By Richard Poplak

Kenk is a book that merges several mediums, a “hybrid project that simultaneously takes the form of journalistic profile, documentary film, and comic book.” It began life as a film project portraying the life of Igor Kenk, Toronto’s internationally-renowned bicycle thief, in the months leading up to his “major bust” by the police in 2008. That film was then edited and images from it photocopied to form the visual part of this “graphic portrait.” The majority of the text is also taken directly from the video footage, Kenk’s words being combined with the images in graphic novel form.

Exactly what the book’s author, cultural journalist Richard Poplak, “wrote,” aside from the odd picture caption and background-information subtitle, isn’t clear. The full credits for the book run to a couple of pages. The real creative work is in the layout and editing of the filmed material (shot by Jason Gilmore), and the gritty, underground look so befitting the grungy, alt-culture anti-hero and his pre-gentrification Queen Street West neighbourhood. The wedding of text and image is near perfect as the scratchy black-and-white pictures and typewriter-style font reinforce the documentary, DIY feel.

As a “graphic portrait” it has to work hard to make up for what is missing, which is the distinctive sound of Kenk’s voice. The book essentially consists of a series of monologues by Kenk, wherein he lays out a rambling, inflected apologia that expands upon his rough, survivalist/scavenger philosophy while presenting various drive-by thoughts on society, culture, and the environment. Some of it makes a rough sort of sense, but it would be wrong to think of Kenk, a man very aware of his own self-fashioning into an urban legend, as a countercultural icon or postmodern prophet. In this regard the book walks a fine line, especially since there is no real counterweight to Kenk’s oversize personality, to which the dark visual idiom here is sympathetic. Not to mention the fact that every comic book needs a hero.

With that warning, this is a well-conceived and brilliantly executed book that draws an insightful, realistic portrait not just of a man but of a special time and place.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2010.

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