Cartoonist Doug Marlette is 'Kudzu'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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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.

He could, however, draw cartoons - something he'd been doing since childhood. ''I'd draw Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and the other kids were quite impressed ,'' he says. ''Of course, it's easy to impress someone who's only five years old , but they'd reward me with desserts and marbles and a place in line. So I saw it could be, you know, lucrative.''

He joined the Charlotte Observer six months after graduating and turned out progressive cartoons five times a week for the next 10 years. ''He never made a deadline,'' claims his editor, Ed Williams. ''And the other thing he never mastered was parking in the right spot. Once a month I could count on getting a call saying that Doug Marlette's car was parked in the publisher's spot. He just has no respect for these things,'' the editor teases.

Then Neal Freeman, a former syndicate head, asked him to consider doing a cartoon strip. ''I hadn't read cartoons for years,'' Mr. Marlette admits, ''because they seemed to be pretty stamped-out, one-dimensional characters. I remember as a kid reading the comics - reading 'Peanuts,' and really wanting to get to know these characters as people. That's what I wanted to do with the comics.''

Before he could launch the strip, though, Harvard University offered him a Nieman Fellowship - the first ever offered to a political cartoonist, he says - and the Marlettes spent ''the best year of our life going to seminars with all the Harvard name brands.'' At the end - two years ago this June - Kudzu was born , based ''vaguely on characters that all leapt out one night,'' he says.

Asked if he patterned the strip after contemporary cartoons like 'Doonesbury' and 'Bloom County,' the philosopher-cum-cartoonist says, ''Hip comes and goes, but the human experience goes on. I admire (those strips), but sometimes I get the feeling they're written for the editors of Rolling Stone. I wanted to write something you don't need a master's in communication to understand,'' he says. ''Also, I get all my politics out in my political cartoons. They complement each other.''

The immediate personal result of adding this strip to Mr. Marlette's workload , says his editor, is that ''he's doing his cartoon on time - it's really helped him get disciplined.'' Mr. Marlette admits this freely, saying, ''There's a quote from James Agee, who described Charlie Chaplin as a genius, saying he had enormous intuition and enormous discipline. Most people emphasize the intuition, but I find that inspiration comes easily - what's hard is making myself sit down and do all the little details.''

Asked if he hires someone to help him draw up all those details, he replies, ''It's like climbing a mountain. You could hire someone to climb a mountain for you, and it would get climbed, but . . . .''

Instead, he shows up for work at the Observer at 6 a.m. and starts drawing by 7, ''whether I have an idea or not.'' The cartoon is done by noon, when he returns home for lunch and an afternoon of drawing Kudzu. ''Usually it slops over into the night. I distract myself easily,'' he says with a shrug.

It's true, says his wife. ''I just took his clothes off the TV set this morning,'' she says. ''But he's much better now that he's doing the strip - it forces him to come to grips with all these little things. I would say he has become a very mature grown-up child.''

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