Paul Greenberg

You may not recognize the name Doug Marlette, but the odds are he's made you smile.

The celebrated cartoonist was killed when a car in which he was a passenger ran off a rain-slick road in Mississippi, a state that might be summed up as the South's South.

That's a helluva note. Because it was the South that, throughout his career, Doug Marlette celebrated and lampooned, relished and ridiculed, and above all loved. The secret of his success - well, one of 'em - was that he had a sense of place. A sense of place many of us share. The man was talking, and drawing, our language.

Like the loss of another great cartoonist, adopted Southerner Jeff MacNelly back in 2000, this one really hurt.

Doug Marlette wasn't just an editorial cartoonist but a comic-strip artist ("Kudzu"), a showman (he was on his way to a high school musical based on "Kudzu" when he was killed), and a plain-as-grits good guy.

Doug Marlette knew that few weapons are more powerful than humor. And he used it with aplomb. When he was with the Tallahasee Democrat before joining the Tulsa World, he drew a cartoon that was seen around the world - and provoked about half of it. It showed a man in Arab garb driving a Ryder truck equipped with a nuclear weapon. The caption was a take-off on the anti-gas guzzler slogan, "What would Jesus drive?" It read: "What would Mohammed drive?"

The cartoon outraged the intolerant throughout the Muslim world, which, like ours, has no shortage of zealots.

But an iconoclast like Doug Marlette was an equal opportunity offender. When he was drawing cartoons for the Charlotte Observer, he caricatured Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Jerry Falwell, too, in a single cartoon. It showed Brother Falwell slithering into the Bakkers' evangelical empire after their fall, explaining: "Jim and Tammy were expelled from paradise and left me in charge."

In response, an angry caller told him: "You're a tool of Satan for that cartoon you drew."

"That's impossible," he responded. "I couldn't be a tool of Satan. The Charlotte Observer's personnel department tests for that sort of thing. Š Knight Ridder human resources has a strict policy against hiring tools of Satan."

Doug Marlette not only suffered fools, he used them as straight men.


Doug Marlette wasn't just a newspaper cartoonist but a newspaper critic in his way. In his memory, the rest of us in this business would do well to keep in mind some criticism he offered in an interview with Jeff MacNelly's daughter, Kristy Shumaker, when she interviewed him in 2003:

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.