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culture

Yes, Yes, Yes: Zanta Gets the Graphic-Novel Treatment

A local cartoonist creates a book about a shirtless Toronto street legend.

A panel from Zanta: The Living Legend.

Anyone who spent any time in downtown Toronto in the mid-aughts will be familiar with former construction worker David Zancai. Zancai spent years patrolling the streets; shirtless and dressed in shorts, a Santa hat, and work boots, he’d be spotted doing knuckle push-ups in inopportune places, flexing, and shouting what would become his trademark phrase: “Yesyesyes!”

Eventually, Zanta found himself banned from most of the downtown core after repeatedly interrupting live broadcasts at the then–City TV building on Queen Street West, and in increasingly frequent conflicts with the police. These days, Zancai has hung up the hat, and lives with his mother in Etobicoke. He’s on psychiatric medication that, according to a recent Star article, he says he doesn’t need.

Local cartoonist Jason Kieffer has opted to immortalize Zanta in a new self-published graphic novel called Zanta: The Living Legend. Kieffer says he was fascinated by Zanta for a while before deciding to make the comic, but it wasn’t until Zanta was banned from downtown that he decided to turn his story into a book.

“I was like, ‘That’s wrong, you can’t do that,’” Kieffer told us. “Some people knew about the bans, but others don’t, and I thought it was important…. That’s not the right way to treat someone. He’s a real guy.”

Kieffer says he met the “real guy” behind Zanta when he went to Zancai’s Etobicoke apartment to interview him for the book.

“He was dressed up as Zanta, but he wasn’t doing his act,” Kieffer says of the meeting. “He’s not like the character on the street, where he’s loud, and dominant…. I found him to be a really kind, genuine person. That gets missed.”

This isn’t Kieffer’s first time illustrating street life in the city. In late 2009, he released a book called The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, which documented the appearance and quirks of various fixtures of Toronto street life, Zanta included. The book was criticized as a mockery of the city’s less fortunate and mentally ill, and earned Kieffer a Villian nomination for the 2010 edition of Torontoist‘s Heroes and Villains. Kieffer says he’s not worried about a similar backlash from this book.

“This book is more straightforward and presents my ideas in a more straight-up way,” he says. “It’s pretty clear that I’m on Zanta’s side…. There are people who are going to say that I’m exploiting Zanta or whatever, but, frankly, that’s insulting to his intelligence.”

For his part, Zancai is pleased with how he’s portrayed in the book, and flattered that someone thought he was book-worthy. “It’s a really nice book,” Zancai says. “He did a great job with that. I don’t know about royalties or anything, but the book is great.”

According to Kieffer, Zancai probably won’t be receiving any royalties, given the fact that the Kieffer self-published it.

“I’m hoping I might break even,” says Kieffer.

Kieffer says he wants Zanta: The Living Legend to both pay tribute to Zancai’s character, and to start a broader discussion about public space and what constitutes “normal.”

“My hope for the book is that it starts a larger discussion about the way we treat certain kinds of people in the city,” he says. “I want to generate and discussion about rights, and Zanta’s right to exist as Zanta downtown, and other people to be as eccentric as they want downtown, as long as they’re not hurting other people.”

Zanta: The Living Legend is available at The Beguiling (601 Markham Street) and Silver Snail (329 Yonge Street).

Comments

  • We want Zanta

    Absolutely agree with Kieffer. A lot of folk, educated or not, believe people’s behaviour should conform to a certain norm. For instance, that the occasional individual shouting in the bus is felt as disruptive and that he/she should quiet down based on some conception that because the average doesn’t shout, no one should. We’re living in a society of increased isolation and individualism, yet many of us increasingly yearn for connection and recognition. For sure, no physical or verbal abuse should be tolerated, but personal expression, no matter what the form, should be welcome and seen as enriching our social landscape. Maybe even seen as a form of art. We want Zanta!

    • http://twitter.com/robfordsaysshit Rob Ford Says Shit

      Well, no.

      I have a good friend who used to be a street performer around the St. Lawrence Market. She was a juggler and fire-swallower, and during the “Zanta years”, she frequently had him disrupting her shows. (Like, once or twice a week.) He would bark and scream at her audience, he would throw himself to the ground right in front of her to do push-ups, and he would behave in ways that she found extremely intimidating.

      That’s not okay.

      Aside from the fact that he was putting her in significant danger (fire work takes a hell of a lot of concentration), he was directly affecting her ability to make a living.

      Or we might consider why the TTC banned him. It’s not that the TTC disapproves of santa hats or push-ups, is that vehicles get delayed when he hops on, doesn’t pay a fare, and puts on a show in the aisle. People get frightened and disembark. The vehicle can’t move. The driver has to report the incident to Transit Control. Sometimes a Supervisor has to be called. It creates a huge problem which the millions of other people who depend on the system shouldn’t have to deal with.

      Or we might consider that it’s incredibly, incredibly, incredibly, unspeakably gross that you want to take a man who has had a serious workplace accident and turn him into some sort of edgy, gritty art project.

      • StonePile

        Sorry Zanta was affecting your friends ability to make a living as a street performer. As a street performer she is subject to the public, even if she finds them annoying or distracting. Performers, groups and people are often in conflict in public areas. If one party is not directly breaking a law they both have the right to exist. I often find people annoying, rude, stinky and so on. I do not think to myself that that person should be removed, I think well I live in a metropolis that holds a variety of people that act in a different ways, some extreme. For your friend, maybe she should consider preforming in a private venue where social conventions can be enforced by the venue. Zanta vs Juggler? I’ll take Zanta, but I won’t be telling the juggler to get out of town.

        • Annoying

          I’m coming to the sidewalk outside your house to subject you to myself, even if you find me annoying or distracting. I’m often in conflict in public areas. I do not directly break a law and I have the right to exist. You may find me annoying, rude, stinky and so on. You might think I should be removed. Too bad.

        • http://twitter.com/robfordsaysshit Rob Ford Says Shit

          There’s a difference between someone hanging around being annoying, rude or stinky, and someone whose entire public persona is being as annoying, rude and stinky to as many people as he possibly can, because ATTENTION ATTENTION EVERYONE PAY ATTENTION I AM VERY VERY SPECIAL ATTENTION HOORAY ATTENTION I HOPE YOU WEREN’T PLANNING ON DOING ANYTHING TODAY OTHER THAN PAYING ATTENTION TO ME BARK BARK GROWL BARK BARK BARK.

          We tolerate the smelly, rude or annoying person because, on some level, we pity them. We don’t want to kick them when they’re down. Maybe they’re just having a rough day, maybe this really *is* the best they can do, whatever.

          That’s worlds apart from actively working to disrupt other people’s activities and insert yourself into their lives, just because you want to.

          • StonePile

            Yes Zanta may have looked for more attention than some of the eccentric people in the city, but the response from the city was not acceptable. When the governing bodies start displacing people from public areas there is a problem. It can be as simple as telling homeless people they are not allowed in wealthy neighborhoods. In Zanta’s situation it is much more extreme and obvious. Accepting the displacement of the few is not a path to go down. Wait in tell your life gets inhibited and then you may have a different view.

          • http://twitter.com/robfordsaysshit Rob Ford Says Shit

            If I developed a variant of schizophrenia as a result of an industrial accident and this manifested itself as it did in Zanta, I would hope that my friends and family would have the good sense to get me committed to a room with nice padded walls. By all means, “inhibit” me!

          • StonePile

            Typical. As soon as someone is prescribed anti-psychotic drugs they no longer have the ability to make decisions, we should just put them in a jail, pump them with drugs and forget about them – this sort of behavior towards people with metal issues is completely archaic. Yes some people who can not function on a day to day basis need constant care – Zanta was not one of these people. He was completely functional. He even clams that he does not need the medication, I can not say if this is true or not. But locking people up, segregating and forgetting about them is not the solution.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neville-Ross/100002343524258 Neville Ross

            I’m sorry, but Zancai’s (I refuse to honor his delusion of him being Santa Claus) ‘functioning’ is not
            functioning at all, and is a failure of the mental health
            system/social workers/friends/family to intervene and get him
            something useful to do with his life post-treatment. What Zancai
            needed was a stern but loving sit-down with all involved in his life
            after he became a celebrity and for them to get him to a form of true recovery that would involve him maybe getting back into the
            workforce in the same career he was involved in pre-accident and
            pre-illness and making himself a productive member of society, but this never happened, resulting in what’s been going on these past thirteen years. This more than anything else would be considered an indictment of a celebrity and fame obsessed society, and probably is.

            Zancai needs vocational training, either in what he was doing before, or something else. Or he needs better meds (maybe some Adderall to stabilize him so that he can become productive at something art or performance related, which would also require training) Either way, all of this (the book included) is just bullshit indulging a white man due to his privilege.

      • Anonymous

        Consider the possibility that people may have found your friend and her audience just as annoying and disruptive as she found Zanta. I live close to an LCBO and have had to endure the day-long “singing” of a particular busker who has claimed the space as her own (and defended it – I’ve seen her elbow others off her turf) for over 4 years now, late into the night and much of the weekend. The only people who concern her are streaming in and out of the LCBO or passing on the sidewalk – she gives no regard to the people living behind those windows overhead or across the street, who have to listen to her howling the same handful of songs all day long, year after year, poorly.

        Just because she’s trying to make money doesn’t mean she has more of a right to be there – and disrupt other people’s lives – than anyone else.

  • Anonymous

    Why do we let TV shows decide who can be on the sidewalk outside their windows? (Windows they’ve intentionally turned their cameras toward to get street life in the background.)

    Zanta for mayor! Yes yes yes!