Seth Boyes joined the Dickinson County News staff in March of 2017. In his first week at the DCN, he covered a train derailment near Graettinger. The tankers carrying ethanol burst into flames. Seth's photo of the event won first place for Best Breaking News photo at the 2018 Iowa Newspaper Association Convention and Trade Show. Since, Seth has won nearly a dozen awards for writing, photography and multimedia content. Seth graduated from Iowa State University in 2009 with a degree in Integrated Studio Arts. His original cartoons run regularly in the Spencer Daily Reporter and the DCN. Both he and his wife Janet hail from Clear Lake and have come to expect summers to be full of the hustle and bustle of tourists and visitors.
About four days ago, pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced its version of a COVID-19 vaccine was found to be about 90 percent effective, which sounds great. We've had a lot of uncertainties this year – certainly more than any single year should have. Vaccines are what virtually killed off smallpox and polio in this country (though the modern anti-vaxxer movement has started bailing that water back into the boat) and my parents' generation still bears the literal scars from those days. Vaccines can do a lot for society.
Now, of course, there's been some misunderstood statements from the CDC about COVID-19 immunity. In fact, the CDC released a statement Aug. 3 because so many people didn't understand what had actually been said. In short, immunity isn't limited to 90 days after a person is infected with COVID-19. Rather, as the CDC put it, "The latest data simply suggests that retesting someone in the three months following initial infection is not necessary unless that person is exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19 and the symptoms cannot be associated with another illness." To condense that: a test sample from someone who has recovered from COVID-19 may still come back positive for the virus up to 90 days after they were infected.
I say all this, because I know some folks out there have poo-pooed the vaccine, saying it will only buy each of us about 90 COVID-free days. That's not necessarily the case, as the CDC said.
I don't know if this vaccine will spell the end of the pandemic. I don't know if it will be as effective in the field as it is in the lab. I don't know if there are enough people willing to get the vaccine to actually make it effective – though, please, get the vaccine...I mean, don't make me point to my 60-plus-year-old mother's smallpox vaccine scar as proof that they work. There are still a lot of unknowns, but this vaccine seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel that's been 2020. It's a glimmer of hope.
And we could really use some of that these days.
Buckle up, because this one gets personal.
First, I've got to give credit to Iowa's Auditor of State Rob Sand. His response to a story following Pfizer's announcement actually served as the inspiration for this cartoon.
I saw that tweet, and the next thing I know, I'm visualizing a syringe-shaped opening casting light onto a large crowd inside a dark tunnel of some kind. I saw it as a pretty straight-forward piece. I told myself not to go into too much detail or it would lose its visual impact. I told myself to focus on the light and keep the crowd simple.
I didn't listen very well.
As I've shown in the process video, I detailed about seven people in the foreground, thinking it would help with a sense of perspective for the viewer. I started with a student, added a man in a hospital gown, an emergency responder of some kind and a child but, before I got to the man with the oxygen tank, I hit a stumbling point. As the figures get smaller, its of course harder to maintain detail. I wanted to add at least one more senior-citizen to the crowd, so I decided to draw an old woman using a walker. The thing was, I couldn't get the proportions and pose right. I tried several times, but it was skewed and unnatural every time – the figure was oddly tall or her elbows had to bend at unnatural angles to grip the handles. As shown in the video clip below, I couldn't get it right until I switched things up. I couldn't get it right until I was drawing someone I know, someone I love, someone I'm worried about every time my phone says his care facility is calling (and they just called me while I was in the process of posting this).
I couldn't get the drawing right until I drew my dad.
Like I said, this one got a bit personal. I can't even remember the last time I saw my dad face to face – the last time I hugged him. His care facility is still on lock down. They've had a couple positive cases of COVID-19, and it's hard to shake the feeling that the virus is creeping ever closer to my dad and will take him before he ever meets his second granddaughter. His condition makes it hard to even talk with him through an electronic device. I've heard too many people say this pandemic isn't that bad, that the percent of people its killing is low enough it shouldn't be a concern. That would be all fine and dandy if those people weren't depending on the rest of us to keep it from reaching their doorstep and their lungs. I'm sick and tired of people telling me what the acceptable level of risk is when it comes to people they don't even know. And I'll be blunt, it's selfish.
Of course, my dad isn't visible in the final product. There are only silhouettes. It was initially just a test on my part to see where I needed heavier shadows, but it dawned on me – the way a ton of bricks do – that the couple hours I'd spent doing the details wasn't worth it. I'd lost the focus of the piece. Everyone had to be blacked out.
And I don't mind telling you, there was something poetically honest about losing my dad in a crowd in the dark. My heart rate actually jumped a couple notches with a modicum (a word my dad taught me) of panic as I blacked out his figure and made him disappear into the crowd. It was something akin to the scene in the Sean Connery film "Finding Forrester" when the old recluse author gets separated from his young protege in Madison Square Garden. It's not merely the separation that sparks the panic. It's that he'll be overwhelmed by the situation without someone by his side. Our family was told to prepare final arrangements for dad several years ago, and thankfully his prognosis improved. So, while I may be a few steps closer to coping with the pain of losing him, this is different. Whereas our previous grief was because his own genes turned on him and stole his strength, there's now the potential we could lose him on account of a stranger's inaction and apathy. Too many people believed the virus wouldn't do what the experts said it would. Too many people believed it would die in the summer heat. Too many people believed business should be put before people. And now here we are – more than 240,000 dead in the U.S., and almost 2,000 of them Iowans.
And as I was finishing this cartoon, my uncle-in-law (yes, it's not a real term, but it's concise) had to be taken to the hospital because he couldn't breath. He's a grandfather. He's a veteran. He's on oxygen. And now he's positive for COVID-19. The man with the oxygen tank in the middle-ground of my cartoon is for him. The worry that's been in the back of my mind for months has now become reality for my in-laws. These are real people we're hurting when we refuse to help contain this virus.
So, when I could, I pictured real people as I added silhouettes to the crowd – friends, family and just some faces whose names I've never known. Three layers of figures were enough to make an effective crowd, but they still needed what one of my old figure drawing classmates called landmarks to make them distinct in the dark. Etching out facial features from the black would have put me back where I started, but I soon realized simply bringing the white masks forward was the best solution. The contrast of white on black was striking. They helped keep the figures from becoming flat, and they're a recognizable symbol of the times in which we're now living.
Hopefully, we won't stay in the dark for too much longer.