The Central is a two-storey pub tucked into Mirvish Village alongside alternative video stores, a comic shop, and specialty kitsch boutiques. It’s the perfect venue for the launch of Jason Kieffer’s new graphic novel Zanta: The Living Legend: casual, a little bit quirky, and quintessentially Toronto.
An icy rain pours outside on Thursday night as I tuck myself into a two-person table with a pint and get ready to hear Kieffer speak. To my left, at least three tables have been shoved together to accommodate Kieffer’s friends and well-wishers. Zanta is not the cartoonist’s debut, but it holds promise of becoming one of his most prolific works, and the knot of people reacts accordingly, bubbling with excitement.
The reading is supposed to be starting at seven. In true artistic fashion, Kieffer ambles onto the stage a little bit after 7:30, a glass of what looks like lime cordial clutched in one hand. Nobody minds, of course: it has given them all the chance to grab a drink and buy the book.
Kieffer begins by reading a short comic he wrote called “Why Zanta Why,” originally published in the Christmas 2009 issue of Taddle Creek. When he reads, I’m reminded of a little kid reading something he is particularly proud of — all in one big whoosh — but it comes off as charming, rather than immature or grating.
“Sound effects!” somebody yells when Kieffer skips over an onomatopoeia, and laughter sweeps the room. Kieffer immediately complies, a smile on his face.
“Why Zanta Why” turns out to be an excellent reading choice, since it is an origin story of how Kieffer became interested in writing about Zanta, a former fixture of downtown Toronto who was famous for his all-weather shorts, his rambunctious behaviour and, of course, his ubiquitous Santa hat. Kieffer explains that he became fascinated after running into Zanta downtown, a fascination that took him straight to the internet. He thought this was an interesting enough story for a book, and so shortly afterwards he set up an interview with Zanta himself.
“He chainsmoked the entire time,” Kieffer says of this interview. “At one point he couldn’t find a light, so he used a toaster!”
After his reading from Taddle Creek, Kieffer reads us an excerpt from Zanta: The Living Legend.
“How long have I been doing this for?” he nervously asks when he is finished.
“About fifteen minutes,” somebody yells from the crowd.
Kieffer looks disappointed. “Oh. I’m debating reading more, but I don’t want to spoiler everyone.”
“Spoil us!” the crowd yells.
So he reads some more. Kieffer’s nerves prove to be completely unfounded: everyone seems to enjoy getting spoiled.
He winds the evening down with a Q&A session. Maybe I’m just too used to 8:30AM classrooms where nobody wants to raise their hand, but I’m surprised by the instant clamour. Many wish to inquire about Zanta himself, who was notoriously banned from Toronto in 2010. Kieffer admits that since he hasn’t talked to Zanta in a few years, he probably isn’t the best person to ask, although he muses that he “might call him up.”
When asked what makes Zanta’s story so unique, so worth telling, Kieffer gets surprisingly deep. “In my own experience, street people often get displaced from their own neighbourhoods,” he says. “That’s what I like about the book. It’s [addressing] not just a Zanta issue, but a city-wide issue of displacement.”
Kieffer is also not shy about admitting that part of the drive behind writing Zanta: The Living Legend was his outrage in how the city of Toronto treated Zanta. Given that his last book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, was a book of illustrated profiles on local street people, it becomes clear that Kieffer has an affinity for this cause.
“The anger drives me,” he says dryly, and the room erupts into laughter once more.
Zanta: The Living Legend is currently available to buy at specialty comic shops.