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Comics and the U.S. South$

Brannon Costello and Qiana J. Whitted

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781617030185

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617030185.001.0001

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“The Southern Thing”

“The Southern Thing”

Doug Marlette, Identity Consciousness, and the Commodification of the South

Chapter:
(p.89) “The Southern Thing”
Source:
Comics and the U.S. South
Author(s):

Christopher Whitby

Publisher:
University Press of Mississippi
DOI:10.14325/mississippi/9781617030185.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

The nationally syndicated comic strip Kudzu, a creation of editorial cartoonist Doug Nigel Marlette, celebrated “the values, humor, and original characters still to be found in rural America.” In addition to Kudzu, Marlette produced thousands of political cartoons, numerous cartoon anthologies, and two novels. This chapter explores the ambivalence toward the evolving South in Kudzu in relation to the concept of southern authenticity within the region and in U.S. culture generally. More specifically, it considers how Marlette’s cartoons comment on the transformation of the South into a commodity utilized by a wider American culture and the various uses to which that commodity was put. The chapter shows how Marlette used Kudzu to address issues of race in the South, particularly the South’s desires to eradicate the derogatory stigma attached to “whiteness.”

Keywords:   comic strip, Kudzu, Doug Nigel Marlette, political cartoons, South, culture, commodity, race, whiteness

  • Kudzu’s everywhere
  • It covers us from here to there
  • It’s who we are, it’s our destiny!

—Kudzu: The Musical

On Saturday July 21, 2007, the family of deceased editorial cartoonist Doug Nigel Marlette received another of many letters offering condolences on his passing and praise for the artist’s sharp wit and ability to treat the most serious of issues with insight and humor. Before offering her final regards, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton commented, “I always loved his contribution to our political dialogue, even if I wasn’t always happy being a character in his cartoons!” (qtd. in Klein). Born December 6, 1949, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Marlette produced thousands of political cartoons, the nationally syndicated strip Kudzu, numerous cartoon anthologies (including Faux Bubba: Bill and Hillary go to Washington, a work concerning the aforementioned Senator and husband President Bill Clinton), and two novels, The Bridge and Magic Time. On July 10, 2007, Marlette was killed instantly when his Toyota pickup truck collided with a tree on a back road in Marshall County, Mississippi.

In an essay entitled “The Asterisk Southerner,” Elizabeth Fortson Arroyo poses a question pertinent to Marlette’s life and work: “What could be more Southern than to obsess about being Southern?” (qtd. in Cobb 287). Haunted by images of bigoted, lazy and backward southerners, Marlette commented,

People often think of me as a “Southern” cartoonist, whatever that means. I have never sat down at the drawing board to chronicle the (p.90) folkways and mores of Dixie … but I am attracted to the issues of race, religion, and family that are so prevalent in that region.

(In Your Face 50)

Discussing his attraction to cartoons, Marlette commented that they “pushed the boundaries of free speech by the very qualities that have endangered them: cartoons are hard to defend” (“Them Damn Pictures” 2). Using recognizable southern icons, many of which carried associations familiar to readers in the United States, Marlette’s interests, concerns, and attacks were immediately presented to the viewer. The cartoons became Marlette’s means of “confronting contradictions, pointing out the ironies and holding my own prism up to the light and looking at issues from my own perspective” (Shred this Book 6). As he put it elsewhere, “All of it is the same—Clinton, the Disneyfication of America—it is pushing things down people’s throats, and there is a gag reflex. I embody the gag reflex” (Gross 18). For Marlette, Bill Clinton represented the debasement of southern ideas, the utilization of idealized southern identity for personal gain. While aware of the negative tropes within the common conception of the South, he wanted to ensure that the region was not being exploited as a means of superficially reasserting an identity, gaining power, or making money. Marlette critiqued this process through what he termed the “Faux Bubba” phenomenon, an issue that will be addressed later.

Through his strips, political and comical, Marlette juxtaposed personal ideas of what he believed society saw as the abhorrent “old” South—violent, racist, and backward-looking—with a progressive, and in his eyes redemptive, contemporary South. Published in 2002, Marlette’s first novel, The Bridge, the tale of editorial cartoonist Pick Cantrell moving back to his southern home, demonstrates many parallels with his own life. Early in the text, central protagonist Pick is disciplined for a recent cartoon—a direct reference to the furor surrounding Marlette’s image of the Pope adorned with a “No Women Priests” pin badge (“Controversial Cartoons”). Pick’s employer refers to him as a “Cracker,” conjuring up ideas of backwardness commonly associated with the South. Pick’s response offers a succinct description of the anxieties Marlette experienced throughout his youth and cartooning career:

Yankees like Garvis still freely and without inhibition used insulting epithets for white Southerners like myself. Words like Cracker and Redneck flowed contemptuously from their lips with an impunity I found (p.91) appalling, given the tenor of the times and the poverty, powerlessness, and marginalization of my people.

(The Bridge 28)

Later, when conversing with a New York socialite, Pick reflects, “My Southern drawl seemed to unnerve her … every time I opened my mouth my IQ dropped below room temperature” (15). Marlette saw white southerners as marginalized in U.S. society due to assumptions that they were eternally on a lower social and economic level.

