Over the last few weeks, you may have caught a glimpse of a black and white poster with the image of a topless man in a Santa hat confidently proclaiming ‘YES!’. Perhaps a smile briefly crossed your face as a particular subway encounter with Zanta — the topless, hat-clad man in question — came to mind. Or perhaps you briefly pondered the meaning of it all and continued on your way.
Either way, the man behind these intriguing posters is Jason Kieffer, a local cartoonist and U of T alumnus. Kieffer’s first published comic book, The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, consisted of forty profiles of marginalized people living in downtown Toronto.
Kieffer’s latest graphic novel, Zanta: the Living Legend, chronicles the story of Zanta, a well-known Toronto street performer. A few years ago, Zanta could be found doing push ups on the streets of downtown Toronto and became known for his signature exclamations, bare chest and Santa hat. But his act started to garner a bit too much attention and, according to some people, caused too much of a nuisance in public space. Zanta was eventually banned from performing in most of the downtown core, including on the TTC. Forced out of his city and out of his character, Zanta (a.k.a. David Zancai) now lives with his mother in Etobicoke.
Kieffer recently sat down with The Varsity to discuss his new graphical novel and his rather unusual artistic muse.
You used to contribute comic strips to The Varsity and other campus newspapers when you were a student at U of T. Did that experience have any influence on your work today?
It was a great experience because I could just bring a comic in and get it published and have thousands of people read it, and I hadn’t done much cartooning. Having a weekly deadline and churning out the strips helped me get started and really improve. I was just drawing a lot and as a result I got better and better. The Varsity was the first paper I went to when I started at U of T and I did a strip that was called “Downtown Toronto,” [which depicted] snippets of things I’d experienced [during encounters] with street characters around the city. When I look at them now I feel like they are bad, but … I guess they were good for me at the time.
So far both of your graphic novels have had marginalized people as their main subject matter. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it has to do with where I grew up and the kinds of people I see on a day-to-day basis. Cabbagetown is full of marginalized people and so that would be the first reason: my environment. Another reason is that I find people like that interesting. They are individuals, so I end up noticing them and thinking about them, maybe because I feel like people don’t notice them or talk about them enough. I just find the whole situation interesting.
Zanta appeared among the people profiled in The Rabble. Why did you decide to expand on your exploration of his story in your second graphic novel?
The details of it were in the public arena, so it was easy in one way because I could see exactly what was happening and was not happy about it. Whatever I was thinking about at the time, it just clicked, you know, just thinking about the individual and the individual’s rights… And I like him, I liked the act and I wanted him to keep doing it, so that was part of it too. I’d be interested in doing more in-depth profiles of other people, it just takes a lot of time. It’s part of why I wanted to do Rabble. I could show a bunch of people all at once in a quick kind of way instead of going in detail with each one.
Why do you think there was very little public resistance to Zanta being driven out of the city?
Well, his behaviour was not socially acceptable, so that made it easy for people to come along and get rid of him… People aren’t going to complain when they view the guy as a troublemaker. A lot of people do care about [what happened to Zanta], but not beyond the point of saying like, ‘Aw that’s sad.’ It is surprising that it happened because there are all these people whose jobs are to protect people who are marginalized, and I don’t understand where they were at that time.
[Zanta’s case would] have been a good chance for advocates of homeless people to talk about displacement and [homeless] people being treated… It would have been a good chance to push toward their own goals. But I didn’t hear anything from anybody and still I’m not hearing anything. Where were the lawyers and social workers? Now he’s just on drugs at his mom’s house. It’s important to stand up for Zanta’s rights because they are all of our rights. Some people might view it like, “Oh, whatever, it’s just Zanta, just a street performer, it’s not a big deal.”…. It is a big deal and you can see it, like the real effects of it, in what happened at the G20. [During the G20 in Toronto, homeless people residing in the temporary ‘security zone’ of the city were told to leave, or face being forcibly removed from the area. Many people were shocked and outraged by this, seeing it as illegal displacement. Police maintained that the homeless were just being ‘relocated’ and would be provided with the services they needed.]
What do you want people to get out of reading Zanta: the Living Legend
I’m trying to raise these issues in the hope a discussion will ensue. And not just one-on-one in private, because I know that is happening, but in the media. Especially with people who claim to be advocates for marginalized people… I want people to run with the ball; I’ve kicked it off and now … where is everybody else?
[The] media has a responsibility to discuss this issue. Why isn’t there … an investigation happening about how Zanta could have been legally banned from the city, [or a] public discussion about the issues? That’s what I want to happen from the book.
Zanta: the Living Legend is available for purchase in Toronto at the Beguiling, Silver Snail and Hairy Tarantula, or online at