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Requiem for a cartoonist

  • Story Highlights
  • Marlette, 57, killed when pickup truck in which he was riding hit tree in heavy rain
  • His funeral was held Saturday outside hometown of Hillsborough, North Carolina
  • Marlette won Pulitzer in 1988 for his cartoons at Charlotte, Atlanta newspapers
  • He drew syndicated strip "Kudzu"; had published two novels
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By Mitch Gelman
CNN
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Editor's note: The writer of this appreciation of Doug Marlette's contribution to our recent political dialogue worked with Marlette at New York Newsday and was a friend.

(CNN) -- Last week was a very good week for corrupt politicians, dirtbag dictators, pompous preachers, deadbeat dads, corporate suits, bloated bureaucrats and hypocrites from all walks of life.

They got a reprieve when 57-year-old editorial cartoonist and novelist Doug Marlette died when the pickup truck he was a passenger in hydroplaned and struck a tree on a back road in Mississippi.

Thus, the Pulitzer Prize-winner's poignant pen was silenced.

During four decades as a cartoonist appearing in Charlotte, Atlanta, New York, Florida and Oklahoma newspapers, as well as in syndication across the country, Marlette built a career as an equal-opportunity offender. He skewered Bill Clinton as easily as George Bush, Ross Perot as effortlessly as John Edwards; it's not too farfetched to think that Mullah Omar and Jim Bakker might have found common ground in believing Marlette was an evil, vicious, godless rodent of a man.

In his work, Marlette was indiscriminate in trying to give voice to justice and to offer unbending support for the underdog. His spirit, he often said, was forged in the South he grew up in, where he was anti-war and anti-racism in a community grappling to come to terms with both Vietnam and civil rights in the 1960s.

His funeral was held Saturday, July 14, in a small, stone church outside Marlette's hometown of Hillsborough, North Carolina. The church is across the street from cornfields and farmland filled with hay bales, and not far from the site of the old textile mill where his grandparents worked in the 1930s.

The Red Clay Ramblers, a band Marlette collaborated with to score the musical version of his comic strip, "Kudzu," played "I'll Fly Away" to an overflowing crowd of friends, family and followers.

How many people could attract to their funeral both one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, Dean Smith, and Pat Conroy, a writer who found glory in a book called "My Losing Season"? In Marlette's world, victory was measured not by the points you scored but by the points you made; not by banners raised or books published but by the character revealed during the inevitable struggles along the way.

Smith sat quietly during the funeral service. Conroy spoke lovingly, respectfully and passionately of his closest friend.

No one was safe from Marlette's biting wit, Conroy said. Especially if they were prone to take themselves too seriously.

"I always thought it was going to be Doug giving the eulogy at my funeral," Conroy said from the simple pulpit, his face red with the strain of nearly a week's sleepless, tearful nights. "He used to make up eulogies about me. The obituary would start: 'An unknown writer died on Fripp Island ...'"

Marlette, who had more devoted friends than any of us could ever wish for, could also be defined by those who he proudly noted considered him an enemy!

There was a long list of people, places and organizations that did not take kindly to Marlette's satire. Over the years, Marlette received death threats from Republicans, Democrats and independents, from Jews, Christians and Muslims, atheists and agnostics, all pricked by the tip of his pen. "As far as I could tell," Conroy said, "he deserved every single one of them!"

Marlette never flinched. "He could throw a spitting cobra into a lying politician's lap," Conroy said.

At New York Newsday, where I worked as a reporter alongside Marlette, the paper had a slogan: "Truth, Justice and the Comics." Marlette contributed a little of each. Eyes twinkling, mind racing, he pursued the truth, fought tirelessly against injustice and provided humor in his pictures and his text.

He was also an attentive listener who had a large heart and always found time to hear the ideas of junior staffers or to give feedback to teens who sent him their cartoons for a critique. He was charismatic, encouraging, gentle and smart. He collected aspiring artists, writers and musicians and paved the path for a generation of willful young men and women whose sense of independence he cultivated like a big brother.

When the newspaper we worked at was shut down in a cost-cutting measure to create a quick bump in Times Mirror stock, Marlette lifted the spirits of an entire newsroom by drawing, copying and handing out a cartoon depicting a line of journalists showing bare backsides to our astonished, pin-striped corporate masters.

During the years he split his time between New York City and Hillsborough, he enjoyed being a Southerner up north. He brought a little of that Dixie rebelliousness to his new residence, poking jibes at the self-important media establishment and not letting those who fancied themselves radicals forget that down South they had actually had a little experience with insurrection.

One of the stories he liked to tell was how the house he bought in Hillsborough was on property once owned by the family that ran the mill where his grandparents worked.

As Marlette grew as a colleague, husband and father, his generosity and sensitivity were traits that his wife, Melinda, helped shape, and ones passed on to his son, Jackson.

At home, he loved and cared and did his best to, in one friend's recollection of Marlette's code of fatherhood, take his son up on his back and show him "how to be in the world."

At the paper, he probed and sparred and did his best to distill events and depict their essence.

He lampooned the New York Times for lacking the guts to hire an editorial cartoonist for its op-ed pages. Any self-respecting newspaper in a democracy, he thought, had an obligation to use cartoons to convey its perspective and bring the subjects of its news coverage down to earth. If the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had Pat Oliphant and Paul Conrad, why didn't the newspaper of record have its own?

He offered a rendering of a fitting Clinton Memorial: A wide-open zipper.

He detested opportunists in all shapes and sizes. He would call out Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell, Al Sharpton and Mike Nifong when they put their own agendas ahead of the larger truths that Marlette felt should be self-evident in a more mature America.

Sure, Doug Marlette had an ego. Find me an ambitious artist who doesn't, and I'll show you a missed opportunity to fulfill potential. But part of Marlette's thousand-watt charm was that he not only fulfilled his potential but that he pressed those around him to stretch to reach theirs.

While he could spot insincerity a back-country mile away, Marlette also had an appreciation for the authentic humanity of well-intentioned activists and artists.

On a visit with him one weekend down on Fripp Island in South Carolina, I watched as he, Melinda and Jackson joined a group of naturalists to help guide infant sea turtles across the beach so they wouldn't be trampled or crushed on the way to the ocean.

Comfortable with Tolstoy or Virgil, Renoir or Rodin, Marlette was just as infatuated with a lonely, outcast folk artist who carved images from the roots of fallen tree trunks found in the Carolina woods. "He's amazing," I remember Marlette saying about the man. "He doesn't have any idea he could be selling these for zillions up North, but simply goes around believing he's 'cursed to be able to see the nature of a stump.'"

No wonder the kinship. Marlette, too, could see the nature of a stump.

He could hear it in a senator's bluster, see it in a celebrity's pretense, smell it in a putrid court hearing, taste it and feel it in misleading messaging trying to sell a cigarette, a war or a credit card to flocks whose passivity he believed threatened the American future.

Then, he would draw it. Simply. Precisely.

As the 20th century gave way to a new millennium, Marlette recognized the power of the Internet to create one-to-one communication and posted his cartoons online. He wrote two novels, "The Bridge" and "Magic Time." But he was also drawn back to a family-owned newspaper, the Tulsa World. Some colleagues wondered why he would go to Oklahoma. Well, he explained, that's the state that gave us Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie.

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One of his friends said at the funeral that Marlette may have seen himself as part of the caravan of American thought that included Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Walker Percy, John Steinbeck and Bob Dylan.

Indeed, when the cultural and political history of the turn of this century is written, understanding Marlette's America -- its truths, its ironies and its oddly humorous conflicting motivations -- will be central to any representation of the age. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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