The Great Melchester Massacre

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Most of us can recall (vividly) key childhood traumas that marked us, shaped us, and that (occasionally) return in the deep dark of the night to haunt us: The death of a pet; the unwanted attentions of school bullies; the flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz etc.

For me, however, the key moment when the child gave way to the man (or at least the older child) was the 19th of July, 1986, when 8 members of a fictional football team lost their lives to a suicide bomber in the (equally fictional) Middle-Eastern state of Basran.1

Roy of the Rovers Bus Crash

I remember well being on summer holidays in Castlegregory, Co. Kerry and waiting (very impatiently) for my father to arrive down from Limerick with the relevant issue of Roy of the Rovers (RotR) in hand. The front cover hinted at a major (and terminal) clear-out of the Melchester Rovers old guard and thus it proved – with the core of that great team breathing its last on Basranian soil. I make no apologies for the tears that flowed in our mobile home that night – for though comic book deaths often have a way of being less than permanent, these characters inhabited a 'real world' (of sorts) and possessed no super powers (with the possible exception of Roy's devastating left foot). It was, therefore, clear to me, as I lay (distressed) in my bunk, that for these fallen sporting titans, death was emphatically a one-way street (the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns).

The startling boldness of this move represented, perhaps, the zenith of RotR's addictive, soap-opera style, which (at its best) featured dramatic highs and lows as a matter of course: Melchester would triumphantly win the league, and then (a season later) find themselves relegated; Roy would be footballer of the year, and later have his marriage fall apart (or find himself shot!). The topsy-turvy quality of the comic during its 'golden years' captured, all too well, the mixture of manic joy and anguished pain that are part and parcel of your average football supporter's life.

Sadly, this particular piece of shocking melodrama signalled the beginning of the end of RotR's glory days – with a gradual decline setting in, as the elegance and fluidity of David Sque's penmanship, gave way to Michael White's muscular and rather charmless style (out with the old, and in with the…not as good). It was not long after the Basranian 'tragedy', of course, that the whole British comics industry suffered a similarly disastrous implosion, with almost complete collapse arriving in the mid-1990s (a decade rightly unloved by comic book fans).

Aside from the entertaining (though sometimes traumatic), roller-coaster theatrics of RotR, a couple of other notable, and amusing, features bear mentioning.

1) The tricky issue of ensuring easy communication between the 11 characters on the pitch and the 40,000 characters in the crowd was solved by a simple (albeit wildly improbable) device: regardless of where a supporter was sitting, he/she could both hear the conversations of everyone else in the stadium, and (more importantly) have their every casual utterance heard down on the field by Roy. Thus, comments like the following (from Roy) became the norm: "The fans are right Blackie…we just aren't moving the ball around as fluidly as usual".

2) Key moments in the games would be rendered in a kind of slowed-down, Matrix-esque, 'bullet time'…giving the fans ample opportunity to converse (sometimes articulately, and at great length) about what was about to happen in the next panel.2

For example…

Roy receives the ball on the edge of the box. Cue speech bubbles popping up all round the ground.

Person A: The defenders are backing off you Racey! Have a shot!

Person B: No, I don’t think Roy should shoot. Spread it wide to Noel Baxter instead, Racey!

Person C: Hmmm…I tend to agree with you. Roy should indeed knock it out to Baxter. A good cross in from the right could find Carl Hunt, who I can currently see haring in from the left wing.

Person D: Well, I'd normally suggest that Roy have a go, but he's missed a few chances today, so clearly hasn't got his shooting boots on

…and so forth…

Melchester Rovers 1982

3) The RotR writers never clearly sorted out the dilemma of how much contact with the 'real world' Roy and co. should have. In this, of course, RotR was not much different from any number of comic strips one could mention, but the ambiguous line that the strip took on this front led to any number of moments that, a) sat uneasily with my youthful mind, and, b) required some elaborate/farcical sleight of hand from the writers (with Roy's numerous 'unlucky' omissions from the English national team being a case in point).

