Murray Ball created the phenomenally successful ‘Footrot Flats’ cartoon strip, which appeared in more than 120 newspapers worldwide during the 1980s and 1990s and spawned a stage musical, a movie and a wide array of merchandise. In book form it sold more than six million copies. It presented an idealised vision of a laid-back, laconic, do-it-yourself rural New Zealand which appealed to both local and international readers. Ball, who saw himself primarily as a political cartoonist, came to resent the demands the strip placed on him, and its failure to provide a platform for his criticisms of society. He produced several other cartoon strips, notably ‘Stanley’, over a 50-year career, along with children’s picture books and several works of illustrated fiction and memoir.
Murray Hone Ball was born in Feilding on 26 January 1939, the son of Lola Meg Knyvett and her husband, Nelson Ball; he was the middle child of a family of three. His father, a meat inspector with the Department of Agriculture, had played 22 matches for the All Blacks between 1931 and 1936, including five tests. Murray spent his early years in Hastings until the family moved to Lower Hutt in 1945.
The Balls moved to Sydney in 1947 and to South Africa in 1948, where Nelson joined a family amusement park business. Murray spent his adolescence under the apartheid regime, living first in Johannesburg and later Durban, where he established himself as a rugby player, athlete and cricketer, setting a South African junior pole vault record in 1957 and playing rugby for South Transvaal.
Ball showed early promise as an artist and cartoonist, sketching Disney characters and drawing cartoons based on radio commentaries of rugby matches. He loved adventure stories such as Tarzan, the Hardy Boys, Bulldog Drummond and the Secret Seven.
Ball disliked South Africa and returned to New Zealand alone in 1958, hoping to follow his father into the All Blacks and to establish himself as a cartoonist. He spent a frustrating three months as a cadet reporter on the night shift at Wellington’s Dominion newspaper, and submitted several cartoons to the Manawatū Daily Times in Palmerston North, hoping to break into professional cartooning. To his surprise, the paper appointed him their cartoonist and weather map artist. For the next two years he was based in Feilding, where he produced regular single-panel cartoons about current affairs heavily influenced by British cartoonist Carl Giles.
In Feilding Ball also advanced his All Black ambitions. He soon secured places in the Feilding Old Boys’ A Team and then the Manawatū rugby side, keeping fit by helping on a relative’s farm at Aorangi, near Feilding, his first taste of New Zealand rural life. He was selected for New Zealand Juniors in 1959 and played second five-eighth against the British Lions, but the 1960 All Black selectors passed him over for the national team that toured South Africa.
Heartbroken, Ball abandoned representative rugby and returned to his family in Durban. Encountering apartheid South Africa as an adult, he was horrified by the system’s abuses and inequities. Under the influence of the philosopher Bertrand Russell he became a committed and lifelong socialist, convinced of the equality of all people and the need for the equal distribution of wealth.
Disenchanted with South Africa, Ball and his brother Barry moved to London in 1961, where he wrote but failed to find a publisher for a children’s book. He returned to New Zealand in 1962, living in Wellington and contributing occasional political cartoons to the Dominion, but returned to South Africa once again when his mother died in September 1963. Soon afterwards he met Pamela Maureen Bennett, a young woman who had recently emigrated from Britain. Within three months they were engaged, and they married at Sanderstead, a village just outside London, on 29 August 1964.
Murray and Pam Ball settled in Wellington, where Ball was disappointed to find the Dominion had no further interest in his work. He placed a few cartoons in New Zealand Truth but was unable to generate enough income to pay the bills. With their first child on the way, the couple moved to Hamilton in 1965, and Ball undertook an intensive one-year teacher training course. He taught at Mercury Bay District High School in Whitianga from 1966 to 1969 to work off his teaching bond. There he produced two illustrated books of social satire, Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest (1967), about rugby, and The people makers (1969), about teaching.
