Snake handling

Living Legacy
October 2003

The Marlette Mystique

By Kristy Schumaker


From a tiny artist's studio in the woods a few miles north of Hillsborough, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette drops bunker busters across America. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush complains to cronies, "Can't I get a break from this guy Marlette?" The North Carolina artist/author joined the Tallahassee Democrat a year ago and has made Jeb's life miserable with images of him as Jeb the Hun.

In Washington, DC, Hillary Clinton was furious over a Marlette drawing summarizing her husband's legacy depicting the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the Clinton Memorial as a giant Zipper. Jerry Falwell and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker once called him a "tool of Satan," yet his "Kudzu" comic strip has run in The Christian Century, the largest Protestant publication in the world. Its character, Reverend Will B. Dunn, has an international cult following among ministers. A collection of "Kudzu" strips, A Town So Backwards Even the Episcopalians Handle Snakes, Marlette's 18th, will be published this fall.

Marlette has even managed to inflame much of the Muslim population. In a take-off on the "What Would Jesus Drive"/SUV controversy, Marlette drew an Arab terrorist driving a Ryder truck with a nuke on board with the caption, "What Would Mohammed Drive?" A few deft strokes of a brush and four words brought more than 30,000 emails, threats of mutilation and denunciations from the front page of the Saudi-published Arab News. The secretary general of the Muslim World League demanded the Tallahassee Democrat apologize to the world's one billion Muslims and promise not to publish such material again. Thus another book will appear soon, What Would Marlette Drive? featuring on the cover an armored vehicle with the artist inside.

And that's just the beginning of his resume. Marlette, by some counts a force of nature-his editor calls him "The Perfect Storm"-is a one-man cottage industry. In addition to drawing five political cartoons every week for 30 years, his "Kudzu" strip runs seven days a week in hundreds of newspapers around the world. He was also a collaborator on the musical Kudzu, based on the strip. The play sold out at Duke and enjoyed a successful run at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, a few years ago. The cast album of the musical, written in collaboration with North Carolina's beloved Red Clay Ramblers, will be out by Christmas.

Apparently insufficiently challenged, Marlette published in 2001 his first novel, The Bridge (HarperCollins), both to critical national acclaim and local controversy. The Southeastern Booksellers Association, which includes more than 300 independent members, named The Bridge "Best Novel of the Year" in 2002. Marlette has also written for magazines, including an ethics column for Esquire (1996-97) and a screenplay with good friend Pat Conroy. More recently, he taught comedy writing and the history of cartooning at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism. Marlette was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 2002.

Marlette's friends consider him unfairly talented; his enemies do, too, which may be the problem. One notable foe is Allan Gurganus, another Hillsborough novelist (The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), famous for his prose paeans to old houses, young boys and affectionately named dildos (Plays Well With Others). When The Bridge hit bookstores, Gurganus was outraged and claimed one of the characters was based on him. The similarities begin and end with the fact that both Gurganus and the character, Ruffin Strudwick, write southern novels (doesn't everyone?) and wear red tennis shoes. Oh yes: both are gay and live in old houses. Reportedly infuriated by what might have been received as a compliment, Gurganus orchestrated a stealth campaign to stop the book, rallying friends to pressure Marlette to soften his characterizations. Some posted defamatory reviews on Amazon before the book was published.

One anonymous saboteur even sent the Marlettes a death threat in the form of a poem. UNC bookstore manager Erica Eisdorfer, a friend of Gurganus, canceled a book signing there and urged other booksellers around the state to do the same. She told Marlette's publisher that The Bridge was homophobic and HarperCollins should be ashamed of publishing it. Recently, Lee Smith-another Hillsborough writer of southern books-wrote Marlette pleading that he stop characterizing her and her columnist husband Hal Crowther, and the other players in the local literary fatwa, as a "disgrace to the state of North Carolina."

Meanwhile, oblivious to these local tempests, Tom Cruise has optioned the film rights with Paramount for The Bridge. Mark Andrus, who earned an Oscar for As Good as it Gets, finished the script in June.

