ARTS AND CULTURE
Montreal’s Unofficial Mascot? A Traffic Cone
Montrealers may hate construction but they can't help but love Ponto the Pylon.
It still surprises Montreal illustrator and cartoonist Tania Mignacca to realize just how famous her character Ponto has become. The happy-go-lucky traffic cone, who moved from the suburbs to the big city where he has endless work and a motley crew of new friends, is the star of his own weekly comic strip, which Mignacca posts online every Wednesday.
Not only that, the unofficial (but cunningly appropriate) city mascot has merch: there are wildly popular Ponto stuffed toys, pins, tuques and one day there’ll probably be a thick tome of his adventures in the form of a book – if they ever reach a conclusion. Four years in with no end in sight, we asked Mignacca how it all began.
Q: Can you describe the moment of Ponto’s creation?
A: Well, it was in 2013, at the time of the construction scandals in Montreal and people were disenchanted in a “goddamn traffic cones” type of way. They were everywhere and became a symbol of everything negative about Montreal, as if people weren’t seeing the city’s beauty anymore. I wanted to take that symbol and turn the traffic cone into something cute and positive, inspired by yuru-chara, Japanese city mascots. Because what better mascot could there be for Montreal? Traffic cones are here to stay. I’d never done comics before, and when I created Ponto at first it was as an illustration on a pin – but people loved him, so I developed the whole storyline out of that.
And now it’s been four years of a weekly bilingual web-comic since. Why do you publish it in both English and French?
Well, lots of people make comics only in English, so it was very important for me to publish it first in French. And I translate it into English because I want as many people as possible to be able to access it. Plus, Montreal is bilingual so it’s the least I can do.
Have you been surprised by Ponto’s reach?
Yeah, for sure! Most of my readers remain Montrealers, but there are people in France, the U.S., English Canada – basically anyone who loves Montreal. For them, Ponto is a symbol of the city. Also, I do lots of events like Comicon, and the more people I meet, the more they tell me that Ponto isn’t actually an only-here phenomenon. Traffic cones, or what they call road barrels, are everywhere, as are roadworks and potholes. We don’t have the monopoly on those, so I think it makes the character that much more universal.
For someone who’d never done comics (despite a lifelong love of Japanese manga), how have the last four years of weekly strips impacted your art career?
I’ve wanted to do comics since I was tiny, but I never had a good enough story until Ponto. He has taught me discipline, because it’s a weekly assignment I can’t miss, and if I do it too much in advance I lose touch with the news and I like to stay relevant. Also, the strip being online enabled a great dialogue with my readers, which I’d never have had if I’d just closed myself off to write a book all by my lonesome. I get instant feedback every week. In real life I’m someone who’s shy and doesn’t spread herself around too much on the internet, but Ponto, well he’s got his own Facebook page, his Twitter handle, his Instagram account… there’s no stopping him.
I love how you use social media to crowd-source, too, like asking readers what Ponto should do next.
Yes, they really give me great ideas! Like not too long ago I introduced a gag where Ponto dreams of riding a Bixi – because in Ponto’s world there are special Bixis just for traffic cones – but he can’t ever find one at the stands because they’re always all taken. I wanted to keep the gag going, like he would never find one so I’d never have to draw one, but readers were too curious! They wanted to see what a traffic-cone Bixi would look like. So, I caved and I drew one. It was so fun. Also, every time there’s new construction plans announced on the news Ponto gets tons of tweets, like “Oh, well! More work for Ponto!” It makes the whole thing fun, which I think is my main mission.
Yes, there’s a real lightness to your humour that’s so refreshing.
I haven’t received any negative comments yet. People really do love the little guy. I thought at first I might offend city workers, but it turns out tons of them write me and are like, “You speak our truth! You really get it!”
What you also make evident is that yes, there are always a gazillion traffic cones in Montreal, but ultimately they’re there because the city is always trying to beautify and improve. It’s one of those things that’s mostly just a bind if you’re a driver faced with road closures. Which, irony of irony, you’re not! Do you think if you drove you might have a different perspective on Ponto?
I don’t know, I might! But I’m a walker through and through.
Do you have a favourite neighbourhood for your walks?
My favourite is my own neighbourhood, St-Henri, mainly for its history. I love industrial architecture and there are still some great examples here. I also love walking along Lachine Canal, it’s so beautiful – you can start in the Old Port and walk for miles and miles.
Have you been approached by the city yet to create an official Ponto mascot? Is that the endgame?
No, not yet. I hope the day comes! How great would that be?