On this day, 25 September 1976: Roy of the Rovers
On this day, 25 September 1976 … ‘Phew, what a match! Now I’ve got to concentrate on launching my new weekly paper. I hope everyone remembers that my adventures will be appearing in Tiger and Roy of the Rovers … every week!’ (I love that comics in the 1970s referred to themselves as ‘papers’ rather than comics. We should bring that back!) That was Roy Race, Melchester Rovers’ number nine, talking to himself but with a coy little look at his readers through the fourth wall of the final panel of the Roy of the Rovers strip in the 18 September 1976 edition of Tiger. Roy of the Rovers had been appearing in Tiger since September 1954 (sixty-two years ago!), but now (in a year of considerable transformation at IPC: Valiant was merged into Battle, Action launched, crashed and burned, Pat Mills was developing 2000AD, and in the humour division, Monster Fun ended and crazy Krazy was launched) Racey was given his own publication, a football-only title that would last nearly seventeen years and cement Roy’s status within the pantheon of British comics’ most iconic characters.
The adventures of Roy and his Melchester team mates would continue for a while in two separate but parallel Roy of the Rovers strips. It was now in full colour in Roy of the Rovers comic, developing the season-long storyline of Roy and team-mate Mervyn Wallace competing for a cash prize (£30,000, donated by a supermarket chain – modern-day players probably spend that much per week in Tesco) to be awarded to the first player to score 50 league and cup goals. Meanwhile, Roy of the Rovers would continue in black and white in Tiger, branching off into separate storylines such as Roy’s BFF Blackie Gray’s on-pitch troubles following a bad dream about missing a penalty. It was, I suppose, a bit like Judge Dredd continuing in 2000AD following the launch of the Judge Dredd Megazine in 1990, except Dredd remained 2000AD’s flagship story from then until this day, while Roy’s days in Tiger were numbered. Roy of the Rovers comic went from strength to strength, but the strip in Tiger ended in the spring of 1978.
I’d be interested to know how popular Roy of the Rovers actually was in Tiger before this spin-off was launched. The character had popular cultural recognition by 1976, after twenty-two years in the game (anyone know when the phrase ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’ was first used?), but in Tiger had been relegated to the black and white pages and – once the comic’s most prominent cover star – had only appeared on the front page twice in 1976 (once in January, then in May when Roy married his long-time sweetheart Penny). Johnny Cougar and Skid Solo seemed to be treated as more popular characters, and shared the covers at this time with the new soccer kid on the block, Billy’s Boots. Did Billy Dane force Roy Race out of Tiger? Barrie Tomlinson, who edited both Tiger and Roy of the Rovers, has written a book about Roy which looks absolutely fantastic – it’s published next week – so maybe there are answers about to be told.
Roy of the Rovers was, and would continue to be, a brilliant comic. I took it regularly for a couple of years in the early 1980s, and lapped up the weekly footballing fortunes of not only Melchester Rovers but a number of other fictional teams and characters which were, to be honest, a lot more interesting than what was happening in the real world of football at the time (especially for an Arsenal fan). One of the constants in Roy of the Rovers was a concern for looking the part and reflecting the trends and culture of the contemporary game. The storylines may have been a bit OTT, but the kits, the haircuts, the stadia, the dressing rooms and the team buses all seemed to be true to what we saw on Football Focus and read about in Shoot. Roy’s pop star blonde locks on the front of this first issue seem a generation away from the short back and sides that had been more common in football comics from earlier in the decade, such as Scorcher and Score ‘n’ Roar.
Most of this launch issue of Roy of the Rovers demonstrates that this ‘relevance’ sensibility was there from the start (disregarding the exclusive article by ‘Our Sporting Duke’, Prince Philip, in which basically he tells us that Britain invented sport). Roy of the Rovers, The Hard Man and ingenious role-playing strip You are the Star! are all set in the world of first division football, and are as concerned with behind-the-scenes storylines as with what happens on the pitch (much as future strips such as The Safest Hands in Soccer, The Marks Brothers and Durrells Palace would be). Tommy’s Troubles and Mike’s Mini Men are about normal, everyday boys the same age as the comic’s readership, while Smith and Son (father invites son to help him manage a professional football club) and Millionaire Villa (filthy rich businessman buys himself a place in a first division team’s starting line-up) are more fantastical but both offer an element of wish fulfilment which must have had an appeal for young readers dreaming of careers in the game. Modern-day football computer games such as Fifa 17 offer the fantasies of being both manager and player at the top level, so Roy of the Rovers was clearly on to something.
Completing the line-up is a rather odd story, The Football, which follows the life of, er, a football, from its construction in a factory to being booted over the stand in a professional game, only to be discovered by two kids whose pig bladder-related adventures would unfold over the following weeks.
Roy’s own strip aside, this comic is also notable for the debut of Johnny Dexter, star of The Hard Man. Johnny was a strong creation and would last for many years – in the long-running The Hard Man, then a new series, Dexter’s Dozen, before eventually signing for Melchester and becoming a regular in the Roy of the Rovers strip. It’s interesting to see this first episode of his story here – Johnny is a troubled, misunderstood soul in what looks like quite a serious storyline, but The Hard Man would develop a strong comedic thread before long, partly through the arrival of a new manager for Johnny’s Danefield United, Doctor Evil lookalike Viktor Boskovic, but also thanks to the talents of one of IPC’s most prolific artists, Doug Maxted.
Doug had a terrific history drawing some of the most popular strips of the late 1960s and early 1970s (including Legge’s Eleven, Lags Eleven, Yellowknife of the Yard, Uncle Ironsides, Lord Rumsey’s Rovers and The Sludgemouth Sloggers), but it’s his work on The Hard Man that is most recognisable to me as a reader. Like all of his stories, it is drawn with great expression, movement and comedy. I was delighted last week to receive a Facebook message from Rosie Preston, Doug’s daughter:
‘I thought you might be interested to see this photo of my Dad, taken when they lived in Bournemouth in the 1970's and he working on The Hard Man, front cover for the annual, I'm not sure of the exact year. He was very proud of the popularity of The Hard Man, and the fact that it featured on the cover. He loved his work but it was relentless, he could never have a holiday unless he got ahead with his work, and he used to ink in the pages while watching TV in the evening, in the lounge with my Mum! Growing up, I never really appreciated his talent, however I do now, and I'm very proud of what he achieved. Best wishes, Rosie Preston (Maxted)’
Thank you so much, Rosie. I love this picture – it’s wonderful to see one of these great IPC artists at work in their home environment, and to read of his pride in such a brilliant creation.
Actually, I’m not sure whether the first episode of The Hard Man from issue one of Roy of the Rovers is drawn by Doug or not. He was certainly the story’s regular artist, and the man who gave the strip its unique character, but somehow this artwork doesn’t look quite his style (elements of it remind me of Julio Schiaffino, who drew Hot-shot Hamish in Tiger at this time). I’ve looked up the following week’s episode of The Hard Man, and I’m more certain that that was Doug’s work so I’ve scanned that and added it below in tribute.
Pages from issue one of Roy of the Rovers follow: