Murray Ball remembered: The origins of his cartooning genius

by Tom Scott / 13 March, 2017

Wal, Dog and their creator Murray Ball.

In 1978 Tom Scott profiled Murray Ball as Footrot Flats became a national phenomenon.

Late in 1975 the editor of Wellington's Evening Post was shown a comic strip about a farmer and his sheep dog. It was tentatively titled Damn Dog. The editor liked it immediately and offered to see if other newspapers were interested in a syndication deal. The New Zealand Herald said no, on the ground that the language was too coarse. The Auckland Star also said no, on the ground that the strip wasn't funny enough.

The cartoonist was Murray Ball and the strip, renamed Footrot Flats, now runs in eight New Zealand papers and four Australian papers. The Christmas annuals of it have broken publishing records. The first one sold 9000 copies by subscription alone and now, several reprints later, its sales exceed 40,000. The second one has sold 80,000 copies in four months, easily swamping Barry Crump and Colin Meads – All Black, and threatening to overtake Carl Smith's New Zealand from A to Z, which has sold 100,000 copies over 30 years. Who knows? Footrot Flats may eventually eclipse that gargantuan New Zealand best-seller of all time, the Edmonds Cookery Book.

The books have sold especially well in Auckland. The editors of the Star and the Herald must feel a little like the man at Decca who in 1962 turned down a chance to record the Beatles on the ground that they had no commercial appeal.

Footrots, as Ball calls it, is the first New Zealand comic strip to be syndicated and read five nights a week by hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders of all sorts and ages. Its creator is a little bemused by it all. He used to enjoy a mild renown – two humorous books published by Reeds (one on rugby, the other on teaching), Stanley running in Punch, and the strips The Doctor and The Kids appearing in Thursday and the Listener respectively – but now he's a superstar.

He likes to keep himself to himself, however. At the suggestion of an interview for the Listener his rich deep voice rises an octave in genuine horror. He fears he has nothing to say, so when I take him and his wife Pam out to lunch in Wellington I carefully ply him with wine. I’m nervous myself – after all, Ball is an old Feilding man and was something of a legend when I began cartooning. Gradually his defences crumble and some good things are said. Unfortunately I can remember very little later and, worse, can’t read my own writing.

I had to fly to Gisborne to fill in the gaps. Ball greeted me at the airport in shorts – not World War II khaki, or jeans torn off at the knee, but rather shiny black athletic shorts. He was once a champion pole vaulter and is still as lean as a whippet. One leg is shorter than the other, which gives his walk and awkward grace.

The hobble was my undoing. I thought the limp was serious and foolishly consented to a game of squash. He soon ran me into the walls and had me gasping on the floor and demanding an iron lung while he stood over me and apologised profusely. Even when he was leading by a massive margin he contested every point as though his life depended on it, when in fact I was the one close to death.

Later, as I lay jack-knifed in agony on the front seat of his sluggish old Hillman, he explained his sporting philosophy to me. “I always play to win, Tom, and it would have been patronising and insulting to you had I lowered my game.” My assurance to the contrary seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Back at Mikos, his six-acre farm (which is almost vertical hill-side), he introduced me to his animals – Rose and Toe Toe the cows, Horse the huge and muscular cat, Cecil the impotent ram, Bruce the Goose, Amanda the Gander, and many others. There are draughthorses down the road and pigs across the way.

There is no dog, however. Wal’s dog is a hybrid of all the sheepdogs Ball knew on his uncle’s Feilding farm. They impressed him greatly on his visits back from South Africa. South African dogs made him sick. “They’re fed marshmallows and are trained to bite only black men. They’re exercised by walking around tennis courts while black boys wait with shovels ready to clean up.”

His love of animals is devoid of sentiment. As a schoolboy he once saved the life of a ewe in labour by taking out his penknife and cutting the throat of the lamb trapped in the birth canal. This attitude gives Footrots its realistic edge. Chooks and bullocks get butchered, rams have monstrous testicles, and boars are put in with the sows expressly to get them pregnant.

