Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who also created the “Kudzu” comic strip and set it in the South he knew so well, died Tuesday in a single-car crash near Holly Springs in northwest Mississippi, authorities said. He was 57.
Marlette was a passenger in a car that appeared to have hydroplaned on a rain-slicked four-lane highway before striking a tree, said John Garrison, coroner of Marshall County, Miss.
Marlette died at the scene. The driver was transported to a nearby hospital, Garrison said.
The cartoonist had been in Charlotte, N.C., for the funeral of his father, Elmer Monroe Marlette, and was on his way to visit friends in Oxford, Miss., when the accident occurred, the Tulsa World, Marlette’s employer, reported. Marlette joined the Oklahoma paper in 2006.
“Doug was one of the very few talented cartoonists working today. He had a very different approach -- all the good ones do,” said Paul Conrad, a retired three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The Times.
“He had a marvelous way of needling people, which was all too rare,” Conrad said.
In 1988, Marlette won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons he drew for the Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which he joined in 1987. His chief targets were the scandal-ridden televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Marlette’s editorial cartoons and the “Kudzu” comic strip he started more than 25 years ago are widely distributed in the U.S. and abroad, according to Tribune Media Services, which syndicates his work.
Marlette also worked for Newsday beginning in 1989 and for the Tallahassee Democrat in 2002.
A cartoon he drew for the Florida newspaper depicted a man in Middle Eastern garb driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear warhead and the caption: “What Would Mohammed Drive?” The drawing played off the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign against gas-guzzling vehicles and the notion that fundamentalist Islamists were using their religion to justify murdering Americans.
It elicited more than 20,000 e-mails demanding an apology for “misrepresenting the peace-loving religion of the Prophet Mohammed -- or else,” Marlette wrote in a piece published in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003.
Offending others was “a fact that I tend to list in the ‘Accomplishments’ column of my resume,” Marlette wrote.
He added another achievement -- published novelist -- in 2001.
His loosely autobiographical novel “The Bridge” became a bestseller in the South. It tells the story of an editorial cartoonist who returns to North Carolina and discovers a family history that includes his grandmother’s role in a 1934 textile strike. The story parallels that of Marlette’s grandmother.
“Cartoonists are notoriously illiterate; we consider words a crutch,” Marlette told Publishers Weekly in 2001. “I was stunned that I could write anything more than a caption.... A cartoon is like a slam dunk, a novel is like a whole season.”
In his second novel, “Magic Time” (2006), he sent a beleaguered journalist home to Mississippi to grapple with old wounds from civil rights-era violence.
He also published at least 16 collections of his cartoons and helped create a musical comedy based on his comic strip that was produced in Washington, D.C., in 1998.
Born Dec. 6, 1949, in Greensboro, N.C., Marlette discovered cartooning in first grade. While drawing a still life, “I’d always have the banana saying something to the apple,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina in 2002.
He often said that “Kudzu,” named for a pesky vine that torments the South, was semi-autobiographical. The comic strip Marlette created when he was 31 is about an awkward adolescent in the tiny town of Bypass, N.C.
“My dad was in the Navy, and we lived in little towns all over the South,” Marlette told the Christian Science Monitor in 1983.
Six months after earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1971 from Florida State University, Marlette joined the Observer.
He married his wife, Melinda, in 1981 and the couple moved to Hillsborough, N.C., around 1990 so they could raise their son, Jackson, in the South.
His wife and son survive him.
Inspired by Mad magazine and comic strips such as “Li’l Abner,” Marlette had chosen cartooning despite a counselor’s warning that artists “were a dime a dozen,” he told People magazine in 2002.
“Didn’t he know,” Marlette said, “that cartoonists never listen to authority figures?”