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A pen too soon stilled

America's newspapers lost a cartoon icon when Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette died in a car accident July 10. He was only 57 years old.

Marlette began his career cartooning for The Charlotte Observer in 1972 and has moved throughout the country since then, working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Newsday, the Tallahassee Democrat and most recently the Tulsa World. He won nearly every major award, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and was syndicated worldwide, although not carried by The Buffalo News.

Marlette found success as a novelist, a playwright and a comic strip artist. The day of his death he was visiting a group of Mississippi high school students to help them with a musical adaptation of his syndicated comic strip, "Kudzu."

As a cartoonist I regret never getting the chance to meet Marlette, although I feel I knew him through his work. He had a biting wit with a distinctively Southern voice full of both strong opinion and kindness. Above all he was fearless in his ability to take on hot-button issues.

One of his most controversial cartoons generated several death threats -- an undesirable badge of honor in the eyes of his colleagues. His drawing depicted a Muslim extremist driving a moving truck with a nuclear bomb in the back, with the title "What Would Mohammed Drive?" It was killed by many of the newspapers that picked up his work on a regular basis. That happened in 2002, yet it caused problems again this past year. The cartoon was submitted and accepted to the book project, "Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression," by David Wallis. When the final version of the book recently hit the shelves it was missing only a single cartoon. You guessed it. Marlette's cartoon was so edgy it was the only cartoon killed from a whole book of killed cartoons.

But Marlette also had an ability to touch the hearts of his readers, as with the cartoon of the weeping eagle reprinted here. According to his editor, this was drawn in 45 minutes for a special edition after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. It invoked a massive response.

Marlette's death comes at a time when the ranks of editorial cartoonists have been cut to the bone. I am currently one of only 85 to 90 full time staff cartoonists in the country, down from several hundred half a century ago. The best way to honor Marlette's legacy is for the Tulsa World to hire another cartoonist to carry on his tradition of great journalism.

Adam Zyglis is the staff editorial cartoonist for The Buffalo News

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