Flake: celebrating small pleasures

Matthew Dooley’s Flake, a graphic novel about the ice cream van business in the north west of England, recently won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, the first graphic novel to do so in the history of the prize. It’s an affectionate and very funny portrait of Howard, an ice cream man who rather half-heartedly mans the same patch as his father before him, as he struggles with his domineering half-brother, Tony, a rival seller. 

Dooley’s comments about his aspirations for the novel emphasise that it’s not ‘“some great allegory for big capitalist companies coming in and taking over the little man … or… about being an entrepreneur or anything like that. It’s not. It was an opportunity to make up some ice-creams, which was quite fun”’ (Lewis).  It’s worth taking this seemingly self-deprecatory statement at face value and seeing it as a sincere articulation of the importance of frivolity; one that requires a re-examination of the cultural values that celebrate the serious or substantial and denigrate the frivolous. This hierarchy and the ‘divergence between “mere” and “serious”’ which it is predicated upon, ensures that we often try to justify humour by seeking its social or political purpose, which ‘causes us to devalue central elements of the experience of humor, namely, entertainment and pleasure’ (Wuster 162). In Dooley’s attachment to seemingly ‘superficial’ fun – ice-creams, crosswords, pub quizzes, crazy golf, puns – is a determination instead to value such pleasures, which, after all, are often such a crucial part of everyday happiness. 

This is not to say the narrative is without sadness: it’s there both in the physical fabric of the rundown town (graffiti, stained walls, broken signs), and the touches of personal unhappiness: Howard’s memories of his father’s brutishness, and a melancholy visit to his mother in her retirement home. But the emotion remains very understated, very British. And just as the greys of the unlovely town are leavened and uplifted by the dreamy pastels of the ice cream vans, so too is the emotion leavened with humour. The trip to the retirement home, for example, is also gently hilarious – as Howard hands out his lollies to the old folks, one elderly lady asks querulously, ‘Do you have one that’s a little warmer?’ 

There’s overt optimism at work in the narrative – in Howard’s quietly contented marriage, in his small kindnesses, and his friendships, and in the series of events that lead to the happy ending. From the group of friends gathering together to support him after Tony’s machinations turn nasty – prompting scenes of collective endeavour so recognisable from romcoms – to the growing success of his new ice cream (‘It didn’t take long for word to spread..’), these are unabashedly ‘feelgood’ tropes. 

If the supposedly frivolous or feelgood has little critical cache, then happy endings are a further embarrassment, equated as they are with ‘fantasy and escapism and wishful thinking’ (MacDowell, 131), and in the graphic novel genre they are arguably considered even more dubious, given the dominance of an affectless, deadpan tone. What George Saunders has called the contemporary literary fashion for ‘the obligatory edgy’, which he describes as an ‘autoswerve’ towards ‘drama, violence, darkness, speed’, is perhaps an even stronger imperative in the graphic novel.  Irony, too, is often a fundamental element of the ‘obligatory edgy’, frequently supplied by the visual austerity of bleak urban (and suburban) landscapes. It’s a form of visual deadpan that was perhaps articulated earliest by Ed Ruscha, with his prosaic, determinedly flat pictures of gas stations. Flake certainly uses visual deadpan (the page drily documenting the gloomy highlights of Dobbiston is a prime example), and there’s plenty of irony; even the sweetness of the colours has an ironic edge –  Dooley talks of the ‘“inherent naffness” (Lewis) of the vans (with names like ‘Barry’s Ices’, ‘Professor Scrumptious’ and ‘Camelot Creams’) – so the pastels are both a strategic way of bestowing a rather subversive prettiness upon the ‘grim North’ and the means to a sly bit of incongruity – the dour, heavyset van men and the absurdly whimsical vans. But highlighting the irony suggests a cool affective charge, which is at odds with the warmth and playfulness of the novel, which remains fond rather than evaluative or judgemental. 

While Dooley’s determination to give his characters a happy ending is the most obvious aspect of that warmth, it’s also evident in small formal touches. With crosswords a favourite hobby of Howard and his friends, in the endmatter of the book, Dooley provides one for the reader to complete; and in place of an author photo, there’s a self portrait, which reveals Dooley to have had a walk-on part in the pub quiz scene (as a member of the team ‘Crisps for Dinner’). There’s another joke in the centrepiece: Howard’s friend, Alex, has taken him to the seaside, where the two play crazy golf, and in place of the conventional rectangular frames that usually structure a page, here Dooley uses the irregular geometries of the golf course. It’s apt that during an actual holiday sequence, the characters get to escape from the confines of the standard panels, and indeed, during the course of their game, sometimes stand outside the panels altogether. It’s this kind of granular attention to the seemingly inconsequential that is so fundamental to the whole idea of small pleasures – noticing and thereby valuing what is too often designated as ‘merely’ frivolous. And given the entrenchment of the ‘obligatory edgy’ as the norm, Flake’s celebration of such pleasures seems almost subversive. 

Lewis, Tim, ‘Dear dairy: one graphic novelist’s fixation with the world of ice-cream vans’, The Guardian, 15 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/15/matthew-dooley-flake-ice-cream-graphic-novel.

MacDowell, James, Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema, Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 2013.

Saunders, George, Interview by Patrick Dacey, ‘The George Saunders Interview, Part 1’, BOMB, 26 April 2011, http://bombmagazine.org/articles/the-george-saunders-interview-part-1/

Wuster, Tracy, “Scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures”: Some Thoughts on “Mere” Humor, Entertainment, and Pleasure, Studies in American Humor, 4.2, 2018, pp. 160-170.

© Emma Sullivan 2020.

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