Who is this guy?
Marlette landed by accident in Hillsborough, now largely a Triangle bedroom community of 5500. A military brat born in Greensboro, Marlette lived in Durham; Laurel, MS; and Sanford, FL, and was working at New York's Newsday when he and his wife Melinda decided to move south.

"A real estate agent sent us pictures of a house in Hillsborough, a town I didn't know but remembered passing on the highway when I was growing up," Marlette recalls. "We fell in love with the historic house Burnside and moved in."

Thanks to its proximity to three major universities, and anachronistic charm, Hillsborough over the past decade blossomed into a writer's paradise. Others drawn here after Marlette, besides Smith, Crowther and Gurganus, include UNC poet Alan Shapiro, writer Annie Dillard, Fayetteville-bred novelist Tim McLaurin (now deceased) and a couple of soap opera writers.

Fifty-three-year-old Marlette began his career at the height of Vietnam, Watergate and Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo journalism. Six months after graduating from Florida State University, Marlette landed his first job as an editorial cartoonist at the Charlotte Observer in 1972. At Charlotte, he directed his razor pen toward then-United States Sen. Jesse Helms, the PTL Club (Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Praise the Lord ministry) and the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. In 1984, Marlette won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard, the first cartoonist to be accepted in the program, where he studied for a year.

He returned to Charlotte just as Jim and Tammy Faye's evangelical empire began crumbling. In 1987 he left for the Atlanta Constitution. A year later, he brought the paper its first Pulitzer in two decades. The Constitution won a second Pulitzer in 1989 for its investigation of discriminatory loan practices at Atlanta banks. "It was a journalist's Camelot," Marlette says. But the Cox ownership, afraid of drawing the wrath of too many powerful people, started pulling back the reins, and forced out Editor Bill Kovach. Marlette headed for New York Newsday, where he continued his hell-raising style of journalism.

Marlette started cartooning as a child. "I was so enamored with Mort Drucker in Mad magazine, these wonderful caricatures. When I was 16, I was kind of learning from copying, doing my own in that style. I was beginning to learn that good cartooning wasn't only about drawing. God, I thought it was just about drawing. You never forget Bill Mauldin's obit cartoon, where Lincoln's weeping. Capturing that essence so simply is like a hole in one. As I got older, that's what I've always wanted to accomplish in my cartoons-to be affected by them."

Marlette feels that editorial cartooning was undergoing a renaissance by the time he began his career: "I came along when cartooning was going through change, and there was a lot of really great work being done between Vietnam and Watergate. The issues loomed large and a lot was at stake-distrust of leaders, presidents lying."

It was the kind of cartoon Marlette and contemporaries Tony Auth, Mike Peters and Jeff MacNelly introduced that took things and turned them on their heads. "To show how those civics class and Sunday school values were being betrayed in Vietnam and civil rights was challenging. We were troublemakers."

Darwin's artist
Writing a novel was an evolutionary next step for Marlette. He began with cave drawing, he says, and gradually turned to words as he matured. The Bridge tells the story of Pick Cantrell, a successful newspaper cartoonist in New York in the mid-1990s who loses his job and returns to his native North Carolina with his wife and young son. He buys and restores an old house in Eno, a dying mill village and the fictional backdrop for the book. Marlette's protagonist comes face to face with his familial demons and, specifically, his 90-year-old grandmother, Mama Lucy. He learns she had worked in the town's mills and was bayoneted by National Guardsmen during a major textile worker's strike in 1934. In time, and still fighting his distaste for his grandmother, Pick coaxes the story from her as the novel builds steam.

In reality, the failure of the National Industrial Recovery Act-signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt only a year earlier-prompted nearly half a million mill hands, including hundreds of thousands from North and South Carolina and Georgia, to walk off their jobs on Sept. 15, 1934. While the strike was successful in publicizing worker grievances, management and the National Guard crushed it three weeks later.

