It’s been a couple of years since we first saw pages from Matthew Dooley’s long awaited debut graphic novel Flake about rival ice cream men in a small Northern town, and now it is finally here. And the great news is that its now melted in the sunshine!
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Writer: Matthew Dooley
Artist: Matthew Dooley
Price: £18.99 from Amazon
Flake tells the story of Howard, an ice cream man in the town of Dobbiston in the North West of England. He inherited the patch from his father, but things aren’t easy in the world of ice cream sales. When his rival, and half brother, Tony begins encroaching on his turf, and a family feud begins to resurface, so Howard needs to consider his future and purpose in life.
Summing up the story like this doesn’t really do Flake justice as it is more about the characters than the story being told. From the opening pages which introduce us to Howard’s meticulous crossword based daily routine, and his friendship with museum owner Jasper and assistant Alex, this is a wonderfully charming and idiosyncratic story. Dooley’s attention to every little detail gives the story such an incredible depth, yet it is handled incredibly subtly. Every nuance and trait feels perfectly considered, and is done without any flashiness or sensationalism. It has a very careful and considered pace to it, that doesn’t rush, but gets where it needs to be at the exact time that it needs to get there. Even when there are moments of drama they are handled so carefully and so smoothly, that you barely notice that they are happening at all, and they just wash over you gently as you are so completely absorbed in the world. This effortless style of writing is not easy to achieve, but Dooley manages it with aplomb.
Tonally it feels very similar to his previous work, especially his Jonathan Cape prize winning short storey Colin Turnbull, about a tall milk man. It has the same meticulous approach to character and the same droll, sardonic sense of humour running through it. However it steers clear of some of the more outlandish concepts we saw in Dooley’s less formal work like The Practical Implications of Immortality. Flake is still not your average run of the mill story though. It manages to be quirky and esoteric without being in your face or too outrageous. It has this gentle charm to it, with Dooley able to sustain interest in the characters throughout the whole book, despite them being oddballs, as you invest in their actions and want them to succeed of fail.
Dooley’s artwork is clean, simple and again, meticulous. It has the tight panelled structure that we love in Luke Healy’s work, but is not quite as tightly packed and his characters have more personality and colour. The pub quiz where we meet Tony’s cronies is a perfect example of this and reminded us of the brilliant scene in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and co meet their mirror image counter parts, and Dooley does a similar thing here.
To prevent panel overload, Dooley divides the book into chapters, with each one telling the story from a subtly different angle and using a slightly different visual approach. Whether that is a flashback looking at Howard’s relationship with his father, and his half brother Tony. Or the newspaper scandal which threatens to ruin his business. It also allows Dooley the odd page where he can embrace the rich range of ideas this story offers him, including our favourite page, which is a list of ice cream vans and their fantastic titles.
Flake has a very classic and timeless feel to it, evoking memories of Raymond Brigg’s When The Wind Blows – although less apocalyptic. Despite being set in the present day, it has an almost nostalgic tone to it, telling a story from a simpler and unfussy time. It feels like an Alan Bennett story or a Victoria Wood sketch and feels quintessentially English as aresult – or more accurately, quintessentially ‘Northern’ but without any of the overt stereotypes that come with that. While Dooley does play around with some cliches, for example Howard’s ice cream man dad who is a bit of a rogue and having affairs with women all over town feels like something from a 1970s sit com, these are handled so well that they simply add to the charm.
Flake is a wonderfully charming and meticulously crafted look at life in small town England. At a time when globalisation and national identity are under constant scrutiny, it has an inherent Englishness about it, which focuses on the goodness and individuality of people. It doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t it just paints a picture of genuine and believable people, yet it does this with good humour and pathos throughout. A beautifully told story, Flake positions Dooley as one of UK comics’ most engaging and imaginative creators. We hope this is the first great work of many!