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Παρασκευή, 24 Ιουλίου 2009

Roy of the Rovers

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' forty year playing career began on the cover of Tiger no.1 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 Sixties and Seventies, 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 continues on the official website, launched in 1999.

In 2008, TV channel Setanta began serializing Roy of the Rovers on its web site and ROK Comics began adapting the 1970s England Manager story for mobile.

Titan Books began publishing a new range of Roy of the Rovers collections in June 2008, beginning with The Best of Roy Race: The 1980s.

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