Monday, February 4, 2013

Graphic Toronto

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and you need look no further than to some of the intriguing real-life characters walking around Toronto every day for evidence of this. Some of these characters have even become the protagonists of their own graphic novels.

Over the holidays and frigid winter days in Toronto, I found myself in the company of a few of these local celebrities. For starters, I was eager to read Jason Kieffer’s take on Zanta, Toronto's friendly neighborhood schizophrenic / street entertainer who became famous in 2005 for doing pushups shirtless while wearing a Santa Claus hat all over downtown.
Zanta’s personality makes him a natural for a comic book. The muscular, well-meaning and endlessly energetic Zanta (real name, David Zancai) must have been hard to keep up with, but Kieffer inserted himself into the book, following Zancai closely. And he did Zanta’s story justice.

Told mostly from the point of view of the oppressed, Zanta offers a classic case study of mental illness and many opinions about it. It’s serious stuff, but Zanta’s presence brings real humor to the subject. Kieffer captures the story with a thick line and an unflinching 2X6 panel grid structure that reinforces the documentary feel of the book. A cautionary tale about a weirdo or the secret origin of a folk hero - Kieffer let's you be the judge.

Another infamous Toronto character depicted in a graphic novel is Igor Kenk in Kenk, by Richard Poplak with Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore and Nick Marinkovich. I first read a library copy of it back in 2010, and I remember being surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I had heard about this Kenk character, a guy who had two thousand stolen bikes in his garages around Toronto. But I hadn't any idea who Igor Kenk really was until I finished reading this comic-documentary.

All the images and dialogue in the book come from more than 30 hours of digital footage and recorded interviews with Kenk, shot by Jansen and Gilmore and turned into comic book art by Marinkovich (using a photocopy machine for a low-tech, Communist-era feel).  The result is a gritty “graphic portrait” of a fascinating subject and a gripping, complex story.

I’m not sure if the Morons are from Toronto, but it’s very likely that they are. Their creator is Keith Jones, a cartoonist whose side job is managing a hot dog shop downtown. The shop, called Hot ‘n Dog, is decorated with his illustrations.
Hot ‘n Dog is definitely the type of place that would appear in his Morons comic book, which was released last year. It documents the misadventures of a hapless duo of anthropomorphic dudes who seem to be magnets for getting into trouble. While Jones' style looks deceptively crude, it’s actually very detailed and impressionistic.

This is the first installment of a nine-issue miniseries.  To get a taste, you can read 10 pages of Morons online on Jones’ Tumblr. Jones also has some other hilarious series posted online.


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