Cartoonist Doug Marlette is 'Kudzu'
He has a wide mouth and a wider smile, a slightly impish look in his eye, and a habit of answering all questions twice - once with information, then with a zany aside. His editor calls him a ''grown-up child with a child's clarity, and a way of saying the things children don't know aren't supposed to be said.''Skip to next paragraph
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He is Doug Marlette, political cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and creator of ''Kudzu,'' a Southern strip about an awkward adolescent in the dinky town of Bypass.
The strip includes a cast of characters drawn from Mr. Marlette's Southern experience: Uncle Dub, a good-ole-boy service station owner who wins the Nobel Prize for mechanics; the Rev. Will B. Dunn, who wants to evangelize the ''fabulously well-to-do''; Kudzu's unreachable girlfriend Veranda, who attends a correspondence cheerleaders school; and his best friend Maurice, a black youth who fears that the Harvard education his mother has slaved for will interfere with his career plans for being a country music singer.
It's a gentle strip, based on what Mr. Marlette calls ''the first rule of writing - write what you know. My dad was in the Navy, and we lived in little towns all over the South,'' he said recently over black walnut pie in Washington , where he was to give a speech to the Smithsonian Institution on the cartoonist's art.
In the South, where the plant ''kudzu'' has become ''something of a pest,'' he says, growing up to a foot at night and taking all the nutrients from the ground, Mr. Marlette spent his ''failed adolescence'' being ''five years behind everybody else.''
If it was a difficult time (''I want to go back and apologize to all my teachers for being so obnoxious''), it was also a funny one, ''the way slipping on a banana peel is funny. Adolescence is one long banana peel to me.''
The humor of the awkward comes across as Kudzu gets continually rejected by Veranda, called a wimp by his uncle, or punched out by Norman Mailer (''I can do name dropping, just like 'Doonesbury ''') - situations guaranteed to produce groans and giggles in those standing this side of adolescence.
The groan has become Mr. Marlette's litmus test for success. ''I show it to my wife, and if she moans, I know I've made it,'' he says.
His wife, Melinda Hartley, a TV producer in Charlotte, says the test is unfair, ''because there hasn't been one strip Doug's done that I haven't gone wild over.'' A comparatively new bride of two years with the looks of Veranda and the personality, she says, of Kudzu's overbearing mother (''I'm a nag''), Ms. Hartley has been with Kudzu from the creation. ''Doug is Kudzu,'' she says, ''in a way. But I can see my personality in all the characters. That's the great thing about it - it's pretty universal.''
Asked if the strip is about him, Mr. Marlette, who is not quite the spitting image of its main character, replies, ''Sure, it's autobiographical, in a way. I mean, everything is autobiographical. Philosophy is autobiographical.''
The cartoonist was, in fact, a philosophy major at college, ''because the art majors all wore tights and capes and had vocabularies that were directly inverse to their talent, and I just couldn't be an art major,'' he says.