For some people in Toronto, Igor Kenk is a common thief who stole their bikes and made their lives miserable. According to a Globe and Mail article from last December, "Kenk, 50, pleaded guilty to 16 charges..., bringing an end to a high-profile case that began in 2008 with a single bicycle-theft arrest and ballooned into the seizure of nearly 3,000 bikes, illegal drugs and other items he'd stashed around the city."
But Kenk (seen above in his mug shot, and then cleaned up for court) is also something of a popular hero, a notorious urban character who often helped people recover their stolen bikes, and whose antics brought a little colour to a grey city. He has also been portrayed in international media as the world's most prolific bike thief.
Now a new small press, Pop Sandbox, is set to publish a graphic "portrait" (as opposed to graphic novel) about Kenk's exploits and downfall. Called Kenk: A Graphic Portrait by Richard Poplak, it is scheduled for release in May, about the same time Kenk gets out of prison.
Poplak wrote a piece about Kenk in Toronto Life in October 2008. I asked Poplak, whose most recent book is The Sheikh's Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World (Penguin), a couple of questions about his decision to turn Kenk's life into a graphic novel.
Many in Toronto consider Igor Kenk a common criminal. What attracted him to you?
Igor has indeed been convicted as a thief, and he indeed made many people's lives miserable. But that's where the story starts, and it goes way deeper. Igor was an extraordinarily compelling character, which both attracted and repelled people. He's a profane street philosopher, an extreme communist, and extreme capitalist and much, much more. That he was able to operate his business for so long in the Queen West community was certainly a result of this outsized personality, but also because the community -- and I count myself among them -- was tacitly accepting of his methods. Anything for cheap stuff. In this, Igor tells a much, much larger story -- about a neighbourhood in flux, about what we're willing to accept as a community, about who we are as people. Igor is about much more than just Igor.
What do you see as universal about his story?
I'm very attracted to the old New York reporting of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling -- guys who wrote about neighbourhood personalities for the New Yorker in the 50s. To me, this is the apex of journalism, because it says absolutely everything -- not just about the characters in question, but about those that loved them, those that avoided them and the times in which they lived. These extreme characters explicated their surroundings and their epoch. It's funny -- very few people read Mitchell anymore, but I've been giving his collection to friends here in South Africa, and they absolutely love it and often categorically state it's some of the best stuff they've ever read. His unfussy reportage is about losers in a 10-block radius of the lower East Side in the 1950s. And it's both timeless and utterly universal. That's what I hope to achieve with Kenk.