Some of you might know the name, know the comic, but many of you worldwide most likely won’t. Suffice it to say Roy of the Rovers is British comics royalty. Playing football (soccer, if you insist!) for his team, Melchester Rovers, since first appearing in the 50s, he was a fixture on the newstands for the next 40 years. And then he went away.
But, with this first all-ages graphic novel in a brand new series from Rebellion, writer Rob Williams and artist Ben Willsher, are bringing back the iconic name, bringing back Melchester Rovers, all the classic football action, all the drama, the ups and downs of the old strip. But, this is very much a new Roy of the Rovers. New, and extremely good.
This was the old Roy…
And this, well, this is very definitely the new Roy Race…
Young, cocky, insanely talented, and desperately trying to get onto the Melchester Rovers youth team, even to the point of sneaking through the crack in the fence and turning up, unannounced, at trials. And, if you know even the slightest thing about either Roy of the Rovers or sports comics in general, then you won’t be surprised, in the slightest, to know just exactly where he’s going to end up by the end of this first in the series of graphic novels.
But, between trials and the inevitable end, Williams and Willsher deliver every last drop of wonderfully fun footie action. We get to meet the Melchester coach, Johnny “Hard Man” Dexter, with a very old-school approach to coaching the kids…
The first half concerns itself with Roy’s first steps at becoming a Melchester player, all the training ground mishaps, team politics, a difficult family life of struggles and illness. Plus, we get an insight into the troubles the club’s facing, with under-pressure manager and ex-player Mighty Mouse struggling with results and the owner, Barry “The Meat” Cleaver, selling most of the first team out from under him in a desperate bid to get the club out of its financial troubles. Cue the chance for Williams to evoke the best of Alan Hansen’s classic “you win nothing with kids” line as the youth team have to take a big step up. And this great moment, as young Roy Race steps out for his first appearance in a Melchester shirt…
The second half deals with the fall-out from the youth team getting a very swift promotion into the first team and the struggles they’re going to face when playing with the big boys. And then there’s the ongoing rivalry with the other local team, Tynecaster, with their new Saudi owner pumping money and players into the club, taking it to the very top just as Melchester fans fear their team may just be hitting rock bottom. And have a wild guess who Melchester draw in the 3rd round of the F.A. Cup? Yeah, no surprise there!
As I said, there’s very little to surprise in this new Roy of the Rovers, but that’s not the point of the book at all. What it needed to do, and what it does spectacularly well, it create a footie comic with a wonderful sense of pace, full of incredible football action on the pitch and plenty of drama and intrigue off it. The phrase, “real Roy of the Rovers stuff” has worked its way into modern footballing parlance, and in this brand-new tale of Melchester and its most famous son, there’s absolutely no surprise when Williams and Willsher are so obviously delighting in giving us those classic Roy moments.
Willsher’s art has long been a feature of 2000AD, but here it moves up yet another level. His character work is sublime, exaggerated slightly when it needs to be, whether that’s the cartoonish brute of a top-flight defender or even the over the top features of coach Dexter. The footballers in action have a balletic, choreographed look, lithe and stylised. But what really impresses, what leaps out from the page, is the design of his pages. Take a look at the art above, the breaking of the external panel borders by hands or feet adds a sense of motion wonderfully, and those internal panels formed by the shape of the figures just adds something magnificent to the whole thing. Willsher is really pulling out all the stops here.
This might not be your grandad or your dad’s Roy of the Rovers, but it’s definitely THE Roy of the Rovers. Taking an iconic name and rebooting it is a pretty common thing to do in comics, but thankfully, with this reboot, Williams, Willsher, and Rebellion have hit the back of the net first time out.
Roy of the Rovers: Kick-Off – published by Rebellion, written by Rob Williams, art by Ben Willsher, letters by Jim Campbell.
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