The rise and fall of the great British football comic

Will there ever be room for another Roy of the Rovers?

In a number of areas, British comics are enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment. There are a slew of intelligent and inventive indie comics creators, particularly working in the autobiographical field, in print and online. British writers and artists are again among the foremost talents pushing the envelope in the mainstream superhero field. And even 2000 AD is going through a fresh purple patch of critical acclaim and publicity for both the weekly comic, and the cult hit Dredd movie adaptation.

Yet there are also genres that have never quite recovered from the various troughs that the industry has sunk to over the past couple of decades, and thus haven’t re-emerged to share in its occasional highs. War stories have long struggled to maintain much relevance beyond nostalgia, while romance comics are also generally a thing of the past. But the titles and strips that have arguably plummeted the furthest from view from the loftiest of positions are the once-proud, and once spectacularly popular, sports comics.

It’s been a little under twenty years since the last weekly kids’ sports comic was on the shelves of newsagents across the land, in the shape of the final issue of the original Roy of the Rovers. Since then, a smattering of titles aimed at older audiences – from a teen-orientated Rovers relaunch, to the ghastly laddish newspaper spinoff Striker – have appeared and disappeared almost as quickly, but the present lack of a regular young readers’ sports title is a far cry from the genre’s heyday.

That heyday arguably extended right through to the 1980s, when Roy of the Rovers still had the power to make national news headlines with the occasional publicity stunt (such as putting its title character in a coma in a Who Shot JR?-inspired turn, or hiring members of Spandau Ballet to play for the famous Melchester Rovers); but it began in the 1950s. Comic strips with narratives based around football had existed for almost as long as the game itself – but it was in the post-war boom that such magazines took off with a vengeance.

The vanguard was led by Tiger – the paper in which Roy of the Rovers, instantly and forever more the most popular football strip, originally featured – which launched in 1954, and whose success surely contributed to the fabled prose story magazine Hotspur’s move into comics form five years later, as well as a raft of new football-themed strips in anthology mags such as Valiant and Hurricane. Finally, with IPC’s twin 1970 launches of Scorcher and Score ‘n’ Roar, there were comics that were able to fill their pages with football stories alone.

It was no surprise, really, that British comics would eventually start to look to sport to find their heroes. While military heroes were naturally somewhat in vogue after the war, there was nevertheless something of a void waiting to be filled by the fact that – attempts like Mick Anglo’s Marvelman aside – the superhero costume has never really fit the British physique in quite the same way. In a strange kind of way, Roy Race was our Superman, while someone like Bobby “of the Blues” Booth, a suspiciously similar counterpart in darker clothing, was his Batman. Just as a team such as the Justice League or Avengers features an array of heroes playing different roles, so too did the British comic strip footballers each excel in their own unique positions: goalkeepers, strikers, managers; greying legends, prodigious teenagers and promising schoolboys; even a table football wizard (the titular star of Mike’s Mini Men).

It may surprise those who think of football – or sport in general – in one-dimensional terms that it would be possible for a multitude of strips about the topic to co-exist, but over a glorious three decades, they did just that, with an admirable amount of diversity and inventiveness. It’s true that many strips chose to focus simply on the ins-and-outs of top level football in England – but in order to succeed, each new strip had to come up with a fresh hook.

There was something nicely postmodern about the construction of Jack and Jimmy, for example. Appearing in Score ‘n’ Roar – a Whizzer and Chips-esque creation featuring, as it were, “two titles in one” – the adventures of the straight-laced defender “Jack of United” appeared in one section, intertwining and contrasting with his hot-headed flair-player brother “Jimmy of City” elsewhere in the comic. The effect of the series was somewhat ruined, mind, when one transferred to the other’s club later in the run, just as the strip itself had transferred to the more successful Scorcher comic.

When football comics took greater leaps into fantasy, however, was when they generally shone even more. There was remarkable wit and creativity laced throughout Hot Shot Hamish and Mighty Mouse – originally two separate series about a kindly Hebridean giant with the hardest kick in the world, and a short, rotund, bespectacled dribbling genius who played league football around his job at a hospital, they shared a writer/artist team and unique sense of humour, and ultimately merged into a single ongoing story.

The fondly-remembered Billy’s Boots, meanwhile, was an adventure tale straight out of Boy’s Own (despite, er, actually first appearing in Scorcher). A schoolboy player with a lead-footed lack of ability, Billy Dane’s fortunes change when he discovers a pair of battered old boots in his gran’s attic, which turn out to belong to a legendary striker called Charles “Dead-Shot” Keen. Whenever he wears the boots, Billy is imbued with skills and ability reminiscent of Keen – but whenever he loses them, which happened with alarming regularity, his hopeless self returns. Admirably, the strip never confirmed whether the boots were indeed actually magical – or if Billy’s turns of skill simply came from the newfound confidence of wearing the supposedly lucky boots.

Indeed, the lessons that football comics could teach their impressionable young readers was arguably the greatest loss when they began to disappear. There was a distinct moral thread running through the majority of them – espousing virtues like fair play, honesty, and sportsmanship – and at times, particularly as the 1970s drew on, they often had plenty to say about the state of the modern game. Stark: Matchwinner For Hire told of a mercenary player who would sign for clubs on a one-match basis and charge per goal, with a “no win no fee” clause – a novel idea, albeit one that would fall foul of FIFA’s current player-registration laws. Then there was Millionaire Villa, a ridiculous and brilliant creation in which rich enthusiast – and hopeless footballer – David Bradley bought his way into the starting line-up of his local First Division club.

It could be argued that these football strips simply operated on too straightforward a moral spectrum – series such as Look out for Lefty, the Mary Whitehouse-bothering adventures of a working-class player whose mates were borderline hooligans, were the exception rather than the norm – to survive in the more cynical 1990s. And as comics themselves became a less popular fixture of newsagents, it was telling that only a football-specific comic – as opposed to more general sports tales – had been able to last as long as Roy of the Rovers did when it put out its last weekly issue in March 1993.

There were attempts to appeal to a more “edgy” market with the monthly spinoff later that year – and the talent and credentials of its new roster of creators, including Rob Davis and Sean Longcroft, were undeniable – but it was a short-lived return. A 1997 relaunch of the strip in the pages of Match of the Day magazine attempted to recapture the simpler feel of the original stories, but offered little more than nostalgic appeal.

And it’s hard to argue with the suggestion that perhaps it’s in a nostalgic past that football comics belong. Certainly, it’s far more difficult to base convincing heroes on present-day Premier League footballers, or to pretend that the game currently has a moral core when its participants and organisers seem so lacking in one. Yet there’s also a yearning, from those of us who followed the changing fortunes of teams like Melchester Rovers, Danefield United or Railford Town as avidly as our “real life” clubs, to see those stories brought up to date. The foremost modern talents in the field have shown themselves to be adept at a greater variety of genres than at perhaps any other period in British comics history – surely there must be at least one of them who’d fancy bringing Roy Race back to life?

Roy of the Rovers takes a pass.

Seb Patrick is a freelance journalist, who blogs at Alternate Cover, has written about books-with-pictures for Wired, Comic Heroes and Comic Book Resources and is a regular contributor to When Saturday Comes.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution