Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a curious combination of forms. Investigative journalism with a splash of memoir and mystery, Kenk tells the true story of Igor Kenk, the world’s most prolific bicycle thief. His story made headlines first in Toronto, his local city, before spreading to national and international news media. His arrest and the news media tell one story but Kenk: A Graphic Portrait (Pop Sandbox, November 2011) strives to tell another.
The book, based on 30 hours of video footage taken of Igor Kenk the year preceding his arrest, is clearly intended to be a supplement and promotional tool for an upcoming animated film profiling 2008’s biggest news story. (Or, at least it was in Canada; Americans were preoccupied with the presidential election and appointment of Barack Obama.) Fortunately, unexpectedly, Kenk offers the reader more.
When it comes to the pictorial elements of graphic novels, there follows a standard representation which Kenk clearly does not follow. Forgive me, dear graphica fans (for I am devoted too), for the following transgression: from superhero omnibus’ to the political Persepolis to the coming-of-age Blankets, the graphic nature of graphic novels has remained steadfastly… well… cartoonish. Even depicting the most graphic of all tales, the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman chose cartoon mice to represent his protagonists.
With Kenk, however, the graphics express the narrative’s journalistic and film roots. Using collage techniques and a photocopy machine, printed in black and white then crumpled and scratched, Kenk looks like both printed newspaper and night video footage. The effect is stunning and disconcerting, particularly when the team follows Igor Kenk deep inside his store and sees the bicycles crammed inside and covering every possible surface. It is hard to discern individual bikes and their parts – a tire here, a handlebar there, spokes, pedals, gears – look vague, out-of-focus, and distorted. Not unlike how the media viewed Kenk, a radical environmentalist and Eastern European immigrant, a so-called Fagin with “a legion of followers”: shadowy, suspect, dangerous, and most importantly, thief.
In Kenk’s native Yugoslavia, the type of everyday wealth exhibited and abused by North Americans was an out-of-reach fantasy. The used electronics, technological marvels hardly a decade old, relegated to our curbs would have been out of reach to him in Ljubjana, even if they were sitting in a nearby dump. In communist Yugoslavia, the notion of private wealth and ownership was foreign to Kenk. Then, arriving in Canada, what does he see all around him? Valuable objects are on the street and, especially for a man like Kenk who has “an acquisition obsession”, they are just waiting to be taken, stolen, and re-appropriated. One statement in particular illuminates his distaste for our capitalist society: “Fucking North America. Shit pouring from the garbage to point we never need to make another thing. Ever!”
In light of current events like Occupy Wall Street, it’s easy to grasp the informal psychological profile constructed from interviews and conversations with Igor Kenk. Maybe even empathize with him or justify the rationale. Though short – just 304 pages – Kenk is worth close examination. Discover the man who stole nearly 3,000 bicycles… and what he was planning to do with them.
For a multimedia preview of Kenk: A Graphic Portrait, click here.