Creepy comic art, 1950s B-movies and nature's underworld inspire Canadian illustrator Ryan Heshka who's in a group show at Atomica Gallery next month.

Creepy comic art, 1950s B-movies and nature's underworld inspire Canadian illustrator Ryan Heshka who's in a group show at Atomica Gallery next month.

Vancouver-based artist Ryan Heshka makes dark, cinematic illustrations that tell sci-fi stories of dominatrix pin-up girls and Kafkaesque characters with beetle bodies and Betty Boop heads.

With a couple of books – Monster Town and ABC Spook Show – under his belt, Heshka is a formidable force in the world of pop surrealism and two of his pieces – ‘Your Move’ and ‘Night Clubbing’ – are due to be exhibited in a group show of the genre called Vision Quest, a one-year anniversary show for London’s wonderful Atomica Gallery, April 17 – May 18.

Intrigued by his vivid portfolio and seemingly twisted melon, we caught up with Heshka to find out what inspires his weird and captivating creations.

Things That Inspire Me

by Ryan Heshka


For anyone who has seen my work, this will come as no surprise. I have loved the art of the comic book as far back as I can remember. Recently on a trip home, I found a box containing all the comic books I made as a kid, and it reinforced to me that my core as an artist is still with comics. Early on I discovered the greats like Jack Kirby, Kurtzman, Wolverton, as well as the newspaper comic creators like Chester Gould and E.C. Segar, and my love for their work has never wavered. There is nothing close to those early days, the Big Bang of comic books, when there was no model and all that existed was experimentation and chaos. Although I am not a comic artist myself, I draw on the raw and surreal quality of those old strips, and the kinetic power in those strokes of ink.


I can’t get enough. I’m a type junkie. I am constantly on the hunt for beautiful typography from all ages and regions, and incorporate type into my work whenever possible. My own use of type falls into two categories: clippings and hand created. The clippings are a result of hours of searching through old magazines, looking for perfect, minuscule pieces of type to either fit into a painting, or to build a painting around. Hand-created type involves painted titles, which are integrated into my artwork, often to achieve the appearance of a fake magazine or pulp cover. Visiting a new city or country is always a rush, discovering old signage and regional styles. I’d say half the photos I take on trips are of typography.


Electronic music drives a lot of my painting and creativity these days. I’m no music theorist, but to me it feels very much like old jazz – wild, free-form, underground, expressive. The shapes of the sounds are very visual to me, and serve as soundtracks while I paint and come up with ideas. I’m not just referring to modern electronica, but early electronic music dating back to the theremin [instrument], and the great sci-fi movie soundtracks of the 1950s. Garage band has allowed me to indulge in creating electronic noises, custom soundtracks for my art – I hesitate to call it music. But it is an extension of my visual work, and its therapeutic to create away from the drawing board once in a while.


I began teaching a few illustration classes this year at a local art and design university, partly to get out of the house more, and partly to push myself to try new directions. I didn’t know what to expect, and speaking in front of a group is not my forte. But as I relaxed into it, I found that communication with the students forced me to really think about my own process, which opened up new ways of thinking. As well, being around students keeps me looking at fresh work, exchanging ideas and inspiration with unjaded, enthusiastic art nerds. It’s a challenge that gives back as much as I can put into it.


Like comics, I have always been enthralled with old B-grade movies. The best of them ooze with childlike enthusiasm; the worst are entertaining on an unintentional level. My favourites exhibit horror and humour simultaneously. The speed at which these movies were made somehow translates as raw energy on the screen, and any fakeness is compensated by spontaneity. Sure, I like Hitchcock and Orson Welles, but watching the work of an early exploitation auteur like Dwain Esper (Narcotic or Maniac) is much more visceral. The texture of a rubber monster or stop-motion gore can’t be duplicated by the slickness of CGI. In addition to the films themselves, the posters of many B-movies are pieces of art that have become classic, iconic imagery (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).


Specifically, creepy nature. As a kid, I loved summer. Not for baseball, or for camping trips, but because I could get a jar of pond water and spend hours examining it under a microscope. I could dig up the garden and find a multitude of pale, alien life forms. Winter on the prairies of Canada offered its own sort of dark, weird solitude. Trees covered entirely in frost. Strange icicle formations. The Aurora Borealis. Our parents always encouraged us to appreciate the beauty of nature, but somehow I managed to find nature’s underworld on my own. It was this exploration of nature’s shadows that continues to find its way into my work.

Vision Quest runs at Atomica Gallery April 19 – May 18. Check out the Vision Quest Facebook for updates.