The Bicycle Thief: Alex Jansen Discusses Kenk
Igor Kenk became one of Canada’s (and the world’s) most illustrious thieves when he was arrested for stealing nearly 3,000 bicycles in Toronto in2008. It was a strange case that immediately took fire and made Kenk a celebrity and antihero of sorts. It also inspired the beautifully depicted new graphic novel Kenk, by Alex Jansen (publisher of Pop Sandbox), Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich. The wildly inventive art style combines with the oddness of Kenk’s story (and Kenk himself) to create an intense and vivid portrait of a very interesting man. Already published in Canada, Kenk was named a Best Book of 2010 by Quill & Quire, Canada’s top literary magazine, and has been a bestseller in Canada. We talked to Jansen about creating the book.
(Below, Jansen, second from left, with cocreators Jason Gilmore, Richard Poplak, and Nick Marinkovich)
Congratulations on Kenk’s great success! Do you think Americans will relate as well to its story?
Thank you very much. There's an incredibly rich history of long-form journalism in America, of which we hope this book might find a small place. In the spirit of the old long-form New Yorker pieces, our hope was to explore larger issues through one person's story. In this case, Igor Kenk's downfall is deeply entwined with what stands to become one of the most significant periods in our generation's history: the monumental year leading to summer 2008—the year of Obama, of rising gas prices, increased environmental awareness and a shift in consciousness, all with a looming economic collapse (which Igor was constantly preaching—and oddly enough, his arrest was within weeks of the drop). In this regard, the piece seems to be taking on even more weight with time and might even have stronger resonance in the U.S. than anywhere, right down to the current occupation of Wall Street.
The first publication to break the news story internationally in a big way was actually The New York Times, which covered it on page 7 of section A, followed quickly by The Guardian and Telegraph in the U.K. I hope the story will continue to translate to international audiences.
How did you first get involved in telling the story of Igor Kenk?
I moved into the neighborhood where Igor operated just over seven years ago but avoided him entirely based on reputation alone for the first three years I lived there; well before the big arrest, Igor was notoriously well known as a hub for stolen bikes and even the police would send unlucky victims of theft by his shop to see if their bike had shown up there.
It is important to note that the story is also a portrait of the rapidly changing neighborhood in which it takes place, where Igor had bought his building for $85,000 ten years earlier and was receiving offers upward of $600,000 prior to the arrest. Where it once blended in, his ramshackle shop, with its broken windows, sheet metal facade, mounds of bicycles, strange hours, and shady clientele stood out like a sore thumb against the new crop of high-end boutiques, doggy outfitters, and patisseries.
One evening in late April I decided to stop in. I was cycling through the adjacent park near midnight, saw his shop was still open and decided to pick up a bell and light. The police were cracking down on bike safety and issuing big fines, but it was equal parts pure curiosity that brought me in. I stayed nearly an hour…
He defied all my preset black-and-white assumptions. Here was this exceptionally bright former child prodigy and chess master who'd immigrated from Slovenia, where he actually worked as a police officer. His common-law wife was a Juilliard graduate and one of Canada's top classical pianists. He'd gone through the fall of Yugoslavia. He was a radical environmentalist, capturing his shower water to feed his plants, decrying rampant consumption and Western excess, foretelling the coming economic collapse, and preaching his own brand of pure communism. All the while he was acting capitalist in the most vicious sense and amassing thousands of stolen bicycles, often through loopholes in legislation, though he argued it wasn't entirely that different than how we exploit the third world. But he s--t right where he sleeps, and it was clear that he was on a collision course with the new neighborhood—of which I was a part. It felt incredibly timely to start following this story.
How did you get involved with your cocreators Richard Poplak, Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich?
The day after speaking with Igor, I came back with my longtime collaborator, filmmaker Jason Gilmore, and we began shooting extensively over the next year.
We took as many notes and still photos as we did film footage, because Kenk was always conceived as a journalistic graphic novel first and foremost. I've long been equally passionate about all forms of visual storytelling and having worked extensively in film, I was really attracted by the freedom that the graphic novel medium could afford, especially financially and creatively, as well as the opportunity to push the medium. In the past, I would often be forced to make several negative compromises when trying to mount a film project, but here we were able to achieve something as close to the original vision as possible, and in a timely manner. We followed Igor right up to his arrest; our last interview was only days before the big bust.
As the news story exploded, we received a lot of interest and were approached by a lot of media, but Richard Poplak was the first journalist interested in really delving into the story at its deepest level and not just solidifying the simple one-dimensional vilification. Up to that point, I'd planned on handling the writing myself, but as it became a larger journalistic story, it made sense to bring on a journalist (and it was equally important to ensure an objective eye to the subject and material). We let Rich in on our graphic novel plans, and he was immediately hooked and on board. It was a logical next step to best serve the project. Rich took over writing with a mandate to stick tightly to the filmed footage and compiled materials.
There's a short interview detailing Rich's writing process at kenk.ca/videos.
The overlay of art on film in Kenk is impressive and really amazing. How long did it take to accomplish this design? How did the artistic vision and direction for this book develop?
