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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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle