Cartoon: Real America vs The Coastal Elites

This strip was drawn by Becky Hawkins.

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I was a bit surprised when Becky told me she was excited about drawing this one, because – looking at the script – it seemed visually unexciting to me. It’s just a guy talking to the reader for four panels, I thought.

I didn’t get it until Becky showed me her roughs for this strip, which blew me away. It hadn’t remotely occurred to me to use the backgrounds like that – it was 100% Becky’s idea – and I absolutely love it.  It’s so much fun to have a collaborator who I trust to make up her own things to add to these strips.

I asked Becky if she remembered where the idea came from, and she said, “I like drawing buildings and hadn’t done an exaggerated “big bad city” before. So I pictured how fun it would be to draw a ridiculously cute old timey small town main street and an almost abstract caricature of an urban hellhole.”

I still do the lettering and word balloons on the strips Becky draws. When it came time to letter this strip, my first step was finding words to cut from panel 3, since fewer words meant covering up less of Becky’s art. Then I did a word balloon that closely followed the shape of the letters, which isn’t a style I usually love, but it did cover up much less than an ordinary balloon would have.

Becky finds references through online searching and through exploring on Google Streetview. Here are a couple of the many reference photos she used when drawing this strip.



Becky’s reference folder also contains several photos of Hillbilly Elegy author and current Senate candidate and Trump suck-up, J.D. Vance. It was Becky’s idea to base the character’s appearance on Vance.


Becky can’t remember why she changed the character’s hair to blonde, but I think it really helps him pop out from the backgrounds.

The subject of this strip is something that’s annoyed me for so many years – the constant right-wing complaints that blue-staters are snobs who make fun of red-staters. To make this case, the same few quotes are recycled endlessly. Earlier this month I read a conservative fuming about Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” comment – which Obama said in 2008, thirteen years ago.

Meanwhile, conservatives constantly trash blue states – and in particular, cities and the people living in them – in much harsher terms. Not just random conservatives, either – important conservative leaders, including President Trump (who has spent most of his life living in New York City, but I think that he’s forgetting about that and frankly most New Yorkers are happy to forget that too).

I’ve sometimes been accused of attacking strawmen in my strips. To show that this strip is not attacking strawman, I’ll be pasting some relevant quotes at the end of this post.


This cartoon has four panels, plus an additional tiny “kicker” panel under the fourth panel. Each panel shows the same man talking directly at the reader. He has neatly combed blonde hair with a full beard, and is wearing boots, jeans, and a bright red button-up shirt with a brown vest over it. His outfit says “rural salt of the earth by way of L.L. Bean.”


The man is talking cheerfully to the readers, one forefinger raised to make a point. Behind him, we can see a street lined with stores or businesses; the buildings are  all one or two stories tall, a bit quaint, and all but scream “small town charm.”

MAN : I tink the best of America is in the small towns – the wonderful little pockets of what I call The Real America.


The same man, but now he’s suddenly standing in front of an enormous pile of garbage; we can make out a few things in the pile, like a fish skeleton, a concrete block, a wishbone, and a pile of poop. Rising up behind the garbage pile, we can see a group of ugly brown high-rise apartment buildings. A large plume of smoke (we can’t see from what) rises into the sky.

MAN: Elite liberals are destroying American with their terrible “New York” values. That’s why their cities are burnt-out shells!


The man is suddenly much closer to the viewer, yelling, his eyes large and bulging. Behind him we can see a chaotic jumble of big-city ills: A red-eyed rat, buildings on fire, a grocery cart filled with someone’s possessions in bags, a syringe, another pile of poop, and a person wearing a mask and a black hoodie who is about to throw a flaming Molotov cocktail.



The man is suddenly on a bucolic, hilly farm. A sheep lies on the ground, munching the green grass,  and there’s a black-spotted cow wearing a bell around it’s neck. Further back, we can see a classic red barn with a grain silo beside it, and a hill that’s been tilled and has some crop growing. The man, no longer in tight close-up, is grasping his hands together and looking a bit upward, almost like he’s praying; he has a sad expression, and a single tear falls from one eye.

