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Kenk: A Graphic Portrait

by Richard Poplak; Nick Marinkovich, illus.

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 about Igor Kenk, Toronto’s internationally notorious bicycle thief, in the months leading up to his “major bust” by police in 2008. That film was then edited, and images from it were photocopied to form the visual part of this “graphic portrait.” The majority of the text is also taken directly from the video footage.

Exactly what the book’s author, cultural journalist Richard Poplak, wrote – aside from the odd picture caption and subtitle, isn’t clear. The real creative work is in the layout and editing of the filmed material, and the gritty, underground look so befitting its grungy, alt-culture subject and his pre-gentrification Queen Street West neighbourhood. The marriage of text and image is nearly perfect; the scratchy black-and-white pictures and typewriter-style font reinforce the book’s documentary, DIY feel.

This graphic portrait 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, wherein Kenk lays out a rambling, inflected apologia that expands upon his crude survivalist/scavenger philosophy, interspersed with 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 of the illustrations is sympathetic.

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