Nathan Gelgud Builds “A House In The Jungle”

There’s so much I love about this book : Nathan Gelgud, whose prior work I’m unfamiliar with, has an intuitive grasp of the rhythm and flow of the comics page that few who have been at it for many years master, his borderless panels floating in negative space, each leisurely guiding the reader’s eye into the next, vibrantly-colored image; his characters are both simple and highly expressive, emoting more with slight facial tics and quirks than lines and lines of even the most rich, “purple prose” exposition can express (although, admittedly, this results in most of the  images featuring characters with a kind of listless-by-design, bordering on taciturn, look on their faces as a kind of “baseline” emotional affect) ; his world-building is solid and ingenious, the idea of a newly-incorporated town with easily-identifiable American political norms somehow existing right at the edge of a dense, thick jungle immediately seeming equal parts “weird” and perfectly natural. Simply put — this is a work that knows how to draw you in, visually and narratively.

So what, exactly, was it that put me off  the recently-released Koyama Press graphic novel A House In The Jungle? That’s what I’m still in the process of figuring out.

One thing, which is no one’s fault, is the timing of the book’s release : the idea of the alienated white male “outsider” as the end-result “victim” of a societal structure that guys like him both set up and exacerbated to its current supposed “crisis point” is getting seriously overdone. Alex Nall probably did the best anyone could with the premise in his superb Lawns, while Nick Drnaso earned pretty much every accolade in the goddamn universe with his well-publicized Sabrina, a book which initially impresses (it did me, at any rate) but ultimately reveals any number of fatal, even offensive, flaws upon further reflection, to say nothing of re-reads. Do we really need one more major(-ish) release that treads such similar thematic ground?

The Lynchian tropes that abound in these pages also feel, not so much forced, but incongruous. Consider : pineapple farmer Daniel, who’s hooked the nearby townsfolk on the literal fruits of his labor by fertilizing it with tick blood, is finding himself squeezed out from the unwritten agreement he’s always had with the locals (he keeps the pineapples coming, they in turn leave him alone) by means of encroaching gentrification, which is resulting in a heftier amount of garbage being produced — garbage that’s ending up on “his” property. But concurrently with what passes for the most “straight-forward” aspect of the book, we have his metaphysical journey, one he pursues by means of transcendental meditation and “dream therapy,” the “success” or “failure” of each session apparently judged by the number of vaguely crystalline, geometric hallucinatory shapes that appear before him. Somewhere in the midst of all this we’re supposed to pick up on the idea that Daniel is a man perhaps separated from his own tribe, who prefers solitude because he’s not among his kinfolk, but it’s all hinted at so obliquely that it well and truly fails to connect. Daniel’s just kinda sullen and self-absorbed, and it’s clear Gelgud is trying to make him more than that, to have him act as stand-in for the eccentric or quirky person who simply wants the freedom to live his life his own way — again, not to belabor the comparison, but we’ve already seen a protagonist like that done much more effectively in Lawns.

Perhaps most unfortunate, though, is that when things go off the rails in the book’s final act, they go off the rails in terms of execution, as well — Gelgud clearly struggles with action scenes, his understated characterization not well-suited toward the climactic. I feel like he’s got the natural artistic ability to get to the point where he can “do” action effectively, but he’s either going to have to depart entirely from his “comfort zone” of non-chalance or, better yet, figure out how to transpose that ethos into unfamiliar territory without compromising its essential character. He’s proven that he’s a highly inventive cartoonist already — now it’s time to make that next creative leap forward by keeping his unique vision intact even in situations that seem anathema to it.

Easy for me to say, right? But seriously, this guy is tantalizingly, frustratingly on the cusp of putting the whole thing together and establishing himself as one of the truly distinct cartooning voices of our time, but he’s hamstrung by a serious case of tunnel-vision that makes itself painfully apparent at precisely the wrong time : at the very moment we’re supposed to be fully invested in what’s happening, we’re actually pushed out of the proceedings, to the point where the book’s eventual resolution feels, more than anything, like a relief.

Such, quite obviously, wasn’t Gelgud’s intent in any way — I think the last pages are meant to elicit a kind of happiness at where Daniel finds himself, but one way or another I was just sorta glad to be done with the guy — and the book — by that point. Many of the steps between “A” and “Z” were fascinating, it’s true — particularly more toward the “A” end — but by the time all was said and done, I already knew this wasn’t a book I’d be re-visiting terribly often, if at all, in the future.

That being said, while I may not have any lingering further interest in what Gelgud’s done here, I’m still quite excited to see what he comes up with next. His talent, his idiosyncratic vision, his sense of formal experimentation, his visual literacy — these are, in my mind, beyond dispute. A House In The Jungle may not (okay, does not) stand very tall on its own merits, but as a glimpse of potential greatness to come, it’s certainly much more mouth-watering than a tick blood-fertilized pineapple.

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