In a canny attempt to ride the World Cup wave, British publishers Titan Books recently released a collection of the beloved British football comic, “Roy of the Rovers,” as a World Cup Special. Centering on the exploits of Roy Race, stalwart player/manager for the fictional Melchester Rovers, “Roy of the Rovers” ran from the fifties until the early nineties, first as a serialized two or three-page strip in the weekly comic magazine Tiger, then as its own weekly title in the seventies. Aimed at a young boy readership, the strip maintained a clean-cut veneer that’s exemplified by its hero’s blanket disavowal of football violence in the 1970’s (in one reprinted outing from that period, we’re told that the Rovers “held the distinction of being the only club in the league which was almost totally free of football hooliganism”). While this may have ultimately contributed to the series’ demise in the more jaded nineties, I suspect it’s one of the selling points for Titan’s current series of “Roy” reprint collections.
Though it’s subtitled the World Cup Special, in reality, none of the stories featured in this large trade paperback actually occur at that fabled competition. In the opening story (from 1966), in fact, Roy misses a chance to play for Britain after he gets a “nasty knock” on his ankle during a charity event. To make up for this disappointment, the whole team of Rovers is sent to Australia on a soccer tour (since, apparently, playing soccer down under isn’t as physically risky as it is at the World Cup), where our hero meets his long-lost rancher uncle Cappy Cuttle. Cappy gets the lads involved in a less formal World Cup of immigrant soccer players from around the globe, then secretly bets his ranch that the boys to win the competition. Unknown to both Cappy and Roy, jealous nephew Dick Cuttle has been trying to sabotage the Rovers’ chance at winning, at one point sneaking a boxing kangaroo into the team’s training quarters. Of course, Roy and company ultimately come through for Cappy, but not without some rocky moments.
In a later story, Roy uses his vacation time from the Rovers to manage a “B Squad” of footballers in a home international tourney. His big nemesis proves to be the leader of the American team, Harvey Dallas, who has a grudge against Roy for turning an offer the year before to coach the U.S. World Cup team. Calling it an “insult to Uncle Sam,” Dallas vows to humiliate Race’s squad, dooming Roy’s hope for a “relaxed and friendly” soccer competition. Those boorish Yanks’ll do it every time.
Titan’s collection of “Roy” tales, interspersed with photos and articles written to appeal to the football-mad boy, is appealingly produced. The earliest stories, including a three-page curiosity where Roy dreams about competing at the World Cup, are predominately printed in black and white, while the later tales — from a time where Roy was finally given his own weekly comic book title — are in color. Though the volume doesn’t clearly annotate its stories (the only ones to receive writer and artist credit are Tom Tully and Brit comics pro Mike White in the final tale), you can usually gauge when they were published, at least, by the length and cut of Roy’s hair.
To a newcomer to the series, the rest of Roy’s teammates are a largely indistinguishable crew, though a couple of newcomers are provided their own quick plotlines. In one tale, the Rovers’ newest goalie turns out to be a spitting double for the king of the south American country of El Manador (to the west of El Humidor right?); in the last, Roy considers offering a clownish B Squadder a place on his beloved Rovers, but will the boys back home tolerate his goonish hi-jinx? Couldn’t tell ya, since the book ends before Roy introduces him to the rest of the Rovers. What’s important is whupping them upstart Americans — and you can be darn sure that takes place.