Doug Marlette, 57; Cartoonist, Vocal Defender of Free Speech

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Doug Marlette, 57, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, comic strip artist and outspoken defender of free speech, died July 10 in northern Mississippi when a car in which he was riding skidded off a rain-slicked road and struck a tree.

Mr. Marlette died instantly, said Staff Sgt. Tommy Coleman of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. The driver of the vehicle, John Davenport of Oxford, Miss., was not seriously injured. They had just left the Memphis airport and were en route to Oxford when the accident occurred at 9:42 a.m. Central time.

Over the past 35 years, Mr. Marlette worked at the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Constitution, Newsday, the Tallahassee Democrat and, since last year, at the Tulsa World. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for a series of cartoons about fundamentalist religion and national politics. His cartoons and his comic strip "Kudzu," about life in the rural South, are syndicated worldwide and have appeared in The Washington Post.

He paired a pointed opinion with a take-no-prisoners drawing style, and that made his work memorable, said Mike Peters, an old friend and cartoonist at the Dayton Daily News. One piece that still makes Peters marvel was one that ran years ago, a few days before Easter -- it was a silhouette of Jesus walking up Calvary, carrying an electric chair, instead of a cross.

"His cartoons were as strong as anything that [Paul] Conrad could do, that Herblock could do," Peters said. "He had strong beliefs and he was able to put that into visuals. He would do humor, too, but when he got mad about something, he could do a devastating cartoon."

His work regularly annoyed the targets of his pen, and several groups mounted telephone and mail campaigns. In a 2003 Columbia Journalism Review article, he described how he slyly explained to angry callers that he couldn't be "a tool of Satan," as accused, because the newspaper's personnel office strictly prohibited hiring such people.

"Cartoons are the acid test of the First Amendment," he wrote in the winter 2004 issue of Nieman Reports. "They push the boundaries of free speech by the very qualities that have endangered them: Cartoons are hard to defend. They strain reason and logic. They can't say 'on the other hand.' And for as long as cartoons exist, Americans can be assured that we still have the right and privilege to express controversial opinions and offend powerful interests."

One of his most contested works, published online only in December 2002, showed a man in Middle Eastern clothes driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear bomb hanging out of the back. The caption read: "What would Mohammed drive?"

More than 20,000 e-mailers protested, and it wasn't the first time readers took offense. He previously outraged fundamentalist Christians by skewering evangelist Jerry Falwell, enraged Roman Catholics by needling the pope and infuriated Jews by criticizing Israel.

"What I have learned from this experience is that those who rise up against the expression of ideas are strikingly similar," he wrote. "No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance. . . . In this country, we do not apologize for our opinions."

He was born in Greensboro, N.C., and graduated from Florida State University, where he drew three cartoons a week for the school paper. He joined the Charlotte Observer in 1972, six months after graduation, and in 1980 became the first cartoonist ever to be chosen to study at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. It was there that he dreamed up "Kudzu."

"I remembered from childhood how sensuous and juicy comic strips could be and I had the feeling that quality was leaving the comics," Mr. Marlette told The Post in 1982. "I like Garry Trudeau, he's brilliant, but for 'Kudzu' I wasn't interested in the topicality of 'Doonesbury' or 'Bloom County.' Sometimes you have the feeling that the more topical strips are written for the editors of Rolling Stone. I wanted to write something that didn't require a master's degree to read."

He also wrote two books of fiction, "The Bridge" (2002) and "Magic Time" (2006), published 19 collections of his art and created a musical based on his comic strip, which played at Washington's Ford Theatre in 1998. He also taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Oklahoma.

He told Publishers Weekly that he surprised himself with his ability to write a novel.

"Cartoonists are notoriously illiterate; we consider words a crutch," he said. "The wordless cartoon is the ideal. I was stunned that I could write anything more than a caption."

Survivors include his wife, Melinda Marlette of Tulsa and Hillsborough, N.C.; and a son.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company