While graphic novels continue to enjoy a passionate following among adults in the UK, the market for the younger audience has all but flat-lined. From the 1950s to the 1990s, generations of young football fans were brought up with stories of the original goldenballs, Roy Race, the most forgetful and fortunate child in the country, Billy Dane and, of course, Hotshot Hamish and Mighty Mouse. But ‘Roy of the Rovers’ was shelved in 1993, taking Hamish and Mouse with it, while the fraud Dane could only limp on until 2001. All of which makes the release of ‘Manchester United: Tales From History,’ such an interesting project.
This first volume, another two are planned, follows the life of Harry, a young English boy brought up in the USA as he returns to Manchester with his family. Along a shifting timeline, Harry is regaled with stories about Manchester United’s history by his father and grandfather. They don’t mess about either. The death of club hero ‘Sandy’ Turnbull at the Battle of Arras is featured early on and significant space is given over to sombre recollections of Munich.
Every frame is beautifully drawn and entirely in keeping with the tradition of the genre, all the way down to the bold shout of, “Go on, lads! Give ‘em what for!” from the stands in the earlier years of the club.
There are are some less traditional aspects too. It’s hard to not to note the time and attention that has gone into reproducing the corporate logos on every shirt, from the players to the fans in the stadium. This is the official graphic novel and you suspect that someone from the club has laid down some pretty clear guidelines for the artist. Naturally, the image of the club is buffed and polished throughout.
Indeed, there are some sections where you wonder if the cartoonist might just be taking the piss, throwing down increasingly subversive frames as a protest against all the branding
“I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of my footballing heroes who have always been friendly and humble,” beams Harry as he stands in front of Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra and Wayne Rooney. Well…I suppose Giggs has certainly been friendly in the past. Almost to a fault, you might say.
But this is the view of a cynic in his mid 30s, unnerved by modern football and increasingly disgusted with Manchester United’s attitude to its own supporters. And this is not a book for an ageing cynic. It’s a book for kids.
I grew up reading my dad’s old ‘Eagle’ and ‘Tiger’ annuals, I had the ‘Roy of the Rovers’ yearbooks, I even gorged myself on those small, paper-backed comics with names like ‘Football Mercenary’ and ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Score.’ I can honestly say that the eight year old me would have absolutely loved this book and he didn’t even particularly like Manchester United. He was just a massive geek, obsessed with football and determined to absorb as much of it as possible.
There is a puritanical streak running through the book. Harry is constantly nagged about the importance of good diet, hard work and avoiding distractions like light night sessions on the internet. But is this any different from the old comics? I can’t recall Roy ever doinking his brother’s wife, or Hotshot Hamish smoking a cigarette while unloading his bladder in the streets of Manchester. Kids comics have always been broadly positive. It would probably be a little inappropriate if they were not.
The only question is whether or not kids are still reading comics, or graphic novels as defensive adults like to call them. A cursory search for the answer on Twitter certainly failed to unearth a new found enthusiasm amongst the Playstation generation.
But if I had a child who was taking their first tentative steps into a whole new world, I’d buy this in a heartbeat. I just hope I wouldn’t be the only one in the house who ever read it.