97 | Murray Ball - Greatest Kiwi of All Time 2023

97 | Murray Ball - Greatest Kiwi of All Time 2023

Greatest Kiwi Of All Time: No. 97 - Murray Ball  (New entry)

November 1986.  There’s a queue outside The Embassy theatre on Wellington’s Courtenay Place.  Top Gun.  Crocodile Dundee.  Platoon.  Just a sample of the wealth of movies for the hungry crowd to choose from, but there’s only one movie the crowd are here to see.  And it’s made here in New Zealand.

Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale has taken the country by storm.  The film, based on the adventures of “Dog” and his owner Wal, was the country’s first feature-length animated film.  It’s a smash hit and another feather in the cap of its creator - cartoonist Murray Ball.

Murray Ball was born in January 1939 in Fielding, his dad - meat inspector Nelson Ball - was an All Black, playing 22 matches on the wing.  

Murray grew up in New Zealand and abroad, spending some of his teenage years in Australia and South Africa.  Like his old man, he too was a sports fanatic, setting records in junior athletics and playing rugby in South Transvaal.

Returning to New Zealand to follow his own All Black dream, Ball landed at Wellington’s Dominion newspaper as a cadet reporter.  While he never made the All Blacks, his next gig at the Manawatu Daily Times helped stoke his other passion - cartoons.  He would become their full-time cartoonist in 1959.

But by 1969 Ball was disillusioned with cartooning opportunities in New Zealand and had spent the last few years scraping together a living as a teacher.  The UK beckoned, where the famous UK political satire magazine Punch agreed to publish Ball’s strip “Stanley”, centred around a hapless, bespectacled caveman.  It gave Ball an outlet for his increasingly socialist views.  The “Brutus The Barbarian” strip would follow, as would work contributing to comic books like Beano and Whizzer and Chips.

Then, in 1976, The Evening Post published the first of Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons.  The strip focused on life in rural New Zealand - sucking mud, blowflies, torrential rain and fish and chips after rugby matches.  We saw ourselves, and we loved it.  The Press in Christchurch and the Waikato Times would be taking the strip by the end of the year.  

By 1985, Footrot Flats would be syndicated to 24 New Zealand and 100 Australian newspapers, plus others in Britain, Japan, South Africa and Germany.  Merchandise followed - stickers, posters, clothing and crockery.  There were Footrot Flats Annual Books, selling two million copies in New Zealand in 1987 alone.  There was even a theme park in West Auckland.

Then came the movie, written by Ball and fellow cartoonist Tom Scott and featuring some of our most famous voices - John Clarke, Rawiri Paratene, Billy T. James and the musical genius of Dave Dobbyn.

In time, Ball would become sick of Footrot Flats and wanted to concentrate on his more politically focused strips.  He wanted his work to have an impact, but he would find it difficult to shake of Wal and Dog.  Ball died in 2017.

More than a cartoonist, Ball created a uniquely New Zealand universe that resonated with rural life in Godzone.  Charles Shultz admired the work of Murray Ball, as did we all - one of Today FM’s Greatest Kiwi’s of All Time.