IMAGES: Design by Jason Gilmore, Photograph by Laura Jane Patelko, Illustration by Nick Marinkovich
RICHARD POPLAK AND ALEX JANSEN launching KENK: A GRAPHIC PORTRAIT at Cadillac Lounge (1296 Queen West) as part of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, tonight (Thursday, May 6) at 7 pm. Free. torontocomics.com.
Richard Poplak, author of the new graphic novel Kenk, doesn't even bring a lock when we meet at the west-end Lakeview Restaurant.
It's just an oversight, but then again, most cyclists must have felt some relief when eccentric disposaphobic Igor Kenk's bicycle bubble finally burst in July 2008.
For many, the case was open-and-shut: Kenk was a criminal, having amassed scattered caches totalling 3,000 bikes (and one tricycle) - evidence of the scale of his pedal-power purloining.
Kenk saw opportunity; cyclists saw their bikes vanish.
Nearly everyone riding a bike in T.O. has his or her own Igor Kenk story, told today as funny anecdotes but at the time of the theft repeated as trauma therapy. Certain themes recur, like Igor's rage, hoarding, brashness, charisma, social theories and judo chops - all of which are also explored in Kenk: A Graphic Portrait, Poplak's graphic dissection of the man at the centre of Toronto's biggest bike theft story. It launches tonight (Thursday, May 6) at the Cadillac Lounge as part of this weekend's Comic Arts Festival.
Not everyone was excited about the graphic novel, though.
"We got a lot of feedback before the work was even out there," remembers Alex Jansen, who kick-started the project in April 2007.
"People assumed we were going to glorify Igor," continues Poplak. "I've written about apartheid (Ja, No, Man) and Hamas and Hezbollah, and at no point did anyone assume I was going to turn Islamo-fascists into superheroes."
So who is Igor Kenk?
"He's an outsized character, and characters like him are representative. They're so outlandish, so out there that they begin to explain our society," says Poplak as we sip coffee in a diner that's gone through the grinder of unstoppable gentrification.
Before my interview with Poplak and Jansen gets rolling, we've already told each other our personal experiences with the ex-Slovenian cop turned Bicycle Clinic proprietor. Jansen reveals years of deliberate avoidance and an eventual meeting in the course of buying bike lights. Poplak details the hard sell Kenk was capable of turning on when he was getting rid of bike parts. You can tell the pair are true neighbourhood types.
I describe the time I went down to Queen West with a friend and his portable power saw to steal back my girlfriend's bike. Poplak, Jensen and I come to the conclusion that Kenk would probably have approved of that no-nonsense retrieval. As if "Well, it must be yours" would be his response - that or he'd have sicced his pit bulls on me.
The bike I ride to meet the duo caught Kenk's eye more than once. "I like your bike," he once yelled out to me. "Good thing you bought a good lock." Yes, good thing.
Illustrations in Kenk were created by taking stills from 30 hours of documentary footage, photocopying them, then scratching them with a blade.
For those out for the plain facts underlying these anecdotes, there are plenty in Kenk. It's a black-and-white book based on verbatim transcriptions of 30 hours of raw Igor Kenk interviews shot over 15 months by Jansen, the novel's producer, and filmmaker Jason Gilmore.
The pair, who'd started filming Kenk over a year before his headline-grabbing arrest, decided that selling the footage for a quick hit wasn't the right approach.
"We kept out of the media," says Jansen, who'd filmed two chapters' worth of Kenk interviews in the pre-sanitized version of the Lakeview we're sitting in. Instead of making a movie, though, the filmmakers were drawn to the freedom of the graphic novel. They started converting their footage into a documentary comic book made up of stills. After reading a magazine story Poplak had written exploring Igor Kenk's personal life, Jansen knew where to find his writer.
"My immediate reaction to the offer was, ‘Fuck, call my agent right now,'" recalls Poplak, who'd just come off a solitary journey through 17 countries writing The Sheikh's Batmobile, an examination of North American pop culture's impact on the Muslim world.