Marlette believed that had he “grown up in a different time, in a different place, I might have ended up drawing a cartoon strip about cats” (In Your Face 38). Using the idiosyncrasies of his southern upbringing as a starting point, this essay will address how Marlette’s personal “southernness” manifests itself through his cartoon’s visual iconography, both personal and cultural, and will examine how this “southernness” for Marlette is not merely an identity but an analytical lens through which to interpret national political, social, and religious climates. Marlette’s work was especially concerned with an idea of solidarity between southern working classes, an idea based upon his lived experience in the South. He desired a widespread, sympathetic appreciation of inherited traditions as a means of producing a constructive and progressive future for the South. Marlette did not advocate a return to the South of the past, but he was also unwilling to watch those around him promote their notions of a modern South for personal gain. This essay considers the complicated nature of multiple local and national identities throughout Marlette’s work alongside his own identification with competing images of the South. Paradoxically, however, while bemoaning the idealized constructions of those around him, he himself generates notions supporting an interpretation of the South he sees as identical with “reality.” Like those he criticizes, his cartoons resonate with cultural codes constantly fetishized as a means of generating the solace of an identity imagined to be essential. By utilizing the icons of his putatively authentic South to lend authority to his perspective, Marlette seeks to use his cartoons to comprehend social upheaval and to advocate for a specific vision of what the South should become. My analysis is thus not concerned with whether or not Marlette’s cartoons reflect a “real” or “authentic” South, but rather with, as Scott Romine puts it, “understanding how individuals and groups use these concepts in a region and age compelled by them” (10). In particular, I am interested in how Marlette’s cartoons comment on how the South became a commodity utilized by a wider United States culture and the various uses to which that commodity was put. (p.92)

Raised Southern Baptist, Marlette soon discovered the inconsistencies of a southern moral code that preached an ardent religious doctrine while violating the basic tenets of that doctrine on a daily basis.A southern baby boomer surrounded by the rhetoric of the segregationist South, Marlette drank from “whites only” fountains, sat at the front of buses where blacks were forced to sit in the back, and bore witness to the efforts of many southerners to maintain their region’s supposedly glorious past. Journalist Michael Gross comments, “When the news broke about the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education … Marlette’s family wasn’t happy. ‘These were troublemakers,’ the 5-year-old was told” (2). Like many white southerners of his generation, Marlette struggled with multiple interpretations of the South. For the increasingly visible liberal youth movement of the sixties, the idea of a racist and politically reactionary South was problematic:

My grandfather was part of that long-standing Southern populist tradition of identifying and sympathizing with the common man—as long as he is white and Christian. Perhaps the contradictions and ironies so vivid in the culture I was raised in brought out in me the satirist’s rage and an impulse to “picture” those inconsistencies.

(In Your Face 38)

Living in Laurel, Mississippi, home of Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Sam Bowers, Marlette witnessed the volatile interaction between racist white southerners and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Greensboro, Marlette’s birthplace, hosted early sit-ins putting pressure on governments to enforce racial equality, and his classmate’s father was arrested in connection with the murder of Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Yet at age nine, surrounded by the hypocritical and moral injustices of segregation, he discovered Mad Magazine, which legitimized skepticism towards authority, highlighted the credibility gap between reality and what politicians and the nightly news proclaimed, and, most importantly, promoted the power of cartoons.

In 1966 on the naval base in Sanford, Florida, where his father was a hospital corpsman in the Marines, Marlette gained his first cartooning experience at the Sanford Herald. Later at Florida State University, he received his first editorial position working for the Florida Flambeau. In 1969, with the war in Vietnam raging, Marlette drew number ten in the draft, but applied, ultimately successfully, as a conscientious objector. This decision was not welcomed by family members. His father returned from the war shortly before his son’s application for deference, and like the committee board (p.93) Marlette stood before, “found it hard to believe that I had picked up subversive notions like Love thine Enemy and Thou Shalt Not Kill at the First Baptist Sunday School” (In Your Face 32). Marlette secured his first major post in January 1972 with the Charlotte Observer, where he remained until 1987. Arriving shortly after the landmark Swann vs. Board Of Education legislation1, his cartoons became “something of a symbol of the Observer’s commitment to Free Speech and its tolerance of unpopular ideas. Reneging on that would seriously damage that image” (In Your Face 40).

A phone call from Bob Kovach, newly appointed editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, changed Marlette’s life:

One of Kovach’s first moves was hiring me away from Charlotte . … He understood how strong an impact a cartoonist could have on readers . … That bringing in a cartoonist known for his, shall we say, controversial views would set the swashbuckling tone the paper needed.

(In Your Face 44)

In the home of civil rights, Martin Luther King, and much of the great southern journalism of the sixties, Marlette and Kovach sought the creation of a great southern newspaper. Their partnership would result in a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for a set of images concerning discriminatory bank practices.2 Marlette’s cartoon depicted a black couple requesting a mortgage and being told they would need to arrange a meeting with a loan officer. Unknown to them, but visible to the viewer, the advisor is dressed in a Klan outfit (In Your Face 45). While the door to the office is open, the couple cannot see in, even though they would have passed the door upon entry. The composition of the image demonstrated Marlette’s cynicism regarding contrasts between Atlanta’s New South idea of itself and the old-fashioned racism the banks were practicing—the city was open about its desires for racial equality and progress, but behind this surface progressivism was a society dominated by old racial hierarchies. Marlette felt this issue resonating throughout the idea of a post-civil rights South as a whole, and he saw cartooning as a way of articulating an alternative version of the South. In his 1988 collection Shred This Book, he states that cartoons “by their very nature challenge conventional thought. You will never see a good cartoon that says, ‘Three cheers for the status quo!’ or ‘Hooray for the way things are!’ Cartoons are a vehicle of attack” (Shred This Book 6).

While at first editor Kovach had been given free reign, the paper’s owners became concerned that the free speech ethos of the paper was upsetting (p.94) too many powerful people. Marlette commented that while Kovach was on his side, ensuring that his harder-hitting cartoons were printed, the pressure from above was too high. Eventually, following the newspaper’s ploy of cutting budgets, relentlessly second-guessing his decisions, and pushing a USA Today-style format, Kovach quit (In Your Face 47). Marlette quit as well, but not before denouncing Kovach’s ousting by staging a rally with his colleagues to air their grievances about what had taken place.

While initially known for his daily editorial cartoons, in 1981 Marlette began his long-running comic strip Kudzu, a work that celebrated “the values, humor, and original characters still to be found in rural America” (Herrick, Marlette, and Simpson, Kudzu: The Musical 2). In the imaginary sleepy southern village of Bypass, North Carolina, dreamer, poet, and central protagonist Kudzu Dubose, named after the famous flowering vine spread across the South, negotiates the landscape charged with the issues that influenced Marlette’s formative years and which dominated his editorial cartooning; like Marlette, Kudzu is an adolescent living with the restrictions of his southern legacy and family.

