Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

R. I. P. Doug Marlette (1949-2007).

kudzu1.gifkudzu2.gifmarlette.gifDoug Marlette (1949-2007), political cartoonist, author, and creator of the hilarious comic strip Kudzu, died last night in Mississippi. Marlette was a passenger in a fatal car crash. He had been in Mississippi to help high school students with the musical version of Kudzu.  He was 57.

Marlette was born in Greensboro, NC and raised in Durham, NC, Laurel, MS, and Sanford, FL. Proving his keen intelligence, he graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee (instead of going to those otheruniversities in Gainesville or Miami, Florida;–no bias showing, here, huh?) with a B.A. in journalism with minor concentration in art. He began drawing political cartoons for The Charlotte Observer in 1972, joined the staff of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987, New York Newsday in 1989, the Tallahassee Democrat in 2002, and the Tulsa World in 2006.   He won ever major award for political cartooning including, in 1988, the Pulitzer Prize.

I loved Marlette’s work. His political cartoons were especially harsh on the Religious Right, but not from the sneering perspective of a skeptic.  Marlette was a cradle roll Southern Baptist and knew and loved evangelical Southern religion from the inside–but none of that stopped him from lampooning its weirder or less noble aspects.  I especially loved Kudzu. For those elsewhere in the world, “kudzu” is a vine, originally from South America (I have no idea what it’s actual name is) which was brought back from some tourist to the U.S. South in the 1960s.  This was an ecological disaster. Outside of its ecological niche, “kudzu” vines began growing rapidly all over the Southeastern U.S., choking out native vegetation and costing state and local governments millions to attempt their removal and abolition–an effort which, to date, has failed.

The comic strip Kudzuhas characters from a nameless Southern town who have larger than life peculiarities. Yet, unlike the late Al Capp’s L’il Abner , which supposedly depicted “typical hillbillies,” Kudzu did not sneer or look down its nose at life in Dixie. The humor was that of an insider and told with Southern charm.  Many of the main characters borrowed their exaggerated features from “real life” characters in these Southern states. The title character “Kudzu” was drawn to resemble Marlette as a young man in his late teens.  But the most famous character in the strip, the “Reverend Will B. Dunn,” a Baptist minister dressed in black and wearing a 19th C. Quaker-style hat, was physically modeled on Yale-educated, maverick Baptist preacher Will D. Campbell, who once owned such a hat.

“Rev. Will B. Dunn,” unlike his physical model, is a bit of huckster, with that “used car salesman” approach that too many Southern evangelists have as a stock in trade.  But Will B. Dunn, like Will Campbell, is no member of the Religious Right. He takes on the snake-oil charlatans in style and wit. (One collection of Kudzu cartoons was appropriately entitled A Town So Backward Even the Episcopalians Handle Snakes!) But Marlette, through Will B. Dunn, could also skewer the sillier aspects of more liberal forms of Christianity. A familiar scene would have Rev. Dunn reading a ridiculously bad modern paraphrase of a cherised Bible passage from the pulpit. When finished, the final panel would inevitably have Dunn with a thought balloon that said, “I just hate these modern translations!”  I’ll also miss the Will B. Dunn pep talks at church softball league games, and the inappropriate remarks he would make at weddings and funerals.  

Rest in peace, Mr. Marlette.  We’ll try to muddle through without you.

July 11, 2007 Posted by | Obituaries | 5 Comments