Pastor Will B. Dunn -- RIP

Cartoonist Doug Marlette got used to hearing people mix comments about his humor with references to Almighty God.

After all, one of the main characters in his syndicated comic strip "Kudzu" was the Rev. Will B. Dunn, a deep-fried Southern preacher who always remained optimistic, even as he battled with the insanity of modern life (especially trendy Bible translations).

Meanwhile, Marlette's political cartoons often inspired readers to barrage editors with the kind of God talk that cannot be printed in family newspapers.

There was, for example, his caricature of Pope John Paul II wearing a "No Women Priests" button. The caption said, "Upon this Rock I will build my church'' and Marlette drew an arrow pointing at the pope's head. Another infamous cartoon showed an Arab terrorist driving a truck containing a nuclear bomb. The caption: "What Would Mohammed Drive?"

A cartoon on my office wall -- a gift from Marlette as I left the Charlotte Observer -- shows PTL televangelist Jim Bakker kneeling before a dollar sign that towers over a stone altar framed with candles. Bakker proclaims, with his boyish grin, "Gimme that old time religion!"

The cartoonist knew he was playing with holy fire. You can't draw Jesus climbing Calvary on Good Friday -- carrying an electric chair -- and not expect people to react.

Marlette insisted that his goal was to remind his fellow believers to practice what they preach.

"As I look back through my work, I'm always amazed by how much of what I do just comes out of having gone to Sunday school," he said, taking a break in his cluttered Observer office in the mid-1980s. "The perspective, the viewpoint, comes out of that. They don't teach subversive ideas in the Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Laurel, Mississippi."

Marlette, 57, was back in Mississippi recently when he died in a single-vehicle crash on a rain-swept highway while on the way to help a high school perform his musical, "Kudzu." A true gadfly, he rattled cages for more than three decades and died with more than his share of faithful friends and fierce critics.

A native of North Carolina, the cartoonist and writer burst into print after studying at Florida State University, where he tried to study art but ended up majoring in philosophy. He took classes in New Testament and ethics but also, as he loved to note, classes in sports officiating. Marlette won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his work at the Observer and the Atlanta Constitution. He wrote two novels and, in 2001, became a distinguished visiting professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marlette had a better grasp of the power of religion than most journalists, noted former Observer editor Rich Oppel, who led the newsroom during the PTL era. The cartoonist was a provocateur and, at his best, a prophet.

"After 10 years of our reporting, televangelist Bakker resigned from PTL and was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to federal prison," noted Oppel, in his editor's column at the Austin American-Statesman. "Bakker's handpicked successor was Jerry Falwell, who came in to see me and 'make peace.'

"From a corner, Marlette cast a gimlet eye on Falwell as the minister did his best Sunday school number on me. Marlette then retreated to his lair to pen a cartoon of the preacher as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Falwell refused to talk to me again."

When it came to religion, Marlette thought of himself as a Baptist's Baptist, a fierce believer in the "priesthood of the believer," the authority of human experience and the separation of church and state.

There are, he told me, people who become cynical about religion and he was determined not to yield to that temptation -- very often. But there were many times when he preferred laughing, instead of crying.

While he took the Christian faith seriously, he also thought it was futile to obsess over details. There were times when he felt like a church of one.

"It's my own church, my own perspective. It certainly doesn't deserve to be institutionalized or taken more seriously than other people's," said Marlette. "It's not infallible. It's skewed. It's mine. ... It's kind of like dissecting a frog. Once you get the thing cut up and taken apart, it's not really a frog anymore. Something dies in the process."