Due to its publication in newspapers, Kudzu, like the majority of Marlette’s editorial work, was predominantly black and white. Little attention is given to the background of images; it is the characters and their features that draw the reader’s attention. Editorially, Marlette would usually include a single line of writing, if any, to add context. In Kudzu, however, the dialogue dominates the frame and is integral to character development. Rather than stand alone, the images in Kudzu depend on the dialogue to highlight the social, racial, and historical issues at play. Marlette’s editorial images would feature a great deal more detail as their links to contemporary events and people required issues to be instantly recognizable. He stated, “I enjoy taking familiar symbols and clichés which have been trivialized and denuded of meaning and retooling their content and restoring their meaning by looking at them with new eyes” (Shred This Book 6). In terms of their readership, the audience for the two cartooning formats was very different. Whereas the editorial cartoons would have been read by an audience that cared deeply about political issues, Marlette saw the comic strip cutting across a broader class base. He commented:

With an editorial cartoon you have one chance, in a single frame, to tell your whole story; the punch line is immediate or not at all. In a comic strip there’s more time to develop an idea. The situation can unfold a bit, (p.95)

“The Southern Thing”Doug Marlette, Identity Consciousness, and the Commodification of the South

5.1 From Kudzu, by Doug Marlette. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Copyright © 1992 Doug Marlette.

and with dialogue, story telling, and timing, the idea can be set up and paid off.

(In Your Face 80)

Kudzu had the freedom to build on subjects over numerous panels, sometimes spread across numerous weeks, to highlight the theme at hand. Consequently, the cartooning style of Kudzu is much simpler than that of the editorials. Due to the larger readership, the characters in Kudzu fit firmly into visual stereotypes and iconography, from the bespectacled, spotty, and nerdy Nasal to the cap-wearing good old boy Dub. Using these simple, recognizable stereotypes meant that certain assumptions would be made by the reader and allowed Marlette to contrast these with other ideas of southernness to illuminate issues he saw throughout the nation as a whole.

Dealing with the legacy of the southern past was central to Marlette’s strip. As Jon Smith comments, “Like postwar Germany, the post-bellum, post-Reconstruction white south has had to deal with trauma and guilt” (76). One image noteworthy in this regard (see figure 5.1) is Marlette’s presentation of Kudzu adorned in a Confederate Army uniform in front of a Confederate flag (Kudzu 19). In the image, the eye is drawn to the bold iconography of the flag, then to Kudzu in the forefront. Born in an era caught between idolization of the Lost Cause and the latest iteration of the New South, southerners like Marlette felt constantly defined by regional preconceptions. Like Kudzu in the cartoon, Marlette felt overwhelmed and overshadowed by the image of the South of the past; the fact that Kudzu’s uniform is too large for him suggests how Marlette not only could not fit into the role and identity of the past but even felt overwhelmed by it. Marlette’s cartoons were his means of facilitating a critique of this narrow definition of his regional identity through its juxtaposition with the qualities of virtue, (p.96) humor, and civility—the positive aspects of the South in popular conceptions—to construct a progressive direction and image for the South.

In a telling sequence, when Kudzu approaches Ida Mae, the “politically correct, radically and ethically sensitive feminist” and states that he is “fine,” she coarsely replies “shame on you” (Even White Boys Get the Blues 176). Maurice, a young black southerner, tells the eponymous lead character that, for Ida, Kudzu embodies all that is wrong with the twentieth century: “When black is beautiful, you’re white … when sister is powerful, you’re male … And on top of that, you’re a Southerner! You’re the wrong race, the wrong gender, the wrong sexual preference, and you talk with the wrong accent!” (Even White Boys Get the Blues 176). By positioning Ida Mae, Maurice, and Kudzu alongside one another, Marlette presents the sexual, racial, and intellectual issues resonating throughout his formative years. In the climate in which Marlette grew up, a period when the racist South was the skeleton in the closet of American identity, for him, nothing was as abhorrent to the nation as being a white southerner. The prevalence of these southern ideas in popular culture and in the American mindset as a whole meant many were unable to separate white southerners such as Marlette from these negative stereotypes, assuming the white South as a whole was complicit in the racist and divisive South of the past.

Dub DuBose, Kudzu’s uncle, represents the difficult considerations and transitions that informed Marlette’s cartooning ideas. Dub, “the Grand Old Man of the Good Ol’ Boys … as concrete as Kudzu is abstract, as anti-intellectual, as stubborn and independent as Kudzu is reasonable and malleable,” symbolizes, for Marlette, the conflict between the traditional view of the South and the increasingly liberal youth movement (In Your Face 76). Always presented in simple, plain, stereotypically southern overalls and trucker cap, as well as standing taller, wider, and larger in every way than Kudzu, Dub represents the conservatism and masculine dominance Marlette saw as characteristic of the previous generation. Even when bent over working in his garage, Dub’s accentuated size makes him tower over Kudzu, suggesting that the view of the South that he represents continues to dominate. Dub is Marlette’s idea of a society that espouses a community spirit but is still entrenched in ambiguous racial and moral traditions. Dub’s mockery of Kudzu, informing the young protagonist of his belief that “only little girls kept diaries,” articulates the skepticism that Marlette’s family, like many sections of 1970s white southern society, had of this progressive new generation reflecting upon and questioning pervasive southern ideals (Doublewide with a View 99). Historically, the South has been recognized (p.97) as a predominantly patriarchal region. The image of the southern belle and the prevalence of conservative gender roles as a whole emphasized that the South was a region dominated by a restrictive, and to Marlette’s generation, backward gender hierarchy. Dub’s comments convey a society fearful of upsetting this gender relationship—Kudzu’s reflection upon and criticisms of these inherited ideals is, for Dub, a sign he is jeopardizing the power and superiority this society possessed.

