Mike Gent charts the history of one of Britain’s most popular football comics characters…
Arguably the most famous British comics character of all, ‘Roy of the Rovers’ sixty year playing career began on the cover of Tiger Number One in September 1953. Since then, the phrase ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’ has become part of the English language, regularly invoked by pundits to describe the essence of footballing dreams.
Tiger was companion comic to Lion, Amalgamated Press’s answer to Hulton’s Eagle. For the new title’s lead feature, AP opted for a very different setting from the outer space of Lion‘s “Dan Dare”-inspired “Captain Condor” whilst turning to the same writer.
Veteran story paper wordsmith Frank S Pepper was asked by managing editor Reg Eves to devise a realistic football hero. Pepper, who quickly adapted to scripting stories in the picture format which was beginning to supersede prose, had already combined sport and adventure in Champion with boxing airman “Rockfist Rogan” in the 1940s. Furthermore, his soccer series for the paper, “Danny of the Dazzlers”, was effectively a “Roy of the Rovers” prototype.
Artist Joe Colquhoun had previously drawn strips for the struggling Champion before taking on ‘Roy’. When Pepper dropped out after four instalments due to the demands of an unwieldy workload, Colquhoun assumed the writing duties, assisted by Tiger‘s editorial staff on the technical aspects of the game, admitting that he knew “damn all about soccer”. He continued to write and draw the strip, which appeared for many years under the by-line ‘Stewart Colwyn’, until February 1959, returning for a second stint as artist only from 1965-67.
In the first episode, Roy was spotted playing for a youth club by a talent scout for First Division Melchester Rovers (modelled on 1950s Arsenal) and invited for a trail. Adhering to Pepper’s realistic blueprint, the strip followed Race’s career as he progressed through the club’s youth and ‘A’ teams, making his first team debut in August 1955 when he scored twice in a 3-3 draw. The character went onto fulfil every schoolboy’s fantasy, captaining Rovers to the game’s top honours and playing for England before graduating into management, both with Melchester and Italian side AC Monza.
During the domestic season, the series concentrated on the team’s campaign, usually in pursuit of a trophy, but there were bad times too – relegation in 1981 and cup humiliations at the hands of Fourth Division sides and Norwegian part-timers.
Realism was not always the order of the day. The close season often allowed for some inventive storylines. Whilst on tour in Australia during the real 1966 World Cup, Rovers found themselves representing England in an alternative tournament, organised by a wealthy sheep farmer, where their opponents included a team of Italian acrobats!
Pre-season visits to fictional South American republics like Parador generally saw them embroiled in off-pitch intrigue.
The first Roy of the Rovers annual was published in 1957 (cover-dated 1958), demonstrating the character’s massive popularity. In February 1964, however, the series lost its permanent spot on the cover of Tiger, alternating thereafter with other features.
Football was used increasingly to sell boys’ comics during the 1960s and 70s, culminating in 1970 when IPC (successor to AP/Fleetway) launched two football-themed comics, Scorcher and the short-lived Score ‘n’ Roar. The explosion of soccer features owed much to ‘Roy of the Rovers’ combination of on-pitch drama with bizarre subplots and running commentary from the crowd, all lovingly parodied in Viz’s ‘Billy the Fish’.
In September 1970, Tiger began a second feature, ‘Roy Race’s Schooldays’, but it was not until twenty-three years after his first appearance that the character finally graduated into his own weekly in September 1976. Roy continued to appear simultaneously in Tiger until March 1978.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the series evolved with the times. Female characters, rarely seen in boys’ comics, began to appear in the early 1970s. Roy dated and eventually married his manager’s secretary Penny Laine, a character introduced by returning creator Frank S Pepper. Artists Yvonne Hutton and David Sque updated Roy’s image for the seventies whilst Mike White and Barrie Mitchell provided a muscular look for the 1980s and 90s.
Under the influence of television soaps, plotlines became more sensationalised, courtesy of long-serving writer Tom Tully. Roy was shot in 1982 but his playing career was finally ended in 1993 when his left foot was amputated following a helicopter crash. His son Roy Junior, ‘Rocky’, continued the mantle of ‘Roy of the Rovers’.
The weekly comic went on a six month hiatus in 1993, returning as a monthly in September only to be cancelled in March 1995. The character was picked up by the BBC’s Match of the Day Magazine from 1997-2001 and his saga continued on the then official website, www.royoftherovers.com launched in 1999.
(An archive of that site is here on the Wyaback Machine)
ROK Comics launched its digital re-publication of “Roy of the Rovers, England Manager” in 2008 to incredible press response, but the project foundered.
Egmont published a Roy of the Rovers special, distributed only to WHSmith, edited by Steve MacManus, in 2009. It was one of four specials featuring classic characters from the company’s archive.
Several strips were reprinted by Titan Books in collector editions in 2010.
The Best of Roy of the Rovers: 1970s, introduced by comedian and TV presenter Frank Skinner was a collection of the best 1970s adventures.
The Best of Roy of the Rovers: The 1980s collected the very best of Roy’s thrilling escapades, featuring the cream of Roy’s matches and adventures from the 1980s
The Roy of the Rovers – World Cup Special contained stories from the 1960s, 70s and 90s.
Roy of the Rovers – The Bumper Book of Roy of the Rovers came packed with sort of features that made the Roy of the Rovers Annual top of many a boy’s Christmas list. The Bumper Book was filled with classic comic strips and short stories, features on subjects like the history of Wembley Stadium, tips on football and training techniques – offered by the great man himself, along with advice on the Off Side Rule and guided tours around Melchester Stadium.
In 2016, former Roy of the Rovers and Tiger editor Barrie Tomlinson‘s book, Real Roy of the Rovers Stuff was published by Pitch Publishing, telling some of the real-world history of the long-running character.
Packed with photos from Roy’s life, the book tells how he became a top celebrity of his day, how Sir Alf Ramsey was convinced to be Melchester manager, Geoffrey Boycott became chairman and even how the Duke of Edinburgh once came to write for Roy’s comic!
In 2016, Rebellion Publishing, owners of 2000AD, purchased the rights to many classic British comic characters, including Roy of the Rovers. New stories – beginning with a strip in Match of the Day magazine, to be followed by new graphic novels in late 2018 – signalled the return of the character in a new guise, after a lengthy time on the bench.
• The Official Roy of the Rovers web site: royoftheroversofficial.com
Did You Know?
• Derek Birnage, who was editor of Tiger in 1954, when the career of Roy Race, of Melchester Rovers began, died at his home in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, in 2004, suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Read his obituary from the Daily Telegraph and this tribute on the When Saturday Comes web site
• During its peak, Roy of the Rovers sold 200,000 copies a week. Roy certainly marketed himself actively, sponsoring cult Portsmouth striker Alan Biley in 1984-85, writing for the Reading programme, and was in a Melchester Subbuteo team and even joined forces with Gary Lineker in 1990 to produce a record called Europe United. WSC says it is scarily described as a “hot rocking heavy metal rap”, with Gary and Roy on vocals and Roy also on lead guitar
Roy of the Rovers TM & © Rebellion Publishing Ltd
Additional material by John Freeman