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.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear