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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).

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