MAN: And why do coastal elite snobs say such hateful things about their fellow Americans?


Barry the cartoonist, raising a finger to make a point, is talking to the man from the strip. The man has a “I’m so above this nonsense” smug expression, eyes closed.

BARRY: Don’t you live in a coastal city? And didn’t you go to Harvard?

MAN: In my heart I’ve always lived on a farm.

Some quotes that inspired this cartoon.

(There’s nothing else left in this post, so you can skip the rest if you’re not interested in the quotes!)

Some of these quotes are very recent, and some extend back as far as the 2008 presidential campaign. There are many similar quotes which I’m not including here, but I think this is enough to make my point.

* * *

“As I travel the country here in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, everyone knows what New York values are,” Cruz told ABC News White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl minutes after delivering his victory speech. “It’s the values of the elite liberals that have done enormous damage to New York and they’re a bunch of cops and firemen and hardworking men and women in the great state of New York who are fed up with the out-of-touch values of Manhattan.

* * *

If there was one clear theme to emerge from the Republican National Convention, it was President Donald Trump’s firmly-held belief that whatever ails American cities is the fault of Democratic control. In some ways, his attack last year on Baltimore as “disgusting, rat and rodent infested” was just a warm-up. Now, he’s calling himself the “law and order” candidate and in his acceptance speech vowed to crack down on “rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities.”

* * *

“God bless real Michigan. God bless real America. God bless the greatest president in our lifetime, Donald Trump,” Ted Nugent recently declared at a Michigan rally.

It’s ironic that Donald Trump, the first president born and raised in New York City — or any major city — since Teddy Roosevelt, has hitched his presidency to the idea that “real America” is not to be found in urban areas.

Real America — a term beloved by Richard Nixon — probably tops the long list of conservative catchphrases capturing the sense of grievance dominating so much of the right these days.

* * *

“Why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings district when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there. Where is all this money going? How much is stolen? Investigate this corrupt mess immediately!”

—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 27, 2019

* * *

We first started hearing about “real America” from Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign.

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

The inverse of that sentiment is what drove this tweet from Matt Drudge yesterday.

FINAL TALLY: Trump won by 3 MILLION votes outside California, New York…

— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) December 21, 2016

In other words, California and New York don’t qualify as “real America.” And so, if you discount their votes…Trump wins.

* * *

“Speaking of failing badly, has anyone seen what is happening to Nancy Pelosi’s district in San Francisco. It is not even recognizable lately,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Something must be done before it is too late. The Dems should stop wasting time on the Witch Hunt Hoax and start focusing on our Country!”

Trump went after Rep. John Lewis, who represents part of Atlanta, for pledging not to attend his inauguration in 2017. Trump wrote on Twitter that the city “is in horrible shape and falling apart.”

“Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.,” he added in another tweet. “I can use all the help I can get!”

* * *

On Saturday, for instance, McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer suggested that although northern Virginia may have “gone more Democratic,” “real Virginia” (the “part of the state that’s more Southern in nature”) will be “very responsive” to McCain. Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) joined the chorus, telling the crowd at a McCain rally, “Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God.”

Hayes, like Palin, later forswore his remarks, but on Tuesday in western Pennsylvania — one of the few parts of the state where Barack Obama doesn’t hold a clear lead — McCain worked the same theme: Western Pennsylvania “is the most God-loving, most patriotic part of America.”

This cartoon on Patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics, Elections and politics | 2 Comments  

Haiku for December 16th

The sky is no clock.
My body wants to obey

its demand for sleep.

haiku with image of tile path through trees
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Hello from Worldcon

Discon III Logo ImageThe anticipation, anxiety and excitement come to their fruition–It’s time for Worldcon!

I still find it hard to believe we can finally be around crowds again. I remember when everyyear was full of conventions for me and spouse. Things have been very different! It’s going to be really cool to see people who I haven’t been able to catch up with in person for a long, long time. And to meet new people, too. There are so many new, exciting folks around!