"There was a mass amnesia," Marlette explains. "What happened with the strike was a terrible trauma, and people want to forget it."

Yet the story of the workers who led the uprising is resurrected in Mama Lucy-a weaver, wife and matriarch. Her story is a testament to the values and conditions that shaped mill villages and families for generations.

Marlette, while writing the book, realized he is heir apparent to that tradition. His ancestors ran dry goods stores and boarding houses in west Hillsborough after the turn of the century; several of the Marlette clan are buried in the town cemetery on East Corbin Street. His grandparents met and courted in Hillsborough's mills.

As with Mama Lucy, Marlette's grandmother and uncle had been among the most active union agitators during the early '30s. In one incident, guardsmen loaded her onto a truck and paraded her around town to set an example for union sympathizers. On Sept. 14, just a day before the General Strike of 1934, Gracie Pickard was bayoneted by guardsmen at Burlington's Pioneer Plant.

"When I heard the story, I immediately felt sympathy for the guardsmen, because my grandmother was such a domineering spitfire," Marlette says. "I was always terrified of her and her-snuff dipping ways and putting you to work from the moment you could walk-mowing her lawn, shelling peas and never to her satisfaction. Then I come to find out she was this Norma Rae figure, a redneck Mother Jones, a cracker Emma Goldman."

The incident was documented in Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, a UNC oral history project published in 1988. An acquaintance gave Marlette a copy of the book at a dinner party.

"I went home and was flipping through the book, and there was my grandmother's name, leaping off the page," Marlette explains. "I never imagined anyone had heard of my grandmother, much less written about her. I was floored." Months later, at a book signing in Charlotte, a distant cousin handed him a tattered yellow, dog-eared pamphlet called The Burlington Dynamite Plot. It was written by Walt Pickard, Marlette's great-uncle, and told of a plot to dynamite the mill in Burlington, contrived by the owners, who rounded up the union leaders and hauled them off to prison.

At the same time, Marlette discovered his new home Burnside had been built by the original financiers for the mills in Burlington and Hillsborough.

"It hit me that I, the grandson of a linthead, had moved into the mill owners' house," he says. "These were the same people who bayoneted my grandmother." From this startling confrontation with his own family's past, Marlette's working-class saga unfolds.

Marlette set The Bridge in a dual framework to contrast the tensions of the '30s with those of the '90s. "It was at that historic point between the rise of communism internationally in 1917 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when capitalism was being tested by the Great Depression and this impulse for economic justice and dignity for the working man, manifested in Marxism, rose up spontaneously-not in some remote place like Leningrad or Beijing, but right here in the streets and weave rooms of the cotton mill South," Marlette explains. "It was the impulse my family was caught up in."

"In the Clinton-era '90s, economic prosperity and the end of the Cold War had created widespread cynicism, a celebrity-obsessed tabloid culture where nothing mattered, nothing was at stake and issues were trivialized," Marlette says. "In the '30s, my grandparents' generation, issues were life and death, what you believed mattered. Honor was more than a name on an ATM card."

Fiction vs. surrealism
To drive home this point, Marlette paints contemporary Eno as swarming with boomers whose conflicts are less utilitarian than psychosomatic: "These faux rebels express their dissidence in the politically correct slogans they mouth, organic foods they eat, vintage clothing they wear and the things they buy," Marlette explains. "My generation thinks authenticity can be purchased like a historic home."

Though The Bridge is an imaginative invention, Hillsborough's literary set saw the fictional Eno as their own Hillsborough and the character Strudwick as Gurganus. When asked about this, Marlette says such literal reactions are typical of the genre: "Of course, all autobiographical fiction runs the risk of encouraging readers to identify certain characters," Marlette explains. "Allan apparently decided I was mocking him in my book and was encouraged in this view by those around him. I suppose when a cartoonist turns to fiction the accusation is a criticism to be expected, as if the caricaturist's skill is a compulsion one cannot control, like Tourette's, but I think Ruffin Strudwick is not a caricature of anyone. I chose those details useful to my fiction, not to wound, but to express something I felt was in the air and in the spirit of our age. Some would take it as a compliment, consider it homage. Allan's feelings were hurt, I am told. He has never contacted me about it. Others responded for him.