By 1969 Ball felt he had exhausted his options for a cartooning career in New Zealand, so he and his family moved to Exmoor, in England, where he hoped to establish himself in the competitive world of British political cartooning. A demoralising sequence of rejections followed, until the prestigious British satirical magazine Punch agreed to publish Ball’s cartoon strip ‘Stanley’ in 1970. The strip, which centred on a hapless, bespectacled caveman, lampooned many contemporary social issues, including religion, psychotherapy, hippy idealism, colonialism, women’s liberation, monarchies and – especially – the left–right political divide. It gave Ball an outlet for many of his frustrations with western capitalist society, and was collected in three books and syndicated in newspapers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Pleased with this success, Punch commissioned Ball to produce a second cartoon, ‘All the king’s comrades’ (1973–4), which tackled the British class system.
Punch’s endorsement unlocked the British market, enabling Ball to secure the services of a London agent who helped him place work in a variety of publications. From 1971 he contributed the strip ‘Bruce the Barbarian’ to the British Labour Party magazine Labour Weekly; this also appeared in book form in 1973. Set in a Britain occupied by the Roman army, the strip pitted Bruce, a sword-wielding New Zealand socialist warrior, against the forces of colonialism and entitled, unearned privilege. It explicitly attacked Ted Heath’s Conservative government, particularly Enoch Powell’s racist scaremongering against Commonwealth immigrants.
Ball earned extra income working on children’s comics such as Topper, Dandy, Beano and Whizzer and Chips for the DC Thomson and Fleetway publishing companies. He drew established comics in the style of their creators, and produced one of his own, ‘Thor Thumb’, for Topper. The detailed feedback he received on this work helped him hone his skills and develop his mature style.
Ball grew progressively disenchanted with Britain, and in November 1974 he, Pam, and their two sons and adopted daughter returned to New Zealand, planning to submit Ball’s work to British publications by mail. Influenced by writer John Seymour, Ball aspired towards a life of rural self-sufficiency, and he and Pam purchased a 1.6 hectare property on the outskirts of Gisborne. Ball had little practical experience and portrayed himself as an inept and bumbling farmer, but the rhythms of rural life and interactions with animals brought him genuine pleasure and contentment; he spent the rest of his life on the property. He rose early each morning to sketch out cartoons and develop new ideas in his studio in their Skyline garage.
Ball hoped to produce a daily cartoon which captured New Zealand’s lived reality much as Giles’s work had done for Britain, but the pressure of keeping his London agent supplied with cartoons and comics initially kept him fully occupied. In 1975, however, an English postal strike delayed this process, creating cash-flow problems for the family. Ball used the enforced hiatus to develop two strips for local publications, ‘The doctor’ (Thursday magazine, 1975–76) and ‘The kids’ (New Zealand Listener, 1976–79), both light-hearted forays into the contemporary battle of the sexes without a recognisably New Zealand setting.
Ball created a third strip, tentatively titled ‘Damn dog’, which Mike Robson, editor of Wellington’s Evening Post, agreed to publish three times a week from 16 February 1976 under the name ‘Footrot Flats’. No New Zealand cartoon strip had previously been syndicated, but Robson offered a syndication deal to other regional newspapers. Six, including The Press (Christchurch) and the Waikato Times, were carrying it by the end of the year.
‘Footrot Flats’ was a breezy and apolitical comedy about rural New Zealand life, set on a farm near the fictional East Coast town of Raupo. It was inspired by Ball’s mishaps and tribulations on his Gisborne property, and his experiences on his relatives’ Manawatū farm in the 1950s and 1960s. The strip’s narrator and central protagonist was a sheepdog known only as ‘the Dog’, whose combination of human intelligence and primal canine impulses provided much of the strip’s humour. He was paired with dour and laconic farmer Wallace (Wal’) Footrot, who was both blokey and sentimental, capable and inept. Much of the humour derived from Wal’ placing the long-suffering dog in ridiculous situations, or in the Dog trying to foil or outsmart Wal’, though the relationship was one of deep mutual affection. Ball gradually introduced a rich cast of recurring secondary characters, inspired by real-world friends, family members and acquaintances, along with aspects of his own personality.
