Review by Frank Plowright
When his father died Howard Grayling inherited his ice cream van and his business in a small coastal town in Northern England. In the years since Howard’s not been greatly motivated, and he’s conflicted about his father who was serially unfaithful to his mother, one result being his half brother Tony Augustus who controls the ice cream van patches throughout the remainder of Dobbiston. Howard’s happy enough as long he retains the patch Captain Cone has sold on for years. Tony, though, is more ambitious.
Matthew Dooley’s first graphic novel is influenced by the work of Chris Ware, with similar storytelling quirks and artistic approach, but he delivers originality by applying that method to a perfectly pitched comedy drama shot through with British sensibilities. Flake couldn’t be transferred from its locality and retain the confident charm because the feeling of a small English town is integral to the atmosphere. As noted in one of the appealing diversions Dooley takes, Dobbiston was once more prosperous and recognised, but is now decaying and decrepit, and even its legends are easily disproved. It reflects Howard’s contradictory feelings about his father and half-brother. He’s a gentle soul, prone to melancholy and not one to anticipate problems and see them off at the pass. There’s an obvious comparison to be made with Alan Bennett’s quiet stories reflecting human foibles, but Dooley isn’t quite at Bennett’s sharp, observational level.
That’s not to say there aren’t subtle touches, such as Howard not correcting his wife’s assumption that the Alex he’s been seeing is a young woman. Their relationship is entirely platonic, but Howard’s silence speaks. In other places, though, opportunities are missed, with Jenny Grayling a little nondescript, and Howard’s mate Jasper sometimes working well as a single-minded, irascible comedy archetype, and sometimes too brittle.
Charm, though, carries Flake a long way, with a thin demarcation line between sadness and laughter, and the easily understood and decent Howard sympathetic, someone you’ll want to beat the odds despite being fundamentally unsuited for conflict. It supplies a likeable and confident first outing, and hope for more to come.