Growing up in Philadelphia’s Tacony section, Chuck Dillon’s family didn’t have a lot of money, so the only time he got to read Highlights children’s magazine was at the library or in the waiting room at his doctor’s office.
“It was always very frustrating when someone had already completed the Hidden Pictures,” he said.
But now Dillon, 47, is the one drawing the pictures for Highlights, and his latest illustration of a Philly block party for the magazine’s August issue offers up a heavy dose of nostalgia for anyone who ever flipped through Highlights’ pages as a kid.
Dillon’s drawing, which is based on a real street in Tacony, appears on the back cover of the issue as the “What’s Wrong?” feature, which is a silly drawing that challenges kids to find all the things out of place in it.
No, Dillon’s illustration doesn’t feature people swimming in a dumpster pool or kids running through a busted-open fire hydrant, which are among the playful criticisms he’s already heard from a few Philadelphians.
“Someone commented that I didn’t have enough trash on the ground,” he said.
Dillon has to remind people that Highlights — which is now in its 74th year — is a kids’ magazine and the publication doesn’t want to portray anyone behaving inappropriately.
“If I have something crazy I want going on, usually I have a squirrel doing it, but a small dumpster swimming pool for squirrels would have been very confusing,” he said.
But there are some hidden Philly references in the illustration. In almost every drawing he does, Dillon tries to hide the word Tacony somewhere within, to give a shout out to the neighborhood where he grew up. He usually includes a “V” somewhere too, as a nod to Vogt Park, where he spent a lot of time as a boy, and to his 10-year daughter, Virginia, who reads Highlights magazine.
The setting of Dillon’s illustration is based on a real place — an alley on the 7000 block of Marsden Street — where his childhood friend lived and where they played Wiffle ball growing up.
The drawing actually started as a Wiffle ball game, Dillon said, but his editor at Highlights suggested he make it a block party instead.
Patrick Greenish, Highlights’ design director, said he chose Dillon for the piece because the “What’s Wrong” feature requires depth, detail, and humor.
“Chuck delivers those consistently,” he said. “We also know that he loves Philly, and I thought he really captured the feel of an urban community perfectly.”
For Dillon, who’s created more than 250 illustrations for Highlights — including more than 100 Hidden Pictures — representing city scenes in children’s publications is important.
“What I’ve noticed about Highlights and other kid magazines is a lot of the stuff they do is in the suburbs,” he said. “But I love the city, so about 90% of my stuff I try to keep it in an urban setting, with a lot of it based on downtown Philadelphia or Tacony.”
As the youngest of four growing up in three-bedroom rowhouse, Dillon didn’t have a lot, but every once in a while his mom would bring home a ream of copy paper that he and his siblings would draw on for hours.
After graduating from Father Judge High School in 1991, Dillon attended the Hussian School of Art (now Hussian College) in Center City. During that time, he had several big breaks, including a weekly comic strip he called “The Inside Dirt,” which appeared in a now-defunct teen section of the Philadelphia Daily News.
When an editor from Highlights came to visit Hussian, Dillon showed him his portfolio and he got his first gig, doing five pages of illustrations for the magazine.
In 2000, Dillon began teaching classes at Hussian in figure construction, Photoshop, and character design. Around the same time, he also began working at the volunteer office of the Philadelphia Zoo.
“One day I had to go to the zoo’s art department and I brought some of my drawings with me,” he said. “They gave me a job drawing 150 bugs or something. That was a big break.”
While Dillon was drawing caricatures for zoo visitors on a hot August day in 2002, a woman approached with her two grandchildren. She noticed that, frankly, he looked pretty miserable, but she pointed out that at least he was getting to draw. The woman started talking about some cartoonists she knew and pointed to the Peanuts clock on Dillon’s easel.
“She said ‘My husband created him.‘ She was Charles Schulz’s wife, the first lady of cartooning!” Dillon said. “She put her hand on my shoulder and said ‘Take care of your gift.‘ ”
And he did.
For the last six years, Dillon has worked strictly as an illustrator, mainly for children’s publications, though he is working with other artists on a search-and-find book for adults, too.
Three years ago, Dillon and his family relocated for his wife’s job in pharmaceuticals to Dunstable, Mass., just north of Boston, but his heart remains firmly entrenched in Philadelphia, as evidenced by his latest work.