David Zancai, aka Zanta, narrowly missed becoming some sort of viral sensation. Shirtless, hatted and built, for the first half of this millennium, Zanta was found around downtown city streets, usually Yonge, doing pushups and rattling off his odd power chants and catchphrases. Endearing, entertaining, creeping out and annoying locals to varying degrees. While Zanta made it on to Kenny vs. Spenny and a few other local programs, he retired around 2007, barely eclipsing the rise of the viral celebrities who have gained a lot more for a lot less. Now, Zanta has become a small bit of urban lore, the tale of a whimsical, uncanny, aggressive street man. As for Jason Kieffer, a local and controversial cartoonist, Zanta has remained on the mind, and in a creative fit, Kieffer is determined to make sure Zanta’s has his legacy as Zancai wanted.
When Kieffer draws Zanta, his muscles are buff, straining with lines. His left bicep tatt is a Geiger reading, and his trademark cap droops over his eyes. When Kieffer draws himself, his face is more obscured by his sunflower mane of hair. Jason first saw Zanta performing outside of the Eaton Centre. Intimidated at first, watching him for a few moments, Kieffer found Zanta to be more “nutty” than angry. “Anger drives me,” Jason Kieffer says sheepishly at his book launch. At the far end the slender Central, sitting on stage, doused in a hard red light that dyes his shaggy blonde hair, Kieffer reads, nervously and verbatim, from his new graphic novel, Zanta: The Living Legend. The anger Kieffer speaks of was sparked by the door hitting Zanta’s toned ass on his way out of the downtown core.
While Zanta’s relocation to Etobicoke isn’t legally mandated, Zanta was met with a plethora of bannings from the many high traffic spots and the TTC entirely. Kieffer felt this was wrong, and even though David Zancai has “retired” from the role of Zanta, Kieffer wanted Zanta’s story on the shelves. “The goal of the book was to tell the story from his side,” says Kieffer, “I wasn’t interested in telling a well-rounded story.”
Kieffer isn’t a stranger to receiving flak. His last book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, was met with media anger. Kieffer was on the defence. Work he found personal towards the homeless, against those who found profiling street people in an atlas fashion to be smug and in poor taste. “A lot of those people were people I’ve seen since I was a kid,” says Kieffer, “I grew up with them. I knew them. It felt like I was revealing stuff about family. It felt like my personal life. I guess it didn’t turn out that way because of the format.”
When mention of Rabble appeared in a slide during his presentation, Chester Brown, in the audience, let out a joking, “Boooo!” Zanta, too, appeared in that book, and was followed up on in a short story for Taddle Creek, Why Zanta, Why. The process, and the style of Living Legend, however, are greatly different from what got him previously grilled.
Kieffer thinks the reception will be different this time. “For starters,” says Kieffer, “I have Zanta’s consent to do the book, and that was a big issue for a lot of people with Rabble.” Living Legend is also the composition of research, a kind of project Kieffer admitted several times during the reading is completely new to him. He started doing casual research online, looking at videos and reading material published in newspapers. Eventually, in 2006, Kieffer built up the confidence to interview Zanta at his apartment.
Kieffer was surprised to find Zanta “rational but eccentric,” and the man he spoke to one-on-one was very different from the man doing push-ups on the sidewalk. “He’s fully aware that he’s performing,” says Kieffer, “though I doubt that initially he was aware of that. I think that it was coming from a genuine emotional crash. It’s how I feel in a lot of ways, I don’t understand what I’m feeling and there’s anger and I channel it into something. Usually comics.”
Large parts of the book are made up from this encounter, stories and history Zanta told Kieffer in person. Living Legend begins with Zanta’s origin story, word-for-word from Zanta’s mouth, about a rebellious reindeer who was exiled from Santa’s workshop and then magically transformed into a human. In the years since the interview, Kieffer has filled in blanks from more published reports and gathering testimonies from friends and pedestrians. “I don’t want to call it a biography,” says Kieffer, “but I’m going to, like, try and get it as close to the facts that had been reported to date.”
A lot of the questions at the reading showed there was a lot of interest in what Zanta has been doing since settling in Etobicoke. Kieffer admits that he hadn’t actually spoken too much to Zanta since his 2006 meeting, only a few, casual conversations over the phone. “You don’t even need to know what Zanta’s doing now for the complete story,” says Kieffer. What he does know is that Zanta is currently on medication, for his mother’s sake, and that he doesn’t sound very happy. “Can’t say what’s best for other people,” says Kieffer.
Zanta: The Living Legend is available at Toronto comic book stores and through Kieffer’s personal site