The Peoplemakers.

Apart from his uncle’s farm Ball can’t recall much of his childhood except that it was unsettled and confusing. He went to 13 schools. His family moved from Feilding to Australia when he was eight, and on again to South Africa when he was 11. He gradually came to loathe his new country. His father, Nelson Ball, had been an All Black, and as a teenager Murray vowed to become one as well. He wished for nothing more than to return to South Africa as an All Black and beat the Springboks. At 19 he left South Africa with this intention.

To fill in time before going to Victoria University he got a job as a reporter on the Dominion. But he hated asking people questions – "I'd rather walk across town to find a clock than ask someone the time" – and an assignment to cover a city council meeting produced instead a pad full of sketches. Another reporter suggested that if he really wanted to be a cartoonist he should become one. He returned to Feilding, began submitting cartoons to the Manawatu Daily Times, and was soon hired as editorial cartoonist. I remember his contributions well. I loved them; they were so different and fresh compared with other newspaper cartoons of the day.

"Hell," he says, suddenly alarmed, "they were awful. I wouldn't show them to you even if I could find them.”

He hadn't abandoned rugby entirely. He made the Feilding Old Boys A team, the Manawatu team and the Junior All Blacks, and was selected for the final All Black trial at Athletic Park. He missed out; and he readily admits that it still makes him angry. "Those bastards in the Rugby Union, they're the second wing of the National Party as far as I'm concerned. They kept us waiting under the stands for hours and didn't tell us a damn thing. No one told us a damn thing."

Damn is a strong word for Ball. I heard him say bloody a couple of times, too. On the radio one morning while I was there Sir Keith Holyoake unctuously confessed that never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that one day he would be Governor-General. "Nor you bloody should have," said Ball with uncharacteristic vehemence.

Disgusted with himself at missing out on the All Blacks, he gave up serious rugby and went back to work on the Dominion. It was an unhappy time. "Everything about the Dom has left a sour taste in my mouth. The editor kept laughing at my jokes and saying 'We can't print this', so finally I said 'Bugger you' and went to training college."

While in Hamilton he wrote Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest, one of the few funny books ever written about rugby, and when he went teaching in Whitianga he completed The Peoplemakers, a book on teaching. It was a marked advance, both in writing and drawing, on the first book. Though heavily influenced by Ronald Searle it showed the beginnings of his own style. Parts of it are exceptionally witty. I liked his description of teachers: "They are the only people I know who, when they want information on a specialised subject, invite a guest listener."

He draws himself there as a bespectacled, hapless, almost hairless, long-nosed nong. He is in fact a handsome man with enough thick black hair to keep me and several other cartoonists I know fully thatched. And his eyesight is perfect, too. My self-image in my cartoons is deliberately distorted – his is an outright lie. His alter ego in The Peoplemakers struggles in vain to inspire the pupils, and at the year's end throws his arms in the air and wails, "Have my seeds fallen on barren ground? Have I laboured in vain? Oh monsters! Viper's brood! Have you forgotten so soon what I told you?"

It is clearly the primordial Stanley – the hero of his first and still favourite strip, now running in the Listener and syndicated across America. His teaching bond completed, Ball moved his young family to England in search of work. They settled in Exmoor, Lorna Doone country, and the long round of submissions and rejections began. He had to ask his father for money and the long wait before Stanley was accepted by Punch left him permanently insecure about work. Although he doesn't have to any more, he works desperately hard (still illustrating British comic books) and leads a spartan, almost monastic life.

Bruce the Barbarian by Murray Ball.

Six years in England was enough. The class system made him sick: "It’s so smooth and oily it makes you want to swear.” To do the swearing for him he evolved Bruce the Barbarian for the British Labour Party weekly, and later All the King's Comrades for Punch. Hunting especially made him almost want to vomit. The local gentry did a lot of it in the woods and hills behind their house.

