Brian “Box” Brown is making a name for himself as a certain kind of graphic novelist. The Kensington comic book creator’s most recent works are all true-life stories about cultural icons escaping their niches to make a bigger impact on the world.
In 2014, he published Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, about the behemoth wrestler and actor. Two years later came Tetris: The Games People Play, on the origin and pervasiveness of the popular video game. The former made the New York Times best-seller list, and the latter earned him two Eisner Award nominations at last summer’s Comic Con in San Diego. Both books received rave reviews from critics inside and outside the comics world.
On Wednesday at Atlantis the Lost Bar in Fishtown, Brown will debut his latest 250-plus-page graphic novel, Is This Guy for Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman.
Brown had long been a fan of the comedian, whose awkward-on-purpose standup routine, role on the sitcom Taxi and, later, his head-scratching pro wrestling career made him an unlikely star in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Kaufman’s goofy, upbeat persona is a smart fit for Brown’s simple, blocky style. He’s recognizable on the page by his wide eyes, the mole on his left cheek, and that mischievous smile.
Brown knew he wanted to do his next book about a comedian. He thought about Roseanne Barr but was turned off by her Twitter rants. A chance meeting at South Philly’s famous 2300 Arena with Bill Apter, longtime photographer and editor of several wrestling magazines, helped steer Brown to his next subject.
Turned out each was familiar with the other’s work. Later, they hung out in Apter’s house, where the basement walls are covered with WWF memorabilia. “He was the person who introduced Andy Kaufman to Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler,” says Brown. Lawler became Kaufman’s publicly sworn nemesis — not to mention secret friend and comedy partner.
Meeting Apter got Brown thinking back to when Comedy Central started playing old Kaufman comedy specials. That was just before the release of the 1999 Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey.
“That’s when I got into it,” says Brown. “I remember dying laughing, and not being able to explain the next day to my friends why it was so funny. ‘He comes out, and he’s like playing the bongos, and he starts crying, but then the crying becomes the bongo song…’ ”
Most enticing to Brown was Kaufman’s puzzling foray into to wrestling, which became the focus of Is This Guy for Real? “Comedy was like a stepping stone to his pro wrestling career,” says Brown. “I kind of took that approach.”
When Kaufman wasn’t on stage or screen, he was often in the ring, offering $500 to the first woman who could pin him. He declared himself the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion. On Tuesday nights, America was watching him on Taxi. On Monday nights, he was wrestling in an auditorium in Memphis, taunting the crowd and playing the heel. He liked to lay it on thick, with sexist and anti-Southern tirades, and the capacity crowds loved to hate him.
Most Kaufman biographies don’t know what to do with this aspect of the comedian’s story. “There’s a lot of stuff written about the beginning of his career up to his first match, and then they’re like, ‘and then he kept going back,’ ” says Brown. “There’s this whole rest of his career that’s when he ‘kept going back.’ ”
One of the toughest parts of making Is This Guy for Real? was putting all of Kaufman’s stunts and matches in chronological order. When did each match take place? When did he and Lawler first wrestle? When did he record his bizarre parody of My Dinner with Andre with wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie?
The source material often came from articles in newspapers and wrestling magazines, and footage shot on VHS and film. Rarely was a match taped from start to finish. Brown interviewed Kaufman’s brother Michael, longtime friend Bob Zmuda (best known for taking over Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character), and several others to gather details and help fill in the gaps.
The research sometimes led to uncomfortable places. One was the comedian’s affinity for visiting brothels.
Another was, well, the wrestling thing had a sexual side. One memorable scene in Is This Guy for Real? involves Kaufman duct-taping his groin so nobody would know if he’d become aroused during the matches. It was only alluded to in the Jim Carrey movie, but the graphic novel deals with it directly.
“First I was like, eh, I don’t know if I even want to get into his sexual exploits,” says Brown. “But it was so tied to what he was doing on stage.”
After doing all this research, is Brown a bigger Kaufman fan?
“Yeah, well, I understand him a little bit more. I think that his comedy is not just funny, it warms my heart in a way.”
Brown finds himself laughing the way his 8-month-old son laughs. “It’s this pure giddy laughter, where you’re not understanding the joke. It’s not a witticism. Nobody’s getting hurt, really. Nobody’s getting put down. It’s just, like, somebody’s acting totally silly and it’s funny. It’s purely funny.”
As for the wrestling, Brown figures Kaufman was ahead of his time.
Back then, the wrestling world was wary of Hollywood. “The thing they were most worried about with celebrities is that it would delegitimize everything they built up. It would make it look fake. ‘If this guy can do it, whatever.’ ” But when Kaufman got smacked by Lawler on Letterman in 1982, it was national news. “That was the most legit pro wrestling thing ever,” says Brown.
The comedian was only 35 when he died from lung cancer. That was in 1984, the same year wrestling kingpin Vince McMahon Sr. died. After that, Vince Jr. took over and incorporated several small wrestling circuits into a national enterprise.
The first WrestleMania event was held at Madison Square Garden in 1985. Mr. T wrestled, Cyndi Lauper served as a manager, and Muhammad Ali and Liberace were in attendance. “I can’t imagine them not bringing in Andy Kaufman if he was still alive,” Brown says.