Dog's truth

by David Larsen / 29 December, 2007

Once, long ago, Wellington had two daily newspapers, and one of them ran Footrot Flats every day. My family got the other one. It ran Peanuts.

This was a crucial distinction; in fact, it was the only distinction. Charlie Brown and Lucy - they were real people. I could have given you chapter and verse on them. All I knew about Footrot Flats was its grubby-sounding name, which I took to refer to a block of rundown apartments somewhere.

I can remember precisely the flavour of that name, and the way it coloured the Evening Post in my mind. Families that got the Post instead of the Dominion were obscurely tainted. It was a sort of Catholic/Anglican thing.

My best friend was not an Anglican, but he did read Footrot Flats; I think that was how I knew it existed. When the first Footrot collection appeared, he got hold of it, and I found it one day, and that was how I met Wal and the Dog.

History is silent as to whether my family changed papers because of my announcement that I had seen the prophet of the new religion, striding the back paddocks in the mighty gumboots of the Lord. But we started following the strip, which sometimes was just like reading the collections, except that sometimes you had to follow an evolving storyline with day-long pauses between episodes.

I'm thinking in particular of the time Rangi bet a local guy that Major, the macho pig dog, could beat the local guy's dog in a fight. Major was not to be found, and the Dog saw his chance at a moment of glory, until Rangi chose Prince Charles, Aunt Dolly's pampered corgi, instead. The humiliation! And then the relief, when it turned out that the local guy's dog - Lute the Brute - was built like a tank. But - was Prince Charles doomed?

Rangi produced a sack, and, a panel and a half before it happened, I saw what was coming - one of the first times I ever got the jump on a plot twist. Out of the sack to the corgi's rescue, with a lethal lack of hurry, emerged the most fearsome creature in the whole Footrots universe: the foul-tempered cat known as Horse.

Later on, the whole storyline turned up in that year's collection, and it occurred to me to wonder how Rangi ever got Horse into the sack. It would have been like bottling a nuclear explosion. But the perfect pacing with which the story unfolded, one lovingly rendered, character-rich black and white strip at a time, is what chiefly lingers in my mind.

My family's old collections are falling to bits now; three generations of us have flicked through them, pored over them, tugged absently at their staple bindings ... there are odd stray pages from one of them in my older son's bedroom, serving as bookmarks.

So although I feel a little ambivalent about the flash new hardback "Ultimate Collector's Edition" that's just come out - huge and weighty and altogether the wrong shape for a Footrot book - it's arrived just in time.

The thing is a bit of a Lute the Brute in terms of its impact on your bank balance, and a few of the strips are out of order or turn up more than once, but my children can fit it onto their laps comfortably enough, and it's spending a lot of time there. That's to say, it passes the only test that matters.

The cultural cringe is still alive in this country, but it's on a pension, and you can hear it grumbling from time to time about the good old days. For me, it began its slow trudge to extinction not with Keri Hulme's Booker, or even with the discovery of Maurice Gee's children's fantasies. I got my first clue that talent is talent, and talent that applies itself to your own backyard is gold, the day Wal Footrot's Dog moved into my head and made himself comfortable. He's still there. Good on ya, Dog.

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