Kenk: graphic novel humanizes Toronto's most notorious bike-thief without apologising for him

Richard Poplak and Nick Marinkovich's Kenk: A Graphic Portrait is a journalistic inquiry into the life of Igor Kenk, Toronto's notorious stolen bike peddler, told in comic form.

I've known Igor since I was 18 years old, and truth be told, I found him confusing, likable, maddening, hilarious, charismatic, criminal, and even honourable after his own fashion. The Slovenian entrepreneur and bike-mechanic was a packrat (Kenk implies that he is a pathological hoarder, and I think this fits) and a seamy, rough-and-ready type who seemed to have stepped out of the pages of a Bruce Sterling story. He occupied a succession of shops at the western end of Queen Street in Toronto, long before the neighbourhood became fashionable, back when it was a depressed and seedy little strip in the middle of nowhere.

Igor used to fix my bikes (and very well, too, at reasonable prices -- and even on credit when I was broke), and inevitably a simple repair would turn into hours of conversation out front of his shop or back in its jammed interior, sandwiched into the tiny clear spaces between the mountains of bike-junk and refuse harvested from sidewalks and garage sales and dumps. I traded in my bike for a better one, paying the difference with cash, just before he was arrested in the early 1990s, charged with selling stolen bikes. Among the bikes that the police seized as stolen property was my old bike, which I had owned for 15 years and had traded in fair and square. I concluded then that no matter what Igor was up to, he was also being railroaded by the authorities.

That bike I bought from Igor? It was stolen later that month. The day after it was stolen, I went down to Igor's shop to get a replacement (on credit -- I was skint), just as two guys showed up to sell Igor the bike I'd just had nicked. I was inside the shop and Igor came in and said, "Go out there and pretend you're a mechanic, look the bike over, I think it's yours." I did, and gave Igor the nod. Before he could say anything, the two guys took off -- one riding his bike, the other riding mine. Without saying a word, Igor grabbed a bike from his stock and chased them down. A few minutes later, he rode back with my bike in tow, and charged me $10 to replace the fenders the thieves had stripped.

I knew -- everybody knew -- that Igor was dealing in stolen goods. Every second-hand merchant does (I was working in a used bookstore at the time and I'm certain that some of the books we accepted for cash or trade were hot, though we could never have proved it or readily distinguished them from the legit product). But Igor seemingly played by the rules: when he bought a bike, he recorded the seller's name and the bike's serial number, held the bike for the required period, and if no one came to claim it, he sold it.

But Igor also dealt in enormous volume, and bought bikes from guys who were so sketchy that it strained credulity to believe that they were just keen-eyed pickers who found yard-sale bargains and arbitraged them to Igor for resale. And indeed, in the end, Igor was arrested after he was caught instructing some of these suppliers to take a pair of bolt-cutters and steal a particularly nice bike.

The resulting arrest revealed a trove of over 3,000 bikes in various states of repair. More than 500 of them were claimed by Torontonians, who rose up in ferocious anger over Igor, whom the press characterized as the kingpin behind Toronto's epidemic bike thievery. On blogs and vox pops, Torontonian cyclists howled for Igor's blood, and the world's press picked up the story, calling Igor the world's biggest bike thief.

And perhaps he was. But whatever he was up to, he wasn't your average bike-stealing junkie or a mobster who dealt in industrialized theft as part of a criminal empire. Igor was a character.

In Kenk, Igor is a character in an engrossing, well-told journalistic account of his life and times. The author and illustrator worked with footage from a documentary on Igor by Jason Gilmore, using stills from footage from the year before his arrest, along with roughed-up, xerographic reproductions of newspaper stories, blog screenshots, framegrabs from newscasts, and found objects.

Through this odd documentary style, the creators build up a picture of a complex, dysfunctional, philosophical pathological case. Igor's early years as a kid in Soviet Yugoslavia and then as a cop in the Slovenian police force set the stage for his move to Canada, and the beginnings of his practice of hoarding all manner of consumer junk picked at markets, fleas, yard sales, and dumpsters. Igor is brought to life in his vehement ramblings about the wastefulness of Western society, the instability of economics, and the author and illustrator perfectly capture his fractured eloquence and epic Soviet grouchiness.

But while Kenk's authors humanize Igor through their tale, they don't apologize for him. Having read Kenk, I'm more convinced than ever that Igor really was a hub for Toronto's stolen bike trade, and that he knowingly nurtured it even as he decried dishonesty and waste.

The act of humanizing Igor makes him both more and less culpable. More culpable because it's clear that this intelligent and thoughtful man was deliberately choosing not to bear responsibility for his choices, using elaborate, self-serving justifications for his deeds. But more forgivable, too, because his real kindness and generosity, his humour and passion are all also on display, making him more than the criminal kingpin caricature that appeared in the press at the time of his arrest.

I've felt ambivalent about Igor since the conviction; the last time I saw him was a few months before the arrest. He admired my daughter, ribbed me about having read about me in the press, and was, all in all, the same guy I'd known for more than half my life. Nevertheless, I couldn't deny the depraved indifference to suffering that accompanies complicity in the theft of peoples' mode of transport, nor excuse it.

In Kenk, Poplak and Marinkovich manage to express empathy for Igor without excusing any of his misdeeds.

Kenk: A Graphic Portrait