Marlette and Kudzu alike faced disbelief regarding their desires to venture north. Kudzu’s mother swears, “no son of mine is going to float off in the haze and leaving his mama! Preacher Dunn, do you think it could be— hormones?” (Kudzu: The Musical 29). Mama, the “southern faded gentry to his father’s redneck-cracker-trailer park gene pool,” embodies Marlette’s continuing ties to the traditional South (In Your Face 74). Unlike the southern belle image commonly associated with the South, “Mama” is presented as a stern-faced, harsh-looking woman dressed in her bedclothes and slippers. Panels show Kudzu receiving pager messages from Mama every time he desires to leave the South, creating what Maurice refers to as the “world’s longest umbilical cord,” to symbolize how youths such as Marlette were forever reminded of negative and restrictive southern identity constructs even upon leaving the region (Even White Boys Get the Blues 6).

Marlette’s cartoons would continue to dissect the difficulties surrounding the reconstruction of a post–civil rights southern identity by addressing issues of memory, guilt, and commercial desire. Kudzu, Dub, Mama, and Maurice were vehicles for Marlette’s investigation of his major theme—the discrepancies between a group’s cultural practices and its idealized image of itself. Subjective perceptions and stereotypes interweave throughout Marlette’s work, and Kudzu exemplifies the difficulties of isolating a “pure South,” which, as Tara McPherson reminds us, does not exist. McPherson argues that the notion of a “true South” depends upon a “belief in an originary and pure southernness that is being ‘sold out’ and that exists (or once existed) in an untarnished relation to outside forces” (2). While Marlette felt his “Bubba Genes” were “stalked and assaulted, educated and refined, gentrified, and upwardly mobilized into submission”—a description that suggests that southernness is not only essential but biological—he himself struggled with the idea of southernness past and present (Faux Bubba 2). Marlette often replicated the pernicious tendency he attacked: the construction, implementation and perpetuation of an idealized, “pure” South. Marlette’s exploration of the South rested on an uneasy relationship regarding his own authenticity; to adapt Scott Romine’s language, by “pushing away from the (p.98) tropes of the fake South, [he is] still using the South as a cartographic tool, a legend” (229).

  • No matter how far the road goes
  • It’ll lead you back to us
  • Never be too far from home

—Kudzu: The Musical

For many, Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 signaled the emergence of an economically confident post-segregation South eager for national recognition; the imagery surrounding his victory was dominated by ideas of the Good Ol’ Boy peanut farmer, family sentiments, devotion to God, and an opposition to expanding American materialism. The growing exposure of southern poor whites in political and popular culture seemed to suggest that formerly unequivocally derogatory terms were reimagined as signifiers of racial and cultural pride. Marlette’s artistic output gathered momentum during the 1970s, a period in which assumptions regarding the South were challenged and his inclusion in a Time magazine article regarding Carter’s New South would bring his work to a national audience.

Carter’s success demonstrated that either he was not considered a typical southerner, or that the traditional interpretations of the South were being overshadowed by a “New” South in the minds of voters. Marlette drew Carter with an exaggerated smile in front of the White House, embracing a man who appears to be his brother, Billy Carter, as the stereotypical southerner in overalls (with a dumbfounded look upon his face) under the title “a role model ‘first brother’ even showed up in the white house” (Doublewide with a View 102). Carter’s larger-than-life smile, with impeccable teeth, dominates the image (see figure 5.2). It seems Marlette is showing that the friendly, welcoming South, shown by the look on Carter’s face, is key to victory. In many ways, the national embrace of Carter and the South he represented was an embrace of a superficial notion of the South, partly motivated by a desire to turn away from the civil rights controversies that had so dominated public life in the U.S. Cultural Historian Anthony Harkins highlights this emergence as “part of a general counter reaction to the social upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement, counterculture, and women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (211). Further, the New South of the 1970s and 80s emerged during a period when many saw southern peculiarities becoming increasingly centralized in mainstream American values and (p.99)

“The Southern Thing”Doug Marlette, Identity Consciousness, and the Commodification of the South

5.2 From Doublewide with a View, by Doug Marlette. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1989.

Copyright © 1989 Doug Marlette.

practices. Peter Applebome puts it this way: “Think of a place that’s anti-government and fiercely individualistic, where race is a constant subtext to daily life … a place obsessed with states rights, as if it were the 1850’s all over again. Such characteristics have always described the South. Somehow, they now describe the nation” (8). Likewise, the homogenization of America regions was seen by many to be leading to the nullification of the South as a peculiar region.3 While the South became increasingly important politically, ideas of the region in terms of its moral contrasts with the North were challenged, with Vietnam and Watergate administering devastating blows to widely held myths of national invincibility.4

Marlette was well aware, however, that many southerners were still apprehensive about impersonal big cities, as seen in his cartoon of Kudzu expecting a warm welcome in New York but being held at gunpoint (In Your Face 47). He commented that “as a rule, southerners are suspicious of life in the big city. In fact, we are the best haters of New York City in the world, except perhaps for New Yorkers” (In Your Face 48). Set against a simple New York backdrop, Marlette contrasts the smiling face of Kudzu with the covered, harsh expression of the robber. The image conveys the belief of many southerners that the rest of the nation and the South were polar opposites in terms of attitudes; the South was community-oriented and open, whereas the north was driven by money and greed. Marlette, though, welcomed his move to the New York Newsday in 1989 as a challenge rather than an escape. (p.100) He would present his feelings in a cartoon of Kudzu drawing at an easel on the back of a stereotypically southern wagon under a sign leading the way to New York (In Your Face 48). This juxtaposition behind the image of himself as a southerner against the metropolis of the big city was integral to his work. He saw his movement from the South as a leap towards “energy, excitement and vitality . … The storm center of human achievement” (In Your Face 48).

