A word about ABC books. Nine times out of ten, they aren’t made for kids. They just aren’t. Take a gander at The Graphic Alphabet or Achoo! Bang! Crash! The Noisy Alphabet. Nine times out of ten, alphabet books are just an excuse for artists to let themselves work free and easy in a kid-friendly medium. So when I picked up "Ryan Heshka’s ABC Spookshow" I had this in mind. From the always interesting, always original publisher Simply Read Books, "ABC Spookshow" is an amalgamation of old timey art in a Halloween-friendly setting. Now I have seen the Halloween sections of children’s libraries across the country. Normally it’s just a lot of themed claptrap with a ghost or a ghoul thrown in for panache. This year, buy something the kids will either glom onto or run screaming from (depending on their personalities). Something a little out of the ordinary. Something, dare I say, retro.
If someone were to tell you that artist Ryan Heshka found all the images in this book through garage and estate sales, you’d probably believe it. Conjuring up the style and flavor of the 40s and 50s, this book shows a different "Spookshow" or Halloween image for every letter of the alphabet. On the "B is for Bat" page we see a monstrous creature repelling a foe. Small words like "Only 15 cents" and "High-Voltage Fun" float around the pictures. On another page, like "E is for Ectoplasm", three derby-wearing ghosts play a little poker in front of an old timey-radio. Sometimes Mr. Heshka has to stretch to include a letter (Q equals "Quagmire Monster"?) but on the most part the book is a fascinating slide through images dark and delightful.
Under normal circumstances Heshka does a lot of gouache and acrylic on wood. With the "Spookshow" he’s added in an abundance of mixed media for spice. A look at his biography online yields little information aside from the fact that he draws his inspiration from "early influences too numerous to list." Not too long ago Taschen put out a little collection called Halloween: Vintage Holiday Graphics. To my mind that book and this one go hand in hand. Heshka, insofar as I can tell (and I’m not exactly a design expert here) doesn’t directly reference so much as he draws upon these sources for inspiration.
Looking at the book I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. This doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense when you consider that I’m a child of the 1980s and Heshka’s work is more of a post-WWII creation. Still, there’s something so cool and familiar about these paintings. Just look at the page accompanying the sentence, "J is for Jack O’Lantern". From there we can see what appears to be an acrylic on wood image of a headless man carrying a jack o’lantern. Above the words "Winnipeg" and "1946" are visible. If you saw this hanging on an antique store’s wall you wouldn’t bat an eye, but it’s too hip and cool to be anything but referential.
On the surface Heshka’s work has some similarities to that of Ross MacDonald (he of the aforementioned Achoo! Bang! Crash! The Noisy Alphabet). Both are independent artists with a penchant for the classic. But while MacDonald’s passion is printmaking, Heshka’s modus operandi appears to be paint-based. So really, is it for kids? I mean there are some stylized naked ladies on the "S is for Spider" page, for crying out loud! Well, the book’s not supposed to be something that the masses partake of. It’s beautiful, evocative, and if you put it near a child they’re going to find themselves fascinated by it. It’s the kind of book that’ll inform their dreams and unconscious mind. It’s not for all children. Just the ones who will enjoy it. And if a couple of adults happen to find it so neat that they want to display it prominently on their coffee tables… well, that’s okay too. A beautiful piece of work.