Dr Bryce Edwards
Murray Ball contributed enormously to New Zealand life through his Footrot Flats cartoon, which both entertained us and helped us understand our national identity. But the cartoonist was also intensely political, and that side of his life and achievements need to be remembered.
The public depth of feeling over the death of Murray Ball shows the regard that Ball was held in by a great many New Zealanders. And among the most poignant and appropriate expressions of this have been the many cartoons drawn in response to his death, by both amateur fans and Ball’s professional colleagues – see: The Cartoon tributes to Murray Ball, 1939-2017.
The politics and art of Footrot Flats
This outpouring of feeling is not surprising. After all, his cartoons were hugely influential on New Zealanders. As his cartoonist friend Tom Scott has said, Ball’s artwork should be taken very seriously: “Through all weathers, in all seasons and over time in Footrot Flats Murray created a world every bit as delicate and true as a Katherine Mansfield short story, every bit as visceral and unsentimental as a Ronald Hugh Morrieson or Barry Crump novel, every bit as whimsical and nonsensical as a John Clarke or Billy T James comedy routine (both of whom appeared in his film) and visually every bit as arresting and instantly recognisable as a Rita Angus or Toss Woollaston painting” – see: With a stroke of the pen, Murray Ball opened up possibilities.
And there was certainly a political and philosophical element to Footrot Flats that many obituary writers have not touched on. This is best explained by Bob Temuka, who blogged a few years ago about how “Ball's art was also full of soul” – see: Footrot Flats: Down on the farm for Christmas.
Temuka is worth quoting at length: “Footrot Flats dealt with the big issues of life in four panels of patter and slapstick. Universal themes led to universal truths and the strip was firmly in favour of anybody who stood up to the bullies and arseholes in life. There was humour in adversity and straight-up silliness, but greed, pride and foolishness were always punished, sometimes with the help of an electric fence or the righteous fury of Horse. But the philosophical musings on life - watching the sun go down over the fields and asking 'what's it all about?' - were never at the expense of a good comic punchline or deadpan reveal. It was a genuinely funny strip that sometimes made big points about the meaning of life, and you couldn't ask for more. Like Peanuts, politics also never got in the way of a good laugh, either. Ball was a fairly classic rural liberal socialist, and his thoughts on feminism and environmentalism became more prevalent as the strip went on. But it was also a world where the All Blacks selector was infinitely more powerful than the Prime Minister.”
See also, Martyn Bradbury’s How Footrot Flats shaped my identity as a New Zealander.
Murray Ball’s leftwing politics
In fact Murray Ball had an intensely and overtly political side. I discovered this myself when, aged eight, I progressed from reading Footrot Flats – which I absolutely loved – to his other cartoon series, particularly his “Stanley the Paleolithic Hero”, but also Bruce the Barbarian and The King's Comrades. Ball’s satire helped me think about some of the bigger political questions and issues in life, and I still occasionally read my Stanley cartoon books.
“Stanley” was his long-running series about a glasses-wearing caveman who struggled with his Neolithic times (which also happened to have some similarities with 1970s New Zealand). It was overtly political, and expressed Ball’s more socialist, if not communist, politics. The cartoon continually raised big questions about how society is run, particularly in regard to the division of resources, inequality, wars between countries, and unnecessary suffering of ordinary people. But, of course, it was always done in an extremely funny and sometimes light-hearted way.
Ball used Stanley to ask questions about political and economic power. And his characters were learning along the way about authority. He projected that a different type of society and politics was possible. In a sense, he was one of New Zealand’s truly great anti-Establishment thinkers.
Tom Scott called the Stanley comics “absolutely ferociously brilliant” – see Catherine Hutton’s Tributes for Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball. In this, Scott also explains how his early cartoons were so refreshing in the New Zealand of the 1970s: “his cartoons were just wonderful. They were vivid and stroppy, they weren't the kind of tired, sycophantic things that other cartoonists were doing.”
Scott is reported as saying that Ball “was also worried about the country's political direction, first under Rogernomics and then Ruth Richardson.” Scott says: "He thought – correctly – that we were heading towards an unfairer society. The amount of people sleeping in cars right now and the polluted rivers, none of this would come as a surprise to Murray, who thought we were heading that way”.
And today, the Dominion Post has published a piece by Scott, that elaborates further: “Stanley the Paleolithic philosopher who graced the pages of Punch magazine for many years was clearly the work of someone of astonishing wit and fierce intelligence. The black shearer's singlet wearing Bruce the Barbarian who appeared in a Left-wing journal was clearly the work of someone fiercely egalitarian. If it is possible to be too egalitarian, Murray most certainly was. Injustice and unfairness burn him and as a consequence the fruits of his success always made him uncomfortable” – see: With a stroke of the pen, Murray Ball opened up possibilities.
You can also watch Newshub’s five-minute video: Cartoonist Tom Scott pays tribute to Footrot Flats creator Murray Ball. And to go further back, here’s Tom Scott’s 1978 Listener feature: Murray Ball remembered: The origins of his cartooning genius.
The personal principles of Murray Ball
Today’s editorial in the Southland Times, A man, a dog and a conscience, points out that “Murray Ball cannot be defined by any single comic strip. Not even that one. Particularly since so much of his other work was more nakedly politically provocative. Footrot Flats was sentimental, yes, but incisively so. The work of a sometimes disconcertingly honest man. Which is part of the reason he stopped.”
The newspaper explains Ball’s decision to kill off Footrot Flats: “The New Zealand he was describing no longer meshed with what he saw going on around him. Farming, and the country, were changing in ways that troubled his sense of social justice. It came down, he said, either to changing the strip and following the country, or stopping the strip.”