His arrival gave him a feeling he had experienced before, though: “In the sixties the South was the nation’s whipping boy . … However, over the last few years as the South has homogenized itself into the Sunbelt, it is slowly giving up the role of America’s designated punching bag” (In Your Face 52). Crime, drugs, greed, and corruption, problems previously associated with the South, were now evident throughout the nation generally. Marlette’s image of “The Big Apple” as a grenade with “race” written on the side addressed how issues he saw as a youth were evident nationally, ready to explode (In Your Face 51). James Cobb suggests that the peculiarity of defeat in war, “the exposure of racism as more than a Southern problem, and the national resurgence of political, social, and cultural conservatism” seemed to move the mainstream toward the South (8). Angry and sometimes violent opposition to busing and housing campaigns nationwide, along with George Wallace’s success in presidential primaries above the Mason-Dixon, led Wallace to assert that large sections of the nation hated blacks, that they were all “Southerners.”

As Joe Klein described it, “Doug’s ability to offend—gracefully, brilliantly, effortlessly—went into overdrive when confronted by high-minded Dixie earnestness.” Nowhere was this more evident than in Marlette’s roasting of the “weekend Billy-bob” that appealed to a rehabilitated, post-civil rights southern aesthetic. In “Yuppies, Bubbas and the Politics of Culture,” Catherine Bishir highlights Bubbas as individuals who drink “sweet iced tea so dark you can’t see through it, or Wild Turkey and 7-UP. They often have girlfriends or wives with two first names … and a dog that rides in the back of a four wheel drive pickup” (8). The interplay between Souths “authentic” and fabricated led him to use the term “Faux Bubba,” a term he would later use as the title of his 1993 collection regarding the election of Bill Clinton. Marlette believed that while many Americans could not claim legitimate ties to this southern image, they realized that employing its signifiers could be beneficial socially and politically. As regional differences slowly eroded, Marlette saw the gradual commodification of regionalism. Marlette’s “Brief History of the Good Ol’ Boy” timeline highlights American society’s utilization of (p.101) southern idiosyncrasies by addressing the “ethnic sub-class of culturally deprived white males known as Good Ol’ Boys (Billybobbus-Rednexus). … Some had even been spotted as far North as Chicargo” (Faux Bubba 6).

The image of archetypal southern shacks overshadowed by a quintessential New York skyscraper symbolized how he saw urban cities overshadowing southern ideas. The “good old boy” would diminish due to the rise of city and commercialism. This sketch forms part of a series in the collection Doublewide with a View centered on the rise, fall, and imminent departure of this breed of southerner. As well as anthropological images, including tales of bubbas becoming yuppies after “having their only tooth capped,” Marlette presents a cultural timeline, titled “The Rise” in which he points out that “John Travolta’s film homage Urban Cowboy ushered in ‘Redneck Chic’” (Doublewide with a View 101). In this image Marlette depicts a smartly dressed individual in a suit wearing a cowboy hat to highlight the absurdity of southern tropes permeating into contemporary culture. The gentleman wears an ill-fitting suit, another suggestion that one idea cannot complement the other; the old South is struggling to align with the new South resonating throughout society.

Marlette intended to redeem the soul of the South. He was challenging the South of old to look at itself and objectively consider the issues hindering its development. Tara McPherson comments upon a similar interplay between multiple identities: “southern feelings are socially constructed but not determined. … We can draw on other traditions of white southern identity to counter the retreat into the past that buoys up a conservative white southernness” (246). In Away Down South, James Cobb also describes identity as being about the “perception of reality rather than reality itself[;] … identities [exist] not in isolation, but always in relation to other perceived oppositional identities” (3). Marlette’s cartoons challenged hegemonic structures by comparing and contrasting multiple southern identities.

Marlette’s reference to the sub-class and the good ol’ boys adorned in work clothes and regional dialects highlights a South routinely lambasted by mainstream society. For Historian Lewis Killan, “the Southern accent was the primary identifying mark of the hillbilly, the term had a definite regional connotation. … Most important, it had a definite class connotation” (White Southerners 107). In “‘Who is and who ain’t’ a genuine ‘Good Ol’ Boy,’” Marlette expresses his disdain for large sections of society adopting the Bubba image (Doublewide with a View 100). The image of a stereotypical yuppie chewing gum in faux hunting gear, proudly sporting his “authentic” southern cowboy hat, indicates the way Marlette saw higher classes adopting (p.102) social signifiers of those below them to identify with a way of life to which they are not historically connected (Faux Bubba 14). Marlette saw southern culture, explicitly male, used to exploit a lack of identity within society. For Marlette, individuals such as Jerry Lewis, Mister Rogers and Clinton, or the Boardroom, Ultrasuede and County Club Crowd are “neither Bubbas nor Yuppies, though they can assume some of the behavior of each when it is appropriate” (Bishir 9).

Marlette juxtaposed his ideas of the “real” and “fake” South to bemoan the “faux rebels [who] express their dissidence in the politically correct slogans they mouth, organic foods they eat, vintage clothing they wear and the things they buy. … My generation thinks authenticity can be purchased like a historic home” (Schumaker). Continuing on from his image of the Faux Bubba mentioned earlier, Marlette presents a simple frame with a man holding an American Express card and the claim that “the new breed of privileged geek is reclaiming his masculinity the only way he knows how … Buying it!” (Faux Bubba 14). This strip demonstrates what Marlette saw as a lack in their lives, echoing the sentiments of Jon Smith, who argues that “the adoption of the pickup … in middle class southern white male culture reflects … an attempt to alleviate a bourgeois sense of having no (masculine) identity at all” (87, emphasis in original). Rather than showing an individual buying the goods, presenting instead only the hand and the exchange of currency, it can be seen as a comment that individuals were unaware of the meaning of their purchase. For Marlette, utilization of redneck terminology and Dixie iconography exemplified a subjective treatment of identity, in which lynching, racial, sexual and class exploitation were remnants left on the floor during the editing process. Marlette’s images exemplify what Scott Romine highlights as “Nostalgia—utopianism with a backward glance—[that] functions as both a discrete industry and a diffuse cultural practice in a South whose past is almost uniformly undesirable” (The Real South 25). Although Marlette experienced emotional torment over his regional identity, he saw upwardly mobile white southerners consuming southern identity as quick as companies produced it. Marlette conveyed his anger at the way those who had once lambasted the South were now profiteering from it.

