Murray Ball's Footrot Flats

Footrot Flats was a comic strip written by New Zealand cartoonist Murray Ball. It ran from 1975 until 1994 in newspapers around the world, though the unpublished strips continued to be released in book form until 2000. Altogether there are 27 numbered books (collecting the newspaper strips, with additional material), a further 8 books collecting the Sunday newspaper strips, and 5 smaller ‘pocket’ books of original material, plus various related publications. There was also a stage musical, an animated feature film called Footrot Flats: the Dog’s Tail Tale, and even a theme park in New Zealand. The strip reached its peak of popularity in the mid 1980’s, with the books selling millions of copies in Australasia. At various times, Ball cited different reasons for quitting the strip, including the death of his own dog, and his displeasure with the direction of New Zealand politics.

Dog

The cartoon was based around the life of Wal Footrot’s sheep dog, “Dog”, on their farm Footrot Flats (hence the title), and the other characters, human and animal, that came into their lives. Dog’s thoughts are voiced in thought bubbles, though he is clearly “just a dog” rather than the heavily anthromorphised creatures sometimes found in other comics or animation. The humour was based around the foibles of the characters, which many, particularly farmers themselves, found easy to recognise around them. There was much “humour in adversity”, making fun of the daily struggle that permeates farming life. The depictions of the animals are quite realistic and detailed, with a dose of comic anthropomorphism superimposed without spoiling the farming realism.

Characters

“The Dog”
The main character of the book, a Border Collie. Thinks of himself as tough, but is really quite soft and often cowardly. He has a real name but despises it and has never allowed anyone to reveal it. Wal always calls him “Dog”, gaining loyal devotion. Often put to use to guard things or get rid of rats or pigs – which he fails to do. However, he is a competent sheepdog. He also has a couple of alter egos, “The Scarlet Manuka”, “Mitey Iron Paw” and “the Grey Ghost of The Forest”, that appear from time to time. Was the mascot of the All Blacks for a few seasons. The insipiration for The Dog supposedly came from Ball’s own farm-dog, Finn (a little hard to explain, since the strip had already been running for several years when Finn was born). Apparently Ball originally did select a name for the dog but decided to never reveal it. There is a Mary Sue touch about the Dog.

Wallace “Wal” Footrot
The owner of the Dog and Footrot Flats. A decent bloke although a bit of a slob. A rugby union player, plays for the town team and dreams of one day playing for the All Blacks. Also plays cricket when in season.

Socrates “Cooch” Windgrass
Runs the farm next to Wal, has compassion for all living creatures and things and thus has a natural way with animals. But he is no vegetarian. Owns a pet Magpie called Pew who is constantly attacking Wal (Wal chopped down his family’s nest tree, orphaning Pew and making him a ‘social misfit’). Cooch never drives a tractor, preferring to plod along on his Clydesdales. Wal’s best friend (besides the Dog, of course!).

Dahlene “Cheeky” Hobson
Wal’s on-again/off-again girlfriend. Works at a hair salon. Cheeky is despised by the Dog, who is always looking for a way to come between her and Wal. Near the end of the strip’s run, she and Wal become engaged, but at the last minute she dumps Wal to move out of town with a male stripper.

Rangi Wiremu Waka Jones
A local boy who often appears on the farm to give Wal a hand. As a testimony to Murray Ball’s skill as an artist, the character of Rangi actually grew up over the years in the book, appearing slightly older in each book from being a little kid to a teenager.

Janice “Pongo” Footrot
Wal’s niece, daughter of Rex Footrot. Like Rangi, she aged during the book. She starts off very much a stereotyped girl, dressing up the Dog in a pram and playing dolls, however she slowly turned into a strong pro-feminist. She insists that she was nicknamed Pongo because she was good at ping pong, not because she ponged as a baby (“Anyway, babies don’t smell, MUCH!”)

Dolores Monrovia Godwit “Aunt Dolly” Footrot
Wal’s aunt. Owns a cat home (where Dog was born). Very conservative and does not like Wal being with Cheeky at all. But under her strictness she has a kind heart and takes to mothering abandoned lambs in the winter. Dog despises her for giving him his name – which he does not reveal.

Horse
A large, fierce and practically invincible cat, based on a cat Murray Ball owned. In Book 7 there’s a brief ode to Horse written in the front pages, to commemorate the real Horse’s passing. The character is a menace to Dog and the other characters, resisting attempts to be tamed by Aunt Dolly or others. He has a girlfriend (Fred) who frequents with a Bikie gang and loves leather. Occasionally fathers kittens. He and Dog frequently cross paths which end up with the Dog on the short end. Horse spoke a little in the earlier comics, but in later ones he mainly spoke out via actions and yowls.

Prince Charles
A VERY spoilt English Corgi owned by Aunt Dolly. Has a higher view on life from listening to Aunt Dolly and living inside. Often there are “class” clashes between him and Dog. He is easily stirred and the Dog usually has to explain to him the rougher aspects of farm life – like livestock mating and maggots eating without gravy.