Murray Hone Ball

Born Fielding, New Zealand 1939
Died Gisborne, New Zealand 2017

By Lindsay Foyle

Wallace Cadwallader Footrot and his Dog are the main participants in the Footrot Flats comic. Both were sort of independent rebels who did not understand authority. Wal is a good-humoured fellow who smiles readily even when things do not go his way, which was more often than not. But there would have been many readers - in Australia - who would not have realized the comic was not Australian. Murray Ball drew it in New Zealand and he would not understand people not understanding the comic was set in New Zealand. He was a New Zealander and proud of it. There are many similarities between Australia and New Zealand and much of Australia’s self-image applies to New Zealand as much as it does to Australia. That is why Australians love to beat New Zealand on the sporting field. For an Australian, it is a bit like beating yourself up, only someone else gets the pain.

Ball’s Footrot Flats comics first appeared in Australia in comic-book format in the 1970s. The popularity of these comic-books meant newspapers soon started publishing the daily and Sunday strips. Footrots Flats has been the most successful comic transferred from comic-books to newspapers in Australian newspaper history. The popularity of the comics in the newspapers led to reprints of many of the comic-books, and the publication of hardback editions too. This proved to be very financially rewarding to Ball.

Murray Hone Ball was born in Fielding in the north island of New Zealand in 1939. His early life was spent in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. His cartooning career started in childhood, copying the Walt Disney characters Tom and Jerry. He had some susses playing rugby union and made the Junior All Blacks team in 1959. He also played for the Manawatu region against the touring British and Irish Lions teams in the same year. But that is as high as his rugby union career went. He was unsuccessful when he tried out for the All Blacks in 1960. His father, Nelson ‘Kelly’ Ball, did a little better and played for the team from 1931 to 1936.

Ball intended to start a university cause in university, but while waiting for his first year to start he took a job with the Dominion in Wellington as a reporter. It was not something he enjoyed, and left after only three months. He then became a cartoonist working on the Manawatu Times, not far from Feilding where he was born.

The job only lasted from 1959 to 1960 when left to cartoon on the Dominion - briefly - before working freelance. It was a hard way to make a living and he took up teaching for three years needing the money. He also started drawing the comic, Stanley, the Great Palaecolithic Hero. In 1968 he moved his family to England where the again worked freelance.

He found some regular work with the children's' book publishers DC Thomson in Dundee in Scotland. He credits feedback he received from the editors there with helping hone his craft. He had some success when Punch started publishing his comic strip Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero.

The magazine also published his second comic ‘All the King’s Comrades’. His comic ‘Bruce the Barbarian’ featured in the English Labour Weekly. ‘Stanley’ eventually became the longest running comic Punch published and was also syndicated in the US, Australia, New Guinea and Italy. He also had ‘All the King’s Comrades’ accepted by Punch.

In 1973 he and his family returned to New Zealand, while he continued to submit work to Punch. A postal strike killed it off as a regular source of income.

Next came Footrots Flats. Ball and his wife, Pam, were living on a farm in Poverty Bay on the outskirts of Gisborne, on the west coast of the North Island. It was this environment which gave Ball the inspiration for a lot of his ideas and models for his characters for the comic. It focused on the adventures of an always optimist farm dog, his owner Wallace (Wal) Footrot and the various neighbours. Family and other animals also inhabit the countryside also featured. While some may have thought the comic was set on Ball’s farm, in reality the original inspiration came from Ball’s cousin Arthur Waugh. He was a sheep shearer who owned a 2100-hectare farm east of Pahiatus, in the south-east of New Zealand’s north island. In many ways the farm life depicted focuses the similarities between New Zealand and Australia. To avoid any confusion the setting is on a mythical New Zealand farm, highlighting the humorous side of farm life, which every New Zealander could relate to.

The comic was not an over-night success. It was rejected for syndication by The New Zealand Herald and then The Auckland Star. The editor of The Evening Post, Mike Robson in Wellington saw its potential and accepted it in 1976. The comic was soon being syndicated in New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Germany. It was syndicated for 18 years before Ball brought it to an end in the late 1990s.

It is possible the peak of the comics popularity was in the 1980s. It went from just being a comic to became a musical in 1983. Then in 1986 became 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. The soundtrack spawning two hit singles in New Zealand and Australia: You Oughta Be in Love and Slice of Heaven.

Ball and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz had a mutual admiration of each other’s work. One of the Footrot Flats strips showed Dog laughing at a Snoopy cartoon. In return Schulz wrote the introduction to the only Footrot Flats volume ever to be published in the United States. Whenever Schulz was sitting in his studio in Santa Rosa, California and he received a new copy of one of the Footrots Flats books, he would stop work immediately and read it.

“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 suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last eight years of his life and died at his home surrounded by family in 2017.

Murray Ball entered the ACA Hall of Fame in 2017.

Further reading