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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.