Two boxers spar. An old man sits on a bench. Two small events that are intricately, and intimately, connected open Martin Flink’s graphic novella and introduce you to his elegant, naturalistic worldview. Flink’s pages are built as much as designed – a brawny nine-panel grid that’s as wide and strong – as the boxer the story centres on. Flink opens it out regularly, spreading panels whole thirds of the page, but it’s always constrained by that nine-panel grid. It’s a brave move, few people have used the nine-panel page as successfully as Alan Moore in Watchmen, but Flink is more than up to the task. The subtlety of the art and the minimalist script combine to focus your attention where it needs to be without ever feeling like your eye is being dragged around the page.
That being said, there’s real authority to his art. Simple lines combining to drive home the physicality of the characters to touching effect. The boxer is a wall, not of unlikely Olympian muscle, but strength, size. He’s a bear of a man at the height of his powers and the fact Flink refuses to give him a superhero six-pack only makes him seem stronger. He’s a real physical presence on every page, but Flink takes care to show his tender side too. He’s a charming husband, a loving father and a goofball to boot and the scenes between him and his wife are charming, reminiscent of a less immediately tragic version of Jeff Lemire’s stunning Lost Dogs. He’s an expressive, likable, flawed hero and Flink’s script, despite containing less than 200 words of dialogue, shows you every emotion he feels, from elation to grief. It’s not an easy read at times, because the art is so open and so expressive but it never failed to hold your attention.
Where Flink takes great pains to show the boxer as vital and moving, constantly circling, constantly looking for an opening, the old man is a point of stillness. Old but not frail, he’s the calm eye of the storm to the boxer’s frenetic chase around the ring of his life. The old man spends most of the book sitting on the bench we first meet him on, but Flink’s careful draftsmanship and eye for nuance means we pay attention to every panel the old man features in. The nine-panel grid helps Flink close in on both characters, but whilst he uses it to show the boxer progressing through his life, he focuses on the moment with the old man. Every head turn, every gesture tells the old man’s story and as it comes to an end, and you realise what’s going on. It’s these panels that make the story, and break your heart.
The Man Of Glass is a small, gentle story about what happens to us, planned and otherwise. It’s a quick read, but it’s also a perfectly balanced one. You’ll read it once but Flink’s deft art and lightness of touch will ensure you’re thinking about it long after you’ve finished the book. A small, poignant gem.