For a certain generation of Roy of the Rovers fans there’s one era of the popular football strip (US readers may hereon mentally insert “soccer” into each reference to football in this piece) that will always stand out. No doubt inspired by a certain Dallas storyline that would go down in pop cultural history, the ‘Who Shot Roy Race?’ plot ran through the 1980/81 football season, initially setting up a list of characters with a grudge against the Melchester Rovers player-manager before exploring the mystery of just who had tried to kill the popular sports star. If you were 12-years-old at the time the months of speculation would have filled many a school playground discussion. It was epic, it was a piece of marketing genius, and it still holds up very well over four decades later.
This was the season when the unthinkable had happened to the mighty Melchester Rovers. They had been relegated from the top flight and were now playing in the second tier of English football. To add to the pressures Roy was fighting with wife Penny, and he had also angered a number of individuals with nasty tempers. Most immediately there was teammate Vic “Superbrat” Guthrie who had been suspended from the team for disciplinary issues.
Other characters who would go on to be suspects in the attempted to murder Roy were Arthur Logan, an estate agent unhappy that his son Kenny was playing for the Rovers; Roy’s corrupt con-man cousin Arnie Meckiff; actor Elton Blake who blamed Roy for his sacking from a TV docu-drama about the Rovers; and Trevor Brinsden, a football hooligan with an obsessional love of the team who had been banned from matches on Roy’s instructions. But which one of these grudge-bearers would prove to be the culprit, and would Roy ever recover from the coma he had slipped into from the gunshot wound?
Reading this year-long saga in a collected format doesn’t really capture the same experience that readers had back in the early ‘80s who watched the mystery build up stage by stage in just two-page increments (with the occasional cover adding to the page count) for most of a year. Tom Tully’s scripting is a delicate piece of craft, establishing the suspects for months before the fateful mid-season (and totally unexpected) shooting, and then constantly misdirecting readers with a number of clever twists and turns.
There are other diversions along the way, before the person behind the gun is revealed, including the appearance of England World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey taking over as temporary Melchester manager while Roy lies in his months-long (in reader time anyway) coma. It’s one of those peculiar moments in the strip’s history where real world football figures who couldn’t really have existed in this world of totally fictional British towns and football clubs are referenced. But it’s an endearing piece of “guest casting”.
David Sque, for many Roy fans, will be the quintessential Roy of the Rovers artist (you can check out our interview with David a couple of years ago here at Broken Frontier) and the sense of motion and energy to his football sequences is as sublime as ever here. Sque also does a great job in depicting the character flaws of the various antagonists from the fiery temper of Arthur Logan to the petulance of Vic Guthrie, through to the desperation of Trevor Brinsden, the narcissism of Elton Blake, and the sliminess of Arnie Meckiff. It’s a tour-de-force of visual characterisation that heightens the tense drama as revelations begin to unfold.
If there’s one disappointing aspect to this collection it’s cover-related. The iconic ‘Roy Race Shot’ cover, for example, is relegated to the back of the book. Whatever the pagination issues this is a strange decision given how important that cover as a dramatic and shocking single-page illustration for the reader to dwell on in sequence. Sadder still is the lack of so many key covers from this era, though on a more positive note this collection does include the Sir Alf Ramsey cover reveal that was missing from the Titan collection of several years ago. Those issues aside this is still another handsome reprinting of Roy of the Rovers material from the Treasury of British Comics, with strong production values and lovingly restored source material. For the uninitiated wanting to check out classic Roy of the Rovers this should absolutely be your starting point.
Tom Tully (W), David Sque (A) • Rebellion/Treasury of British Comics, £19.99
Review by Andy Oliver