A Brief History of British Comics: Part 5b – Roy Story

Nerd Reading Football Comics

Please note, I dug through a lot of stuff about football and read more football comics than I ever intended. Now you have to, as well. Also, when I say football, I actually mean soccer. It’s you who’s the weird one!

Okay.

As a pasty, pudgy, lazy nerd in her thirties, I don’t get on well with competitive sports. I don’t get the rules. I don’t understand why anyone would enjoy running around on a slippery field whilst hitting other people either on purpose or by accident. I have matured beyond thinking such things have no value, but you will never get me excited to actually watch a football game.

Understanding Spectator Excitement

Indeed. I dread every time there’s a World Cup on because I will never hear the bloody end of it. Having said that, I can’t help getting a little bit excited when England not only qualifies, but actually gets to a semi-final match. There’s something really heart-warming about seeing large groups of people singing, cheering, and getting excited. Well, when those large groups aren’t drunk jerks anyway. I can imagine it’s like being at a convention or a meet-up. You actually get to be part of a crowd, welcomed and able to truly express enthusiasm for once.

Maybe this evolution in my understanding of sports fans led to me enjoying a comic about a football player.

Charming Roy Race

Perhaps it’s just that Roy Race of (the fictional) Melchester Rovers FC is almost Steve Rogers—no, Clark Kent—levels of wholesome dedication and charm? Maybe I really do have a thing for athletic blondes?

Could it be all of the above? Yeah, that makes sense.

Look, I wasn’t expecting this. I knew I’d adore Misty, but I didn’t expect to love Roy of the Rovers as much as I did. This comic is surprisingly endearing. It contained no where near as much dumb seventies machismo as I feared. It contained so much actual sincerity and felt so un-British, I almost choked on my tea.

It does make sense. If you know anything about the British—the English especially—we love football. We bloody love it. Yet, we’re so so bad at it. Did you know we haven’t won a World Cup since 1966? I do, because we won’t stop going on about it. As a nation, it’s pretty much the only thing we are sincere about—aside from baking and wildlife narrated by the velvety tones of David Attenborough.

History of Publication

Anyway, Roy of the Rovers is a slice of life comic that began in 1954 as a small strip. It remained a popular sports strip in Tiger magazine before gaining a whole comic in 1976. Far from the only sports comic, it was the most famous and popular. It effectively became the only one by default. It continued in various forms, as both a full comic and single strips. The story ranged from fighting delegation to the bottom of the league to getting friggin’ kidnapped in South America.

The comic eventually ended up in Match of the Day magazine in 1997—a football magazine aimed at children—before finally going out of regular publication in 2001. That was the case until May this year when it received an honest to Betsy reboot. If you’ve been following this series, you’ll probably have an idea of who owns the right to the back catalogue of Roy of the Rovers, and who’s now publishing these new comics both serialised in Match of the Day and collected in trades, along with tie-in YA novels.

I’ll give you a clue- starts with ‘r’ and kind of rhymes with ‘Triskelion’.

Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff

According to research, the phrase ‘real Roy of the Rovers stuff’ means an amazing display of skill on the pitch or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. I even found some examples whilst digging around on Youtube and Twitter. Having read two collected volumes of the comic and whatever I can find of the stuff from the nineties, I concluded it also means never ever getting a dull, uneventful season and getting kidnapped like four or five times. Roy Race is something of an icon if you’ve grown up with football in the last few decades. Even if you don’t follow or never followed the comic, chances are you’d have heard about it from your parents or from a football commentator.

Soap Opera

It’s mostly a soap opera—very slice of life, as I said. I’ve tried looking around, but I can’t see anything in American comics that’s comparable. The only similar things I can find are in manga. Things are either down to earth and kind of cute in their own way or they are Dynasty-level lack of chill. We either get Roy worried about looking ‘selfish’ (LOL FIFA IS ONE OF THE MOST CORRUPT ORGANISATIONS ON EARTH ROY CHILL OUT MATE) for basically being too good at scoring goals or—and I cannot stress this enough—about the death, injury, and helicopter crash that almost kills the whole team.