The strip was grounded in a recognisable New Zealand reality, an earthy, vividly drawn and dynamic world of sucking mud, manure, blowflies, torrential rain, rotting sheep carcasses, clawing blackberry vines, and fish and chips after rugby matches. It traced the cycles of farming life, including docking, drenching and shearing, and seasonal adversities such as floods and droughts. Characters routinely found themselves entangled in wire fences, slipping down steep muddy slopes, negotiating flood waters, or pursued by enraged or amorous animals. In Ball’s view, New Zealanders saw themselves and their lives reflected in the strip, though he felt it portrayed ‘a dream of New Zealand’, ‘not as we are, but as we would like to be’.1
The strip proved an immediate and unprecedented hit with adults and children alike. The Evening Post published it five days a week from February 1977, including a double-length weekend strip, and within a year it was appearing in several Australian newspapers. By 1985 it graced the pages of 24 New Zealand and 100 Australian newspapers and a handful of Scandinavian publications; it eventually spread to Britain, Japan, South Africa and Germany.
Independent Newspapers Ltd, owners of the Evening Post, produced a book of ‘Footrot Flats’ strips for Christmas 1976, which had sold 20,000 copies by the end of the year. ‘Flats’ annuals, drawing together the year’s highlights, were soon a staple of the Christmas market, with a parallel ‘weekender’ series of the double-length weekend strips appearing from 1985. The books became a New Zealand publishing phenomenon, and were regularly placed alongside the Edmonds cookbook as the country’s best-selling publications of all time. Domestic sales passed a million copies in 1983 and two million in 1987, with an estimated six million sold worldwide, in a variety of languages, by the time the series concluded in 1999.
The Dog and the other characters became instantly recognisable New Zealand icons during the 1980s, and Ball reluctantly agreed to license his characters for merchandising. A flood of ‘Footrot Flats’ goods followed, including soft toys, clothing, stickers, posters, colouring books, calendars, greeting cards and a range of crockery manufactured by Ball’s brother Barry. A ‘Footrot Flats’ musical stage show premiered in late 1983, written by Roger Hall with lyrics by A. K. Grant and music by Philip Norman. In 1985 a ‘Footrot Flats’-themed amusement park opened in the Auckland suburb of Te Atatū, where visitors could ride a roller coaster and take gumboot ski rides in a life-size recreation of Raupo. Pam Ball, long Murray’s business manager, worked hard to manage the ever-increasing volume of administrative and licensing work this popularity generated.
Footrot Flats: the dog’s
tail tale (1986), New Zealand’s first animated film, was the strip’s most ambitious by-product. Ball and fellow cartoonist Tom Scott spent two years developing an original script, which moved into production with Ball as director. Musician Dave Dobbyn provided the film’s soundtrack, and his single ‘Slice of heaven’ had topped the New Zealand music charts for six weeks when the film premiered in December 1986. The film succeeded beyond all expectations, with more than 700,000 New Zealanders viewing it at the cinema, making it the country’s most successful film to that time. It grossed $2.7 million at the New Zealand box office and more than $4 million in Australia, and won the New Zealand Guild of Film and Television’s best script award in 1987.
Ball was delighted when the All Blacks adopted the Dog as their mascot, posing a large stuffed Dog on the sidelines during matches and handing out replicas to opponents. He withdrew his support in 1985 when the team prepared to tour South Africa, feeling the tour offered tacit endorsement of the apartheid system. Ball permitted the Dog to be used in fundraising campaigns by Amnesty International and UNICEF, and in the campaign promoting the MMP system in the lead-up to the 1993 electoral referendum. He also produced a drawing of a fur seal which the United Nations used as a mascot during its Year of Peace in 1986.
Ball became increasingly frustrated and disenchanted with the ‘Footrot Flats’ phenomenon. Its ever-increasing demands forced him to relinquish his other strips, including ‘Bruce the Barbarian’ in 1978 and finally – and most painfully – ‘Stanley’ in 1981, robbing him of an outlet for his political views. He came to feel he had sold out to commercial imperatives, and created a false public image of himself as a spokesman for cosy and sentimental rural Kiwiana. He believed that cartoonists should draw attention to injustice as well as make people laugh, but that ‘Footrot Flats’ provided no platform for serious social commentary.
