yet his impressive size and strength are what made him a perfect addition to the spectacle of professional wrestling. Eventually the business and his acromegaly—the disorder that accounted for his size—wore down his body. Nonetheless, Andre performed in the ring and on the screen until he couldn’t anymore.
The idea of a wrestler struggling with the intersection of their professional and personal lives (and the toll it takes on their bodies and minds) is not new; it fits well under the established tragic hero archetype. What Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven attempts to do is bring out the emotional element in Andre’s story. At times the book can read like a straightforward timeline of his career, but Brandon Easton’s choice to write the narrative in first person alleviates that somewhat. There are moments where he manages to write for Andre the Man rather than Andre the Legend. In those moments, it feels like Andre is sitting across the table with a few beers in his belly, having a heart-to-heart, sharing his highest highs and lowest lows with the reader. Other times, it feels more like Andre is sitting with the reader, going through the motions of telling a story he’s told before while holding back and deflecting away from what’s just under the surface. This is particularly noticeable in segments used to explain the wrestling business. While necessary for those readers unfamiliar with the history of professional wrestling, it’s a shame that so many pages of a short book are dedicated to anything other than Andre himself.
Where the book really excels is in Denis Medri’s sepia-soaked artwork. Medri’s illustrations are lovely and he manages to execute both the action in the ring and Andre’s quieter moments outside of it with equal success. Medri’s use of well-placed shadow and perspective change easily reflects the contemplative mood Easton’s first-person narration aims for.
Fans who are familiar with Andre’s life story will come across several tales that have made the rounds before, including a volatile, racially-charged encounter with fellow wrestler “Bad News” Allen in Japan, and Andre’s status as an absentee father (of note, this book is authorized by Andre’s estate, and his daughter, Robin Christensen Roussimoff, wrote the foreword). It can appeal to anyone who remembers Andre’s career highlights but doesn’t know much about his life. It would also make a good companion to Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. While Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven may not shed light on groundbreaking information, it is a beautifully illustrated love letter to an era and a man that, sadly, don’t exist anymore.
Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven
by Brandon Easton
Art by Denis Medri
IDW/Lion Forge Comics, 2015