Footrot Flats Creator Murray Ball a National Hero
Murray Ball, the creator of the widely read Footrot Flats cartoon that celebrated rural life in New Zealand, has died in Gisborne at the age of 78.
Ball’s immensely popular Footrot Flats strip, starring farmer Wal Footrot and his sheepdog Dog, ran in newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, UK and Scandinavia from 1975 to 1994.
The peak of its popularity coincided with the 1986 release of New Zealand’s first feature-length animated film, Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, which Ball directed.
It featured music by the New Zealand musician Dave Dobbyn, its soundtrack spawning two hit singles in New Zealand and Australia: You Oughta Be in Love and Slice of Heaven.
A separate Footrot Flats musical was first devised in 1983 and continues to be staged in New Zealand today.
Though Footrot Flats was far and away Ball’s best-known creation, he also had two strips published by Punch in the UK in the 1970s: Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero, the magazine’s longest-running cartoon, and All the King’s Comrades.
His Bruce the Barbarian featured in the English Labour Weekly.
Ball and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz had a mutual admiration of each other’s work, with one Footrot Flats strip showed Dog laughing at a Snoopy cartoon. Schulz wrote the introduction to the only Footrot Flats volume ever to be published in the United States.
“The dog is definitely one of my favourite cartoon characters of all time,” wrote Schulz of Ball’s “wonderful strip”. “Being a fanatic about comic strips, I am always either very impressed by good drawing, or saddened by poor drawing. I love the way Murray draws these animals. I love the relationship among all of the characters, and am especially fond of the absolutely original approach to the humour.”
In 2002, Ball was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services as a cartoonist. He retired from cartooning and public life in 2010.
In 2015, signs showing Ball’s characters were posted on the major state highways to signal his hometown of Feilding, where he was born in 1939.
Ball was also a keen sportsman and played for the Junior All Blacks as well as for the Manawatu region against the touring British and Irish Lions team in 1959. He trialled unsuccessfully for the All Blacks in 1960. (His father, Nelson ‘Kelly’ Ball, played for the team from 1931 to 1936.)
Tom Scott, a cartoonist for Fairfax New Zealand and Ball’s long-time collaborator, said: “He was a sporting hero, he was a creative hero and then when I met him he was a hero of a man.”
A bronze statue of Wal and Dog commissioned by the city council’s arts in public places committee, six years in the making, was due to be installed at a permanent location soon.
Original article by Elle Hunt, The Guardian, March 12, 2017.
Photo by SNPA/John Cowpland/AAP.