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Dear dairy: one graphic novelist’s fixation with the world of ice-cream vans | Books


Here’s an example of Matthew Dooley’s sense of humour. A while ago, the 35-year-old graphic novelist realised that Mervyn King, the erstwhile governor of the Bank of England, shared his name not only with the world’s fourth-best darts player but also a high-ranking lawn and indoor bowler, whose day job was as a pest controller.

“I don’t know many famous Mervyns but there were three Mervyn Kings who were, relatively speaking, at the top of their game at the same time,” says Dooley, his eyes wide with wonder. “It was my greatest idea for a comic, which I’ll almost certainly never do. I thought they could live together – all of their correspondence getting mixed up with hilarious consequences. I was going to call it We Three Kings.”

Dooley, who has vivid flame-red hair, glasses and a dense beard, has a weakness for puns. His favourite page of his wonderful, elegiac debut graphic novel, Flake, which is out next month, is one where two characters visit an amusement arcade in a northern seaside town. It’s called Lancashire Hot Slot.





Matthew Dooley at his London home



Matthew Dooley at his London home: ‘I like people or characters who are obsessed by something.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Flake tells the story of two rival ice-cream men: Howard, who is meek and happiest hiding in his van doing the crossword; and Tony Augustus – Howard’s half-brother, as it happens – who is intent on building an empire across the region. It is set in the 1980s in the fictional town of Dobbiston, though Dooley admits that it shares much in common with Ormskirk, Lancashire, where he grew up.

“There’s something wonderfully optimistic about trying to sell ice-cream in the north of England,” says Dooley, when we meet at an ice-cream parlour in south London, not far from where he now lives, on a blustery afternoon in late January. “It’s also, I guess, a lonely sort of job. I’m not going to pretend it is some great allegory for big capitalist companies coming in and taking over the little man. Or it’s 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.”





Flake, a graphic novel by Matthew Dooley icelols



Photograph: Matthew Dooley

This means more puns: Dooley is particularly fond of one of Howard’s bestsellers, the Lemony Licker. On another page, he has drawn an assortment of designs for ice-cream vans. I compliment him on one named Walt Whipman: “Thanks,” says Dooley. “That’s very much my favourite one.”

Dooley also clarifies that Flake has no connection with the Glasgow ice-cream wars of the 1980s, where a turf war kicked off between criminal organisations who were selling drugs mainly from the vans. “I only read about that afterwards,” he says. “Mine is a bit more gentle.”

Dooley’s break in comics came in 2016 when he won the Observer/Jonathan Cape/Comica graphic short story prize. His entry was titled Colin Turnbull: A Tall Story, and told the tale of a man whose main ambition in life was to win Lancashire’s Tallest Milkman competition. There are some clear parallels between the two works: both Colin and Howard are doing jobs that their fathers did before them (and perhaps even their grandfathers before that). They are warm, affectionate, even nostalgic stories of professions and values that are no longer so common.

“They are the first two parts of the dairy trilogy,” says Dooley, before clarifying that he’s joking and he has no immediate plans to return to milk or its by-products as a subject any time soon.

Dooley, who spends his weekends playing lawn bowls at Wimbledon Park bowls club, doesn’t deny that there’s something of himself in these anachronistic creations. “I like people or characters – and I see this in myself as well – who are obsessed by something that other people don’t care about,” he says. “Now, I like ice-cream, and I would not want to say ice-cream is mundane, because it isn’t. It’s wonderful. But the inherent naffness of an ice-cream van, the way it’s painted, it’s the mix of the absurd and the mundane.”

Previously in the Observer, Dooley was described as a meld of Alan Bennett and the American comic-book artist Chris Ware. He modestly deflects the compliment. “Chris Ware is one of the great visual artists working in any medium,” says Dooley. “He has a meticulous, beautiful style and I have quite a plain, flat style, so it’s similar in a way. But he’s much, much better at drawing than I am. And Alan Bennett, he quite likes the mundane and minutiae. But I wince at comparisons like that.”

Despite his protests, Dooley, who fits his drawing around working in the House of Commons in the education department, does share a sensibility with Ware, Bennett and also Tom Gauld. “My partner said she struggles to tell the difference in my work between something that is funny and something that is sad,” says Dooley. “And that’s true; there are lots of bits that could be taken as either. But no, it is ultimately meant to be funny … I hope.”

Flake (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) is published on 2 April





Flake, a graphic novel by Matthew Dooley



Photograph: Matthew Dooley

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