Walter Ball beside the iconic mail box that appeared in his “Rural Route” cartoon strips. Received from Walter Ball. Photographer unknown. Appeared in the Spectator 30 Dec. 1981.
Walter Ball (See BALL Walter) was already a newspaper illustrator with a quarter century of experience doing illustrations for written features from sports to crime, when he created the half tab cartoon strip “Rural Route” which first appeared 3 November 1956. It began as an experiment but immediately got an enthusiastic response which kept it as the most popular feature in The Star Weekly over most of its duration and never saw it fall below third place. One survey showed 85 percent of subscribers read it, an unusually high percentage for any magazine feature. The cartoon remained a feature of the Star Weekly until the magazine itself ceased publication in 1968.
Walter belonged to a tradition of cartoonists ranging from Jimmie Frise, thru Walter, Doug Wright, Lind Johnston to Sandra Bell-Lundy who based their strips on their personal experiences. The cartoon nature of the illustrations belied the reality of the content. In contrast the reality of the drawing style in most American cartoons belied the fantasy of the content. The autobiographical elements in “Doug Wright’s Family”, and “Ticky Tacky Township” “For Better and For Worse”, and “Between Friends” are all clearly visible. In describing his sources Ball related that the house in the cartoon was modeled after the house he grew up in. The stove in the “Rural Route” kitchen was copied after the one in which his mother used to bake the family bread. The mailbox that was the logo for the strip was based on the mailbox Walter’s father bought for $3 in 1911, the year Walter was born. Walter continued to use the mailbox at his home in Thornhill till the end of his life. The characters were combinations of people he knew. For example Dr. Ripley, a friend, who enjoyed ice fishing, appeared in the strip in a reworked fashion.
From the beginning the strip was based on Walter’s remembrances and observations of rural life, but it began as a series of individualized gag cartoons. After about a month Walter realized there was a need for a continuity derived through character or a particular location, to tie the series together. He settled on “Elmer” and “Myrtle”. Walter described Elmer as a man with the best intentions but even when he managed to do the right thing it was usually at the wrong time. He thought there was a lot of “Elmer” in him. But unlike Walter I never saw “Elmer” as a bit of a stumble bum but rather as an every person trying to cope with the world around them rather than mastering or dominating that world. This is another clear characteristic that sets this tradition apart.
To illustrate this point let us digress a moment to the father of the Canadian adventure cartoon strip Ted McCall (See McCALL Ted) and his feature “Men of the Mounted” (See MEN OF THE MOUNTED) and the syndicated strip “Zane Grey’s King of the Mounted”. Even in the titles we see the difference. In McCall’s strip we see a community of more or less ordinaryl men confronting the criminal elements in their society. In Zane Grey’s strip we are presented with the apex individual overcoming the forces of evil. Exploration of McCall’s work especially in the Big Little Book also called “Men Of The Mounted” shows the same sense of coping, community and helping one another that we find in the tradition to which Walter belongs.
There are differences however. These strips differ in that each reflects a different aspect of the huge changes that have occurred in Canada over period of time from Jimmie Frise to Sandra Bell-Lundy, shifts that saw Canada change from rural to urban, from the communal life of “Birdseye Centre” to the nuclear family of “Doug Wright’s Family” and “For Better Or For Worse” to the individual interacting with friends in “Between Friends”. In this continuum Walter’s “Rural Route” occupies a transitional position. Yes Walter’s strip is about a rural community, but it is not the same community as “Birdseye Centre”. In “Rural Route” the mechanized farm and the focus on a nuclear family has replaced the pre-mechanized farm community with its eccentric characters. In a Canada becoming increasingly urbanized this is the last strip that will deal with rural topics.
It also reflects a change in narrative style. As discussed in the appropriate sections, Jimmie Frise was able to submerge his own experiences and observations so deeply into a fictional milieu that no one has ever been able to discover the sources of his inspiration. Even Stephen Leacock could not achieve this in his Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town. At the other end of the spectrum the biographical sources for the strips of Doug Wright, Lynn Johnston and Sandra Bell-Lundy are reasonably easy to discern. Again Walter lies somewhat in the middle. Earlier we have noted that Walter thought there were large similarities between himself and “Elmer”, but one would never mistake “Elmer” and “Myrtle” for Walter and Olive. Both of the latter were thorough urbanities, living in a subdivision in Thornhill and actively engaged in urban activities such as going to the theatre and concerts etc. In short “Rural Route” represents a transitional phase in the trend from heavily fictionalized accounts based on experience to more or less biographical accounts of those experiences.
“Rural Route” Ball then is part of a shared comic strip tradition with its own distinctive features, that extends over almost a century but at the same time displays features that due to the changing nature of Canadian society and the preferences of its author set it apart from other features of that tradition.
“His Heart Is In His Rural Route.” Writ., Joh Brehl. Star Weekly Magazine, I June 1957: 16.
“Cartoon creator finds humour in everyday life.” Writ., Sharon Hay. Richmond Hill Liberal, 10 Sept. 1980:1.
“Elmer and Myrtle live on as comic strip Canadiana.” Writ., Paul Wilson. Spectator [Hamilton], 30 Dec. 1981:10.
With Walter Ball 1982.
Car., Walter Ball. Star Weekly Magazine, 2 July 1960: 46.
Car., Walter Ball. Star Weekly Magazine, (?): 36.
Car., Walter Ball. Star Weekly Magazine, 7 Sept. 1963: 18.
Car., Walter Ball. S.W. Comics, 20 May 1967.
Car., Walter Ball. S.W. Comics, 7 Oct. 1967.
Car., Walter Ball. S.W. Comics, 14 Oct. 1967.
Note: The 1967 cartoons are printed on pulp paper. The previous cartoons are printed on glossy magazine paper.