Football and comics

Trevillion's Roy of the RoversVenture into any bookshop today and you will find a section given over to ‘graphic novels’[1], books that talk about them, books by or about their creators. After a dip in quality and interest around the millennium, the field is now full of great writers and illustrators, challenging stories and subject areas, and even the superhero genre has undergone a bit of a reboot[2]. This piece was originally conceived as a history of how football has appeared in comics, graphic novels, whatever terminology you want to use, but in the course of researching it I had the good fortune to talk to Paul Trevillion[3] and decided that Paul and his work on Roy of the Rovers was a much more interesting and specific point of departure. And as I talked to Paul, I found myself thinking more about football than comics, but you’ll see what I mean by that in due course[4].

In some ways, Roy of the Rovers was quite inventive. Yes, its subject matter was pretty standard fare (superb footballer, team of ‘characters’, success and failure, grim-faced or cheating foreign types, intrigue and kidnappings and goals, lots of goals), but readers engaged with the characters in a way that was unusual for a British comic of the time. Comic writer Grant Morrison describes a lot of early British comics as ‘flat-footed’ when compared to their American counterparts, narrative-driven but lacking an emotional resonance or depth from a real exploration of character. The joy of Roy was that Paul found a series of ways of making the work more engaging than a lot of what was happening elsewhere in the British comics scene.

We watch football; we read comics. Both are visual pastimes and Paul immediately started playing with that idea to great effect. The fans were in the frames themselves, watching the game and making observations. This was less a Legolas-style explanation for idiots[5] than a subtle gloss, which not only heightened the drama between frames but contextualised the game as a spectator activity, interposing a level of watching between the strip and the reader[6]. This technique was ahead of its time and you can find it used by Frank Miller in his superbly modern and angry Dark Knight series, where literal talking heads appear on TV screens to moderate and pass comment on the narrative, but actually form part of it too. As readers of Roy of the Rovers, we read the story but we can also see ourselves in it, among the crowd, capable of fulfilling the same role if only we’d been there ourselves. The line between reader, real-life fan, or match spectator was further blurred when real figures from contemporary football like Alf Ramsey were inserted into the story or, even, asked to represent the fictional Roy at autograph signings[7].

Crucially, too, this verisimilitude was augmented by the way Paul drew Roy/Roy, part of an interesting and important movement in the actual artwork of comics that Paul terms ‘comic art realism’. The point was to draw people as they actually were, to make them less absurdly over-the-top. Paul managed to create a world we knew, a world we were drawn into[8], a world where the characters looked real, seemed real, and did real things[9]. As he says, “I wanted [Roy] to be believable, I wanted people to think this guy is alive[10].” Paul started drawing footballers by getting his (unusually progressive) school’s permission to wander across the road to White Hart Lane and draw the players live at a young age[11]. He soon began providing illustrations for Lilleywhites, the Spurs magazine, and local papers. Footballers themselves helped: “Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsey were my teachers — especially Ramsey, he tore into me for a picture of me heading the ball because he wanted to play on the ground. He would correct the techniques of the drawing.” Paul’s big football art break came when the Liverpool Echo commissioned him to do a graphic biography of Dixie Dean[12], a commission that obviously demanded artistic veracity as well as autobiographical accuracy. This was the foundation for the style of art used in drawing Roy of the Rovers. Dovetailing neatly with a (mostly) plausible or at least understandable set of storylines, Paul drew a set of characters that looked pretty much like what we could see if we went to a stadium instead.

Paul Trevillion

Paul himself

In this, Paul was ahead of the curve, certainly in terms of British comic art. The way superheroes have been drawn and the way their plots have been shaped has changed, but the general movement has been towards a more realistic, empathetic, believable set of characters, drawn with corresponding naturalism. This begs an interesting question, of course: why, despite this resurgence in graphic novels, with representations of authors battling with depression or the Holocaust, or superheroes with anxieties and personality disorders, with, therefore, a very serious emphasis on the real, have we not seen a similar resurgence in football comics? This was a question that occurred to me during my conversation with Paul and has pretty much steered the article to this point[13].

The answer: football is not what it was.

You might know that, instinctively, or experientially, and in that case you could stop reading now and just accept that Paul and I are right about it, it’s a sad thing, but there are other, more interesting articles to read in this magazine so you’re going to move on. But, it’s more complex than just ‘football is not what it was’. In fact, comics provide us with a surprisingly appropriate prism through which to confront and examine this fact. So bear with me, please.

