Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"Footrot Flats" New Zealand Cartoonist Murray Ball 1939 - 2017

New Zealand cartoonist Murray Ball, creator of the long-running, internationally known Footrot Flats comic strip, died Sunday morning at his Gisborne, NZ home, with his family at his bedside. He was aged 78. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's Disease.

He is survived by his wife Pam, and children, and grandchildren.

Murray Ball was born in New Zealand. He spent some years in Australia and South Africa, before settling in Scotland for a while. It was there that he created, among other features, Punch Magazine's longest running strip: Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero, about "a caveman who wore glasses and struggled with the Neolithic environment." (Source: Wikipedia.)

He created a few more comic strips during this time. After five years, just around the time he moved back to New Zealand, he started Footrot Flats. 

From Murray Ball: The Man Behind Footrot Flats:

Set on a mythical New Zealand farm the strip focused on the adventures of an always optimist farm dog, his owner Wallace (Wal) Footrot and the various neighbours/family/animals that inhabit the countryside. Ball and his wife, Pam, lived at that time on a farm on the outskirts of Gisborne in Poverty Bay and it was from here that Ball got a lot of his ideas and models for his characters.

The nostalgic aspect of the rural setting, one that few New Zealanders have experienced but somehow feel connected to, with it's links to rugby and good ken blokes gave the strip a strong local appeal. Ball kept it focused on this mythical world of good ken blokes whose interests lied with rugby, racing and beer.

Ball's art style, which he described as "Hard downwards pressure and intense effort" was clear and fresh, giving the animals expressive features while keeping them true to their animal form. Dog (whose real name we never learned due to his violent reaction to anyone who attempted to utter it) was the audience's guide, commenting on the events and people that surrounded him.

The success of the strip saw it syndicated in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Germany. There also followed a musical, a theme park in Auckland for a short period and a film in 1986 which drew the largest opening week box office of any film release in New Zealand at that time. The theme song, "A Slice of Heaven" by Dave Dobbyn became the biggest selling record in Australia in 1987 and the film went on to win many awards.

Above video for Dave Dobbyn’s "Slice of Heaven" features clips from the movie Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale.
 Charles Schulz was an admirer. From The Guardian:
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 favorite 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 humor.”

In 2002, Murray Ball was made Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He retired from public life in 2010.


Rick Marschall said...

One of Murray's biggest fans in Scandinavia was my friend Jorgen Fogedby. He was obsessive about Footrot Flats and probably was responsible for syndication in Denmark and neighboring countries. Sad to hear the news

DBenson said...

Many years ago I'd read library copies of Punch for the cartoons. "Stanley" started there, in large unframed panels with borderless balloons. It was funny and fun to look at, with characters scattered along a long flat horizon broken by the occasion wooly mammoth. It was followed by another Ball strip, more conventionally strip-like in design but still fun, in which a medieval king and his serfs focused on satirizing labor-management relations. I just assumed he was British as his satirical targets tended that way.

"Stanley", reborn in standard strip format, turned up in one of the Bay Area papers for a while. The local batting average for imports wasn't impressive. "Modesty Blaise", the early "James Bond" strip and the weird repackaging of "Asterix" likewise came and went. "Andy Capp" and "Fred Bassett", in contrast, took root.