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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder