How Box Brown Brings Pop Culture History to Life in Comics

Box Brown has experienced a very busy decade. In 2011 he both won a Xeric Grant and ran a successful Kickstarter to found Retrofit Comics. Since then, he has won an Ignatz Award and published a notable catalog of short comics. The past few years have seen a shift in his focus though. In 2014, he published the best-selling Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, his first original graphic novel depicting the biography of the beloved wrestler. This was followed by Tetris: The Games People Play in 2016, a history of the games' invention in Russia and subsequent worldwide popularity. This month sees the debut of his newest work, Is This Guy For Real?, a biography of the idiosyncratic comedian Andy Kaufman.

Brown has stopped working as the publisher of Retrofit in order to focus his efforts on comics biographies and histories full time, and it seems as if he has really found his calling in this format. Acclaimed for his cartooning for years, these research-heavy stories from pop culture history have struck the rare combination of critical and commercial acclaim. They have landed on the New York Times best-seller list and consistently received plaudits from critics in comics and literature. So what makes Brown’s approach to comics and history so special?

Box Brown Historian - Kaufman
(Photo: First Second)

Discovering the Ignored History Behind Pop Culture

There’s no doubt that the subjects of these historical comics are unique. In the history of wrestling, video games, and comedy, no figures even compare to the likes of Andre the Giant, Tetris, or Andy Kaufman. It’s not simply that they are peculiar, but that their stories reflect a wide array of significant elements. They show a unique talent, highlight other important careers and moments, and play into their own industries and moments in history. Some subjects seem obvious for biographers, but the ties of these individuals to pop culture have left them underserved by historians. Elitist views of wrestling as “trash entertainment” have left the artistry of men like Andre and Kaufman largely ignored, especially when compared to their cultural impact.

The selection of Tetris for his second original graphic novel reveals just how keen Brown’s eye for history really is. Tetris was created by an engineer in Soviet Russia, which makes its success in the United States and across the world even more inexplicable. Behind the game’s mass popularity lies tales of the initial appeal of video games and the battle between economic philosophies in the Cold War. While Kennedy and Kruschev never appear, Brown details the human impacts and conflicts caused by their's and other's actions.

Entertainment is a key connecting theme between all three of the works. Tetris is focused on economics and politics, while the lives of Andre and Kaufman are more focused on personal issues. Andre the Giant’s success in wrestling came also with the pain of gigantism, and offers a lens for disability. Kaufman’s many personas and obsession with kayfabe (a wrestling term meaning to offer a performance as genuine lived experience) left even his contemporaries unaware of where Andy ended and his characters began. Each of these comics goes beyond a simple retelling of history and delves into what makes these lives and moments important.

Box Brown Historian - Tetris
(Photo: First Second)

Emphasizing Visual Peculiarities

Brown’s career as a cartoonist is also apparent in his selection of subjects. He is attracted to unique-looking individuals whose eccentricities and appearance are accentuated by his style. The size of Andre the Giant and Kaufman’s big hair and face both lend themselves to exaggeration, making them characters who stand out in any panel. Even the game of Tetris lends itself easily to precisely chosen details and minimalist designs. In spite of the immense cast of characters, who Brown normally distills into a few key details each, the game becomes a core visual metaphor for the entire comic. These people and ideas are easily compressed into notable details that make for quick identification and a smooth reading experience. Everything about Brown’s pages are easily distinguishable, making the transfer of so many anecdotes and dates an almost seamless experience.

The work and stories of these narratives also embrace movement and physical depiction. While we might often think of history in terms of dates, speeches, and important conversations with small bits of action in between, Brown’s subjects are all about motion. His fascination with professional wrestling is apparent in both the biographies of Andre the Giant and Kaufman, as they focus primarily on this aspect of their careers. It’s by far the most visually compelling component of their lives too, far more than acting or other entertainment pursuits. It is almost impossible to effectively describe a wrestling match. Yet in comics Brown breaks down the cause-effect nature of great moments, distilling each move or change in momentum into a single panel. Even for a reader who does not possess a deep understanding of the form, this depiction of matches can fill them with excitement.

Box Brown Historian - Puzzles
(Photo: First Second)

Understanding the Story in the History

It’s this knack for storytelling in comics that makes Box Brown a seemingly natural historian. To detail history is not to work entirely in cold observations of facts and dates, it is to find the narrative within that data and observe meaning. Looking through the appendices of any of these works reveals an engaged historian who is curious to discover as much as they can in books, documentaries, and, even, personal interviews. Brown capably uncovers as much as he can about his subjects. However, what makes his comics stand out is how well he weaves all of that knowledge into a compelling narrative.

Brown reveals the meaning behind lives and artwork. In his hands Tetris becomes the story of the fall of communism and rise of video games. Andre the Giant’s charming personality is shown to be a real act of bravery in the face of unseen demons and ignored disabilities. Kaufman’s chameleon-like nature is held up as a mirror for what we seek in entertainment and how that shapes both performer and audience. The observations of these comics are based entirely in fact and delve into themes every bit as deep as great literature.

This is what makes Box Brown stand out as a comics historian, a well-deserved appellate given his body of recent work. He is both a cataloger of fact and master storyteller. His work takes the world and reveals the lessons contained within cold facts of history. In this way he brings history to life and transforms entertainment into history back into entertainment.