What are y’all planning to do at the con this weekend? I’m not on programming so I’ve got lots of time to hang out. I hope I see you around! Give me a ping.

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The Ahh-ness of Things

cracked background image with text: “The Ahh-ness of Things” A poem about “mono no aware,” the wistful beauty of impermanence.

This December, I’m sharing a patron-exclusive new poem on my Patreon.

The Ahh-ness of Things” is about the emotion mono no aware, a Japanese term for–well–the ahh-ness of things. More specifically, it means something like “the wistful beauty of the ephemeral.” I first encountered the world via Ken Liu’s brilliant story, “Mono no aware” which I cannot recommend highly enough.

This poem is part of a slowly developing series of what I call “Google Word” poems. To write these poems, I choose a term–so far, it’s mostly been emotions–and then google it. I pull words from the google search pages and use them to assemble a poem. Anything on the google search page itself–including advertisements or blog titles–is up for grabs, but I can’t click through

Since I started writing these poems, the google searches have changed a lot. Initially, there were a lot more weird message board comments and weird blog entries. More recently, the searches have become dominated by listicles and advertisement. Probably because “mono no aware” isn’t an English term, the listicle virus hasn’t yet spread that far, so it was a lot easier and faster  to find interesting material. 

My patrons are also receiving “The Ahh-ness of Things” as an illustrated poem.

Thanks to all my patrons. All of my Patreon content–including a substantial, patron-exclusive offering once a month of something like an original essay, poem or short story–is available to all my patrons, no matter how much or little they contribute. Every contribution is greatly appreciated and makes a big difference to supporting my writing career!

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Cat Drawing! Clone Portrait

drawing of cat looking forward

A portrait of my cat, Clone (now, alas, deceased), taken by the radiation clinic before we brought him in for thyroid treatment. He pulled through that okay and got another four years or so.

cat looking forward

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Haiku for December 9th

The dark comes sooner.
Night will creep even further.

I wane with the day.

haiku with butterfly on plant image
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Cartoon: How To Recognize a Drug-Seeker

If you like these cartoons, please support them! A $2 pledge really helps.

Even for chronic pain patients who aren’t mistaken for drug-seekers, the possibility that they might be is always lurking. It can color all of a patient’s interactions with care providers. For patients, the stakes are ludicrously high, and the fear of being seen as an addict and cut off from pain medication makes many patients’ already terrible situations worse.

From Brianna Ehley in Politico:

Last August, Jon Fowlkes told his wife he planned to kill himself.

The former law enforcement officer was in constant pain after his doctor had abruptly cut off the twice-a-day OxyContin that had helped him endure excruciating back pain from a motorcycle crash almost two decades ago that had left him nearly paralyzed despite multiple surgeries.

“I came into the office one day and he said, ‘You have to find another doctor. You can’t come here anymore,’” Fowlkes, 58, recalled. The doctor gave him one last prescription and sent him away.

Like many Americans with chronic, disabling pain, Fowlkes felt angry and betrayed as state and federal regulators, starting in the Obama years and intensifying under President Donald Trump, cracked down on opioid prescribing to reduce the toll of overdose deaths. Hundreds of patients responding to a POLITICO reader survey told similar stories of being suddenly refused prescriptions for medications they’d relied on for years — sometimes just to get out of bed in the morning — and left to suffer untreated pain on top of withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and insomnia.

The opioid crackdown was intended to cut down deaths from opioid overdoses. But legally prescribed opioids aren’t behind the vast majority of opioid deaths. Researchers in The Journal of Pain Research found that “fewer than 10% of opioid-related deaths involved prescription pain relievers without… other dangerous substances [such as heroin and fentanyl].”

