Alum’s published illustrations draw outside the lines

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • October 21, 2015

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“Little Miss Basic” was one of the Roger Hargreaves parodies published this month.
Courtesy of Dan Zevin
“Little Miss Basic” was one of the Roger Hargreaves parodies published this month.
Courtesy of Dan Zevin

Mr. Men and Little Miss are all grown up. In a nod to the past and a jab at pop culture, Dylan Klymenko, who graduated from Emerson in 2008, illustrated a parody book series by author Dan Zevin that depicts questionably matured characters in four books: “Little Miss Overshare,” “Little Miss Basic,” “Mr. Humblebrag,” and “Mr. Selfie.”

Four came out earlier this month, and four more, all published by The Crown Publishing Group, are set to release in spring 2016. In the series, Klymenko captures eight common archetypes dominating Facebook feeds, including the woman who chats too publicly about her digestive problems, the man who boisterously brandishes his selfie-stick, the girl who shamelessly sucks down pumpkin spice lattes, and the man who’s perfected the art of tooting his own horn under a thin shroud of modesty—all packaged in the nostalgic aesthetics of Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men and Little Miss. 

“Ultimately, the books are about these dysfunctional personalities that have materialized with the advent of technology,” Klymenko, who majored in marketing communication, said. “There’s a real pleasure in the contrast of these adorable cute looking characters being completely dysfunctional, and annoying, and honestly a little vulgar.”

It’s his first time getting his art published, and he got the gig because his webcomic site, upside down grin, landed him on a list of recommended book illustrators, he said. Klymenko makes and sells one-paneled, captioned artwork on the site he created in 2011, and an employee at Little, Brown and Company had been quietly following his upside down grin posts on Facebook.

That employee was Elizabeth Casal, who’s coincidentally an Emerson alum from Klymenko’s class, he said. Casal worked with the author’s wife, and when author Zevin was fishing for an illustrator, she alerted him to Klymenko’s work, he said.

“His style of illustrating was so perfect,” Zevin said. “It was simple, it was colorful, and it was funny.”

Last August, Zevin emailed Klymenko asking to collaborate on the series, and the two discovered a cache of commonalities that would come to play an important role in their artistic relationship: They’re both from Short Hills, N.J.; they attended the same middle and high schools; and Zevin once taught at Emerson in the writing, literature and publishing department. 

“Right then and there when he emailed me, I felt like I knew everything about him because that’s where I grew up,” Zevin said. “He’s me except way younger and way cooler.”

Jersey roots proved to be a powerful adhesive in their relationship, Klymenko said, and a shared hometown humor helped grease and drive the creative process. He said working with Zevin felt like joking around with a high school friend. 

“In Jersey humor, where I’m from, sarcasm and deadpan is just a life skill you hone very well,” Klymenko said. “And Dan has a great command of sarcasm.”

In December 2014, the pair struck a deal with the book giant Crown Publishing Group. The deadline was tight, and they produced eight books in less than a year. And for both, it was their first time —Zevin had never worked with an illustrator and Klymenko had never worked on a book before.

Klymenko said he’s never had any formal training in art. He doodled as a kid, he said, but retreated from drawing and gravitated toward writing when he recognized his peers had a little more artistic ability than he did.

“There’s this amazing innocence you have when you’re young,” Klymenko said. “We start comparing ourselves to people, and I fell off the wagon.”

He returned to artwork after he graduated from Emerson, he said. But before he founded upside down grin, Klymenko entertained a motley crew of freelancing jobs before landing a full-time salaried job at Mullen Advertising in February 2010. 

All the while, Klymenko was illustrating on the side, creating cartoons solely for himself. He never showed anyone his art until four months into his job at Mullen when he decorated his desk.

“People would come by and chuckle at the work and say, ‘This is great, where did you download this?” he said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I drew them. It’s just something I do.’”

The seed was planted. Klymenko said he became disciplined, drawing one cartoon per weekday using Adobe Illustrator. Klymenko said he can see the progression of his designs if he traces back to the earliest creations. Today, he’s created over 600 unique pieces.

His understanding for art began at Emerson, he said. In 2005 he took Introduction to Visual Arts taught by Cher Knight, associate professor in the department of visual and media arts.

“That’s where I started developing taste for good art,” Klymenko said.

Knight said Klymenko never missed class and was enthusiastic about the material, but she’d never imagined he would be a published artist  She said she recognizes his character in his work. 

“It’s very clean-line with a lot of visual punch,” Knight said. “And very reflective of his personality.”

Klymenko said he was also influenced by Breakthrough Thinking taught by Thomas Vogel, associate professor in the department of marketing communication. The two have since kept in touch, Vogel said.

“He had a certain ability to unleash creative abilities and he practiced to improve his artistic muscles,” Vogel said. “He’s truly creating himself, instead of falling into a track.”

Klymenko intends to keep creating, he said. He continues to post new illustrations to upside down grin, the outlet that reignited his passion for art many years ago in the months after his graduation.

“I was struck by this horrible realization that I was growing up, and it was a suffocating feeling,” Klymenko said. “Very few people I graduated with had the luxury of guaranteed security coming out of that final year of school. And while I networked as hard as I could doing freelance projects, I had this stress that I needed to make something happen, and in that moment, I turned to drawing again.”