Doug Marlette . . . on Marlette
By Doug Marlette
Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 7-9
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following comments by Doug Marlette are–with a few recent additions and editing–taken from a 1985 interview conducted by Terry A. Schmitt for Target: The Political Cartoon Quarterly, which has since ceased publication. Marlette’s words and cartoons are pubIished here with his kind permission.
I was born in Greensboro, N.C. All my people lived in Burlington, which was a mill town. I grew up in Durham, and Laurel, Miss., and Sanford, Fla. My dad was in the service, so we moved around. The values and the attitudes that I see in my cartoons have to do with going to Sunday School at the Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Laurel, and taking civics classes at D.U. Maddox Junior High School. I always think of the attitude expressed in my cartoons as fairly conservative, fairly basic, coming out of that background.
When I got into high school and started thinking about a career, I thought that I would like to be some sort of artist. I didn’t know that you could be a cartoonist, although I was never serious in my art classes. When I had to draw a still life, I was always having the banana saying something to the apple. But nobody encourages you to be a cartoonist, nobody wants the responsibility for that. It’s like telling somebody to be an actor, “Go to New York, live in an attic, starve… ” Nobody wants that on their conscience.
So I aimed broadly at commercial art. My mother encouraged that but my father was skeptical–you know, he grew up in the Depression, which taught you the importance of making a living. Editorial cartooning became interesting to me as I got to be a senior in high school. I was starting to focus more on a career, plus this was the middle of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, and I lived in the South during all that.
My people were classically Southern–mill workers, cotton farmers, tobacco farmers, and very poor. The South
was hit by the Depression much earlier and harder than the rest of the country. A lot of the most ardent New Dealers came from the South–that was where it first caught on, because they realized that something drastic and radical had to be done.
My grandfather voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times. He thought he was the greatest President we ever had. I asked him why that was, and he said, because Franklin Roosevelt was the only President we ever had who cared anything about poor people. But, ironically, in that same conversation, he followed that up by saying the only mistake Roosevelt ever made was he “should have let Hitler kill them Jews.”
I was always so impressed by my grandfather’s Populist sentiments, and then it was so contaminated by the racism. That kind of contradiction was so vividly played out in my family and in my background. That’s not just in the South; it’s in the entire country, that racism. But it was on the surface in the South and expressed more clearly and it gave the rest of the country something to point at.
People think of the South as being a very reactionary area. But there have always been these pockets of radicalism, and a contrary, anti-authoritarian streak that runs deep.
My grandmother was bayonetted by a national guardsman on a mill strike. I only learned that a few years ago. I’d always wondered where all these impulses in me come from, because all my family is just so conservative. Where did this rebelliousness develop? And then I find out that my grandfather was president of a union, and, maybe there are rebellious genes in me.
The questioners or challengers of the powers that be tend to be better cartoonists. You can have conservative cartoonists, but they will be challenging their own establishment. They’ll make the establishment Tip O’Neill or the Democrats, or whatever they see as the big, bad boogeyman. They’re going to be in tension with whatever they see.
I mean, it’s hard to do good cartoons that say “three cheers for the status quo,” you know, “hooray for the way things are!” Cartooning is a vehicle of attack. And so the best cartoons just have a rage. The satirists–Swift, Mark Twain, Joseph Heller–are disappointed with the way things have turned out, and they express a basic rage in their work. The trick is to channel that rage in a constructive way.
Everyone, it seems, imitates somebody early on and then progresses to their own style. I just had so many influences that there was never one that dominated. I was influenced by people like Don Wright, and some of those Mad cartoonists. But I look back on the stuff I did in college and it looks, more or less, like what I’m doing now. Although it’s been refined a lot.
When I started, the Vietnam War was changing the face of political cartooning. Cartoons were getting more inter-
esting. Pat Oliphant was introducing that Australian, or European, style of cartooning. I was raised, like other people in my generation, on TV, and movies, and comic books. What I saw in Oliphant that was so exciting was that his political cartoons looked like Mad Magazine. It looked fun and it was satirical and the draftsmanship was exciting unlike the old style of Uncle Sams trudging in the swamps, rolling up their sleeves, and John Q. Publics with a lot of labels all over things–you know, clouds labeled “cloud,” and swamps labeled, “the budget.”
The task is to get in touch with what is essentially your way of seeing things. That’s the mistake imitators make. They think that, “If I could just do it like them. . .” I know this from my own experience, because, when I was younger, that thought dominated me. And when you thought up ideas, you thought, “Well, this sounds like a Conrad, or a Wright, so it must be good.” What’s sad about the imitators and copiers is that they all think that the magic is in somebody else. You know, Conrad did not learn how to be Herblock, he learned how to be Conrad. And Herblock didn’t learn how to be D.R. Fitzpatrick, he learned how to be Herblock. That’s what everyone’s task is.
Creativity is not just talent. Talent is not enough. Seed isn’t crops. There has to be a passion, a soul, a prism through which things go. And there is no “correct” way. It’s just whether you are being effective, and evocative, and saying something worth saying.
I like showing the banality of evil. I like to show that these goofy, mundane people are doing these horrible things–punching in the time clock at Auschwitz. I like turning symbols upside down and inside out, and playing with those things, so that it’s not predictable. That’s something that appeals to me and it’s some thing that I do instinctively.
I did this thing when Jesse Helms was re-elected  and I had him at the window, with the Capitol in the background, and he was bending over and his pants were down and it said, “Carolina moon keeps shining.” I think none of the editors at my paper, except one–the edit page editor–wanted to run that. But they did run it, to their credit. And I would have gone to the mat on it. I tell you why I liked that cartoon. It does not have to do with showing somebody with their pants down. It’s easy to do cartoons that get reactions, if you want. It’s easy to hack people off, but that’s not something I’m particularly interested in. What I liked about that cartoon was that the metaphor, or the image, was so accurate.
Helms stopped talking to the paper after that cartoon. Our reporter, Bill Arthur, wanted to talk to Helms about which committee Helms was going to chair. And he ran into the Senator in the hall and Helms said, “I’m not talking to you,” and Bill said, “Well, why not?” Helms said, “You know why not.” And Bill said, “No, I don’t. I’ve been trying to call your office and nobody ever returns my call.” And Helms said, “You know why not–that cartoon.” Bill said, “What cartoon?” He had not seen the cartoon at that time. And Helms said, “You know what cartoon. And you can tell Rolph Neill,” the publisher, “that until I get an official apology from the Charlotte Observer, I’m not going to talk to you.”
I thought that was revealing about Helms’s personality, I mean, someone who dishes it out, and can’t take it. He’s real good at dishing it out…
But, what’s also interesting about that image is that Helms and I are a lot alike. In both cases, you’ve got these righteous people with causes or ways of seeing things that they want to impose on the rest of the world. And they want to show their asses. That’s why I knew that cartoon was so accurate. Because I’m a lot like that and cartoonists are a lot like that.