Books

Nathan Gelgud's 'A House in the Jungle' Plays with Perception

Nathan Gelgud's image-within-an-image work in his latest, A House in the Jungle, echoes a larger world-within-a-world meta-context.

A House in the Jungle
Nathan Gelgud

Koyama Press

Sep 2018

Other

A recluse grows addictively hallucinatory pineapples in a jungle near a small but expanding town where he sells them through an organic supermarket in order to pay a guru to transport him to the world of his visions. While that plot may sound plenty odd, it only touches the surface oddity of Nathan Gelgud's graphic novel, A House in the Jungle. There are also inexplicable bags of garbage and then dead dogs that appear on the reclusive Daniel's property—which technically isn't his property, a fact the ambitious would-be mayor exploits in his attempts to please an almost mythic and soon-to-visit governor. What that has to do with the privatized dump, the missing townsfolk, and the crushed insects Daniels uses to grow his pineapples are more surface mysteries worth reading for.

But Gelgud's most intriguing oddities occur at a deeper meta-level. A House in the Jungle isn't just a story—it's a comics story exploring the comics form that contains it.

When Daniel's guru asks him, "Did you stick to your speech limit? Sometimes it doesn't work if you don't stick to your speech limit," the character means that their attempt to induce a revelatory vision might fail if Daniel has broken his not-quite-monk-like vow of mostly silence (which is why he carries a card when he goes into town: "SORRY. I'm at capacity for today"). But Gelgud also means the limited number of words on the actual pages of the graphic novel. There's no narrated text, just talk balloon dialogue and a few sound effects (though he does have fun cheating by combining standards like "plop" and "thwack" with non-sound verbs like "scrub" and "place"). Gelgud works well with his speech limit (the early banter about the supposed chopped-up adult bodies in the boxes of what's actually pineapples is both darkly funny and darkly foreshadowing), but some pages and multi-page sequences are wordless.

Courtesy of Koyama Press

Gelgud enjoys dividing actions into paneled units—the five steps of writing on a chalkboard, the six steps of removing a t-shirt—which emphasizes the paradoxical physicality of his visually simplified world. Those panels are also unframed. When a character or other object is foregrounded on a white background, the gutters are unmarked. It's just figures floating in whiteness with implied but unmarked borders that blur an increasingly surreal story world with the inherently ambiguous space of the gutters. The effect is most pronounced when an undrawn frame edge crops out free-floating image content—as when Gelgud's implied camera zooms into the expanding letters on the side of a crate in a three-panel sequence: "GARBAGE", "RBAGE", "G". Later, the bottom words on a sign at the town dump are cropped in half yet still oddly intelligible. Technically the obstructed letters aren't letters, and they're not obstructed by anything but the same whiteness they're printed on.

Undrawn panel edges also allow Gelgud to manipulate reading paths, sometimes using a repeating figure's movements across a white page to lead the reader's eye in a direction that would be confusing if the figure were framed. English-based comics readers expect panels to follow Z-paths (left to right, top to bottom, same as the prose you're reading right now), yet some of Gelgud's pages end in the bottom left corner—while producing no confusion or not even drawing attention to that unusual fact.

Other times Gelgud's color designs add unframed patches of color, usually with wavy edges, to define constructed settings, especially interiors. But when Daniel is in the jungle, the vegetation expands to fill the panels, with the sharp black lines of leaves and branches serving doubly as frame lines. The effect, while subtle, establishes a formal division between the house and the jungle of the title. These aren't just locations within a formally and stylistically unified story world—they're two different ways of representing worlds.

Courtesy of Koyama Press

Gelgud increases the tension between content and form, between what is drawn vs. how it's drawn, through Daniel's attempts to transcend his reality through visions. On a page during the first attempt, Gelgud's free-floating figures create no reading path, but instead presents objects in the guru's room, some of them repeating for no reason, for the reader's eye to explore in any order. In the second vision, Daniel sees a diamond shape that frames his body in a kind of panel—one that evokes the rectangular norms that the graphic novel so thoroughly rejects. In the third, the guru draws a circle on his floor—which is of course also a circle, a kind of panel frame, that Gelgud draws on the white of the page. Daniel steps in and out of it with his eyes closed, again and again and again, until he finally understands: "There is no circle." The epiphany might be a rudimentary one for someone in the actual world, but for a character inside a comic, it's groundbreaking.

Most of theses effects can go unnoticed, but their accumulation shifts the nature of Gelgud's story away from standard comics norms—not unlike the way the townsfolk are slowly altered by Daniel's addictive and increasingly hallucinogenic jungle pineapples. The guru's circle also expands into a visual motif when the bartender stares into the same circled whiteness while wiping away spilled beer. On his fourth visit, Daniel wears a mask, and the eye holes create circular frames within the scribbled, rough-edged black of larger panels. The image-within-an-image echoes the larger world-within-a-world meta-context, one that visually expands when Daniel frames his entire house within a circle of white paint. Since it's night, the background is grey, and Gelgud's panels are for the first time rectangular with what is almost a standard gutter—only with its whiteness merging with the white of the circular paint where the panel edge meets it. Even though the two whites are of course the same white of the page background, one represents a painted line and the other represents literally nothing.

All of this formal playfulness occurs within a story about a person trying to reach another plane of existence. When Daniel's attempted visions fail to transport him fully, he still feels something: "Like I'm not alone. Like I'm being watched." He of course is being watched—by the reader holding the object that defines his entire physical existence in her hands. That's a pretty cool way to explore the comics form. I would like to say that Gelgud exploits it fully, but the final pages of A House in the Jungle don't quite reach the meta-potentials that the rest of the novel so artfully suggest. But the near-miss is still well-worth the close read, with the hope of more to follow. Daniel didn't transcend his world on his first try, either.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Confinement and Escape: Emma Donoghue and E.L. Doctorow in Our Time of Self-Isolation

Emma Donoghue's Room and E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley define and confront life within limited space.

Books

Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.

Books

The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Music

Siren Songs' Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Merideth Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.

Music

Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.

Books

Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.

Music

Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.

Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.