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Cartooning’s Equal Opportunity Offender

Doug Marlette discusses his political cartoons, novel

Calling himself “an equal opportunity offender,” nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette says many people prefer that he be seen and not heard.

But considering his experiences, a lot of those people probably preferred he be heard rather than have his cartoons seen.

Marlette, a resident of Hillsborough, showed a sampling from his 30 years in cartooning, and told the story behind some of them at a John Locke Foundation luncheon March 31. Categorized as liberal by his syndicate, Tribune Media Services, Marlette displayed his ability to parody the extremes of all political beliefs.

“I’ve been ticking people off for 30 years,” Marlette said.
Some cartoons hit targets, like President George W. Bush’s language-butchering and alleged lack of intellect, but they also lampooned former President Bill Clinton’s philandering. In one cartoon Bush brandishes a sword and rattles rocks in his head, while at his side Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells him, “The saber, George — just rattle the saber.” Meanwhile, drawn next to the Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, Marlette proposes a monument to commemorate Clinton: A giant zipper.

While he demonstrated his ability to insult people, Marlette also showed poignant work that he said brought outpourings of praise. A sketch of the symbolic U.S. bald eagle, a teardrop falling from its eye as it gazes into space, brought thousands of requests for copies after the 1986 shuttle Challenger disaster. More recently, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Marlette depicted a mournful Statue of Liberty fallen on her knees off her pedestal, face in hands.

But Marlette’s forte for parody has clearly outweighed his occasional power to move. As with all editorial cartoonists, politics and current events are Marlette’s most popular targets. Geriatric Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina form the “Incontinental Congress.” A psychiatrist tells his bovine patient that he wouldn’t call him a “Mad Cow,” but just a “cow with issues.”

Marlette has invoked his most stinging commentary when he aims at religious institutions and figureheads — the area that has gotten him in the most trouble. At the height of the Praise the Lord Club scandals, Rev. Jerry Falwell demanded an apology from Marlette after he depicted the reverend as a snake in front of a television camera, saying, “That’s right — Jim and Tammy were expelled from Paradise and left me in charge!” Last year Marlette drew several cartoons satirizing the Catholic church pedophilia scandals, including one in which a bishop tells a young boy, “Sorry, you’re no longer a fetus — we cannot protect you!”

However, his most scathing rebuke came after he depicted a man in an Arab headdress driving a rental truck with a nuclear missile as cargo. The caption said, “What Would Mohammed Drive?” Marlette said the piece “prompted a firestorm of reaction” from Muslims, which was orchestrated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

He said he and his home-base newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, received more than 4,500 angry e-mails in the week after it ran, and “quite a few threatened mutilation and death.” He answered that criticism with a drawing of the Statue of Liberty, with “free speech” inscribed on her tablet and her head covered in a burqa.

Chesser is associate editor at Carolina Journal.