The Incredible Journey of the Iconic Roy of the Rovers Comic Strip

The Incredible Journey of the Iconic Roy of the Rovers Comic Strip

September 11, 1954, is probably not a date you are too familiar with, but it is a date that went down in comic strip history in the United Kingdom. That was the date the British comic Tiger first hit the shelves and was the first time the comic-reading fraternity caught a glimpse of the legendary Roy of the Rovers.

Tiger was the brainchild of Reg Eves and Derek Birnage, managing editor and editor of Amalgamated Press’ children’s division, respectively. The pair were tasked to create a new title and settled on one primarily sports-themed and aimed at boys. As association football, or soccer in many parts of the world, grew in size and stature, the pair quickly decided that a footballer would be perfect for the new comic. Little  did they know they were about to produce one of the best sports comic strips ever.

Eves and Birnage contacted renowned writer Frank S. Pepper, who created the titular character Roy Race. Previous football-themed comics usually featured public schoolboys, but Roy Race was different; he was a regular boy from a working-class family. Players and teams featured in Roy of the Rovers cannot be found in the EveryGame online sportsbook because Pepper created the fictional football club Melchester Rovers so as not to be sued by real-life players and football clubs.

However, in later editions, real-life footballers and sports stars made appearances in the strip. Emlyn Hughes of LiverpoolBob Wilson of Arsenal, and cricket’s Geoff Boycott were just three stars featured several times.

Roy of the Rovers Plot

The Incredible Journey of the Iconic Roy of the Rovers Comic Strip

The first Roy of the Rover appeared on September 11, 1954, and some 853 issues ran until March 20, 1993. There were attempts at reviving the strip as a monthly in September 1993, but it finally gave up the ghost 19 issues later in March 1995.

Roy of the Rovers followed Roy Race, a teenager who loved playing football. Scouts for the fictional Melchester Rovers spotted Roy Race and his friend Blackie Gray playing for a local youth team and signed them on professional contracts.

Both the titular Roy and Gray made their debuts for Melchester Rovers, and it did not take long for Roy to become the star of the show. Seemingly, not a season went by without Roy leading his team to glory in the league, cup, or European competition.

By the time the comic ended, Roy had a list of honors the length of his arm. They included nine league titles, eight FA Cups, and a trio of League Cups. Of course, Roy also went on to represent England at international level on numerous occasions.

By the mid-1970s, the Roy of the Rovers magazine was thriving. Roy married and eventually had three children, including a son (Roy Jr.) who would later follow in his father’s footsteps and represent Melchester Rovers. Roy and his wife split up in the early 1980s, and Roy of the Rovers was so famous that the storyline made it onto the BBC and ITV national news. Roy spent several months in a coma a year after his divorce after he was shot in a scene not too dissimilar to the JR Ewing story in the television series Dallas.

Fastforward to the early 1990s, comics had begun losing the battle with television and video games, and Roy of the Rovers’ days were numbered. In March 1993, the closing pages of the last weekly issue left the strip on a cliffhanger, with Roy losing control of his helicopter and crashing into a field. Fans were left wondering what happened to their hero until September 1993, when it was revealed that Roy had his left foot amputated due to injuries sustained in the accident.

Roy’s player days were over, so he embarked on a managerial career. Towards the end of the strip’s life in March 1995, Roy managed his beloved Melchester Rovers and saved them from almost inevitable relegation and financial ruin before becoming the club’s owner.

Roy of the Rovers Controversy and Criticism

Although a British institution, Roy of the Rovers was often criticized for recycling old stories. Studies from the comic’s publishers revealed most readers only stuck with the strip for four years, with most readers falling into the 11-14 age group. This relatively high viewership turnover allowed writers to use old storylines again.

For example, Roy was kidnapped, usually while on holiday in South America during the football season’s scheduled downtime, more than half a dozen times during his lifetime.

A storyline in July 1986 was controversial at best and in bad taste at worst. Roy and his Melchester Rovers teammates were on a club tour of the fictional Middle Eastern country Basran when a bomb-laden car, driven by terrorists, crashed into the Rovers team bus. Eight of the Rovers team were killed, and Roy escaped with nothing more than a dislocated shoulder.

Other potentially harmful national stereotypes frequently appeared in the strip. The frequent South American kidnappers almost always bore a resemblance to Fidel Castro. Opponents of Roy’s in European competitions often sported a pencil mustache to show them being foreign and were considered cynical cheats employing dirty tactics.

Some fans who stayed with Roy of the Rovers for decades were unhappy with the writers using retroactive continuity. Parts of Melchester Rovers’ history were rewritten, and it turned out that Roy Sr. had retired from playing football and the Roy readers were seeing in the comic was actually his son Roy Jr. This is how the writers explained Roy Sr hardly aging despite supposedly being in his fifties.

Brilliant if Flawed

Although Roy of the Rovers would not stand the test of time today, as is evident by it no longer being in circulation, it deserves legendary status, if only in the United Kingdom. It entertained children for four decades and allowed them to dream of becoming a professional footballer or live those dreams through Roy Race.

Sure, it was cheesy, far-fetched, and downright offensive sometimes, but it was a genius concept. The aforementioned Eves and Birnage saw a gap in the market, acted quickly, and created one of the United Kingdom’s most iconic characters.

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