Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
2017 by Pantheon, 278 pages
(I received a galley of this months ago, have read it about seven times, and have purchased at least two copies of the hardcover final version that is just out—it appears three copies as I pre-ordered one that I forgot about, heavily implied to a comic store that I’d be buying a copy there, and when I saw it in the store I could not walk out without a copy)
Maybe as recently as a year ago, I’d have told you that a graphic work didn’t have a chance to be my favorite read of the year—and I was one that read more than my fair share of comics, and on occasion even larger graphic works. There are moments now that I wonder if it’s fair for books without illustrations to have to go against those that do. On the positive side, I’ve learned to appreciate both types of written works even more this past 8-12 months. A long lead-in to note that Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, is my favorite read of the current year.
Memoirs written by fairly young individuals, to me, have always seemed tricky—I think we consider a higher age yielding a better possibility of a life lived that is can capture our interest. However, Radtke has combined an important death in her life, and a genetic time-bomb leading to her to examine the world around her more closely than she might have in a way that is more than simply interesting, it’s compelling. At one point, in maybe my third or fourth reading of Imagine Wanting Only This, I thought maybe my own heart-related scare of a few summers back might have drawn me to in, but I really don’t believe that’s it—I simply believe that Kristen Radtke’s plungings into her own life and thoughts, and the combination of her spare prose and varying styles of drawing, are interesting, thought provoking and beautiful.
The prologue has Kristen at a young age, revering her uncle—he’s her “favorite person that I knew in real life”—and finds out that he’s got something wrong with his heart. That many in her family have something wrong with their heart but the doctors are watching him and he’s okay (for now). There’s a jump in chapter one to Kristen as a sophomore in college. She and her boyfriend, Andrew, take off at 5 a.m. from Chicago (the scene drawn shows the two of them from the front windshield point-of-view and behind their faces, through the rear window, we see the Chicago skyline. They are heading to Gary, Indiana, and do so at 5 a.m. because they’ve been told to leave that early, “while it’s safe.” One of the first images of Gary that Kristen gives us is that of the Palace, a run-down theater of some sort where the names on the marquee are not complete, and falling apart. The combination of these two images, as well as the writing about safety, is a fairly subtle commentary about the haves and have-nots. It’s followed up by the two going into an abandoned cathedral where Radtke finds a collection of photographs, dirty and moldy. She packs them away, planning to someday use them in a collage or triptych. What she finds out via the news shortly thereafter is that the photographs were of another young person, a male that went looking through ruins that had been hit by a train recently—his friends had scattered his ashes in that cathedral along with the photos of him.
This gets into Radtke’s head—what is ours? What remains ours? When places are no longer used as the places they were originally intended to be, who do they belong to? At age 19, Radtke has it verified that she too shares her family’s heart-related genetics. Pushing through pretending to be a journalist interested in her doctor’s studies, she gets him to explain that “It’s like mush. The heart beats itself to much.” It’s not long after this that a close friend and Radtke go on a summer trip to visit as many countries as they possibly can. Between this and other trips throughout the book Radtke visits Corregidor, Philippines—site of an old US Military base during WWII, the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (where there’s a lovely comparison between candles list outside a cathedral with candles lit for Radtke’s grandmother), the devastation in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a vacated mining company in Colorado, and a lava-covered Icelandic village to name a few places. A trend jumps out when reading the list. The sites are ruins, they are abandoned, and they have strong histories. They are all places that were once a place of action that are now a place where something used to happen. A line is penciled in near the end of this book: “We forget that everything will become no longer ours” and the last line is “You will have touched nothing on the Earth.”
While many of those sites listed above had man-made reasons for the changes over time, that wasn’t the case with the Icelandic village being swallowed by lava, and another similar place was Peshtigo, Wisconsin (Radtke is from Green Bay, Wisconsin, originally). The same night of the great Chicago fire, the city of Peshtigo also went up in flames—a simply monstrous fire that freak scenarios with the weather caused that destroyed the entire town. A bridge perhaps, between Radtke's looking into places that disappeared organically vs those that had man’s nudging them out of the way is this fire. The US Government studied this fire extremely closely—looking into, and developing ways of creating the same type of firestorm for usage during WWII in Germany and Japan. This section is fascinating and shows Radtke’s various skills within the graphic medium—using photos, newspaper articles, reports, different styles of lettering, black space, and more in her storytelling.
I’m going to end this shortly and try not to rabidly explain every single panel in this graphic memoir. Suffice to say, I think it’s an incredible book; one that uses the best techniques in drawing, lettering, shading, and the writing itself is strong, confident, and spare. There’s a question that drives Radtke and the last few pages of the book are full of strong images of where she imagines our world is headed (and Easter Egg—take the dust jacket off of the cover to see a slightly different, and futuristic, view of those drawings as well). It’s well worth your time (or times if you’re at all like me) to give Imagine Wanting Only This a read.