From the moment I started reading RotR, I was (like most children I'd imagine) happy to accept that Melchester Rovers did not, in fact, exist in the world I called home. As a devoted football fan, I had a fairly clear idea of which teams were, and were not, part of the English first division…and it was pretty notable that the Rovers, Walford,3 Melboro etc., were always absent from Match of the Day (at a time when they were keenly fighting it out for the title in 'comic land').

Despite this willingness on my part to draw a line between fantasy and reality, 'real life' football personalities frequently crossed over into the RotR universe. From Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson, to Bob Wilson and Emyln Hughes4, and on to surreal signings like Spandau Ballet's Steve and Martin Kemp (no, really!) – such inclusions served only to detract from the imaginative suspension of disbelief we readers were happy to make.

Even more incongruous were the regular photographs (in the comic's 'factual' section) of 'flesh and blood' footballers with a proud arm around Roy's shoulders. By 'Roy', of course, I mean a wholly unconvincing cardboard cut-out of Roy staring vacantly at the camera beside a grinning Ian Rush (or whoever). While the 'real life' characters who sporadically appeared in the strip were (at least) rendered in pencil and ink, these bizarre photo shoots mashed 2 and 3 dimensional worlds together in a particularly head-spinning way! I mean, I may have only been a young fella, but I was savvy enough to know the difference between a living, breathing, human being and…em…a drawing!5

Ah yes, happy memories. Sadly, like a lot of British comics, RotR bit the dust in march 1993 (the final issue bore a black cover), though brief resuscitations have occurred since then. A 19 issue monthly publication, and a stint in the Match of the Day magazine ensured that RotR existed, in some form, until 2001 by which time Roy had lost his trusty left foot in a helicopter crash (!), while his son, Roy Jr., had become the team's new talisman.

With that, the curtain, it seems, has come down permanently on the world of RotR…with a dramatic change in the comics industry needed for any possible future revivals.

Still…for me it all ended almost 20 years ago…in the wreckage of a bus in Basran…sniff…

Footnotes
  1. R.I.P. Noel Baxter, Vic Guthrie, Steve Naylor, Carl Hunt, Neville Jones, Kenny Logan, Jimmy Slade, and Trevor Cassidy. [back]
  2. A feature hilariously spoofed in Viz's "Billy the Fish" [back]
  3. A team Roy shockingly left Melchester to join in 1982 [back]
  4. R.I.P. 'Crazy Horse' [back]
  5. Of course, foolish comic book ventures into our messy 'real world' are still ongoing, as evidenced by Frank Miller's recently announced Holy Terror, Batman! (Batman vs. Al-Qaeda)…but that's a whole other story, and the less said about it the better… [back]

February 22, 2006

22 responses to The Great Melchester Massacre

  1. copernicus said:

    I used to borrow a neighbour’s Roy comics due to a sneaking appetite for the very soap opera dynamic fústar describes. I have a vivid memory of opening the ish in which it was revealed that the bomb had actually killed a whacking great number of Melchester’s finest! I mean, in all my years of reading violent war comics, I have no memory of anyone not wearing the square helmet beloved of the Wermacht copping it.

    Who could forget that final, poignant panel depicting the ranks of empty football boots in the Rovers’ changing rooms, their erstwhile occupants lying broken in some corner of a foreign field that was forever Melchester?

  2. copernicus said:

    PS, it seemed unfortunate that the opportunity to write out the Kemp brothers wasn’t taken in the Basranian incident, but I suppose it would have involved some dubious real world machinations.

  3. fústar said:

    copernicus,

    If even a noted football-phobe like yourself can be moved by the Basranian slaughter, then the strip must have had something special going for it!

    It was a real shocker..and, as you say, a particular jolt for those of us used to seeing the ‘goodies’ coming through dangerous scrapes unscathed time and time again.