It would be reasonable to expect that the increasing prevalence of heroin and illicit fentanyl in drug-related deaths would encourage policymakers to thoughtfully reconsider the relationship between opioid prescribing and deaths involving opioids. The data suggest that the overdose crisis is largely an unintended consequence of drug prohibition. Prohibition provides powerful economic incentives for illicit manufacturers, transporters, and dealers to supply banned substances. Nonmedical users appeared to prefer diverted prescription opioids, perhaps because the doses were reliable or because the fact that they could be legally prescribed for medical purposes created the illusion that they were relatively safe. But as diverted pain pills became more difficult to obtain in recent years, the black market filled the void with cheaper (and more dangerous) heroin and illicit fentanyl. …

Ending drug prohibition will not curb the growing tendency to use drugs nonmedically. However, it will potentially reduce the resulting harm…. Health care in general, and pain and addiction management in particular, are nuanced undertakings. Current public policies aimed at reducing opioid-related deaths ignore such nuance in favor of ham-handed, empirically dubious, and demonstrably harmful dictates. Americans suffering from chronic pain, and those from whom they receive their treatment, deserve medical care managed through better-informed and more even-handed policy.

Some readers will – quite reasonably – object to how this cartoon villainizes a doctor. Doctors, after all, didn’t crack down on pain medications out of nowhere. Doctors were (and are) reacting to public policy, and the fear of unreasonable regulators yanking their licenses. And I did consider incorporating that information into this cartoon.

But I couldn’t find a way to incorporate all of that without sinking the cartoon under the weight of too much exposition. And many pain patients have reported dealing with medical providers (not always doctors) who seem obsessed with finding any sign of drug-seekers, to the point of making legitimate pain patients feel like suspected criminals.

In the end, I decided this cartoon should take the perspective of pain patients, not the perspective of doctors. I wanted the cartoon to focus on the catch-22 pain patients face, where virtually any response – and in particular, any response that involves the patient standing up for themselves – could be interpreted as a sign of drug-seeking.

If I do another cartoon on this subject I might try to find an approach that looks at the systematic and regulatory pressures on doctors to deliver sub-optimal care to pain patients.

One more quote, from Amanda Votta’s essay “How The Opioid Crackdown Is Hurting Chronic Pain Patients,” which I highly recommend if you have time for a medium-long read.

Politicians and policymakers are “using us as scapegoats in the opioid crisis,” Danielle said. Lynn, another of my informants, said: “They don’t want to deal with the fact that their drug war is a failure. People are still getting high. Blaming people like us for overdoses is easy because we’re dependent on opioids. We’re captive to the system, which, right now, feels like it’s trying to kill us by refusing to treat our pain.”

Drawing this one didn’t go smoothly. I expected panel three to be the really fun panel to draw, but when the time came I had trouble making the face work. I actually ended up completely erasing the lower half of the doctor’s face and redrawing, but I’m not sure the new drawing was any better. Here’s are the two versions side by side:

I didn’t like the mouth in the first version – to me, it seemed like it was floating on the face rather than being part of it. And the mouth doesn’t seem correctly centered – it’s sort of drifting to the left side of his face. But then, the redrawn version doesn’t sit right with me either.

But eventually I had to stop redrawing and just be done. A completed “good enough” cartoon is always better than a cartoon that never gets finished because a drawing isn’t perfect.

I do like the figures in panel four – I like the way the patient is leaning way back from the doctor’s hostility, and I like the doctor’s sour expression and blank glasses for eyes.


This cartoon has four panels. The cartoon is set in a doctor’s examining room – it has one of those tall examination tables with padding so patients can lie down, medical equipment and a degree hanging on walls, various cabinets, a sink. A tired-looking woman in a yellow tank top and black capri pants is sitting on the exam table. A doctor is standing in front of her. We can tell he’s a doctor because he’s wearing a white lab coat and has a stethoscope hanging around his neck. He’s holding a clipboard in one hand.


The doctor is speaking to the patient. The patient is slumping a little, while the doctor is stiffly upright.

DOCTOR: Some people use narcotics to get high. So when you come here and say you’re in constant pain, that tells me you’re a lying drug-seeker.


A closer shot of just the doctor as he speaks, looking stern and a bit angry, clutching the clipboard to near his chest.

DOCTOR: If you ask for pain meds, you’re a drug seeker.

