Wal, Dog and their life at Footrot Flats come to you in colour in the latest collection of Murray Ball's art. Rod Emmerson has a look
I have fond memories of sitting around a table at the Snoopy Cafe in Santa Rosa with Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz. He mentioned that his favourite cartoon at the time came from our way, “Footrot Flats – funny as hell,” he said. “That’s from New Zealand, but we’’ll take it,” we replied. Stolen laughs all round, but he was absolutely dead right, it was funny as hell. And damned clever, too.
Footrot Flats is a kiwi icon, and Murray Ball is known as “kiwi royalty”. He was born in 1939 in Feilding in the Manawatu, a lush farming district north of Wellington, and his father was former All Black Nelson “Kelly” Ball. The family migrated to South Africa where Murray completed his schooling.
With aspirations of becoming an All Black, he returned to NZ and played representative rugby in he Manawatu, finally becoming a junior All Black. With six degrees of separation at play here, Ball played against the British Lions in 1959 in their tour of NZ.
By sheer coincidence, he found himself up against the future owner of numerous papers that would carry his cartoon strip, Tony O’Reilly.
The experience of hard farm life and top-end rugby combined with an artistic ability and great sense of humour to change the direction of Ball’s career. By now he was working on the Manawatu Times and had begun cartooning, but Footrot was years away. While later living in the UK , he developed the caveman Stanley strip, which went on to become the longest-running strip in Punch. Returning to NZ in the early ’70s, Ball began work on Footrot.
There’s a certain chemistry in this lovable cartoon strip that’s as infectious as that dreaded cloven hoof disease that was once the blight of NZ farming. It often broke all the rules for strip cartooning: busy frames, often wordy, lots of characters, a large world for all the characters to live in. It was something that
anyone with a dog could relate to instantly.
First published in 1975, it was an instant success in New Zealand and Australia. By the time Ball put down his pen some 20 years later (apparently when his dog died), it had a global following. There had been countless books, a movie, a stage play and theme park.
The latest offering from the publishers ideally complements any Footrot collection. Wal, the Dog, Aunt Dolly, Pongo and Rangi lived in a newspaper era of black and white, so colour work was seldom, if ever seen. The Art of Footrot Flats is a salute to the rarely seen colour artwork of Murray Ball. It will be some time before we see the like of Murray Ball ever again.
The Art of Footrot Flats
Rod Emmerson is the editorial cartoonist for The New Zealand Herald.