Sunday, October 28, 2012

Zanta the Living Legend

by Jason Kieffer

Toronto has a proud history of being home to many a street-corner eccentric, and it appears that cartoonist Jason Kieffer has taken on the task of chronicling them through his cartoons.  Kieffer is best known in the city for his controversial book The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, a field guide to the downtown's homeless, drug addicts, and harmless weirdos.  Now, he's turned his gaze on one of our most storied folk, Zanta.

For people not from the city, Zanta is a muscle-bound man who, from 2003 at least until 2008, would pop up around the city, yelling at people, and performing very theatrical push-ups.  I distinctly remember eating lunch at Maison du Croissant (man I miss that place) watching him block traffic while yelling at cars and doing push-ups in the middle of the intersection at Yonge and Gerard.

Zanta was immediately recognizable - he was always wearing just a pair of shorts, a pair of boots, and a Santa hat, no matter the weather.  He often performed his calisthenics on top of newspaper boxes, or upside down in the subway, while making a hydraulic noise, or wishing everyone a "Merry Christmess".

Kieffer's book consists of a few sections.  It begins with a graphic novel transcription of a long interview Kieffer conducted with the man in 2006.  They discuss Zanta's love for this 'character', and he chronicles his many issues with Toronto Police Services and the Toronto Transit Commission's Constabulary.  As time went by, Zanta became banned from an increasingly large section of the downtown core, and TTC property excluding bus routes.  Much of the interview is made up of Zanta defending his actions.

The second section is more straight-forward transcription of a radio interview Zanta gave while locked up in the Don Jail.  In this part of the book, Zanta seems much more mentally ill than he does in the first; gone is the harmless eccentric, replaced by the ravings of a man who seems pretty deluded.

Later, we check in with Zanta when he is free once again, and see that the constant police harassment has broken the man.  That there is no indication that he ever received any kind of useful support or assistance can be seen as an indictment on our whole city.

Still, Kieffer paints Zanta as the type of person who makes the city exciting and unique.  He suggests that we need these types of characters in our lives, and is sympathetic to the man throughout.  This is a fun read, and a nice reminder of an aspect of our city that I haven't seen in many years, and that I miss.

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