Returning to the world of professional wrestling explored in his 2014 graphic biography, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, cartoonist Box Brown focuses on another iconic, albeit highly eccentric, personality long associated with wrestling: comedian, actor and wrestling performer Andy Kaufman. This month First Second will publish Box Brown’s graphic biography, Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.
Brown chronicles Kaufman’s life (he died in 1984) from his days as an impressionable youngster, obsessed with a variety of performance disciplines (from studying African drumming with Olatunji and performing standup comedy to his role on the TV shows Taxi, and Saturday Night Live) as well as his lifelong love of pro wrestling. Brown explores the personal and professional side of a complicated entertainer, including Kaufman’s fascinating friendship with World Wrestling Entertainment legend, Jerry “the King” Lawler.
An affable as well as a critically acclaimed comics creator, Brown is the founder of the indie comics publishing house Retrofit Comics. He received an Ignatz Award in 2011 for excellence in small press comics, and Brown is also the author of Tetris: The Games People Play, a nonfiction comics work about the creation of the popular videogame that was published by First Second in 2016.
What is it about Kaufman’s story that made you eager to explore it?
What attracted me to Andy’s story was that he was very influential in pro-wrestling and incredibly good at it. He hasn’t gotten his due from the pro-wrestling world, I don’t think. Andy had a legitimate “run” in pro-wrestling and, if he didn’t die in 1984, he would have had more I think. We would have seen him at Wrestlemania I, for sure. [WrestleMania is a wildly popular annual professional wrestling showcase produced by WWE.]
Why do you think Kaufman’s early fascination with wrestling led him to turn himself, both literally and figuratively, into a wrestler?
Well, Kaufman was a performer. He wasn’t really a comedian but a performance artist. A lot of his work was silly and funny, but in performance art, you’re trying to get the audience to emote rather than simply laugh. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the performances of pro-wrestlers, especially those of Andy’s era who were always improvising. There weren’t any scripts; these guys had to know who their characters were and really live the part any time they were in public. Andy pulled a lot from it and not just in becoming a wrestler. He used to show up to performances already in character and many of the characters (like [his alter ego, the obnoxious lounge singer] Tony Clifton, for instance) drew from real wrestlers. He was able to elicit sympathy from audiences as well, which is a key element of “babyface” wrestlers.
As an artist, the line quality of your drawing is immediately recognizable. How does your drawing style help you tell stories?
You know, I used to spend a lot of time concerned with the [line quality of my drawing]. I inked with all different brushes and nibs, but at some point, I felt like the focus on line was actually taking away from the rest of what makes comics great. I switched to a single line width pen and was able to work faster. I guess it became my style.
Do you see a connection between Andre the Giant and Andy Kaufman (and Jerry Lawler), if only in terms of our perception of them? Is there something about these individuals that is compelling for a graphic biographer? [Andre the Giant was a popular professional wrestler noted for his size, who died in 1993.]
Yeah, I think many of the stories I want to tell are about dispelling the misconceptions we have of people who loom larger than life. We’re all regular people. Everyone has ups-and-downs and different idiosyncrasies. I have a lot of sympathy for the human condition. We’re all so fragile and damaged and yet unaware of how to fix ourselves.
In your book, you mention some of the problems inherent in Man on the Moon, the 1999 biopic of Kaufman that starred Jim Carrey. What, specifically, do you hope to do to rehabilitate our perceptions of Kaufman?
I think Carrey nailed many of the aspects of Andy’s character, but I guess I wanted to point out that there was a real guy behind all of Andy’s characters. He was a unique performer but he was also a real person. He didn’t believe the stuff he was saying. Andy wasn’t messing with Jerry “The King” Lawler behind the scenes. He was completely respectful of the craft of pro-wrestling.
Can we expect to see more biographical work from you on professional wrestlers in your future projects??
I’m sure pro-wrestling will insert itself into all of my future projects. I spent a long time obsessed with it and in recent years have made a lot of really good friends in pro-wrestling. It’s kind of the same way I felt when I first got into making comics. You meet people who are part of your tribe and it can be life affirming.