in memory of Doug Marlette
Until, The Washington Post dropped it, I read the late Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Doug Marlette's comic strip Kudzu every day. Now, I enjoy the strip on the internet (www.comicspage.com/kudzu). This month, I urge you, especially, if you've never seen Kudzu, to check it out. Because Marlette died on July 10 in a car crash at age 57, the last daily edition of Kudzu will run on August 6 and the last Sunday edition of the strip will run on August 26.
I'll never win a Pulitzer, but I have one claim to fame. In the 1990's in Washington, D.C., I interviewed Marlette. He was in town for the performance at Ford's Theater of the musical based Kudzu. "I have a button that says 'politically correct means always having to say you're sorry,'" I told him. Laughing, Marlette asked if he could use the line. A couple of weeks later it was in his strip.
Last month, I remembered this when Marlette died in route to a high school where preparation was underway for a production of the musical based on Kudzu.
Marlette, renown for his biting satire, skewered everyone from "feel-good therapists" to fundamentalists of all stripes (from Islamic to Jewish to Christian) in his political cartoons. A fervent defender of free speech, Marlette was a polite, charming man, with a deep love of the South (he was born in Greensboro, N.C.), who had been deeply moved by the Civil Rights movement. His grandmother, Marlette said, was a union sympathizer. Raised as a Methodist, he became a rebel early on. Yet, "I learned to love telling stories from going to church," Marlette told me.
Marlette's story-telling talent flowered in Kudzu. (Kudzu, a Japanese vine introduced to the United States in 1896, is now a weed known as "the plant that ate the South.") A Southern "Our Town," Kudzu is set in the fictional small town of Bypass, N.C. Kudzu, a 16 year-old Bypass resident and aspiring writer, can't wait to grow up and get out of town.
Other characters include Kudzu's (unrequited) love interest Veranda (a cheerleader who prays for her rivals to be "smite with cellulite"), his Uncle Dub (Kudzu's male role model) and the Rev. Will B. Dunn. Dunn is materialistic and envious of his professional peers. (He's annoyed that he can't have the megachurch that the pastor has in the next town.) But, Dunn is also eccentric, good at preaching and refreshingly human. "Clergy from priests to rabbis love Will B. Dunn," Marlette told me, "because he thinks what a lot of religious leaders think, but wouldn't say." When officiating at a wedding, Will B. Dunn may likely think (of a very overweight bride), "She's going to bust out of that dress!"
I've never met a creative artist who isn't long-suffering, sensitive Kudzu. At heart, we're all 16 year-olds, desperate to get out of Dodge, find true love and make art. By the same token, every poet, playwright, musician, or novelist I've ever encountered is Will. B. Dunn. Who, among us, doesn't envy the Famous Poet with wall-to-wall fans, when we're lucky to get 20 people at a reading?
"Cartoons are windows into the human condition," Marlette said last year, the Associated Press reported. This is true of any form of art.
Kudzu, the best sort of art, is down-to-earth, funny and pointed without being preachy.
Bypass, like Grover's Corners, will live on in our imagination long after Kudzu stops syndication. A fitting memorial to Marlette.
For more information about Marlette, go to www.dougmarlette.com.