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Doug Marlette dies in crash

Doug Marlette at his studio in Tulsa. Photo by Tom Gilbert courtesy of the Tulsa World

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette died on Tuesday when a Toyota Tacoma in which he was a passenger hydroplaned off a rain-soaked highway near Holly Springs in northern Mississippi, some 50 miles south of Memphis. According to the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the truck hit a slick spot, left the road and struck a sign, then a tree. Marlette, 57, was killed instantly. He is survived by his wife, Melinda Marlette, and their son, Jackson. He lived in both Hillsborough and Tulsa, Oklahoma.  

In addition to his career in cartooning, Marlette was a novelist, screenwriter and teacher. He was en route to Oxford, Mississippi, where Oxford High School students were rehearsing “Kudzu: A Southern Musical,” an adaptation of his Kudzu comic strip, to be staged in Scotland. The 2002 Toyota truck was driven by the play’s director, John Davenport, who had picked Marlette up at the airport in Memphis.

Davenport, 33, sustained a broken leg.

Marlette’s father, Elmer Monroe Marlette, died last week. Marlette delivered the eulogy at services in Charlotte on Friday.

Perhaps best known to most Americans for his syndicated Kudzu strip – the setting for which was Bypass, North Carolina – Marlette was most distinguished as a political cartoonist. In addition to the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, he was the only cartoonist ever awarded a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University. He was a three-time recipient of the National Headliners Award for Consistently Outstanding Editorial Cartoons and was twice awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for editorial cartooning.

Marlette was born Dec. 6, 1949 in Greensboro and was raised in Durham; Laurel, Mississippi; and Sanford Florida. He graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and went on to serve as political cartoonist for The Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Newsday, the Tallahassee Democrat and the Tulsa World.

In the early ‘90s, Marlette moved to Hillsborough, and in 2001 served as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Among the  classes he taught were “The Editorial Cartoon: Sacred Cows-Holy Hamburger” and “Humor Writing: Behind the Chuckles Racket.” In an October 2001 article from the J-School’s Carolina Communicator magazine, Marlette urged his students to “free their Promethean voice[s].”

“You learn to go to the heat,” he told them.

It certainly wasn’t Marlette’s style, neither as a writer nor a cartoonist, to guard himself from controversy. With his first novel, The Bridge – published in 2001 and voted the Best Book of the Year for Fiction by the Southeast Booksellers Association – he offended some among the writers who’ve likewise made their homes in Hillsborough with at least one characterization they felt hit too close to home.

In 2002, he drew a cartoon that appeared in the online version of the Tallahassee Democrat depicting a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern driving a Ryder rental truck (like the one used by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh), a nuclear missile protruding from both front and back, with the caption, “What Would Muhammad Drive?” Marlette and the newspaper received more than 20,000 angry emails, including a number of death threats, but Marlette refused to apologize for its content.
He wrote at the time: “In my 30-year career I have regularly drawn cartoons that offend religious fundamentalists and true believers of every stripe, a fact that I tend to list in the ‘accomplishments’ column of my resume.” While at The Charlotte Observer, Marlette regularly took on mega-televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their PTL Ministries.

In an article for Salon titled “Them damn pictures” – the term legendary Tammany Hall head Boss Tweed applied to the political cartoons of Thomas Nast – Marlette came to the defense of Danish colleagues whose depictions of Muhammad were deemed blasphemous, saying the cartoons and the widespread condemnation they elicited from throughout the Western world had “exposed not just the internal dynamics of what some have called Islamofascism but the corresponding corruption of our own values and character in the West. Our insides have been illuminated like an electrocuted Daffy Duck in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. And we now see what we’re made of: not a lot of guts, or brains either.

In 2002, Marlette was inducted into the UNC Journalism Hall of Fame. Collections of his work include In Your Face: A Cartoonist at Work (awarded the American Library Association as a Best Books of the Year for Young People), Faux Bubba: Bill and Hillary Go to Washington, What Would Marlette Drive? and A Town So Backward Even the Episcopalians Handle Snakes.

Marlette once told People magazine that his high school counselor had warned him that cartoonists “were a dime a dozen.” In the course of his 35-year career, Marlette honed his craft into mastery, cajoling, infuriating and edifying his audience.

“More important than perfection,” Marlette said in the 2001 Carolina Communicator article, “is just simply the ‘doingness.’”

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  1. Michael

    The driver is a real man too!Not an idiot. A friend of mine. Not in a hurry dude, That’s why they call them ACCIDENTS!! Even the best drivers can hydroplane. Show some respect.

  2. Editor

    Editor’s note: A previous comment on this story, which the above was a comment on, was removed.