The man behind Footrot Flats
For many years now New Zealanders have been greeted in the morning papers with the Footrot Flats antics. Many would say it is now fully entrenched in our culture so it understandable that most Kiwi's would at least know some of the characters involved. Also given that fact that we have also been exposed to a Movie and popular song as well as books on the subject. But Murray Balls Footrot Flats has also had an impact on people in other countries Australia may be due to the song written by Dave Dobbyn with became a hit in that part of the world. However if you surf the net you will also find web pages dedicated to Murray Ball's characters put their by people in other countries such as Germany.
Ball was born in Fielding in the Manawatu in 1937. He spent the early part of his life in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. His cartooning career started in childhood, copying Walt Disney/Tom and Jerry characters as a child and he maintained an interest in cartooning through his youth.
While waiting for his first year of university to start he took a job with the Dominion in Wellington as a reporter. He didn't enjoy that so after three months he left and took up a position as a cartoonist with the Manawatu Times. He stayed for three years then left to be a freelancer. While he doesn't regret that decision, times were financially tough, and he had to take up teaching for three years when he was low on cash. In 1968 he and his family left New Zealand for England.
While in England he freelanced, with his most regular employment being with the children's' book publishers DC Thomson of Dundee. He credits feedback he received from the editors with helping hone his craft. He achieved success in having his "Stanley" strip accepted by the English satirical magazine, Punch. "Stanley" became the longest running strip in the history of Punch and was also syndicated in the US, Australia, New Guinea and Italy. After five years he returned with his family to New Zealand, continuing to submit work to Punch until a postal strike put pay to that as a source of regular income.
Ball's real success came with his next continuing strip "Footrot Flats" which made it's first appearances during early 1976 in the Evening Post. 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.
Ball calls cartoon "Disciplined dreaming", commenting in 1990 that "...the heart of a cartoon is the idea, an artist can create a painting, hang it on the wall and be satisfied with what he has achieved even if no-one else sees it. In cartooning you must get a human reaction to the idea. The task of the cartoonist is to translate his idea into a drawing that will have impact".
While Ball ceased work on "Footrot Flats" several years ago it lives on in over 24 volumes of collections of the strips that continue to appear in the top selling list in New Zealand, and as a local icon. Ball has ceased producing cartoons on the scale of his daily schedule of "Footrot Flats" but has published the occasional cartoon/text work
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