By Murray Ball (Titan Books)
You may or may not have heard of Footrot Flats. Created by Murray Ball on his return to his homeland of New Zealand, it ran from 1975 to 1994 in newspapers on four continents, yet for one of the most successfully syndicated strips in the world, it seems to have passed from common memory with staggering rapidity.
Once the series concluded, Ball – whilst running his own farm – continued to release books of new material until 2000, resulting in a total of 27 daily strip collections, 8 volumes of Sunday pages and 5 pocket books, plus ancillary publications such as calendars.
There was a stage musical, a theme park and a truly superb animated film Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tail Tale.
A well-travelled wanderer, Murray Ball moved to England in the early 1960s, becoming a cartoonist for Punch as well as drawing (ostensibly) children’s strips for DC Thompson and Fleetway as well as a more adult-oriented strip in Labour Weekly. Eventually home called and the artist headed back South. Resettling in New Zealand in 1974, Ball became busier than ever.
He bought a smallholding on the North Island and farmed in his spare time (for anyone not brought up in the country, that last bit was “sarcasm”). This inevitably led to the strip in question. Taking the adage “write what you know” to startling heights, the peripatetic artist promptly gave up sleeping altogether to craft these wickedly funny yarns about an oaf and his dog, and I for one will be eternally grateful. You might be old enough to remember it being syndicated here in the Today newspaper…
Then again, you might not be old enough to remember newspapers.
Wallace Footrot Cadwallader is a big, bluff farmer. He’s a regular bloke, likes his food; loves his Rugby. He owns a small sheep farm (the eponymous Footrot Flats) best described as “400 acres of swamp between Ureweras and the Sea”.
With his chief – and only – hand Cooch Windgrass, and a sheepdog who calls himself “Dog” Wal makes a living and is his own boss. Dog is the star (and narrator) of most of the strips: a cool know-all and blowhard, he’s utterly devoted to his scruffy, no-nonsense master – unless there’s food about or Jess (the sheepdog bitch from down the road) is in heat again.
Dry, surreal and wonderfully self-deprecating, the humour comes from the perfectly realised characters – human and otherwise – the tough life of a bachelor farmer and especially the country itself.
The cartooning is absolutely top-rate. Ball is one of those gifted few who can actually draw funnily. When combined with his sharp, incisive writing the result is pure magic. But be warned. Ball can also break your heart with a few terse words and the right confection of tightly-inked lines.
I’m reviewing the 1990 Titan Books edition, but the same material is readily available from a number of publishers and retailers although none of the varied volumes are particularly cheap. If any cartoon feature ever needed compiling in a comprehensive digital edition it’s this superb series.
Until then, If I’ve convinced you to give the Dog a go, your favourite search engine will be all the help you need…
Go on. Fetch!
© 1990 Diogenes Designs Ltd. All rights reserved.