CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Doug Marlette tweaked authority for more than three decades, from his brazen and prize-winning cartoons to a popular syndicated comic strip to the Charlotte Observer parking lot, where the young cartoonist habitually stole the publisher’s space.
Marlette, 57, was killed in a single-car accident Tuesday morning in northwest Mississippi. He was a passenger in a Toyota pickup traveling from Memphis to Oxford, where he was to planning to see friends and help a high school with a production of his musical, “Kudzu.”
The car, driven by the school’s drama director, hydroplaned in heavy rain and struck a tree just before 10 a.m., said John Garrison, the coroner in Mississippi’s Marshall County.
Marlette was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1988 for editorial cartoons he drew at the Observer and the Atlanta Constitution. He was author of the comic strip “Kudzu,” syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide. He was a successful two-time novelist, a composer, a university journalism professor.
He was, friends say, a passionate and fun man.
“You know, there’s a couple of family members I’d rather have lost instead of Doug. And he would have laughed at that,” said author Pat Conroy, who spoke daily with Marlette. “This has been a shock of all shocks.”
Born in Greensboro, N.C., Marlette was raised in Durham, N.C., before moving to Mississippi and Florida. He began his newspaper career in 1972 at the Observer, a skinny, long-haired 22-year-old out of Florida State. His heavy-handed cartoons immediately roiled the city, as well as one of the newspaper’s owners, John S. Knight, whose protests helped move Marlette temporarily from the editorial page, so he was less likely to be seen as the voice of the Observer.
The staff, however, largely appreciated the cartoonist.
“He was such a lightning rod, and he was so willing to challenge conventional authority that it really made it easy for us to take on the establishment in our own way,” said friend and former managing editor Mark Ethridge. “He was kind of the point man on a wedge, just busting everything open.”
Friends say Marlette was fueled by a genuine distaste for injustice – “a frustration with the unrightness of things,” said Ethridge. He took on the most intimate of topics for his readers, from the South’s foibles to religion. One controversial Easter Sunday cartoon, a protest against the death penalty, showed Jesus carrying the electric chair up the hill at Calvary.
“He was a spiritual guy who read a great deal about religion and theology and sought to practice it in his daily life,” said Observer writer Richard Maschal. “He didn’t stand apart from the South and condemn it, but loved it, and anytime he criticized it, it was from the heart.”
Marlette left the Observer for the Atlanta Constitution in 1987, then later brought his confrontational and consistently award-winning cartooning to New York Newsday, the Tallahassee Democrat and the Tulsa World. Throughout, he kept his primary home in Hillsborough, N.C. He is survived by his wife, Melinda, and son, Jackson, who is studying art in France.
In 2002, while in Tallahassee, Marlette drew perhaps his most controversial cartoon – of a man in Middle Eastern clothes driving a Ryder Truck that carried a nuclear weapon. The caption: “What Would Mohammed Drive?”
When readers protested, Marlette wrote: “We don’t need constitutional protection to run boring, inoffensive cartoons. We don’t need constitutional protection to make money from advertising. We don’t need constitutional protection to tell readers exactly what they want to hear. We need constitutional protection for our right to express unpopular views.”
In 2001, Marlette turned to writing fiction with “The Bridge,” a novel set against the backdrop of The General Textile Strike of 1934, a bitter Southern labor dispute in which his grandmother participated.
The novel, which was voted Best Book of the Year for Fiction by the Southeast Booksellers Association, angered a Hillsborough author, Allan Gurganus, who thought a character in the novel was unflatteringly modeled after him. Gurganus rallied area authors against the book.
Marlette’s second novel, “Magic Time,” came out last fall to good reviews. It told the story of a New York columnist from Mississippi whose life was altered by a civil rights crime in his youth.
In an Observer interview last year, Marlette said he was first taken with “image” and its power to “get under your skin.” But in more recent years, he saw himself moving toward words.
“Obviously,” he said, “I haven’t stayed in my box very well.”
Said Observer columnist Dannye Romine Powell: “There is nobody like him. There is nobody I know with his energy and liveliness and creativity.”
As such, he was a favorite at Charlotte literary events. At last year’s Novello Festival of Reading, a large number of fans welcomed Marlette, and he always drew a crowd at signings at Park Road Books, said Sally Brewster, the store’s owner.
“It seemed as though he was always trying to discover the essential truths in the “everydayness’ of our lives,” said Charlotte author Judy Goldman. “That’s what I admired about him in his writing and why I was drawn to him as a friend.”
Said Ethridge: “He made me laugh more than any person I know or expect to know – and that’s the world’s loss.”