The art style evolved organically as well. We sent Rich to Slovenia to do background research and interviews with Igor's friends and family, and there he also discovered an art movement that dominated the underground culture while Igor lived there, called "FV." Visually, it was largely rooted in the photocopier, which was an important agent of democracy against state-controlled printing presses—the aesthetic was similar to the punk-rock zine movement here, but much more politically charged. As Rich would put it, it was a style that informed and informs of Igor's ethos, and it immediately made sense to take that direction for the art. At that point, we brought on Nick Marinkovich to work from Jason's layouts and design; Nick immediately got it, in part from his family's Serbian roots.
There's a short interview showing Nick's illustration process at kenk.ca/videos.
When will the animated film version of this book be released?
We explored an elaborate animated documentary treatment concurrent to the book but quickly hit walls trying to put together financing for the film the way we wanted to tell it—even after Igor was arrested, unfortunately, most of the offers we received were to do a straight-up one-dimensional exposé or sell our footage outright. But we held tight, and following the book's success, we've had the opportunity to slowly move forward with the film we've wanted to make. We're incredibly fortunate to be working with director Craig Small, who's a partner in one of Canada's top broadcast design companies, The Juggernaut, and what he's been coming up with so far is mind-blowing. It will in no way be an adaptation of the book, which was intended as more of a literary journalistic piece; rather it will be its own cinematic piece but rooted in the same underlying documentary footage. Because the footage was shot with a graphic novel at front of mind, it has forced some incredibly creative treatment of the material by Craig.
Our hope is to have the animation complete by summer 2012. There's a short interview with Craig Small that shows early animations tests, as well as an initial teaser/trailer at kenk.ca/videos.
What made Kenk’s story so fascinating to Canadians?
Within Toronto at least, Igor was somewhat of an urban legend well before he was arrested, and he transcended into full-tilt myth following summer 2008. The sheer volume of bicycles seized was astounding. He seemed to become personally responsible for every bike theft in the city. Kenk was originally pigeoned as a criminal mastermind and then later as a madman, as further details started to creep out. In the courts, when challenged on what he planned to do with 3,000 bicycles amassed over more than a decade, Igor explained that he was stockpiling them for the collapse of the economy. The story became increasingly bizarre.
How is he viewed now? Is he still as divisive and seen as both a hero and a scoundrel?
Igor has remained largely despised by the mass public. A lot of people wanted to cling to a single villain, perhaps in the hope that with his arrest the problem would disappear. But unfortunately it hasn't. Igor revealed himself as an opportunist and perhaps a symptom of a larger problem, entrenched in human nature and our endless desire of more for less. It was largely crackheads stealing the bikes, and Igor buying the bikes, but then it was us that were buying them right back, all the while knowing that there was something wrong. It gets incredibly muddy very quickly.
A lot of people who've read the book found themselves unexpectedly conflicted. A lot of his ideas make a lot of sense, even if you don't necessarily want them to. I would imagine that for people who blindly support Igor, it would give them reason to hate him, and for people who blindly hate him, they would at least start to understand him. In any event, the book seems to have rendered Igor back from myth into a complex and incredibly flawed human being. That said, I certainly don't know that many people would consider him a hero, though I have heard him called a prophet.
What’s your personal view of Kenk? Did you come to a better or different understanding of him while working on this book and the animated film?
Igor is easily one of the most fascinating people I've met in my life. He's an enigma. There's a divide between his ideas and his actions, as there is with anyone, but his ideas are incredibly compelling. Through the course of this project I certainly got to know him better, and understand where he came from. In Slovenia he was smuggling in stereo equipment and bananas…he made a living between the cracks. He would often say that here in the west, people would throw away things he couldn't even get where he came from, which would make me think of my grandparents after the war, but it was always rooted in opportunity for him.
This November, your company, Pop Sandbox, is releasing two book in the States: Kenk and The Next Day. How’s it all going? How difficult is it to launch a venture like this right now?
One of the challenges we run into overall is a lot of confusion around our projects, because they blur certain boundaries and conventions, especially that they are graphic novels first and foremost. Even the term "graphic novel" is as problematic as "comic book," because it comes loaded with implied connotations of fiction. But at the same time, hopefully pushing the medium and process a bit will also help us find an audience. We're a small company, but we've done very well domestically and hope to continue to find an audience abroad.
What’s next for you and for Pop Sandbox?
Pop Sandbox is as much a production company as it is a publishing house. The entire company is modeled to be a creative environment to bring in talents from a variety of disciplines or original productions from concept through completion. We're heavily rooted in the graphic novel, but developing all our projects across platforms.
We're also in the process of releasing The Next Day, which is both an interactive animated documentary and separate print graphic novella, developed simultaneously and each constructed from intimate interviews with actual survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts. In this poetic and profound philosophical exploration, four seemingly ordinary people each offer haunting personal insights into life, the decision to end it, and what comes after. The Next Day graphic novella was recently featured in The New York Times Summer Reading List, and the interactive experience has been selected for the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam later this month (the world's largest documentary festival). The Next Day interactive experience is a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada in association with TVO. More information is available at www.thenextday.ca.
A big focus is taking our initial projects into the U.S. and abroad. Meanwhile, we're hard at work on the animated film treatment of Kenk, we'll be going into production on a new original photo-novella/fumetti in early February, and we're also working on a documentary/satire video game rooted in current issues around the oil and gas pipelines. It is very exciting times!