It helped that fumetti - a comic book style that overlays text on photographs rather than drawings - was Poplak's favourite medium growing up in South Africa. Kenk's hectic story is told via film stills arranged in a Watchmen-style 9-panel grid, then ground through a final analog post-process of photocopying and razor-blade slicing.
To appreciate Kenk, you have to hold the final product in your hands. Beyond the scratchy visuals deliberately modelled after a form of Slovenian photocopied underground publishing that Igor Kenk might have read as he came of age, the book is gritty. When you touch its pages, they leave a mark, a black mark on your fingers. Rub long enough and you'll look like you've just changed a bike tube.
The ink itself smells oily, suggesting the dirty feeling you'd get standing in front of Igor's Bicycle Clinic, negotiating the final price of a hot ride.
This immersive experience is deliberate, pointing to the public's complacency: cyclists did, after all, consume bikes of questionable origin, allowing Kenk to thrive on Queen West for many years.
"There are layers of complicity that Igor knits," says Poplak. "There's also a continuum, where the neighbourhood dude going to buy a bike from Igor is as shady as Goldman Sachs. Nobody looks good."
In 2008, Igor Kenk fell and global finance began its tailspin, and while we may not fully feel it yet, say Poplak and Jansen, that was a defining year for our generation. The death spiral of overconsumption and oil dependence: like Kenk's operation, this was stuff we knew was bad but didn't address for years.
You might find Kenk's seemingly psychotic cycle-hoarding loathsome, but we all desire stuff. While you can call BS on Igor for trying to play the vagabond recycler card, we play the "going green" card in order to justify the purchase of hybrid cars, greener laptops and other eco goods we don't really need.
"Igor goes on about how disgusting we are," says Poplak, "but he understands the impulses in himself that are no different from [yours] or mine.
"I want shit. I want a lot of shit," Poplak adds, noting that Igor's lack of inhibitions just made those internal contradictions more obvious.
The irony is that the grimy portal to Kenk's universe at 927 Queen West went from an $89,000 "steal," as Kenk describes his purchase in the novel, to a coveted spot for urban gentry battling for stroller space.
Selected images from the graphic novel Kenk: A Graphic Portrait
"We watch cities die and get reborn," says Poplak. And here was Kenk succumbing to that shift of scenery.
It's been a rapid transformation. As a kid, I went to St. Nicholas Church next to Trinity Bellwoods, and it wasn't that long ago that my parents would warn me of the dangers of Queen West and the avoid-at-all-costs darkness of said park. Now my mom asks which new area restaurants are worth trying.
There's simply no tolerance for Kenk in that world.
Thankfully, there's also no room for cult heroes in Kenk the graphic novel. It's a powerful, rounded portrait of the man, who was no modern-day Robin Hood. It reveals his narcissism, misogyny, arrogance, lack of balance and band of merry crackhead "providers." He is, in the end, "a Robin Hood stealing from everyone and selling to whomever," jokes Poplak.
Poplak, who travelled to Kenk's Slovenian hometown, stresses that to complete the project he relied on his observational journalist's best practices.
"It's 100 per cent his words. All the material is archival. It's rooted very strongly in the footage and Igor's words."
Igor Kenk himself didn't want to talk to NOW about the book, although Jansen personally dropped the book off at his home.
Ethical questions arise about taking advantage of a disturbed man to tell a story. To that, Poplak has a simple answer. "I did a litmus test: does Igor know that he's done something morally and ethically incorrect? The answer is absolutely," says Poplak. "He's as sane as you or me. He understood the implications."
That understanding comes to the fore when hundreds of pages of Igor's rambling culminate in his committing a simple act over two pages at the end of the book that neither Jansen nor Poplak will explain. They say it's for the reader to decide.
Kenk spots a bike he's been lusting after. He takes it. All his philosophizing, moral relativism, self-justification, condemnation of our broken system and humanity's devolution (the loss of "the monkey factor" as Professor Kenk describes it) ends in a simple act of theft.
Soon after this incident, Kenk went to jail. He's since been released, but his Queen West universe is gone, stolen by the stroller set. Not that Torontonians should lament his departure.
Poplak says we're "more of a city with the mythology of Igor in our history," but at the end of the day, when he has to commute home, he certainly feels his ride is safer.