In the early 1980s Ball developed a new character, stringy-haired, middle-aged Quentin Hankey, specifically to probe the New Zealand social scene. For a few months in 1981 he published a Hankey-centred political cartoon in the New Zealand Mail, which savagely attacked the government’s response to the 1981 Springbok tour, and he revived the character for the illustrated novella Quentin Hankey: traitor (1986). In this satirical Cold War fantasy, a Labour government declares New Zealand an independent republic, only to have it overthrown by force by the National Party backed by the American military. The story culminates in a Russian nuclear attack on New Zealand. Like ‘Stanley’, Quentin Hankey parodied social attitudes and stereotypes, taking aim at greedy conservatives, American foreign policy, and impractical left-wing protest movements, among other things.
Ball adopted the Hankey persona once again for his most controversial work, The sisterhood (1993). The text, framed as Hankey’s ‘secret thoughts’, opined that radical feminists were encouraging women to always assume the worst of men, to approach all interactions between the sexes with aggression and hostility, to reject women’s traditional nurturing role, and to repudiate conventional notions of female beauty.2 The text balanced criticism with acknowledgment of genuine feminist grievances, but these mollifying sentiments were undermined by the deliberately provocative cartoons casting feminists as tyrannical, ugly, censorious, hypocritical and emasculating. Ball produced the book himself after his publisher rejected it, and had difficulty distributing it to booksellers. It sold well, though it polarised reviewers; some, such as Dale Williams, viewed it as ‘vituperative’, ‘demeaning and unsympathetic’, while conservative columnist Frank Haden praised the book as a welcome attack on political correctness.3
In April 1994 Ball announced that he was bringing the 18 year run of ‘Footrot Flats’ to a close. He wished to return to more political work, but also felt the strip no longer truly reflected New Zealand life; he believed that the social and economic changes resulting from the fourth Labour government’s policies had replaced the laid-back egalitarian society depicted in the strip with one motivated by greed and self-interest. In 1996 he produced one last ‘Flats’ publication, The ballad of Footrot Flats, a colour picture book written in rhyming verse. The last of the Christmas and weekender annuals appeared three years later, concluding a series of 35 original volumes drawn from the 6033 strips published in newspapers.
The flowering of Adam Budd (1998) was Ball’s longest and most fully realised work of illustrated narrative fiction. An erotic coming-of-age story about a shy Gisborne teenager’s romantic entanglements, it was, like The sisterhood, saturated with male angst about politically charged relations between the sexes in an era of feminist activism. Similar concerns infused Tarzan, Gene Kelly and me (2001), a playful account of his formative creative influences and anxiety-laden youthful interactions with women.
Ball’s creative career concluded with a series of children’s picture books. He illustrated Barry Crump’s Mrs Windyflax and the punga people (1995) and wrote and illustrated Fred the (quite) brave mouse (2003), Willie wants to wee-wee! (2004), and The mouse that squeaked (2010). He produced another cartoon entitled ‘The prophet’, which articulated his deep disenchantment with contemporary politics. It appeared in Six of the best (2009), an anthology of some of Ball’s non-‘Footrot Flats’ cartoons, published alongside Footrot Flats: the dog strips (2007) and Footrot Flats: the long weekender (2008), the two most comprehensive ‘Flats’ anthologies produced during Ball’s lifetime. These three massive compilations were testaments to the breadth of Ball’s achievement.
The success of ‘Footrot Flats’ enabled the Balls to purchase an additional 202ha of hill country adjoining their property, which they named Te Kuri Farm in the Dog’s honour. They ran stock on part of it, under a manager, and planted native and exotic trees on the rest. In 1995 they developed a public walkway through it with the Department of Conservation, believing that the public should be able to walk the land and enjoy its commanding views of the countryside and ocean.
When Ball was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002, he joked that the government must feel his career had ended with ‘Footrot Flats’ and he had nothing left to say. He accepted that, whatever he felt about it, ‘Footrot Flats’ would be his legacy. Several years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and gradually retreated from public life. Bronze statues of Wal’ and the Dog were designed and cast by Weta Workshop and unveiled in Gisborne in 2016, though by that stage Ball was unaware of it. He died at home on 12 March 2017, aged 78, survived by Pam and their three children.