"They'd chase them until the deer were exhausted. They move to water when they're tired and the dogs catch up and tear them to pieces. Hell, I could catch a stag, I could run him down. If they have to be culled you should sneak up and shoot the ones you want.

"I came back because of the class system. I only left to make a living.'' He keeps in touch with British politics through airmailed copies of the New Statesman and the Guardian.

He doesn't have much spare time for reading, though. His day begins in the pitch black at 4.30 in the morning. To make it seem less harsh he has altered the alarm clock: the luminous hands say five o'clock. He quietly dresses, makes himself a cup of tea, and crosses the dewy grass of the orchard to his studio. There he rummages through the ring-binders that serve as idea folios. He has to select two Stanleys and two Footrots. That done, he works quickly on special card paper that Pam has already ruled to size. The raw sketches have a vitality and grace that inking always seems to diminish. It was a problem for Leonardo da Vinci, it's a problem for cartoonists too. He uses dip-knibs, which, although prone to catching on coarse paper and splattering ink everywhere, also allow rapid bold strokes of varying thickness depending on the pressure applied. By 7 am he has sketched up all four strips and is halfway through inking one of them.

He then climbs away from the drawing board and sets off to round up Rosie, the neighbours' cow, for milking by hand. Breakfast with Pam, Tania, Garth and Mason follows – a huge meal of bacon and eggs, fruit and cereal, and at least five pieces of toast and honey. After a quick bounce and a few flips on the boys' trampoline he bounds back to his office. Most of the time I was there we chatted happily but at nine o'clock he apologised profusely and asked if I wouldn't mind moving. Nine to 9.30 and later 11.30 to 12 noon are his idea times, during which he can't be interrupted. Anxious that I wouldn't be offended he ushered me out. I left him crouching on the edge of the bed he has in his office, his face rigid with concentration, a pencil jammed between his teeth. Ideas come at the strangest of times – on the toilet, in the bath – but not at a rate fast enough to sustain two daily strips. These idea periods are essential. The sketches done then are little more than frantic scribbles – as if the idea might evaporate before it is trapped in line – and Ball sometimes has trouble later deciphering what he has written down.

Ideas come from all over – for Stanley more easily than for Footrots. Working on neighbours' farms helps, but the inspiration comes mainly from within, shaped by childhood and childhood reading. He adored Tarzan, the Hardy Boys, Bulldog Drummond. "I also liked the Secret Seven too – mind you, this is going back a bit, I must have only been 19 or 20.''

He has the usual fears that one day nothing will happen and the page will remain blank. He hates late nights but finds that even when he is tired good ideas can tumble out. After holidays, when (theoretically) the brain has rested, the brain takes ages to get back into gear.

His day ends at 1 pm, when the four strips are completed. Lunch is often just a glass of cold tea spiked with a slice of lemon. He then sleeps and is awake and fresh when the children come home from school. He works six days a week. By Thursday evening, the high-tide mark, a week's worth of Stanley and Footrots has been completed. Pam, who handles all the filing, mailing and business correspondence, joins him in front of the television and together they rub out the pencil lines from the great stack of drawings.

Johnny Hart, the creator of the comic strips BC and The Wizard of Id, has another artist, Brant Parker, and two gag-writers working for him. Murray Ball's output is the same, yet he does it all with only his wife's help. Why? It seems that he's not quite sure how to stop. He has a terrible fear of being poor again but doesn't work at all for monetary reward. Apart from the boys' trampoline there are few concessions to his new income. The television is black and white, the record-player mono with a built-in speaker. A large map of the world decorates the wall of the lounge. Ball works not for fame or money but because he has something to say. He works for himself – within limits. "An artist can say his paintings are a work of art, so stuff you. A cartoonist must communicate. If he doesn't he's failed. His work has to succeed immediately – it's got no chance of being a great work of art afterwards.”

Tom Scott later worked with Murray Ball on the hit animated movie adaption of the strip. This article was first published in the April 22, 1978 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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