by Tom Tully, David Sque
208 pages, Titan Books
Review by Pat Black
“Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of” – Narrator, Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Nostalgia is a ropey business. Sometimes we re-examine the things we enjoyed as children and we find them lacking. I’m pleased to tell you that Roy of the Rovers is not in this bracket.
Roy Race is a comic book hero known and loved in the UK, but probably nowhere else. He was the title character of the 1950s British comic strip, Roy of the Rovers, a six-foot-plus, blond-haired, blue-eyed centre forward who played for Melchester Rovers in English football’s then-First Division.
Roy first appeared in the pages of the Tiger comic, before a transfer to his own weekly boys’ paper which ran for almost 20 years. My older brother got Roy’s adventures every week, a colourful addition to our mum’s weekly load of shopping, and I caught the bug from there until the late 1980s. I still have the final edition of the comic from 1993, when a helicopter crash appeared to have killed off the great striker in the face of changing tastes and terminally depressed sales.
How sad that children don’t read British comics any more. Roy of the Rovers, the Eagle, the Victor, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Tammy, Champ, Scream!, the Topper, Action!, Spike... barring the Dandy and the Beano (and aside from the loveable oddity that is Commando), they’re all long gone, and I’ll be surprised if DC Thompson’s two pantomime war-horses are still going in 10 years’ time. Only 2000AD has survived intact and free of nauseating commercial tie-ins; in the end, its cult appeal is the very thing that sustains it in the mass marketplace among its better-known US peers.
I am just about old enough to remember some of the front covers of the selection of Roy ofthe Rovers strips here – covering two football seasons, from 1980-81. One of these is very famous indeed – the dripping-blood framed moment Roy gets shot. More on that later.
The first thing to notice about the strips in this collection is that they’re full colour – and the artwork from David Sque is still probably the best ever seen when it comes to sport in British comics. There’s humour in Sque’s figures, not just heroic poses and thundering shots at goal – and his depiction of Roy’s crinkle-eyed smile from this period remains iconic.
The other thing to notice is the quality of Tom Tully’s scripts. Ostensibly for children, I was drawn in by the plots of these stories which are set in a recognisably adult world. For one thing, we see Roy having domestic problems with his wife, Penny. Roy’s devotion to football drives Penny away, along with his children Melissa and Roy Jnr. Despite this troubling development, I giggled at the moment where Penny’s mother interferes to the point of driving a wedge between the couple, hinting that Penny may never return. Meanwhile, Roy, left to his own devices, enjoys his freedom – there’s one delightful panel with Racey enjoying a bottle of wine with his dinner, a big smile on his face.
And yet, his game suffers. Can Penny save the day by coming back home to Roy?
That’s not quite what you’d expect from a football comic strip for schoolboys in those morally straitened times. And there’s more: later on, there’s also probably the most famous plot in the whole of the Roy of the Rovers canon – “Who Shot Racey?” A direct lift from the “Who shot JR?” storyline from Dallas which ran around the same time, Tully’s script arguably crafted a better whodunnit mystery than its better-known TV cousin. A plethora of suspects are carefully laid out in the weeks leading up to the shooting – fanatical fans, disgruntled players, crooked TV executives and even Roy’s black-sheep cousin are all in the frame, with red herrings galore before the culprit is revealed.
And it’s as well that we have this soap opera element; otherwise, the strip would just be a series of panels showing football games. Much as I would probably have preferred this as a boy, coming back to them as a man I can see how cleverly orchestrated they are over the course of the football season, mixing on-the-field drama with events off it. You also get a flavour of Roy running a football club, and not just pounding the turf and crashing home rasping goals – the politics, the press, the fans, his players, training and signings, you name it.
Indeed, anyone who remembers Roy of the Rovers as a series of improbable victories, last-minute goals and trophies galore may be surprised to learn that Roy – who manages the team as well as plays up front for them – never gets his hands on any silverware in these pages. In fact, Rovers find themselves battling relegation, as internal strife threatens to tear the team apart. Later, Rovers find themselves adjusting to life without their most famous player and manager, as he recovers from the shooting incident, while England football legend Sir Alf Ramsey guides the team in his absence.
There are tantalising signs of the times, too. One of the many front covers of Roy of the Rovers included here show Roy and Penny at Buckingham Palace, guests for the Royal Wedding of 1981 – with Prince Charles marrying Lady Diana Spencer.
Speaking of things which don’t turn out well, we also get glimpses of English football as it was, with supporters’ lives lived close to those of the players, a world away from the millionaire lifestyles the top stars enjoy now. There are signs of this monstrous world yet-to-be, too, right on the cusp of when serious cash flooded into the game through satellite TV. Here, Roy has his own helicopter and sports car, and isn’t shy about being seen in them; he’s more of an eighties man than we might like to remember.
We also have a record signing at Rovers, the Spanish superstar Paco Diaz, whose exotic skills lighten up the grittier talents of British players like Blackie Gray, Duncan MacKay, Kenny Logan and “superbrat” Vic Guthrie. You wonder how many home-grown players the Melchester Rovers of 2011/2012 would field. It’s a dilemma that has plagued football for around 20 years, now. There is the obvious attraction of importing talent from overseas, and these superstars continue to light up our game; but there’s a downside to this, the lack of UK-based talent appearing in the top leagues. Roy, you feel, wouldn’t totally approve.
Not to say Roy of the Rovers was all about gritty realism. You’ll see Roy score a farcical amount of goals, many of which are despatched with his trusty left foot in the form of “Racey’s Rocket”, his trademark cannonball shot. And no matter what happens to him, Roy’s the complete goody two-shoes. He runs into the crowd to tackle hooligans; he steers fans, players and the media towards morally good habits; he even gets one of his own players sent off, when the ref asks him what happened during an off-the-ball incident. There’s no dirt in Roy’s engine; but I found these clean lines wholesome, not boring. I feel that we’ve got to the stage now where anti-heroes are dull. Or perhaps it’s just my age. Where have you gone, Joe Di Maggio?
No-one’s quite sure what happened to Roy Race. Originally feared killed in 1993 in a helicopter crash, it turned out that he had in fact recovered – albeit, without his famous left foot. His career on the pitch was over, but he stayed on as manager, with Roy “Rocky” Jnr, his son, stepping up to take his place in the number 9 shirt at Melchester.
I understand Roy of the Rovers was resurrected a couple of times, neither of which lasted the pace. There were solo strips in other magazines, as well as one ill-advised “reboot”, in which Roy’s past was put into a more realistic, revisionist timeline, split into three generations of the Race family from the 1950s to the present day rather than the sprawling story of one man. Clumsily meeting the challenge of just how someone can play top-class football for almost 40 years - and thereby ruining the magic of the series.
Those midichlorians, they get into everything.
This book is not just a window into your childhood, it’s a snapshot of how football used to be, as well as a harbinger of the monster that it would become. And it looks good. Whether you buy this as a nostalgia trip – it’s the same size as the old Roy of the Rovers football annuals, and will put a smile on your football-loving partner’s face if it’s under the tree this Christmas – or as something to entertain your children, or just for the joy of a genuinely great British product which no longer exists, you will not be disappointed.
What English football wouldn’t do now for a Roy of the Rovers in its midst. Pity the generation which needs heroes.