Doug Marlette, the cartoonist whose beloved character Kudzu charmed, and perhaps comforted, a generation of readers, died recently in Mississippi as the truck he was riding in evidently skidded off the road and crashed into a tree. From all evidence, Marlette died instantly. Word was that he was traveling from an airport to assist young people in an area school who were planning a performance of a musical based on the Kudzu character.
I am sure that many readers of the Outlook opened the funny papers to see what antics their southern adolescent hero was up to. Or perhaps they wanted to know what advice Momma had for her son. Again, the odds are, that for religious readers, the second most important part of the cast was the Rev. Will B. Dunn, whose advice and preachments Kudzu sought. Then there was the car mechanic, Uncle Dub, who never lifted his head from the engine he was repairing.
Dunn, some say, was modeled on the noted Baptist preacher Will Campbell, whose folksy ways and trenchant commentary on American life caused rejoicing among some and rage among others.
In the South, it is not unusual to see preachers rise to prominence on their strongly presented views, and flamboyant style, rather than on their education and scholarship. Still, folks held the clergy in some regard. I can witness to that myself, as ribald stories ceased in the barbershop when I entered, only to resume when I left.
Marlette probably held some ministers in high regard, and the preacher at the Bypass Baptist Church is subjected to the kind of friendly criticism we might offer well-meaning bloviators in the religious or political scene. In fact, I understand that Marlette himself was not only a Christian, but an Episcopalian, until a novel he wrote was construed by the priest of his congregation as an attack on his very self. From that point on, we are told, Marlette and his family attended a small United Methodist Church at which his funeral was conducted.
There are many news reports, and more than a few editorial comments, on the life and work of Doug Marlette. So, I will not repeat details. However, it is worthwhile noting that his funeral was attended by a variety of writers, both liberal and conservative.
Marlette was a cartoonist of the first water. He was also a novelist. A recent speech I read, which was offered at his son’s school, Durham Academy, approaches the challenges to well-born youth with intelligence, imagination, wit, and love. I would love to have heard that address.
My friend Vaughn Earl Hartsell, once an editor at large of this magazine, had met Marlette, and enjoyed his work. On a trip to Mississippi to participate in the interment of the ashes of a close friend, he had the opportunity to view not only the place where the fatal crash occurred, but to view the horrible remains of the Toyota Tacoma in which Marlette was a passenger. He was able to rescue some CDs holding some of Marlette’s work, and return them to the grieving driver of the vehicle. While I am at my desk, I can look at, and listen to, a youthful singer voice Kudzu’s yearnings and wisdom by way of a copy.
Well, he was just a cartoonist, one might say. He was that. He was more. He was in the direct line of Jesus of Nazareth, who evidently loved a good story, and could be very witty at times. Looking at the practitioners of religion, he could declare that they “strain out gnats and swallow camels.” Without drawing a picture on paper, Jesus proves himself the master of the cartoon, which in a few frames captures a piece of wisdom for now, if not for the ages.
Alas, the local morning paper I read, noted for its liberalism and its sustained rage, did not carry Marlette’s strip. I believe that now and then his editorial cartoons might appear, to the delight of those who love to see pomposity deflated, with humor, and not with malice. The comic pages have, sadly, been reduced in size these days, and perhaps the quality of earlier politically slanted strips is not as high as L’il Abner, and Little Orphan Annie, which often provided a clever editorial slant on this or that issue.
Who will take Marlette’s place? Is there some person out there who can, with a few deft strokes of a drawing instrument, capture for the brief time it takes to read (and view it) some facet of life that desperately needs examination? If so, I wish for his or her appearance, and hope that our local newspaper will deign to carry it.