When I was an active comics fan, I used to pride myself on getting in ahead of the crowds on new American newspaper strips, before they’d achieve public consciousness over here. I had the first three Far Side collections on import through Comics Conventions and Marts before a single Desk Calendar appeared on a single UK desk, I was up to my ears in the hilarity of Calvin & Hobbes before it made it big over here. I wasn’t smug or anything, as nobody cared, but being tuned into that world meant picking up on things sooner.
That was the case with the only New Zealand newspaper strip I’ve ever seen. Murray Ball had lived and worked in the UK in the Seventies but gone home, set up a farm, and started writing and drawing a daily strip about one. Footrot Flats was simple, direct, at times relatively earthy. It grew out of its culture, but its jokes were mostly universal. It was frequently hilarious. And it had the Dog.
I may be a cat-lover, but there’s something about dogs in strip cartoons. Snoopy is, of course, the doyen, and Charles Schulz himself called Earl, in Mutts, perfect. He might only be a mongrel, and rather more interested in mating with Jess, Cooch Windgrass’s bitch, than any other cartoon dog around, but Ball’s Dog is worthy of standing in that company (though knowing the Dog, he’ll have been rolling around in the crutchings first).
The Dog has a name, but no-one uses it. he hates it and will go to great lengths to ensure it doesn’t get out. Ball was canny enough never to reveal what that name actually is.
And now he’s passed away, at the age of 78, after eight years with Alzheimers. It’s a bastard, being crook like that. Ball ended Footrot Flats in 1994, after nearly twenty years. I used to have fifteen collections of it. Ironically, the report of his death comes the day that a buyer on eBay will win the last couple of these from me.
Times change, tastes change. Humour is especially vulnerable to that. You can’t always keep laughing at the same jokes all the time. But there are some gags you’ll keep in your mind forever. I wish I could show you my favourite but I don’t have a copy so I’ll have to explain it.
Wal Footrot has just installed a new electric sheep fence but doesn’t know if it’s switched on or not. To test, he forces the Dog to lay a paw on it. The Dog touches it without reaction. Assuming it’s inert, Wal lays a hand on it. The shock flips him head over heels. Cut to the Dog trotting away, thinking, “It’s worth taking 10,000 volts for a sight like that.”
Another good man gone. Do we have enough of them left?