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New Zealand's best export

  • 19 December 2008

Ball, Murray: Footrot Flats: The Long Weekender. Hachette Livre, New Zealand, 2008. RRP $89.99. ISBN: 9781869711481

Life on a farm is life at its most basic, messy and unpredictable. There's the changing weather, the daily routine of caring for livestock, and the quirky characters that seem to thrive best in small, isolated communities.

For someone raised in the crisp, sterile environment of suburbia, the haphazard, organic life of the country seems incredibly foreign.

In Footrot Flats: The Long Weekender, New Zealand-based Murray Ball captures this foreign world as well as any cartoonist ever has. There are no clean frames in his cartoons. Each drawing is rendered with as much detail as necessary to convey that what we're seeing is a world caked in dirt and mud, and filled with the smell of sweat and animal droppings.

This book is, as the title suggests, a hefty hardcover collection of weekend comic strips featuring in newspapers around the world over the course of many years. As such, there is no overarching narrative, just glimpses of life as seasons pass from oppressive wet winters to hot, hard summer days.

Presumably, when they were first published, the seasons in the comic strips mirrored those of the outside world. Here, the vignettes come together in a broad tapestry of country life.

If there is a political subtext to Footrot Flats, it's lost in this context. What we're presented with is a simple world where rugby (this is New Zealand, of course) is played under pouring rain in winter, and cricket is played on dry grounds in the summer. A world where the main concerns are keeping the sheep safe long enough to be sheared, and (for the main protagonist, Dog) staying on the right side of the frightening and seemingly indestructable cat, Horse.

Life here leaves characters little time for introspection or philosophy. The few times politics finds its way into the strips, it's done in typically irreverent country style. In one, the decrepit old ram Ces is found hiding away from the sheep, being coaxed back by Dog, who says, 'For cryin' out loud Ces. Even if they were all militant feminists bent on revenge for years of male domination — let's face it, you'd be the last bloke they'd be after.'

Footrot Flats ran from 1976 to 1994 in comic books around the world. It's one thing that Australians could never steal from