Oh, and Roy gets shot by an actor who was meant to be playing him in a TV show. He remained in a coma for weeks whilst his team tried to carry on without him. The mystery around who shot him was a huge ‘thing.’ I’m sure it was just a coincidence that this story line happened around about the time JR was shot on Dynasty.

Motivated by Money?

That first full story, from the first issue in 1976, is based around a competition in which a supermarket chain puts up £30,000 (which is over £120k in modern money—roughly the amount your average contemporary premier league player earns in like, a month?) to the footballer who scores the most goals that season. Roy is in the running, and commentators, along with his fellow players, are concerned he’s more focused on the money and winning than he is being a good team player.

An English footballer, in the premier league—one of the best in the country—is worried about looking selfish. To be fair, he’s completely right. They do accuse him of acting out of ego by coming back after an apparent injury instead of sending out a substitute, apparently just so he can win the money. He cares more about his own glory than his team?! Surely not! Nope, he returned uninjured; he just lost a stud off his football boot.

What Even is This Comic?

Did I mention that Roy Melchester’s not only the top player, but also a manager? So, he’s not only the most amazing player; he’s also the best manager too. I cannot get over this. I can accept literally anything that Marvel throws at me—Mutants, Inhumans, Gods, monsters, talking ducks, raccoons and pigs—but this is taking the fucking piss mate.

There’s so many stories like this, but my other favourite is from the same seventies volume in which Roy goes to the States and coaches an American football team.

A ‘man’s game’ indeed. They are two totally different sports from two different parts of the world. Yet, somehow, Roy is so bloody amazing he can train NFL players to win, having shown up like, last week? And people call Jane Foster a Mary Sue. This guy is just the most!

Roy Gets Kidnapped

That’s to say nothing of the kidnapping. Apart from the South America business, there was a storyline in which Roy was held for ransom in a fictional Middle Eastern country. If football fans found it offensive, then you know it was pretty terrible. Roy also split from his wife, briefly, before getting back together with her. For a time, their relationship was the focus of a strip in the Today newspaper.

Wife and Son

Sadly, like most wives in comics, Penny dies in a car crash about twenty years later. The accident forced a rift between Roy and his son, and then drove Roy to eventually leave football for good. This family drama and tense father-son relationship was as much a part of this soap opera as anything else! Again, this comic was presumably aimed at football fans who were largely thought to be boys, but this kind of soapy stuff clearly worked with them?

Girl Readers

Then again, if you read some of the letter pages, there are girls reading this comic. In the foreword to the collected volume, they include a photo of Gary Lineker, a footballer for Leicester City (where my family hails from) requested by a Samantha Groocock of Leicester. She read Roy of the Rovers and expressed enough interest in football to a) support her local team and b) like Gary Lineker. While popular during his career, but my exposure to him came from his presence on Twitter and being in some ads created by my Uncle for Walkers crisps. Maybe I just don’t appreciate the drama of football?

Do Football Fans Enjoy Soap Operas?

Is this what football meant to people reading this comic? The fans? Am I missing something? Well, clearly, yes. Again, I feel like this is football as it’s meant to be. Roy Race is a decent guy who’s good at playing football, a loving family man and honest to boot (arf arf). Readers saw him as a teen in 1954, in a single strip comic, then a star player, a manager, a father of three, and then retiring to just manage. It’s actually kind of a shame to see the story rebooted completely. I’d hoped to see football commentator Roy Race, now a smiley, but kind of world-weary grand-dad, and making fun of Tories and Piers Morgan on Twitter. Or maybe it was for the best to have a new, young player again? That’s how Roy started back in the day.