    The final panel with the empty dressing room was one of the most gut-wrenching comic experiences I’ve ever had (only Johnny Alpha’s death in 2000 AD comes close).

    As for the Kemps, well…they left a few short months before Basran. I guess the writers felt it would be taking liberties with their images to have them lying decapitated in Basranian rubble.

    Pity…

  4. copernicus said:

    They should have gone for it. I’d love to have seen the Kemps try to explain their continued corporeality to Smash Hits when their comic-book alter egos had been blown to smithereens by a deranged jihadi on the sandy roads of the Empty Quarter.

  5. foolhardy said:

    I was never a big Roy fan I have to say, more of a Warlord and Victor man. In my adult years I’m still fairly indifferent to football but have managed to retain my thirst for war.

    I do recall a highly moralistic tale of football from my youth though that might well have graced the pages of RotR. Anyway, it involved some young sporting type with magical powers that enabled him to bend the ball this way and that, just by thinking about it! Of course, he concluded that doing so would be tantamount to cheating so he disowned his talent and settled for mediocrity.
    What sort of lesson is that for kids?

    ps congrats on making the blog award shortlist. You’ve come a long way since the Cabbage Lane days bucko.

  6. fústar said:

    Well I do recall a character called “The Wheelchair Wonder” who ended up with banjaxed legs after being in a car crash, or some such.

    A happy result of this accident, however, was that he could put dramatic amounts of spin and swerve on a football. I’m not making this up!

    Ta, for the congrats. Nothing like having lived in somewhere as humbly-named as ‘Cabbage Lane’ to soften one’s cough.

  7. foolhardy said:

    I also seem to remember a blind goalkeeper. Blind!

  8. copernicus said:

    Foolhardy, you cabbage, sounds like the character you refer to may have been Billy of Billy’s Boots, who I believe chased the pig’s bladder around the pages of Victor.

    “The boots are making me run.”

    Cue perfect positioning for a cross from the right wing as the boots stretched out Billy’s left leg to connect with the ball in time for a deadly accurate volley, straight to the back of the net.

    What was it about the mucky mediaeval narrowness of Cabbage Lane that produced the likes of we?

  9. copernicus said:

    Perhaps the message of Billy’s Boots, the blind goalie and the Wheelchair Wonder was that even if you were shit at football, if only you could find Deadshot Keane’s old boots/get crippled in a horrible car smash or lose your sight (presumably in an incident involving the leaking of power-inducing radiation) you too might one day wow the demanding supporters of Melchester Rovers.

  10. fústar said:

    “Billy’s Boots” actually featured in the pages of Tiger, at least as far as I recall.

    Agree that such stories were obviously aspirational fantasies for all those young chaps (like me) who dreamed of footballing stardom, but were, sadly, let down by their utter crapness.

    I did once try wearing an old pair of boots in the hope that they might transmit some of their magic to me. Alas, all they did was fall apart and cause me to land arse-first in a freezing puddle of water.

  11. copernicus said:

    And you’ve still got the athlete’s foot to prove it! I never really read Tiger, yet I recall being plenty familiar with Billy.

    Looks like a job for Google.

  12. copernicus said:

    Seems he led a peripatetic life did our Billy, including a lengthy sojourn among the pages of Tiger. I must have seen him in the Eagle when he moved there.

  13. fústar said:

    So he was in Tiger, Eagle, and Roy of the Rovers then. A fair achievement for a guy who couldn’t play without the assistance of ‘magic boots’.

    Another story with an amusing premise (that just popped into my head) was “Mike’s Mini Men”: a Roy of the Rovers strip that concerned the thrills and spills of a young lad and his…em…Subbuteo set…

  14. foolhardy said:

    Don’t think it was Billy’s boots although, let’s face it, it was some time ago and given that this morning I couldn’t remember where I had parked the car last night I could well be mistaken.

    As for the lane and it’s alumni: Lilly must be beaming with pride that her little charges have up and done so well for themselves.