Why do we like superheroes? If a character is just a bulging automaton of muscle and fighting, we might as well watch WWE. If a character is just a real person, going around and making tea and forgetting their keys and trying not to fall asleep on the bus, we might as well watch reality. Superheroes appeal because they are like us, but do things we can’t, but sort of wish we could. The superhero paradox is that a person must be at once heroic and relatable, at once better and the same, able to do what we can only aspire to do and yet also flawed or just comprehensible and human. Superman and Clark Kent are the most obvious example, so obvious it would be a waste of time to explain, and this idea is reproduced among all the classic comic book heroes. When Superman’s popularity dipped, it was in part because he had become too perfect, too super. If you elevate someone too much, it reduces his or her knowable humanity. Icons are remote; heroes should not be. It is the heroes’ flaws that make them vital, more than simple ciphers for a series of ideals, to which I suppose we ought to aspire.

But Roy pushed that idea further by being about people who were, or could have been, real, by its setting in an environment that thousands of people flocked to in real life. And footballers themselves were closer to their audience. That has changed. As Paul says, it was “a different world then, closer and more friendly, you could talk to them.” Footballers were largely from the community they played in front of, or they lived among them, walked to the match with them, even played with them[14]. Roy and his teammates were relatable because his actual counterparts were.

Danny Blanchflower

Danny Blanchflower

Their exploits, though, retained a mystique because at that time, you had to be in a ground to witness them. Naturally, once a game was over, the hyperbole of re-telling elevated what footballers did to more heroic proportions. As Danny Blanchflower said, “The talk is always better than the game.” The gentle exaggeration of beating five players rather than three increased the romance of football, added a layer of joyful fiction that infused fans’ constant conversation about Saturday’s action, a fiction that couldn’t really be probed and refuted and made the players more heroic. TV upset this careful balance, rendering football almost too real and removing the romanticised evocation of games past[15]. As Paul says, “It overplays the realism and gets rid of the dreams.”

At the same time, and in a process accelerated by TV’s other deleterious effect, money, footballers became more remote. Agents and endorsements and celebrity culture placed footballers beyond our reach and, more importantly, understanding. They now turn up at training grounds or stadiums in expensive cars, shepherded into the bowels of the modern cathedrals of the game past rows of camera-phone wielding fans, crushed together to get a snap of their favourite player behind the wheel of a Bentley[16]. Our relationship with the modern footballer is now that we wear a set of trainers they wear, or eat in a fast-food restaurant they have advertised, rather than because we live next door to them or drink in the same pub.

Lastly, and perhaps most crushingly, football itself became too business-like. The drive to win at all costs and changes in the style of play, the conditioning of players to subsume individuality to a slavish team ethic, resulted in a more sterile way of playing the game[17]. As Paul says, “Negativity and criticism and too much structure – individuality used to be prized and exciting. The fun has gone out of the game.” This is, in part, because clubs are snapping up players and schooling them in a certain style of play from such a young age, but also because of the way clubs now present themselves as brands and their players as products[18].

This is why we don’t have football comics that work anymore (and I’m not counting that 3D rubbish Striker). The careful balance needed to create a resonant hero has been upset. Football is now at once too real and too remote. It can still be wonderful and invigorating and joyous, in small instances, but the shift is undeniable. Paul does not believe the process is irretrievable: “To get comic-book heroes back, we need to get back to football that gets people walking through the turnstiles again.”[19] But the innocence of our relationship with the game is, perhaps, beyond salvaging. Comics can “[take] us on human journeys that could last as long as our own lives—eternally recurring soap operas—where everything changed but always wound up in the same place.”[20] But what happens when it’s our world that changes, not the world of the comics?

Footnotes (thanks for checking these – they are not essential but they do add, I think, to what I’ve written)

[1] A problematic term, sure — as pointed out by , most ‘graphic novels’ are not actually novels at all, as we’d understand them, not because of the pictures but because the subject is actually biographical or autobiographical. Chaney thinks, and I’d have to agree, that the term was coined as a simple marketing metonym so we all knew what we were talking about, but the genre is as complex and multifarious as any other literally construct. And that’s even before we start looking at comics in newspapers, or comix as they’re sometimes called.

[2] Required reading — by Grant Morrison, even though he has a tendency to the mystic, which did lose me occasionally.

[3] Huge thanks are due to Chris Smith for that.

[4] I emailed Paul to arrange to speak to him and he replied, including the following statement: “You will not be DISAPPOINTED!!!” He was right, I wasn’t, and this article is possible to his generosity of time and spirit.

[5] E.g. “Blood has been spilled this night…”

[6] Morrison reckons this is key to why comics interest us on an emotional level: “As comic readers gazing down from a higher dimension perpendicular to the page surface, we can actually peer inside characters’ thoughts with balloons or captions that provide running commentary…The characters themselves continue to act out their own dramas…oblivious to our shifting perspective.”