"I've always considered whatever civility southern writers extended each other as a simple expression of our inheritance as Southerners, good manners being a part of our upbringing - that 'minuet of overture and response,' as Walker Percy called it-as much a part of the southern way as barbecue and sweet tea," Marlette maintains. "But I never thought of it as anything more than the thin veneer of civilization over the schizophrenia and madness that is also our tribal birthright as Southerners. So to the extent that I was taken aback, it was mainly over seeing the fault lines open up so gapingly."

Staying the course
During the latest conflict in Iraq, Marlette's Ryder cartoon again created a stir. "I'm still getting hate mail on that cartoon," Marlette says of the reaction. "A group called CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, a pressure group vigilant on anything they perceive as anti-Islamic, orchestrated it. This group called the conviction of the blind sheik in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing a hate crime. I get strong reactions; I always do. That happens when you express things that go against the grain."

He should know. In response to the Catholic Church's decision to deny the ordination of women priests in the early 1990s, Marlette drew Pope John Paul II pointing to his forehead with the words, "Upon this Rock I will build my church." The cartoon set off a firestorm among Newsday's Catholic readership. Marlette's editor issued an apology.

"I don't see what I do in terms of party lines or categories," Marlette explains. "Whatever Bush is, there needed to be a response from the West to 9-11. We have a president-whatever you think of him, and I'm not making a case for George W.-you don't know what he's gonna do. I think that's a good thing at this particular time."

In his cartoon strip "Kudzu," Marlette poked fun at the anti-war movement. "Ida Mae (a character in the strip) expressed, it seemed to me, what she would express," Marlette says. "She worked both for Hillary Clinton and in the Clinton Department of Contrition in the Secretary of Feelings Office. There's a long tradition of a sort of Puritanical Stalinism with Ida Mae. There were people on the left who were big fans of "Kudzu" and wrote, 'Are you saying the peace movement supports Saddam Hussein?' Characters play certain things out. It's a comic strip-not an editorial or position paper."

Distant early warnings
While papers such as the Herald-Sun pulled the plug on syndicated cartoonist Aaron McGruder's "The Boondocks"-rationalizing that political opinions have no place on the cartoon page-no newspapers have dropped "Kudzu," lately, although the News and Observer once did for its tweaking of Senator Jesse Helms during the 1990 Senate race. Cartoonists, Marlette explains, are using a lighter touch in the name of tender feelings and political correctness.

"Editors don't want anything brought up," he says. "That's why papers and cartoons are getting more boring. Today, there are only 90 editorial cartoonists; 20 years ago, there were 200.

"We've bred this generation of Eddie Haskells, parent-pleasers, suck-up careerists that's hurting cartooning as well as newsrooms. It's the Jayson Blair syndrome. The irony is, readers are falling away, and newspapers can't figure it out as they reward blandness, homogenize the product, dull it down and drain all the humanness out of it. They get more and more cartoons that read like IRS forms."

Like newspapers in an era bloated by information, Marlette sees editorial cartoonists as an endangered species:

"We're the distant early warnings of newspapers," Marlette says. "When I started, we were in love with the art of it-Jeff MacNelly, Mike Peters, Tony Auth-journalism was swash-buckling, wonderful, toppling governments. It was like joining Robin Hood and his band of merry men, except we were giving information and opinions. You had the New Journalism of Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and the investigative excitement of Woodward and Bernstein, Seymour Hersh. It was all so inspiring. Then they started bringing in these human resources druids, control freaks, efficiency experts, who smoothed newsrooms out-no more of this human stuff, no fifth bottle in the drawer, or flirting or cigarette smoke. They made it all "nice." That's shown up in cartoons. The younger generations saw us and thought, 'Oh, I want to be on the cover of Newsweek and be like Jeff MacNelly'-but they learned careerism instead. You can't learn passion.