In Kudzu, Bypass’s newest phenomenon, “Dial-a-Bubba,’” exemplified Marlette’s growing fears about regional commodification (Faux Bubba 11). By picking up the phone and paying five dollars, callers could enjoy regional colloquialisms, including colorful exclamations such as “I’m fuller’n a tick! … I been rode hard ‘n’ put up wet!” (Faux Bubba 7). Reverend Dunn, the local pastor with dubious moral groundings, criticizes Kudzu for his (p.103) exploitation of such avenues. In the image Dub is under the hood of a car, most of his body obscured from view, emerging only to utter the words desired by callers, but even then he does not answer the phone—that task is left to Kudzu. His distancing, visually and physically, represents the shift from a real South to a fabricated, commodified, and for Marlette, fake, South. When told they would receive one hundred dollars for merely uttering the word “grits,” though, Dunn’s opinions change and he joins forces with the young entrepreneurs. The Reverend’s quick transition highlights Marlette’s belief that many sections of southern society were more than willing to sell their identity to the highest bidder, leaving no moral high ground from which to criticize the selling of the South. Marlette saw the “true” way as disappearing under the weight of high society’s desires. Jon Smith suggests that “Southern or otherwise, when a bourgeois man who doesn’t work with his hands affects a pickup truck or work boots, he generally expresses not an identity but a yearning for one” (83–84). Echoing Marlette’s fear of a blinkered approach to southern history, Smith suggests that “as the South becomes more ‘Americanized’—as identity becomes more and more structured as a lack to be filled by consumption—the paradoxical result may be the increasing commodity-fetishization of southernness itself “(83).

Marlette’s belief in the death of an “authentic South” is presented through “Grits Aid,” a series of strips in which southern luminaries such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, work a telethon to raise money to save the South. “Grits Aid” depicts Nasal and Kudzu utilizing tropes reminiscent of the liberal preservation movements of the 1970’s such as badges and bumper stickers with slogans such as “Honk if your name is Bubba” and “Have you hugged a redneck today?” (Doublewide with a View 103). Cartoons depict stereotypes of those same movements he is parodying such as the hippies, and a feminist group announcing “what about good ol’ girls? Er … persons?” (Doublewide with a View 103). This latter cartoon demonstrates the gender dynamic still dominant in many southern narratives, the idea that saving the bubba similarly meant preserving conservative gender hierarchies.

Nasal and Kudzu’s street campaign comes to nothing, however. Though every effort is made to ensure “Grits Aid” a success, the hoped-for, star-studded, and profitable climax of the drive is simply Maurice sitting in an empty auditorium playing blues songs, overshadowed by a large Confederate flag. In the panel, the three protagonists are eclipsed by the flag in the background, an image that suggests how, for Marlette, the new South will always be in the shadow of the old. Like Marlette, the failure of Kudzu and Nasal in their campaign to mediate a new image of an “authentic” and (p.104)

“The Southern Thing”Doug Marlette, Identity Consciousness, and the Commodification of the South

5.3 From Doublewide with a View, by Doug Marlette. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1989.

Copyright © 1989 Doug Marlette.

culturally rich region leaves them “demoralized … their faith in humanity shattered” (Doublewide with a View 103). Their anger is representative of Marlette’s frustration with stagnation throughout national politics and culture: society focused on an identity with no concept of accountability, a southern white identity divorced from context and history. Marlette’s image echoes Jon Smith’s statement that “far from liberating white southerners from, say, the alienation and homogeneity of northern U.S. culture, several clichés of white southern identity—the senses of community, place, and history—have more often tended to reinforce particularly crippling forms of narcissism” (77). For Marlette, this commodified southern image lacked any of the redemptive qualities promised by the end of legal segregation.

In one telling strip (see figure 5.3), Marlette portrays a line of tourists entering “Three Flags over Bypass,” a reference to the Six Flags amusement park chain, proclaiming that they want to “see the last ‘good ol’ boy’” (Doublewide with a View 104.) There is no detail in the background of the panel; all we see are the tourists, Maurice selling tickets, and a sign for the park—no depth in the image or any specific views of the park. The image conveys, once again, Marlette’s belief that the South is a commodity, a plaything for wider society. By using the analogy of the theme park, it presents the South as a disposable, purchasable, and instant source of gratification, a tool to convey what once was, but is now disappearing. A powerful strain in Marlette’s Kudzu is lamentation that southern culture has become victim to a (p.105) cultural lobotomy in which consumerism allowed individuals to pick and choose traits depending upon desire and cash flow.

Similarly, in his discussion of country music, John Egerton asks, “How much of that intimacy, that authenticity can be retained when the music goes uptown?” (206). Egerton’s and Marlette’s concerns were closely aligned. Marlette’s “Fall of the Good Ol’ Boy” strip suggests that cross-pollination with the North will lead to “urbanization, homogenization and other big words ending in ‘ization. … [T]he region was transmuted into *gag* ‘The Sunbelt’” (Faux Bubba 2). When the South went North, or “uptown,” it was unable to remain true to itself and bowed to the dominant cultural demands, leading to what Marlette describes as “‘Bubbacide’; the systematic extinction of the American Good Ol’ Boy!” (In Your Face 45). Kudzu is shocked to discover an old tool shed from the previous generation:

Kudzu:

  • Wow. It’s like a lost civilization!
  • Uncle Dub:

  • Yeah, and it’s never gonna be that way again. (Kudzu: The Musical 62)
  • Rather than addressing identity as a fluid and shifting, even pragmatic construct, Marlette, like Kudzu and Dub, is deeply invested in the project of recovering and sustaining a “real” South. While Marlette may address the ways individuals use commodities to construct identities, he is rooted firmly in a model of identity as attached to place.