[7] As happened at a Roy Race autograph signing, where Roy was ‘played’ by Kerry Dixon (Chelsea) in a Melchester Rovers kit and people either didn’t notice or maintained the fiction by pretending not to (yes, parents might have a reason for not spoiling their children’s fictive world, but it also gets very meta, very quickly).

[8] In both senses of that phrase.

[9] Even the seemingly endless drama of a Melchester season made more sense then than it would now: teams were closer in general ability and success and failure could follow each other in close succession. This greater competitiveness has been lost, something Paul lamented: “Every team had two or three good players, smaller squads, things were much more even.” Paul also saved one of his more excitable perorations for the recent drive to ‘put the magic back’ into the FA Cup, aghast that such a competition might need life-saving surgery of that nature and criticising teams who fielded weakened sides or saw it as a distraction from finishing in the top four.

[10] This led to a few early tussles with then editor Dave Gregory. Gregory had seen the success of another strip, Billy Boots, where the characters were more caricatures. Paul won that one, and Roy is the one we remember. Paul puts this down to the fact that Roy appealed to children, adults, and even footballers, because of its ‘comic art realism’ — it didn’t look like it was drawn for children, so others could appreciate it.

[11] Paul started drawing young: “I could draw before I could walk or talk.” He goes on, “I was born in 1934, born into the war. When people were evacuated from London my dad took over a shop on the High Rd [in Tottenham], and in 1939 Snow White came out and I did drawings of dwarves which were sold in the shop to buy my paints and paper and so on; the GIs came over and bought the drawings and introduced me to Superman having seen the drawings in the shop.”

[12] Which must have been exciting for him — see fn. 13.

[13] This would be a good point to say that this piece could have gone one of three ways: I either focused wholly on Paul and what he said because he is energetic and fascinating, or I looked at comics and dusted the article with quotes from Paul to give it verve and currency and accuracy, or, what I have ended up trying to do, looked at how football has developed through the prism of Paul’s experiences of drawing Roy of the Rovers. Paul’s fascination with and love of football deserves more attention than I can therefore give it, but to hear him speak of the game is as uplifting as it is informative: “My father was a Spurs fan so we all became Spurs fans. My first match was Tottenham vs Everton in 1937. I was three — I couldn’t believe the game, the noise, Dixie Dean really caught my eye. I couldn’t forget him, it was the way he headed it, from the middle of the park right to wing. Dean scored twice. It was almost like a comic watching it. I knew all the terms in football. When Tottenham scored it shook the windows of the house, even more than the bombs during the war.”

[14] Paul talks almost lovingly of once seeing Paul Gascoigne when he lived in Hoddesdon. Gazza had been waiting to meet his then wife Sheryl, “with a blazer on, hair done nicely”, when he spotted some kids playing football in a field and just had to rush over and join them in a kick-around, much to the despair of Sheryl, who had to summon him back once she’d arrived. He also recounts seeing Spurs and England legend Eddy Bailey, one of the best inside forwards of his generation, kicking a football about in Bruce Castle Park.

[15] Paul also pointed out that football films struggle to replicate the game properly because it’s too hard to fake it, the other side of the reality coin.

[16] This is one of the reasons I have and always will love Iker Casillas, because he used to go to training in the season he won the European Cup for the first time on a bus because he was too young to drive.

[17] I’m not suggesting this has happened across the board, and we still celebrate moments of brilliance. Team structure can also produce scintillating football, as with Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv. But football is more homogenous now.

[18] A thought-provoking column by Jonathan Liew in The Telegraph (11/10/2014) asks whether the place of the maverick in sport is under threat. Citing KP (initials requiring no further explanation should be indicative enough of maverick status), Liew figures that “sport crushes ingenuity”, in part because of “the increasing commodification of sport and its participants in post-Thatcher Britain: the idea that they are no longer simply men and women playing a sport they enjoy, but salesman, role models, hunks of mobile capital. Teams are run like businesses, and businesses thrive on continuity, stability and a clear brand message.” I think Paul would agree with that. Indeed, as he put it, “Everyone played football. Now people do football.”

[19] Paul, when pushed, could only think of one potential modern ‘football hero’: “There are no heroes. Bale could be, he’s maybe the only one.” I detect a little north London bias there, though as a Southampton fan, I’m inclined to overlook it, as Bale was one of us too.

[20] Morrison, Supergods.

This piece was originally published in The Football Pink: Issue 6 – thanks are due to Mark Godfrey, both for commissioning the article and for allowing its publication here.

One comment

  1. […] into any bookshop today and you will find a section given over to ‘graphic novels’[1], books that talk about them, books by or about their creators. After a dip in quality and interest […]

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