  15. Sinéad said:

    Can I just say that in The Wizard of Oz it was that green-faced witch and not the flying monkeys that struck terror in me.

    I haven’t read ROTR in years, but isn’t it still syndicated in one of the tabloids?

  16. foolhardy said:

    Sinéad,
    how right you are. The flying monkeys were no match for the wicked witch in the pants wetting stakes. It wasn’t the green face that did it for me though, it was those damned stripy socks.

  17. fústar said:

    Sinéad/foolhardy,

    The green-faced Wicked Witch of the West was undoubtedly most ‘scarifying’ (as Shaggy and Scooby might put it), but surely the most horrific image in the whole film is, as foolhardy suggests, the curling up socks of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East (though it’s hard not to feel sorry for someone unlucky enough to have a house land on their head).

    I also found those monstrous, Cossack-style guards quite terrifying too…

    Oooh-eeee-ooooh,
    OOOOHHH-ooohhhh.

    I’m fairly certain that RotR is not syndicated in any tabloid, Sinéad. Perhaps you’re thinking of the risque ‘Striker’, inked by RotR’s legendary David Sque? That’s ‘soap opera’ of a slightly more ‘adult’ kind…

  18. Sinéad said:

    Ah yes, I think it might be Striker. I can’t remember what paper it’s in, but most episodes seem to involve that classic bedroom set-piece of guy-putting-on-shirt-and-maybe-a- tie-in-front-of-mirror-while-naked-woman-in-his-bed-looks-on-adoringly.

  19. fústar said:

    Well RotR would never have been half that racy, so it’s definitely a footy strip (hoho) of a different persuasion.

    Actually, I now realise I’ve been confusing “Striker” with “Scorer” (an easy enough mistake to make).

    “Scorer” is in The Mirror and is, indeed, drawn by long-time RotR artist David Sque. “Striker” is a long-running strip in The Sun, and now sports a ’3-D’ CGI style (apparently).

    Neither could hold a candle to RotR in its glory days…except on the gratuitous nudity front of course…

  20. foolhardy said:

    There’s a Neil Gaiman interview in today’s Guardian.

    [Link]

  21. Alistair said:

    Saw a reference to Roy of the Rovers elsewhere, ended up getting carried away looking up the bus crash and found this blog.

    Ive been forever infuriated by a sense of cheating relating to this infamous bus crash.

    My first reaction was that of shock, as you write about so well above.

    My second reaction was that of confusion. All talk seemed to be of the decimation of the Melchester team and how they would struggle to even put together a side of any sorts for the following season.

    “But what about the players that didnt travel?” I cried, utterly bemused.

    Roy hadnt travelled as he was injured. Which was the reason he hadnt gone to the 1986 World Cup. So he was going to be available.

    Bob Wilson and Emlyn Hughes hadnt travelled because they were at the aforementioned World Cup.

    The Kemp Twins (by the way, Wiki and several other examples state it was Gary Kemp and Steve Norman, but they were always referred to as the Kemp twins, which I presumed was Gary and Steve?) hadnt made it because they were away on a tour with Spandau Ballet. Naturally enough.

    Apart from those 5, how many of the rest of the team did I actually know? Blackie Gray, but he recovered anyway. The rest I didnt seem to know about, because they werent really key characters.

    So, what appeared to be a crash which had removed many of the lesser known players actually turned into a mechanism to remove all the players I did know about (Blackie and Roy excepted).

    The team needed some work, but they made it a whole lot harder by seemingly completely forgetting to call back 4 key players from their summer holidays.

    I felt a little cheated. Evidently, they had decided having Spandau Ballet and two players long-past retiring was implausible and needed to ditch them somehow!

    Nice article, brought back turbulent memories!

  22. fústar said:

    Alistair,

    Actually, most of the players who died had been major players in the Roy universe for many years. So their deaths really did mean something. I guess it depends on when you started reading. It’s true that it was definitely a “mechanism” to start anew (reboot) with a whole new cast of characters, but those characters still meant something.

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