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Free-thinking Son of the South

The consistently controversial Doug Marlette

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Doug Marlette would have laughed and shaken his head if he'd seen the foot-long cartoon in the Observer last week. A big bald eagle's head with a tear in its eye, looking up to the sky. Marlettte drew it for the paper in 1986 after the Challenger disaster and, at the time, readers went wild, snatching up 70,000 reprints of it. That long-ago frenzy, I suppose, was why the paper ran the steroidal Monstro version of the "weeping eagle" as part of a tribute to the late cartoonist and novelist.

The problem, and this is why Doug would have chuckled, is that he didn't think the cartoon was all that good, and in fact was befuddled by the public's reaction to it.

"It was just bizarre, the most bizarre experience I had been through up until then," Marlette told me a decade ago, "I mean, the cartoon was a little on the cheesy side." That reaction was typical of Doug: ironic and brutally honest, two of the things I liked about him.

At times, he turned that brutal honesty on former employers, including newspapers he had worked for. In the 1990s, he told Creative Loafing that he loved working at the Observer -- until corporate bureaucracy made it unbearable. At the beginning, he said, the pay wasn't great, but the atmosphere was.

"There was lots of talent and great leadership at the Observer then," Marlette recalled. "The people were a heady mix, a gumbo of neuroses and humanness." But, he continued, "Corporations work like hell to beat the life out of places like that, and that bureaucratic process tends to drive out talent." Sure enough, Marlette left Charlotte in 1987 for a job at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For two years, he felt he had escaped to a journalistic Camelot in Atlanta, but then "the forces of darkness surrounded it, too." The Pulitzer-winning cartoonist moved on to New York Newsday, and his views of that paper's management were the subject of some scathing scenes in his first novel, The Bridge.

I have friends who knew Doug well and wound up not liking him very much, who said he was a ruthless careerist, an insensitive jerk and so forth. If they're right, then I'm glad I never ran into the Marlette buzzsaw during my interactions with him. But, like I said, I liked the guy. I admired the way he based a lot of his work, particularly his Kudzu comic strip and his two novels, on his Southern heritage, without apology. More than that, I loved the fact that he didn't romanticize the South or small-town life, but felt free to present them "as is," warts and all. Plus, the man was just funny as hell.

Marlette told a great story that illustrated his complex views of the South, and which he later worked into The Bridge. It's about a dinner party he attended in Manhattan after he'd begun working at Newsday. He suddenly found himself put on the defensive by a female TV producer who made broad accusations against the South:

"I don't see how anyone could possibly stand living down there with those people."

"Those people?" [Marlette's character, Pick Cantrell, responded]. "You mean my kinfolks?"

"... I couldn't take all the racists down there."

... "True," Pike said, "some of my people are racists and bigots. What do you expect from poor millhands and farmers? They may be narrow-minded and provincial but at least they have an excuse -- they were deprived. I meet New Yorkers like you who have every advantage, yet for all their privilege and erudition they're the most ignorant suckers I ever saw."

Later in the evening, the woman who couldn't imagine living among "all the racists down there" reveals that she is from, of all places, South Africa.

Obviously, Marlette made his points as forcefully in his prose as he did in his often controversial cartoons. He was nothing if not consistently, and hilariously, contentious.

In 2004, I called him to ask if he would take part in a benefit I was organizing at the Levine Museum of the New South for the laid-off textile workers at Pillowtex. "Of course. I'll be there," he replied immediately. The Bridge, which centered around his grandmother's involvement in the Great Textile Strike of 1934, was very popular in this area, and his involvement with the fundraiser pretty much guaranteed that we'd have a good turnout.

He and I went on to talk about our shared background as "fellow lint-head descendents," our difficult lifelong relationships with the South, and our intense feelings that the region's blacks and poor whites had both been victims of terrible injustices.

Marlette held modern views and evinced an ironic, contemporary style, but it was still that background as a descendent of Southerners who'd been routinely screwed by authority that gave him, and his work, an extra edge.

When Marlette won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, he explained to the Associated Press that his biting approach to his art was traceable to "a grandmother bayoneted by a guardsman during a mill strike in the Carolinas. There are some rebellious genes floating around in me."

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