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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
was a mass amnesia," Marlette explains. "What happened with the strike
was a terrible trauma, and people want to forget it."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
same time, Marlette discovered his new home Burnside had been built by
the original financiers for the mills in Burlington and Hillsborough.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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:
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.