    Marlette’s work combines his affection for the traditional South as embodied in his nostalgia for his own past alongside his desires for southern progress. Presented as a hero of sorts, Kudzu is, for Marlette, an idea of “the Real South”—part of what Romine describes as the tendency by which, “in practice, the ‘Real South’ often turns out to be the one I desire . … [it is] a matter of getting you to accept my South, my heritage, my culture, and so forth as authentic” (14). Marlette’s characters were an amalgamation of ideas of the South past and present, characters defined through a set of imagined relations to spaces and environments. The issue here, one addressed by Jon Smith, is “not the disappearance of the past but the appearance, through a multiplicity of media, of multiple pasts embedded in multiple places. There are so many of these pasts and places, in fact, that it is becoming possible to assemble an ‘identity’ self-consciously [so that] … we can expect to see from this new generation of middle-class southern whites a new attitude toward cultural coding” (94–95). Rather than regional reaffirmation, Marlette saw a symbolic re-appropriation weakening the South’s distinctiveness. But in (p.106) attempting to forestall this downward slide he attempted to make his constructed South the “real” South by adopting a personalized narrative. The plight of Nasal, Kudzu, and the “Grits Aid” campaign echoes the process Romine highlights when he states that “authenticity articulates a structure of desire and hence of absence” (4). It is through their desire to highlight the South in a society interested only in a superficial, commodified version of it that they become aware that society is ignoring the complexity of the region.

    Once a honky, always a honky!

    —marlette, Even White Boys Get the Blues

    The most common grounding of identity is that of a shared common past, real or imagined. James Cobb highlights the period following Civil Rights Movement as one of the most contradictory and unusual aspects of American history, with “the strong and apparently still strengthening inclination of Blacks in the South to identify themselves as Southerners” (128). Many African Americans returned to the South, where their ancestors had been sent as slaves, and in which they witnessed dehumanizing brutality. Seen as counter to the Black Power movements, this homecoming allowed African Americans to contemplate their heritage, pride, and strength—and to confront the hardships of urban life through assertion of their identity. Following the end of legal segregation, many white southerners struggled to deal with the new racial alignment, a structure where black citizens would theoretically experience equal standards of living. This interaction between whites and blacks would be central to Kudzu.

    Marlette uses Nasal Lardbottom to address desires within the South to eradicate the derogatory stigma attached to “whiteness,” or, if that proves impossible, to escape the category of southern whiteness altogether. The spotty, nerdy student and the “whitest boy at Bypass high” desperately attempts to be accepted as “hip” by black friend Maurice. Nasal, shown writing a letter to Santa, dreams of a “Non-white Christmas,” writing to Santa asking for “a little pump and fake … a little shake and bake,” a reference to his desire for skill at basketball, a sport seen as predominantly African American. Nasal attempts to construct a positive image of the region by “shedding the skin” of racial torment and violence (Gone With the Kudzu 41). An adolescent who “would give anything to be a righteous, jive-talking, high-fiving, soul brother,” Nasal undertakes a “race lift” in an attempt to align culturally with black society (Even White Boys Get the Blues 55). With Nasal’s (p.107)

    “The Southern Thing”Doug Marlette, Identity Consciousness, and the Commodification of the South

    5.4 From Even White Boys Get the Blues, by Doug Marlette. New York: Times Books, 1992.

    Copyright © 1992 Doug Marlette.

    face covered in bandages while he practices basketball (see figure 5.4), Marlette critiques a society he saw appropriating aspects of black identity, especially in sport. The color of Nasal’s skin is not evident, but his mask cannot void past wrongs. John Egerton asserts, “Athletics may be doing as much to influence racial attitudes in the United States as the emergence of economic and political black power . … Even the most racist fans appear to accept, however cheerfully, the lofty status of black heroes as well as white ones” (178). Struggling to become “a brother,” Nasal practices high-fives, proclaims “my father took out a second mortgage to buy me a pair of Nikes!” and gets the number 23 cut into his hair, a reference to basketball star Michael Jordan. This signifies how, like southern identity, Marlette saw racial acceptance built upon financially consumable icons (Even White Boys Get the Blues 53). Before removing his “race change” bandages, onlookers exclaim “It can’t be Nasal … this dude dresses sharp … and he high-fives without hurting himself “(53). With Nasal’s face covered, it is his actions, rather than his race, that count. But when removing his bandages to complete his day as a “genuine, authentic, full-fledged brother,” the same Nasal is unveiled (55).

    The failure of Nasal’s race change illustrates Marlette’s belief that while sections of society hinted at progress, they were invested in an idealized, subjective, and personal construction of race divorced from historical reality. By making race (or the South) a commodity rather than directly contemplating its complexities, many Americans misunderstood the issues at stake. (p.108) Marlette saw the dominant classes replaying the past to their own desires. Following the destabilization of the culture in the Civil Rights Era, white society scrambled for an identifiable history and culture not blighted by the shame of the southern past. As John Berger states, “a people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to and act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history” (33). Through their fear of the present, Marlette saw individuals mystifying the past. Nasal’s use of the term “Tarzan X” in the final strip of Marlette’s Even White Boys Get the Blues indicates a lack of understating regarding the identity he attempts to utilize (186). By integrating the uncivilized Tarzan image with that of Malcolm X—a name taken to represent the nameless, voiceless African American—Nasal reveals his confusion about the issues at play. Marlette draws Maurice and Nasal between two panels, free of the borders of the standard comic strip. Free from the discussions of race in previous panels, Nasal finally exclaims, “King Kong! He was African, right?!” This misunderstanding leads Maurice to assert, “Once a honky, always a honky” (186). Like American society as a whole, Marlette shows how Nasal had attempted to free himself of old racial hierarchies, suggested by the lack of panel borders, but had returned to the stereotypes of old.