For an elaboration on Ball’s big political decision to stop drawing Footrot Flats, it’s worth reading Adam Dudding’s 2007 feature: Footrot Flats' Murray Ball. Ball explains that the reforms of the 1980s had meant that his cartoon had become a dishonest portrayal of New Zealand.
Ball says New Zealand ‘had to reassemble itself. And it reassembled itself differently to the way I'd drawn it in the strip. That made it very awkward. It meant if I carried on doing the strip as I'd been doing it for years and years, I was starting to tell fibs about the country… I had to make a decision: do I change the strip and follow the country; or do I stop the strip?... And I decided to stop the strip, because I loved the characters and didn't really want them doing the sort of things they'd do in farming as farming had developed.''
In an interview with a Dominion reporter in 2002, Ball explained further how Footrot Flats had become outdated: "When it started, I was portraying New Zealand as I perceived it in the 60s and 70s, but as the strip carried on into the 80s and 90s, it was portraying a country that had virtually disappeared. This is a source of great pain to me." Ball stated that he felt by continuing with the cartoon he was "betraying a society that was gone and lying to the people".
Ball explained how he “had always been a political cartoonist and still am at heart. A political cartoon is drawn, in my experience, out of hate and disgust, rather than love. So Footrot Flats was a turn-up for the books… However, there is still plenty of hate in me and I'd like to get rid of it somehow.”
In 2009, Ball told The Press’ Marty Sharpe, "I felt that I'd been diverted from my true course. I felt I sold out . . . which is part of the reason I stopped. It became so successful it squashed my ability to say the things I wanted to say. I could only say the things the characters I had created would say… They got across certain human emotion that was important, but left the political arena alone. There was no way of doing that without stretching characters too far."
Ball’s decision to kill off Footrot Flats was just one of many decisions of principle he made over the years. He was involved in the anti-Apartheid struggle – he had, after all, lived in and hated South Africa’s apartheid system. And then with the 1981 Springbok tour he informed the Rugby Union that they would no longer be able to use the Footrot Flats dog as their mascot.
Ball had other forays into national politics, too. In 1993, he contributed cartoons for the campaign to get MMP adopted in the electoral reform referendum. And in 1999, he contributed cartoons for the Alliance party to use in its election campaign advertising.
Murray Ball’s gender politics
Some of the cartoonist’s political adventures were less well received. His 1995 book titled The Sisterhood was particularly controversial. It dealt with gender politics and the feminist movement. Unsurprisingly it incurred the wrath of feminists, and numerous activists still hold this against him.
Murray Ball was also a little bit racist and carried a lot of hostility towards straw feminists. Let's not forget that, people. https://t.co/TYzFgqOQIJ
— Craig Ranapia (@CMRanapia) March 13, 2017
The author of “The Sisterhood” died but because he wrote a comic strip about a dog, we’re going to forgive him his sexism & anti-feminism…
— Matthew R X Dentith (@HORansome) March 12, 2017
Adam Dudding’s article, Footrot Flats' Murray Ball, reports that Ball had no regrets about the book, explaining his support for many feminist aims, but that “cartooning is very much a negative thing; you look for the weak spots”.
There was probably much more to it than this. Ball seemed to have a great interest in gender politics and had professed a belief in the need for women’s liberation. He explained that in the book with reference to his “socialist” beliefs, but at the same time seemed to have a problem with the strands of both liberal feminism and radical feminism. And by the same token, although he caricatured women and feminism in a pejorative way, he did the same with men.
He later continued his dangerous foray into laughing at gender issues, with the 1998 book, “The Flowering Of Adam Budd”. This time it came with a disclaimer: "This book will possibly offend some people and it is naturally my hope that these people are the people I wish to offend”. He added that people should actually read the book before judging it.
Finally, for another insight into the political mind of Murray Ball, here are some answers he gave on eleven political questions back in 1994. The responses were to a questionnaire I sent him – and other political activists – for publication in a now-defunct political magazine, The Monthly Review.
Is the class struggle still relevant?
Not in those terms – but in the effort required to produce a society in which the less well off have equal opportunities with the rich it’s more relevant than it has been for years.
What political figure – living or dead – has inspired you the most?
Bertrand Russell, Donald (Lord) Soper, Wolfgang Rosenberg, Mikis Theodorakis, Jim Anderton.
What is your opinion of political correctness?
A good idea that has become a prison.
What do you think could be the result of a Jim Anderton-led Government?
A healing of social divisions, a rise in national consciousness, an alternative to greed as the driving force in our society.
Name one book, and one poem that you would like everyone to read.
Book: Trinity by Leon Uris – as an explanation of where the Republican movement in Ireland is coming from. Poem: The All Black Haka.
Do you support the idea of Maori sovereignty?
I’m not sure what this means – I support very strongly a greater use of Maori attitudes and organisations within the NZ body politic.
If you could get one piece of legislation passed through Parliament what would it be?
To preserve all existing areas of native forest. Or possibly, the nationalisation of all land in New Zealand.
Should marijuana use be legalised?
Do you have faith in the ability of Mandela and the ANC to bring social justice to the “New South Africa”?
No – but I can think of no nation on earth that has achieved that so why should they be any different. It is the period after the amazing Mandela we’ll have to watch.
Has the Labour Party abandoned Rogernomics?
They’ve still got one foot in the boat and one on the wharf.
Is feminism still progressive?
Progressive for whom? For society as a whole it is neutral. We are getting as many good and bad people in politics as before. For women it may be progress. For children it is retrograde. For men it has both good and bad elements.