Doug Marlette is about to leave a restaurant when the bartender stops him and says, without a trace of doubt, "You're Kudzu."
Marlette smiles his goofy, shy smile. "I suppose you're right," he says.
Until last year, kudzu was known only as a plant. Indigenous to the Orient, kudzu was brought to the United States, especially the South, to control soil erosion. Now the word has a second meaning: Kudzu is the protagonist and title of a comic strip drawn by Marlette, the political cartoonist of the Charlotte Observer.
"Yeah, I guess Kudzu does look like me, maybe closer to me than I like to think," Marlette says sheepishly. "But more importantly, he's like me as a person. He's what you might call an unsuccessful teen-ager. I grew up in places like Laurel, Miss., and Sanford, Fla., and when the other guys in school were growing their hair on their chests and talking about picking up chicks and driving around with a six-pack, I was still interested in bicycles."
"Kudzu" is set in a small town in the South, and features the Tom Sawyerish title character, his overbearing mother, his sage parrot Doris, his would-be heartthrob Veranda and his best buddy Maurice. The interracial friendship between Maurice, who is black, and Kudzu, who is white, is one of the subtle political aspects to a strip whose tone is as gentle as "Peanuts."
"I like to contradict the stereotypes," Marlette says. " 'Kudzu' is really the first time southerners have been portrayed as human beings in a comic strip. L'il Abner and Snuffy Smith were influences but they were caricatures. I try to make my characters funny but real. I didn't want Maurice to be a Tonto. I'm always getting mail encouraging me to keep developing the relationship between Maurice and Kudzu. The only negative mail I get about them is from whites who probably have never really met a black person before."
Mike Peters, cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, says " 'Kudzu' is what would happen if Woody Allen and William Faulkner got together to do a strip."
Although "Kudzu" is only a year old, Marlette's liberal political cartoons for the Charlotte Observer have been attracting attention, and sometimes inciting anger, in North Carolina and around the country since 1972. Recent cartoons include Secretary of the Interior James Watt with the mounted head of Bambi on a wall plaque, and a roomful of praying school children with a caption reading: "I pledge allegiance to the God of the United States of America, and to the Moral Majority for which it stands, one religion, under Reagan, indisputable with liberty and justice for some."
"People respond very viscerally to cartoons," Marlette says. "Maybe it's the region, being at the buckle of the Bible Belt, but hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't get angry.
"One time a group of really heavyweight businessmen met in my editor's office and told him that if the paper didn't get rid of me I could be personally responsible for the decline of civilization as we know it."
Marlette began drawing in grade school, sketching "perfect" renditions of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck for friends who would reward him with desserts and marbles, but his earliest brush with artistic fame came in junior high school on the day after the Beatles appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show."
"All the girls in my class were wild about Paul McCartney and I drew little portraits of him and sold them. The girls loved them," he says. "That was when I realized the whole thing could be lucrative."
At Florida State, Marlette drew three cartoons a week for the school paper, the Flambeau, and worked nights and weekends in the art department of the Orlando Sentinel Star. "I really grew more and more politicized then," says Marlette, who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. "Florida State was the radical school and Florida University was the party school. We were always marching on the governor's house."
Marlette joined the staff of the Charlotte Observer six months after graduation. In 1980, Marlette became the first cartoonist ever to be chosen to study at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. It was there that "Kudzu" was spawned.
"I remembered from childhood how sensuous and juicy comic strips could be and I had the feeling that quality was leaving the comics," Marlette says. "I like 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."
Kudzu, the plant, has helped curb erosion, but the fast-growing vine is also considered a pest. Marlette has been luckier with his "Kudzu." Not only is the strip syndicated in 140 newspapers, but CBS is planning a nonanimated pilot show based on the strip.
Is Marlette getting rich on "Kudzu"?
"Not really," he says. "Let's just say I'm finally paying my bills."
And then he smiles sheepishly. The "Kudzu" smile.