Something a bit different for this week’s Dusting Off, as I recently dug out a pile of issues (actually borrowed off a mate) of Roy of the Rovers, in order to look something up in them – and I thought it might be fun to attempt to review one. For non-UK readers who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, Roy of the Rovers was a weekly comic strip begun in the 1950s, chronicling the adventures of a football (soccer) player named Roy Race, and his team, Melchester Rovers. It was part of a great culture of British sporting comics – one that gradually died out as the 1980s and 1990s went on – and by far the most successful example, starting in an anthology series called Tiger before moving to its own eponymous comic in the ’70s.
By the early ’90s, however, its popularity was on the wane, and its decline culminated in this – the famous (featured on the news, and everything) final issue, from early 1993. It wasn’t the last comic to carry the title – later that same year, a rather different, edgier monthly title (aimed at a teen market and looking to tackle more in the way of “issues” in the game) would launch – but for all intents and purposes, this was the end of the “classic” style ROTR.
Ever since its launch, ROTR had consisted of a lead feature – the titular story – and a number of backup strips, each of anything from one to about four or five pages. As such, the cancellation of the series meant that those which were running at the time also had to be wound down at the same time as the main strip. So there’s a curious feeling to this issue, as aside from the main story there’s really not much else left – a series called Buster’s Ghost gets a rather open-ended and inconclusive final two-page installment, but every other story featured had left the building within the preceding year, and it’s like they’re just waiting for Roy to turn the lights off behind him when he’s done. Classic strips Hot Shot Hamish and Playmaker are featured, but only in the form of reprints from the late ’80s. And that really is it – with the rest of a lightweight issue being given over to the ROTR strip itself, and nothing else. There’s not even the usual mixture of “real life” football features, readers letters and so on – the only text features (a standard aspect of British kids’ comic magazines) are ones looking briefly over the history of ROTR itself. If you’re looking for an example of a classic comic magazine at its finest, then this isn’t it.
But there’s excitement to be had from the main strip itself – split, for the first time in some years, into two separate instalments at the beginning and end of the issue, allowing for a cliffhanger partway through. The early pages show some of the problems the strip was having by this point – at a time when the Premier League era was just kicking in, it is rather old-fashioned, in its type of story if not the suitably-updated superficial trappings. The tale of a new manager replacing Roy and trying to bring in new tactics, only to fail miserably and be faced with players, fans and directors that want their old boss back, could have come from any point in the strip’s life – although it’s given an element of sharp, contemporary class with the art of Barrie Mitchell, one of the very best pencillers the series ever had.
But where ROTR always excelled over other sporting comics was in mixing “soap opera” elements with the football, and the helicopter crash that dominates the second half of the issue, while somewhat melodramatic, provides a suitably gripping end to Roy’s weekly adventures. The strip ends on a downbeat note, with the deliberate cliffhanger (to be resolved in the succeeding monthly title) of whether or not Roy actually survived (he did, but at the expense of his left foot and playing career). The closing scene of Roy’s son “Rocky” addressing the assembles press and fans feels somewhat abrupt, and it’s a strangely subdued place on which to end (you rather expected more bombast from this comic) – but that actually feels somewhat appropriate when you consider how few people were still buying the thing, and the strange, ghostly feeling that consequently haunts its pages at this point.
It’s a shame that there’s been nothing to match Roy of the Rovers in the years since (save for a short-lived comeback in the late ’90s) for those of us who are nerdy about both comics and football – the garish dross that passes for football comics in the pages of assorted tabloids isn’t even worth speaking about in the same breath. While this final issue – affectionate tribute cover and all – didn’t see the comic at its best, it’s still nice to flick through and remember a time when football crowds could squeeze an entire conversation into a single on-pitch moment (“Will Racey get there in time?” “The defender’s closing in!” etc etc), and a burst of “Racey’s Rocket” could solve all the world’s problems. Not to mention a time when you could turn the page of a periodical, only to see an advert for the film Mr. Nanny, starring Hulk Hogan. We really won’t see the like of those days again.