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Monday, June 07, 2021

Roy of the Rovers: The Best of the 1980s — Who Shot Roy Race?


This truly must be the editorial choice of the best of Roy's adventures from the 1980s. Back in 2008, Titan Books reprinted the same storyline (and more) in their The Best of Roy of the Rovers: The 1980s in a now-out-of-print flexiback format volume. It's not surprising, really, that this particular storyline is chosen. One of the strengths of the strip when it appeared in the pages of Tiger and Roy of the Rovers was that a storyline, or series of storylines, would play out over a whole season, and finding a self-contained few episodes to reprint is almost impossible. Storylines would often dramatically reboot the strip, involve the demise of major characters in the best soap-opera tradition of, say, EastEnders. Unlike EastEnders (and American superhero comics), dead characters were never brought back to life in desperate grabs for ratings or sales.

This volume reprints the weekly saga of Melchester Rovers from the pages of Roy of the Rovers between January 1981 and June 1982, picking up the storyline halfway through the 1980-81 season. The 1981-82 season contained one of the most heart-stopping of all Roy stories, as, on 12 December 1981, he was shot by a mysterious gunman. Inspired by the 'who shot JR' publicity that had surrounded Dallas, the identity of the mystery shooter was kept secret for months.

The book opens with an injury-depleted Melchester Rovers struggling to find form as the season opens. There's plenty of action on the pitch and, because a match can last for a month or more, every game has something vital to the plot, whether it's the form of old players, the arrival of a new team-mate or trouble at the top or the bottom of the league table that makes it crucial that Rovers win.

But the action wasn't always on the playing field: there was as much drama off the pitch as team-mates fall out with each other and—as in this volume—Roy has as many problems at home as he does at Melchester Stadium. Roy was one of the few characters in comics aimed at boys where Roy had a home life: he's married, to Penny, and has twin children, and author Tom Tully made sure that Penny was sometimes at the heart of a storyline long before WAGS took on a celebrity all of their own.

Roy's cousin, Arnie Meckiff, is another off-field troublemaker, as is Elton Blake, an actor who is to play Roy in a TV show... the list of people unhappy with Roy Race begins to grow as the new season kicks off, leading to the shocking sight of Roy being shot. Hospitalised and in a coma, Melchester Rovers' directors turn to one of the biggest names in football to take over the team—former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey.

And here we have another soap-opera staple: the strips are played out in a bizarre version of real time where a 90-minute football match can last four weeks but a season lasts a season and real world events are referred to (the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, for instance). Real people were part and parcel of the storylines, making the standard "any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental" notice at the front of the book completely redundant—star guests were always popping up to Melchester to visit the team, some playing key roles in various plots.

Keeping all these elements bubbling along season after season took as much skill as Roy showed on the pitch, so all praise goes to Tom Tully, one of the finest writers British comics ever had. His was the hand behind the twisting plotlines and constant Greek chorus of terrace commentary that kept Roy at the top of the comics' league for twenty years. For eleven of those years he worked with artist David Sque who saw Roy through his mid-1970s to mid-1980s fluffy haircut era.

The Rebellion reprint, although not as generous as the Titan volume — which offered two whole seasons, beginning in September 1980 — benefits from not removing all the yellowing of the newsprint the strip was originally printed on, which makes the colours stand out a little better. As a bonus, they also include a story from the 1982 Roy of the Rovers Annual.

Roy of the Rovers: The Best of the 1980s — Who Shot Roy Race? by Tom Tully and David Sque
Rebellion ISBN 978-178108896-8, 10 June 2021, 176pp, £19.99. Available via Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. The scene where (SPOILER!) Roy regains consciousness after being in a coma, and the recovery is then announced at the ground where Melchester Rovers are in the middle of a match, is still one of the best things I've ever read in a comic. Just thinking about still makes my eyes come over all moist.

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