DOCTOR: If you seem desperate, you’re a drug seeker.

DOCTOR: If you cry, you’re a drug-seeker.


A close-up of the doctor’s face as he lectures, one forefinger raised.

DOCTOR: If you talk back to me, you’re a drug-seeker. If you don’t like me assuming you’re a  drug-seeker, you’re a drug-seeker.


A shot of the patient and doctor. The patient is now very wide-eyed, and leans back, away from the doctor. The doctor leans forward, hunching over his clipboard a bit as he makes a note.

PATIENT: Could I talk to a doctor who isn’t horrible?

DOCTOR: “Doctor-shopping.” Classic drug-seeker.

This cartoon on Patreon

Posted in Cartooning & comics | 16 Comments  

Worldcon, Here We Come!

One week until Worldcon!

Spouse and I will be hanging out in D.C. for a few extra days before the convention. There are so many museums here. I went to see the Library of Congress and the congressional building a few years ago when I was traveling with family, but there’s the Smithsonian, and I’m always excited to see new dinosaur bones…

Discon III Logo Image

I’m tingly-excited about getting to see folks at the con–and a bit nervous, too! After the past year, crowds are still kind of disorienting. And awesome.

I’m not on programming this year, but I’ll be hanging around. What all is everyone else up to? When are you headed in? Are there panels you’re excited to be on, and/or watch? Planning to go to the Hugos?
Posted in convention, conventions, Discon III, worldcon | 1 Comment  

Check Out “White Rose, Red Rose” in Uncanny!

Woohoo! My short story, “White Rose, Red Rose” is now available online as part of Uncanny Magazine’s issue 43!

Picture of rose in hand with text: White Rose, Red Rose "That morning there was a white rose on my windowsill, and my heart cracked" a short story by Rachel Swirsky, Uncanny Magazine

The resistance has left a white rose on her windowsill. It can only mean one thing. Her brother is dead. How can she help him if he’s already gone?

I’m excited to be able to share this story with folks. I first wrote it as part of the Weekend Warrior flash fiction contest on the Codex message boards (run by the excellent Vylar Kaftan) where it got one of  my highest scores ever. I hope it will resonate as much with the audience as it did with my fellow writers!

Sometimes stories come very easily in one burst. If only it happened all the time! This story was like that. I sat down and wrote something very close to the published version in a couple of hours. (I had to cut it down by a third to fit the word count for the contest version.) Once I had it on hand, I pinged Michael and Lynne to see if they’d be willing to take a look because the story reminded me of “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” which they published back in 2014 in Apex Magazine. I’m so happy they liked it and I’m glad to be back in Uncanny for the second time this year.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 43 Cover

They say the dead see the world as if it’s a nightmare.  Everything they knew is remade as an incomprehensible, unpredictable assault on their senses: too loud, too bright. A dog rolling on the grass is no different from a subterranean monster writhing out of the earth. Love and shock and pain are one merged, hungry thing.

In my brother’s nightmares, it seems, he can cry.

Well, in mine, so can I.

Check out the rest of the issue for some fine writing by fine writers. I hope you enjoy the story!

Posted in latest publication, My publications, short story, uncanny | 2 Comments  

Cat Drawing! Pete Curious with Wander Kitten

drawing of cat looking into distance

This is one of the images I used in Scragamuffin, the chapbook I released as October’s exclusive Patreon reward. I thought it might be fun to release the pictures with the photos that inspired them.

cat looking into distanceI drew this in an early stage of developing this white-on-brown style for cat drawings, and it was one of the pictures that encouraged me to continue because of the shock of recognition I felt when I looked “Pete” in the eye. It just really looks like him. I was also really excited by the way the paws turned out– the pattern of light shows the distribution of his weight in a way I don’t think I would have been able to capture without using a photograph as a template. He’s pondering a jump and his front paws are on the corner of a cabinet. I think getting that right helps the image feel like it’s arrested mid-motion instead of being a stiff pose.

Posted in artwork, Cats, Drawing, pete | Leave a comment