The Reboot

There’s clearly a desire for this to be real. It’s not just the allusion to Roy of the Rovers in actual football commentary. It’s the appearance of actual, real-life players and commentators in the comic itself. Apparently, this came down to the editor Barrie Tomlinson, who was known to get all sorts of celebrity endorsements for the comics he worked on. They turned up in the promotion for the comic, in letter pages, in special charity matches, and, of course, in the comic itself as actual characters in the story.

Well-know comedian Eric Morecambe (of Morecambe and Wise… They’re like the British Rodney Dangerfield) promoting the Roy of the Rovers comic at a very specific time of year.

This picture is so seventies it smells of cigarettes, aftershave, and unwashed beard hair. Also—ELTON JOHN LOOKING SUPER YOUNG.

Tomlinson is, incidentally, as much of a figure in the hey-day of British comics as, say, Pat Mills (the seventies to eighties, arguably). It was thanks to him we not only saw Sky commentators, Richard Keys, and Andy Grey (buggered if I know), but we also saw Roy play for England alongside Malcolm Macdonald and Trevor Francis… um, who are very important. Apparently.

That’s Malcolm McDonald aka… Supermac.

That’s real life Dutch captain Johan Seegrun fyi

Look, I don’t know who they are. I expect if I tried to talk to my football-loving relatives about Jason Aaron or Gail Simone, I’d get a similar reaction. Despite not knowing a lot about the game or the characters, friends suckered me in to discussing it. Though I only have a rudimentary understanding of the rules, I get the drama of a penalty.

Sports Makes for Natural Suspense

The thing about sport is that it doesn’t take much to make it suspenseful. All of us have a sports movie we enjoy, even if we don’t like sports per say (A League of their Own, both Mighty Ducks movies, and Dodgeball are some personal faves of mine). These comics probably also persuaded some reluctant readers to at least give these a go, even if adults might have seen little value in them at the time.

So, sadly, the wholesome sincerity had to stop somewhere. Like most things, for Roy of the Rovers, it stopped in the nineties, dying completely in 2001, according to Barrie Tomlinson in his book Roy of the Rovers: The Official Autobiography of Roy of the Rovers. Maybe this is why I find a lot of the wholesomeness of those 70s comics just so weird. It feels out of place, considering what I associate with football—hooliganism, misogyny, rampant greed, and corruption. It’s interesting that football players and personalities still hold him up as a shining example of what the game should be, but I suppose it’s not so different from referencing Rocky.

Distinctly British

Roy is a distinctly British hero. On my personal scale of British comics (silly and comical or dark as pitch) he, like Dan Dare, sits squarely in the middle. His reboot counterpart looks to be the same way. It’s three graphic novels in now, a collection of the strips from Match of the Day, and I’d be interested to know how its being received by young children. Again, I feel like these adventures are for reluctant readers, and I hope they like them. I could go on a rant at how much I hate that some teachers and parents don’t consider comics ‘real books’ and therefore ‘don’t count,’ but I won’t. If you participate as part of a community focused around comics, then you may feel the same way. COUGH.

Power of Comics

I like it when comics surprise me. They are still the best medium. Getting a sports-averse nerd to care about football and football players—even for a while—is testament to that.

Wild horses and the Marvel Chrises mud-fighting in the rain couldn’t drag me to actually watch a game all the way through to the end. I’m in Camp Moss from the IT Crowd. That said, I get it now, way more than I used to. And that’s something.

Okay, we get to move onto something I know about—Doctor WhoShe-Ra and Sonic the Hedgehog—specifically a brief history of them and a lot of other nerd properties getting a ton of surprisingly great comics on sale in British shops.

 

Sources:

When Roy Race managed England

Guardian article about the 60th Anniversary of Roy of the Rovers

Review of REAL ROY OF THE ROVERS STUFF BY BARRIE TOMLINSON

A look at the relaunch of Roy of the Rovers in Match of the Day

An interview with Barry Tomlinson on the Thrill-Cast podcast

I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink.

Send help.

I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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