Media Scene

Here's your chance to relive Charlotte’s prickly cartoon history

Charlotte Observer Cartoonist Kevin Siers at work.
Charlotte Observer Cartoonist Kevin Siers at work. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

If you think supervising a cartoonist is a barrel of laughs, think again.

Ed Williams did so for a quarter century as editorial page editor of The Charlotte Observer. In a presentation Wednesday, he will sketch out some of the smackdowns he refereed through the years while overseeing the Observer’s three cartoonists: Gene Payne, Doug Marlette and Kevin Siers, Pulitzer Prize-winners all.

“Gene was a little more conservative than the Observer’s editorial policy,” says Williams, who retired in 2008. “Marlette was radical.”

Payne, who died in 2010 at age 91, was the Observer’s first editorial cartoonist, hired in 1957. Even in retirement, he contributed a cartoon a week to the newspaper.

Marlette, a native of Greensboro, started his career at the Observer in 1972. His heavy-handed cartoons roiled the Charlotte establishment and so annoyed one of the newspaper’s owners, Jim Knight, that his work was for a time exiled to the op-ed page to distance himself from the newspaper’s editorial voice.

Marlette was eventually saved, Williams says, by the arrival of a new publisher named Rolfe Neill.

Neill told the company’s Miami-based overseers that he supported his headstrong artist. “He told them: ‘If you don’t like Marlette’s cartoons, your problem is with me, not with Doug,’” Williams recalls.

Marlette, who died in a traffic accident in 2007, was succeeded at the Observer in 1987 by Siers (pronounced SY-ers), who will be on the panel with Williams and the reigning editorial page editor, Taylor Batten.

Siers says that, like Marlette, some of his cartoons are occasionally rejected. “Not very many,” says Siers. “I’m on a pretty long leash.

“They’re very shy about depicting the KKK even when I think it’s valid. That’s been for years.”

Williams plans a slideshow of notable Observer cartoons through the past 50 years. He’s also got a side trip into the ignominious end of the craft focusing on the 1898 series of illustrations in The News and Observer of Raleigh championing white supremacy.

“They used every racial stereotype you could put in a newspaper,” Williams says. “And the result was to exclude blacks in political power for the next 50 years.”

The Observer's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist draws Democratic mayoral candidates Dan Clodfelter and Jennifer Roberts.

Want to go?

“Pulitzer N.C.: Celebrating 50 Years of Prize-Winning Editorial Cartooning” will be held Wednesday with a reception at 6 p.m. and the program at 7 p.m. at UNC Charlotte Center City, 320 E. Ninth St. Free. Register at nchumanities.org.

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