Sunday, March 29, 2009

Not quite real Roy of the Rovers stuff

How do you write a biography of a comic strip character? It's not an everyday question but it is certainly one worth considering before you sit down to write a biography of a comic strip character.

From the start it seems a quandary that Mick Collins has been unable to solve in Roy of the Rovers: The Unauthorised Biography.

And that's a shame because along the way Collins allows those of us of a certain age to wallow in nostalgia as we look back on the epic playing career of one of the game's great talents.

The books comes across as a hybrid. Here it's a pure biography of Roy, there it's a study of the decline of the once mighty British comic industry, turn the page and suddenly its a potted history of the characters that shared the comic with the antics of Melchester.

Each of these is enjoyable but sharing one book it is impossible to do them all justice.

Collins also can't seem to get the tone right. At times he seems to think writing a hagiography of an ageing comic star is no job for a grown man so adopts a knowing, mocking tone that jars with his stated intention and soon becomes waring.

Similarly he seems to lose the thread of his own argument. First he notes the change in football, society and childhood expectations as being the reasons for Roy's downfall - a pattern that the comic industry as a whole can attest to.

Then he points the finger of blame at the writers for becoming too repetitive and too outlandish.

Which was it? We're not quite sure because the author has already told us that the stories were cyclical because the audience was always changing - so the second earthquake at Mel Park may have been the second time the earth moved for Roy but for the majority of readers the first had happened before their parents were born.

And from the outset we are told that Roy had to be part footballer, part moral leader, part super sleuth, part one man crime statistic and part superhero to keep the readers attention and fill the pages during the long summer months.

It's no coincidence that Roy's death throes came as Collins' own interest waned - he had outgrown the comic like generations had before him.

That this book is a missed opportunity is a shame because along the way Collins raises some interesting points about how football, society and the interaction between the two has changed. And for those of us who used to follow Melchester Rovers as religously each midweek as we followed our teams each Saturday there are plenty of welcome reminders of our long gone childhoods. The book is, in fact, a perfectly enjoyable read. In the digestion, however, this reader remained unsatisfied.

The real biography of Roy Race has already been told in the perfect form - the comic strip - in the excellent Playing Years compendium. This book could and should have been a welcome companion piece to that if only Collins could have made up his mind about what he wanted to say.

In the end, of course, Roy was of his time. He was the vibrant, magical, mythical antidote to what Rodney Marsh has called a "grey game played by grey people on grey days." In the days of Sky anointed, technicolour millionaires competing for hero worship there is little place for Roy of the Rovers - except in the memories of those who were lucky enough to be there.