A Cartoonist's Unique View Of Tulsa And Oklahoma

Monday, February 12th 2007, 7:54 am
By: News On 6

See Terry's report on video.

From the stage to the classroom, to a national book tour, to the newsroom of the Tulsa World, Doug Marlette has parlayed a talent for drawing and an admittedly short attention span, into his own media empire. Now this Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist calls Tulsa home. News On 6 anchor Terry Hood reports.

If his political cartoons, his syndicated comic strip and his best selling books don't hook you, maybe Hollywood will. “Paramount bought it for Tom Cruise.” Marlette is talking about the rights to his first book, ‘The Bridge,’ which he hopes will be hitting the big screen within the next few years. While the process is out of his hands now, he’s pleased with what’s been done so far. “I really like the screenplay, I really like the story,” he said.

In fact, Marlette's own story has almost as many unexpected plots and turns as the novel itself. Before coming to the Tulsa World, he worked at newspapers in Charlotte, Tallahassee, Atlanta and New York. Along the way, he won every major award for editorial cartooning, including the Pulitzer Prize. He’s the only cartoonist ever awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and taught in the journalist department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work has appeared in publications nationwide, including Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post.

On top of all that, Marlette found the time to start a nationally syndicated cartoon strip, Kudzu. The cartoon was made into a musical which ran in Washington D.C.’s Ford Theatre in the spring of 1998. Just a few years later, Marlette published his first novel, which was met with critical acclaim.

Last year, Marlette's path led him to Norman, as a Gaylord Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at the University of Oklahoma. From OU, it was just a short hop to Tulsa, where last February, he became the new political cartoonist for the Tulsa World.

You might think Marlette was overqualified for the position, but actually jobs as cartoonists are hard to come by. He says twenty years ago, there were 250 political cartoonists in the country, now there are fewer than 70. But working at the Tulsa World wasn’t just about the numbers for Marlette. He says right from the beginning, he felt at home. He says the experience was something like stepping back in time, and he means that in a good way. “That's what I say to my friends, it’s like deja vu. It’s like all the best parts of journalism that I thought were gone, are here.” And now that he's here, he's wasted no time in doing what he does best. You might call it "afflicting the comfortable."

Everyone from local and state politicians to Tulsa’s endless supply of potholes has been the subject of his cartoons. And he’s already generated his share of complaints.

Marlette says a good political cartoon has a sting to it. “People can say all kinds of things in print, but if you do it in an image, it’s more upsetting.” Terry Hood asks, “it seems more irreverent?” “Yeah, and it upsets people, says Doug Marlette. And never was that truth more apparent than last winter, when a Danish cartoon ignited Muslim protests around the world. The controversy struck a chord with Marlette, who ran into a similar firestorm after 9-11, when he drew a cartoon showing a man in a turban driving a Ryder Truck for the Tallahassee Democrat. Thousands of e-mails flooded the newspaper, many of them carrying death threats. Marlette was condemned by Muslim councils around the world. “Is it good if everybody's mad at you if you're a cartoonist? “I'm not trying to stir things up,” says Doug Marlette. “But if what I do, if it’s doing what I want and it causes people to be upset, I don't mind.”

Marlette's viewpoint is no doubt tempered by the fact that he came of age in the midst of one of the great upheavals in recent American history. His family lived in Mississippi during the height of the violence of the Civil Rights era. He would later learn that a man from his own hometown was the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and ordered the infamous "Mississippi Burning" murders. “It became interesting to me how these things go on. It’s like passive aggression, nice on the surface and then the meanness goes on in the dark.” The story morphed into the plot line of Marlette's latest book, ‘Magic Time’, which was chosen this month for Tulsa's city wide book club, ‘Tulsa Reads.’

Now that he's in Tulsa, Doug Marlette says he plans to stick around. He sees Tulsa as a city with great potential and perhaps even more importantly, lots of targets. “I like Tulsa's role in the state, its position. 'The Paris of the prairie.' I just now made that up, but I like that.”

If you’d like to know more about Doug Marlette and his work, check out his website, www.dougmarlette.com. It features many of his cartoons as well as more information about his books and his syndicated cartoon strip, Kudzu.