A decade ago, I walked or biked to work in downtown Toronto. Usually in the afternoon, I would hear "Yes-yes-yessss!" followed by the sounds of rapidA decade ago, I walked or biked to work in downtown Toronto. Usually in the afternoon, I would hear "Yes-yes-yessss!" followed by the sounds of rapid bodily motion. This was the catch-phrase (and constant verbal tic) that preceded immanent sightings of Zanta, the focus of this graphic novel. For the bulk of you who did not share my 2005 commute (and why would you), imagine a TV pro-wrestler wearing only shorts and a santa hat. As someone said, "He's like santa though slightly off, and ripped." Zanta is a bald, topless strongman who would roam the downtown core in those days. He would constantly lean against buildings or drop to the sidewalk and do a quick set of push-ups according to a compulsion whose schedule was known only to him, typically while exclaiming his catch phrase ("Yes-yes-yesss!"). For bored office workers, he was an amusing conversation piece. For others, he was vaguely annoying in the way all urban noise and objects can be annoying. For me, Zanta was a kooky character that enlivened street. So much so that people often mistook him for a busker or a performance artist.
Everything comic has its roots in tragedy. And Zanta is no exception. The legend I heard was cobbled together from what people could remember from human interest pieces in free alternative weeklies. Briefly, Zanta was a suburban roofer who fell while on the job. He hurt his back around Christmas and was on short-term disability. During his recovery, his wife left him and moved elsewhere with their daughter. The fall and the split affected Zanta's mental state. As a misbegotten show of health, Zanta took to the streets wearing the santa hat, shorts and little else, doing improvised street callisthenics year-round, throughout harsh winters.
After a few years, I failed to notice that Zanta had disappeared as an occasional musician on my ambient urban soundtrack. More years passed, and I had forgotten him.
Recently, a giggling junior lawyer told me how an otherwise dull court schedule had been colourfully interrupted by Zanta. Apparently, Zanta has become a character in the criminal justice system. I smiled as my lawyer friend recounted Zanta's antics. The judge gave an order for Zanta to retain his santa hat according the testimony that Zanta swore never to remove the hat until he was reunited with his daughter. Zanta had dressed up for court by wearing a t-shirt out of respect for the judge. Throughout the proceedings, Zanta leaned against tables and chairs doing improvised exercises. Staid legal company was suitably charmed by this irrepressible eccentric. People, who are used to not smiling in that context, smiled in spite of themselves.
After my friend and I laughed, we felt bad. A harmless street character, who had provided amusement while on his own neutral mission, had become the ward of the criminal justice system. Doing topless push-ups and wandering around the city too many times can get one cited for disturbing the peace and being a public nuisance. Over time, the criminal justice system chips away at whatever it is pointed towards, no matter how innocuous.
As a symbol, Zanta could stand for mental health service budget cuts, the criminalization of the mentally ill, or overzealous NIMBYism. But as a person, he resisted pain and found something ridiculous to do to pass time. He is no more or less annoying than many co-workers who hide their neuroses under office garments. I look forward to reading the graphic novel, and no doubt seeing the funny-sad story of Zanta mythologized by the passing of time. ...more