The open-ended brand of satirical cartoons that Tony Avent puts on the cover of his garden nursery catalogs have earned him sporadic hate mail for more than a decade.
Now his new spring catalog is getting the Wake County plant whiz investigated by Penn State University officials for possible trademark infringement. The cover also has triggered an angry storm of emails, phone calls and Facebook postings by Penn State alumni.
They're still upset over the firing of their beloved football coach, Joe Paterno, last fall and by the child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Avent says the real problem is that they don't understand satire.
"They're just nutcases," he said. "That's the thing about doing satire - people have to be smart enough to understand it, and these people are angry about everything. They're angry at Sandusky, they're angry at the university trustees, they're angry at the police. And now we're caught up in that."
The cartoon for the spring Plant Delights Nursery catalog, which Avent commissioned last fall before Paterno died, is a mix of some of the biggest topics in the news then. It features candidates in the Republican presidential primary, members of the Occupy movement, acquitted child killer Casey Anthony and Michael Jackson's doctor. It's titled "Occupy Green Street," and Raleigh artist Jack Pittman gave it a kind of "Wizard of Oz"-meets-the-garden spin, with the cartoon figures trotting down the Yellow Brick Road.
The problem is mainly the drawing of Sandusky, who was charged in November with 40 counts of sexually abusing children. He is portrayed as the Cowardly Lion with a white and blue oval on his side that resembles the Penn State lion logo, and he is chasing three young boys. Nearby, Paterno appears as the Scarecrow, up on a stick and pointing in two directions as if clueless.
"It's offensive to show someone accused of child molestation chasing children while wearing the university logo," said Nancy Koebel of Fremont, Ohio, a member of the Penn State alumni association. "By him wearing that logo like that, it's like the university condoned the abuse or looked the other way, and he hadn't worked for the university for years."
Koebel was so angry she wrote The News & Observer about the catalog. She said that she's among a large group of alumni who have organized to try to replace some of the trustees who fired Paterno. She added that members of the group have posted nasty comments about Plant Delights Nursery on the local business-reviewing website Yelp, flooded the nursery's Facebook page and repeatedly called the business.
They also contacted the university and encouraged it to sue Avent for using the logo on the Sandusky caricature's flank.
Daniel W. Sieminski, associate vice president for finance and business at Penn State, said the university has received many messages about the "cartoon."
"Many of the messages express outrage and disappointment about the subject matter, as well as the obvious use of Penn State's mark," Sieminski wrote in an email. "We have referred the content of the website to the University's licensing agency who handles such matters on our behalf. Based on their advice, we will be considering legal remedies."
Previous catalog covers
The nursery's website includes an archive of past covers, drawn by Pittman, going back to the late 1990s. Several have stirred at least mild controversy and earned the occasional mention in national media. Past titles include "Garden Jihad," "Gitmo Plants" and "Securing Our Borders."
Pittman said that with each catalog cover, he and Avent work hard to leave things open to interpretation, particularly politics. They are careful not to take a partisan stance, though inevitably partisan readers think they have, and often conservatives and liberals complain about bias they see in the same cartoon.
Asked why the catalog uses cartoons and satire, and not a gentle watercolor of some lilies or gardenias, Avent's response is simple.
"Because everybody else does that," he said. "We've never done things like other people. All the way through the catalog, we're trying to make people stop, and give them things to think about."
Doesn't he lose business because of the cartoons, misunderstood or not?
"I dunno," he said. "People are always writing and saying, 'I've been buying from you for years, but that's it!' And then I go check, and they've never bought anything, and don't even get the catalog."
This time, Avent said, the backlash began Wednesday, accelerated quickly and appeared to him to be made up entirely of Penn State supporters.
"The first few comments on Facebook, we just left them up, then after awhile, I said, OK, thanks, but let's get back to the topic of gardening," he said. "Then there were so many, I started taking them down. We have probably taken down 300, and blocked them, but they just go register under new accounts and post again.
"They have even been calling places where I'm supposed to speak and trying to get them to cancel out," Avent said.
The portrayal of Paterno, he said, was meant to show that the coach had been set up as a straw man and left hanging by the university leaders - the very thing that angry alumni have been saying. And Sandusky, well, he is a cowardly Nittany Lion. It's obviously not a positive thing to paint someone as the Cowardly Lion, Avent said.
Avent's wife died about two weeks go, and he said that the Penn State maelstrom is taking a toll.
"I'm sitting here trying to grieve and having to deal with these idiots who are angry about something they don't even understand," he said. "I think Penn State would just be shocked at the things they're saying and doing."
Koebel said the pressure isn't likely to let up anytime soon, and that national alumni have gotten alumni in North Carolina focused on the catalog.
"I understand that it's a parody, but what it's got to do with plants, I don't understand," she said. "And he doesn't even have anything to do with Penn State."