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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Murray Ball (1939-2017)

Cartoonist Murray Ball, who has died at the age of 78, was best known for the cartoon series 'Footrot Flats', which was New Zealand's most popular comic strip. Starring farmer Wal Footrot and his intelligent, devoted, if somewhat cowardly, border collie named Dog, Ball produced more than 5,000 episodes and the strip ran in up to 125 newspapers around the world between 1976 and 1994; it was collected in a series of over 40 books which have sold over six million copies and was produced as a stage musical in 1983 and, in 1986, an animated movie: Footrot Flats: A Dog's Tale, directed by Ball. It's theme song ("Slice of Heaven") was a huge hit in New Zealand and Australia.

Dog was voted New Zealand's best-loved fictional character and, along with Wal, he was imortalised in a 350kg bronze statue made at Weta Workshop which was temporarily located outside the H.B. Williams Memorial Library in rural Gisborne, on the North Island, where Ball lived, in time for his 77th birthday in 2016. Gisborne's mayor, Meng Foon, has said that the life-sized statue will be found a permanent home in the city.

Ball's creation was admired by Charles M. Schulz, who wrote in an introduction, "The dog is definitely one of my favourite cartoon characters of all time . . . Being a fanatic about comic strips, I am always 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."

Murray Hone Ball was born in Feilding, Manawatu, New Zealand, on 26 January 1939, the son of Nelson "Kelly" Ball (1908-1986), a former All Black rugby player, and his wife Meg. He grew up in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa where he attended Parktown Boys' High School. Kelly and Meg Ball had emigrated to South Africa in 1948, but Murray returned to New Zealand ten years later in the hope that he, too, could make a career in rugby.

He played for the Junior All Blacks, as well as the Manawatu region against the touring British and Irish Lions team in 1959, but he was unsuccessful when he trialled for the All Blacks in 1960.

He found work as a cartoonist, contributing to the Manawatu Times and the Dominion. It was whilst working on the latter in 1963 that he heard of his mother's death and he immediately returned to Durban, where his father ran a beachfront amusement park, Kenilworth Showland. In Durban, the newly installed assistant dodgem car operator met Pam, a recent emigré from England; they were engaged after three months and married, in Surrey, in 1964, before flying to New Zealand.

The newlyweds found accommodation in Hamilton and Ball began a one-year crash-course at Hamilton Teacher's College. This allowed him to find work as a primary school teacher at Whitianga, where he completed a three-year bond. During this period, Ball had his first book, Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest published by A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, in 1967.

With Pam pregnant with their second child, the Balls came to the UK, finding a house on the edge of Exmoor, where he spent a year drawing cartoons for various magazines without success. His fortunes turned when Punch accepted a strip featuring 'Stanley', a bespectacled caveman, struggling to make sense of life in the Palaeolithic era. It went on to become the longest-running strip in Punch's history.

Soon after, 'Bruce the Barbarian', featuring a colonial ruffian, began appearing in the Labour Weekly and Punch commissioned a second strip, 'All the King's Comrades'. At the same time, Ball found regular work with D.C. Thomson's comics, drawing for Topper, Dandy, Bunty and various annuals.

Ball returned to New Zealand in 1974, where he drew 'Nature Calls' before producing his best-known cartoon strip, 'Footrot Flats', which began appearing in Wellington's Evening Post in 1976.

Although he retired from drawing in 2010, his books remained incredibly popular in Australasia. Six of the Best (Hodder Moa Boosk, 2009) contained examples of six of Ball's strips, including 'Stanley', 'Bruce the Barbarian', 'The Prophet', 'The Doctor', 'Nature Calls' and 'The Kids''. Upstart Press produced a 288-page collection of The Essential Footrot Flats in 2014, gathering 450 strips handpicked by the Ball family, and a 2015 Calendar, both released in time for the strips' 40th anniversary. A website dedicated to 'Footrot Flats' was launched on Ball's 78th birthday in January 2017

Ball became an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002 for his services as a cartoonist.

Ball, who had been in poor health battling Alzheimer's for the past eight years, passed away at his home on 42-years in Gisborne on the morning of Sunday, 12 March 2017. He is survived by Pam and their three children.

Ball was the subject of the 1988 book Murray Ball – What Is It Like To Be A Cartoonist?, part of a series profiling successful New Zealanders, in which he described his career, the development of his cartoons and what constituted a normal day.

His passing was noted by New Zealand's Prime Minister, who said "Saddened to learn of the death of Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball, a thoughtful NZer who took our unique sense of humour to the world." (@pmbillenglish, 12 March 2017)

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