KENK: A Graphic Portrait is a ground-breaking 304-page journalistic comic book detailing the life and times of Igor Kenk, “the world’s most prolific bicycle thief” (The New York Times and The Guardian). In summer 2008, Kenk was arrested and nearly 3,000 bicycles were seized in one of the biggest news stories of the year. Built from more than 30 hours of never-before-seen intimate footage taken over the year leading up to his arrest, KENK is a thought-provoking and surprisingly funny portrait of an outsize neighbourhood figure and a city in flux, both wracked by the forces of gentrification and by a burgeoning global environmental and economic crisis that promises to define our generation.
KENK is an exciting new hybrid that simultaneously takes the form of documentary film, journalistic profile and comic book.
KENK: A Graphic Portrait is a simultaneous journalistic portrait of an outsize neighbourhood figure and a city in flux, both wracked by the forces of gentrification and by a burgeoning global environmental and economic crisis that promises to define our generation.
This is the story of Igor Kenk, a Slovenian-born Torontonian who was for decades the scourge of the city’s budding Queen Street West strip. He was known to all as a fencer of stolen bikes, a pitbull puppy mill, a Fagen who kept a coterie of underworld bicycle thieves, a self-styled urban environmental crusader. His gruff manner and profane patois were legendary: at Igor’s Bicycle Clinic, the customer was not always right. If a bicycle was reported stolen, more often than not the cops would guide the enraged victim to Igor’s store – a medieval hodge-podge of ancient bikes pouring onto the sidewalk across from Trinity-Bellwoods Park.
This neighbourhood has long been a nodal point – a conjunction of young students from all over the country, low-income immigrant families, the indigent from a nearby mental institution, prostitutes, drug-dealers and, lately, high-income young families that have transformed the strip by moving into branded condominiums, demanding a branded lifestyle. It was a matter of time before these opposing forces clashed, and changed the face of the neighbourhood for good.
We first meet Igor in his prime – a figure constantly in motion, both bartering with and berating his customers and the shadowy “Providers” that bring him his bikes. We learn of his wife, a phenomenally talented Julliard-trained piano accompanist. We ride with him in his pick-up truck as he scavenges for scrap throughout the city, learning of his inviolable “waste not, want not” ethos, and his disdain for a society that discards unthinkingly. We are sucked into his looping logic, mulling over the ethical morass in which he makes his living off what others have stolen or thrown out.
Igor cuts a swathe through his neighbourhood. He has an irrepressible charm with women. We meet his lovers and a growing cabal of furiously loyal supporters. We travel back in time – to Slovenia to learn of the system into which he came of age. Meanwhile, the world around him is changing. Gas prices are steadily rising. The property value of Igor’s wretched store has increased more than seven fold. Where drug addicts once roamed, there are parents pushing high-end baby strollers. Igor is steadily becoming something of a local attraction: out-of-towners insist on having their pictures taken with him. But many locals want him gone. Bicycles are stolen with increasing frequency; too many are ending up at Igor’s store. There are rumours of bike thieves being paid with drugs.
Then comes the summer of 2008.
The world is febrile with the first tremors of a global economic crisis. Gas is all but unaffordable. Igor’s environmental doom and gloom – his wacked-out but compelling theories of impending collapse – start to sound prescient. We begin to see him as a man with a significant hoarding compulsion, but also a man with a plan – however misguided. He is stockpiling bicycles and drugs for a world in which those two commodities are worth more than money. We meet the cops who are slowly tightening their dragnet. We hurtle headlong into the inevitability of July 16, the day of Igor’s arrest. The press reaction is astonishing; there is prominent international coverage in American, German and British papers. Like aftershocks following an earthquake, nearly 3,000 bicycles are found in warehouses throughout the city. In the story’s final moments, we listen to Igor desperately try to style himself as a do-gooder, a man saving a city from its own wanton profligacy.
KENK: A Graphic Portrait is largely derived from more than thirty hours of video footage taken of Igor Kenk over the course of the year leading right up to his arrest. Each frame of the graphic novel is pulled from a still of digital footage, a photograph or original source documentation. The artistic treatment is motivated by a style that was prevalent in Slovenia in the 1980s; after the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito died, the country fell into a crazed mélange of the communist and the capitalist, and the punk-like ethos of FV Disco was born. Reminiscent of the punk zines and Zappa-esque nuttiness of the late seventies and early eighties hardcore scenes in the West, FV Disco nevertheless had its own particular esprit. The primary medium was the photocopy machine, an agent of democracy because it put publishing – which was until then state-run – in the hands of the people. A dark yet vibrant artistic movement was born, forming the basis of an entire underground culture. Kenk will continually reference FV Disco in the gritty, collage-like, found-image style – a cue to Igor Kenks ideological coming-of-age. This is a way to code a deeper understanding of Igor Kenk’s personality into the very bones of the project.
KENK: A Graphic Portrait is part poetic visual meditation, part in depth journalistic profile of the New Yorker school. Kenk is the story of a man and a city at a time of monumental change.