Jason Kieffer with the new condos of his Cabbagetown neighbourhood in the background
By Dalton Sharp
Jason Kieffer wants to make people angry all over again.
Kieffer’s first book, an illustrated field guide to Toronto’s homeless, stoked complaints he was exploiting street people. He hopes his latest will get detractors and fans alike angry enough to fight for the return of banned street performer Zanta.
Zanta was the persona of David Zancai, a loud, and to some, obnoxious street performer, who grunted out endless push-ups wearing only shorts, construction boots and a Santa hat. He would often shout, “Yes, yes, yes! Merry Christ-mess!” Zanta: The Living Legend is a comic book biography that follows Zanta in his own words from origin to exile.
“I wanted to learn more about his story,” says Kieffer, “and see what he was like one on one, and see beyond his character. But what triggered (my interest) was the fact that he was banned from the city and the subway. That made me rage out. I wanted a discussion to get going. What happened to him needs to be looked into and there needs to be an investigation.”
Zanta was well on his way to becoming a minor local celebrity when a series of bans were issued that would eventually see him barred from the entire downtown core of Toronto and its’ subway system.
And there was jail time – the notoriously overcrowded Don Jail, and the Toronto West Detention Centre, a maximum security prison. And there was solitary confinement. In one darkly humourous panel Zancai is asked what he did to earn jail time. “Doin’ push-ups man,” he says.
Taking three years to complete, the book is packed with thick pen strokes. Barred windows are everywhere in this claustrophobic cityscape. At first Kieffer was drawing them unconsciously, but when he realized what he was doing he put even more in. The city as a giant prison.
He has always been fascinated by street people, living all of his life in Cabbagetown. The gentrified neighbourhood of Victorian homes, sandwiched between two sprawling housing projects, has been home to more than a few wandering eccentrics. They seem much scarcer on the ground lately as new condos go up.
Kieffer wants the writers and advocates that got furious with him for his homeless guide to be equally outraged at those he believes took advantage of Zanta.
The question I’m asking is why aren’t people in the media talking about this as an issue? These so called activists…where were they? Anybody who worked to displace him from the city violated his rights. You can’t ban someone from public space, who is law abiding, nonviolent. To me it’s a freedom of movement, freedom of expression violation.
To people who found Zanta’s act overly aggressive, Kieffer is dismissive. “My stance on it is that if people in a city scare you, don’t live in a city. There’s a lot of craziness in the city. Just because Zanta is recognizable he gets banned? No.”
And David Zancai now…drugged, calm, under the watchful care of his mother. He takes pills daily for his schizophrenia. Kieffer believes the jail time broke him, particularly the solitary confinement.
“People would rather you sit around doing nothing…to a lot of people it’s better that he sits around watching TV. You’re being a good obedient citizen vegging out. It’s all about ‘get in line…get in line…’ I don’t think that’s better. ”
Zanta won’t be coming to town anytime soon.
LAUNCH: Zanta: The Living Legend launches Thursday, October 18th, 7-9 p.m., at The Central, 603 Markham St., Toronto
Available at the Beguiling or online