    For Marlette, appropriation of southern ideas with dubious moral groundings was “the same dilemma that we moderate southerners faced when Klansmen burned crosses and terrorized Black Americans in the name of our Christ” (“Cartoon Fatwas” 3). He saw it as symptomatic of a time in which it was “hip” to be a southerner. David Blight suggests that the “power of denial can turn a lost war into a vibrant, necessary form of national chic” (347). The South remained a site upon which the trauma of slavery competed with the growth of what would become a booming nostalgia industry.

    “I might as well have been getting a sex change operation,” Marlette stated regarding the reaction of his friends and family to his move to New York (In Your Face 48). It took leaving the South for him to look at the South. He used cartooning to consider personal, social, and historical notions of individual, regional, and national identity. He was constantly struck with the feeling that he was out of place, dropped into an alien family and historical structure. Marlette’s work not only attacked the excesses of contemporary society, but manipulated icons and stereotypes by juxtaposing them with his own “reality.” Recognizing the necessity for viewers to connect with icons, Marlette conveyed his version of the South alongside what he believed to (p.109) be the debased and commodified South of contemporary society. Marlette’s cartoons exemplified how “The South” became a site of negotiation and navigation. As Romine states, “we may come to different Souths, but neither will be solid in fact or in practice. In fact, we may dwell in alternative realities or simulations” (236). Marlette stated, “Cartoons distort and reflect reality like fun-house mirrors, and if we are not too insistent upon literal representation and doctrinal purity, we can sometimes catch them in a glimpse of some hidden truth about ourselves” (Shred This Book 158). Ultimately, Marlette used his cartoons to prompt southerners to remind themselves of where they had been and how a more complex understanding of their past could serve as a foundation for future development.

    Notes

    (1) . The ruling supported busing as a remedy for the de facto segregation of public schools.

    (2) . Bill Dedman’s prize-winning “The Color of Money,” which utilized Marlette’s images, highlighted biased mortgage lending within middle-income Atlanta neighborhoods.

    (3) . This phenomenon is contemplated extensively in John Egerton’s landmark text The Americanization of Dixie.

    (4) . Population shift into the South and West between 1970 and 1990 saw the number of residents in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy growing by 40 percent, equating to 40 million people, twice the national growth rate, influencing the South’s political power. The eleven Confederate states, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky, now elected 137 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 17 more than in 1960 (Applebome, “Dixie Rising” 9). By 1990, if a candidate won the southern states, only one third of the nation’s remaining votes would be necessary to win.

    Works Cited

    Bibliography references:

    Applebome, Peter. Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture. New York: Harcourt, 1996. Print.

    Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972. Print.

    Bishir, Catherine W. “Yuppies, Bubbas, and the Politics of Culture.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 3 (1989): 8–15. Print.

    Blight, David. “Southerners Don’t Lie, They Just Remember Big.” Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity. Ed. Fitzhugh Brundage. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. 347–51. Print.

    Cobb, James C. Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

    Cooper, William J., and Thomas E. Terrill. The American South: A History. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002. Print. (p.110)

    Egerton, John. The Americanization of Dixie. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Print.

    Gross, Michael. “Doug Marlette.” 9 April 2009. Web. www.mgross.com/uploaded/Marlettecut.doc.

    Harkins, Anthony. Hillbilly: A Cultural Icon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

    Herrick, Jack, Doug Marlette, and Simpson Bland. Kudzu: The Musical. New York: Samuel French, 1999. Print.

    Killan, Lewis. White Southerners. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985. Print.

    Klein, Joe. “In Memorium … and a Touch of Class.” Time. 15 July 2007. Web. www.time-blogom/swampland/2007/07/in_memoriumand_a_touch_of_clas.html. 14 February 2008.

    Marlette, Doug. The Bridge. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. Print.

    ———. “Cartoon Fatwas.” The Brook: News about Stony Brook University. Web. www.ougmarlette.com/pages/brookfall.pdf. 9 April 2009.

    ———. “Controversial Cartoons.” Web. http://www.dougmarlette.com/pages/controvtoons.html. 8 April 2010.

    ———.”A Conversation with Doug Marlette.” http://www.harpercollins.com/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=20524&isbn13=9780060505219&displayType=bookinterview. Web. 9 April 2009.

    ———. Doublewide with a View. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1989. Print.

    ———. Even White Boys Get the Blues. New York: Times Books, 1992. Print.

    ———. Faux Bubba: Bill and Hillary Go To Washington. New York: Times Books, 1993. Print.

    ———. Gone With the Kudzu. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995. Print.

    ———. In Your Face: A Cartoonist at Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Print.

    ———. Kudzu. New York: Ballantine, 1992. Print.

    ———. Shred this Book: The Scandalous Cartoons of Doug Marlette. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1988. Print.

    ———. “Them Damn Pictures.” Nieman Report, Winter 2004. Web. http://www.dougmarlette.com/pages/neiman. 2 September 2009.

    McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

    McPherson, Tara. Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender and Nostalgia in the Imagined South. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

    Romine, Scott. The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008. Print.

    Schumaker, Kirsty. “The Marlette Mystique.” Metro Magazine. Web. http://dougmarlette.com/pages/mystique.html. 9 April 2009.

    Smith, John. “Southern Culture on the Skids: Punk, Retro, Narcissism, and the Burden of Southern History.” South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture. Ed. Suzanne Jones and Sharon Monteith Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2003. 76–95. Print.

    Notes:

    (1) . The ruling supported busing as a remedy for the de facto segregation of public schools.

    (2) . Bill Dedman’s prize-winning “The Color of Money,” which utilized Marlette’s images, highlighted biased mortgage lending within middle-income Atlanta neighborhoods.

    (3) . This phenomenon is contemplated extensively in John Egerton’s landmark text The Americanization of Dixie.

    (4) . Population shift into the South and West between 1970 and 1990 saw the number of residents in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy growing by 40 percent, equating to 40 million people, twice the national growth rate, influencing the South’s political power. The eleven Confederate states, plus Oklahoma and Kentucky, now elected 137 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 17 more than in 1960 (Applebome, “Dixie Rising” 9). By 1990, if a candidate won the southern states, only one third of the nation’s remaining votes would be necessary to win.