With a family history of a rare hereditary heart disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy, writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke has over the years developed an understandable fascination with the impermanence of humans and the buildings and cities they construct. Having lost a beloved uncle to the disease, her own heart condition weighs heavy on her mind and runs through the literal and figurative heart of her new graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This.
A form of heart disease characterized by impaired systolic function and ventricular dilation, dilated cardiomyopathy, we learn, is when the heart essentially rapidly beats itself into mush. It’s as if the person is dying from the inside out, much like the abandoned structures and towns of which she becomes so enamored, contemplating not only the impermanence of human life but, in many instances, of society and cultures in general; that which appears relatively normal from the outside may well be concealing the genesis of decay and, ultimately, death. In this, Imagine Wanting Only This spends much of its time plumbing the deeply personal depths and is ultimately a philosophical pursuit of so-called ruin porn as it applies to her tenuous existence.
Delivered in a modernist, hyper-real style that often incorporates actual photographs that help lend an additional air of credence to the stories related by Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This is full of striking visuals. The intricacy with which she recreates the various abandoned, dilapidated buildings and ruined towns is impressive; that her writing is equally up to the standard set by her artwork makes it an all the more engaging read.
The narrative begins with the introduction of her beloved Uncle Mike and the times spent together in Radtke’s youth. After this brief expository scene-setting, she quickly shifts forward in time, running through the course of her college relationship. After the usual college infatuation period begins to wear off, she soon finds herself pulling away, delving deeper into herself and the existential dilemma associated with an obsession with the transience of lives lived in hopes of creating something of lasting import only to ultimately become little more than distant fuzzy memories before fading out entirely.
All of this is triggered by an otherwise innocuous trip to an old abandoned church in the city of Gary, Indiana. Finding the remains of photographs littered throughout—images we soon learn were part of a makeshift memorial to a fellow explorer of ruined buildings who met an untimely end following his passion—she collects them and takes them back to her shared apartment. As they gradually decay and eventually disappear on an ill-fated trip to Europe, so too does her connection to her college boyfriend, despite having agreed to his marriage proposal.
Having broken off the engagement, she makes her way through one situation to another, ending up in Iowa like a less needy, but equally self-destructive Hannah Horvath. Anxious once more and with the memory of her late uncle’s heart condition looming large, she begins traveling all over the world to bear witUIKeyInputDownArrowUIKeyInputDownArrowUIKeyInputDownArrowUIKeyInputDownArrowUIKeyInputDownArrowUIKeyInputDownArrowness to the myriad abandoned and decaying remnants of societies long since passed. After traveling throughout Southeast Asian, she arrives in Detroit—the virtual mecca of such things—on her return flight.
It is around this point the narrative begins to waver, her quest has taken her throughout a number of crumbling structures that are left to sit in ruins. Moving away from the ruin porn elements of the story, she delves into a fascinating family history. This proves to not only be an account of her ancestors but also serves as a history of Wisconsin in an extended section on the event that came to be known as the Peshtigo fire. Little documented then as now, it would become the nation’s deadliest wildfire, taking out a massive swath of the state. Yet, because it occurred concurrently with the great Chicago fire of 1871, the devastation was largely overlooked, remaining little more than a trivial footnote.
As she is quick to point out, however, this is an event that deserves to be well-known—and not for the somewhat supernatural reason that resulted in her familial connection. Beyond the devastation wrought initially by the Peshtigo fire, the based physical principles behind its fury led to even more destruction in the 20th century. Referred to as the Peshtigo Paradigm, this scientific study by the American military looked into the cause of such a devastating fire in order for it to be weaponized. Having ascertained the reasoning for the fire’s swift and complete devastation, the military succeeded and kicked off the firebombing of Dresden and cities in Japan during World War II before finally coming to the ultimate solution and weapon in the form of napalm.
While a seemingly historical aside, this particular tangent fits neatly within the overarching theme of the narrative as Radtke explores alternating themes of impermanence both physically in the form of human life and that which we build up around us. She also emotionally invests in those things that continue to exist only in our memories, equally subject to degradation over time. With the fire having largely been forgotten and its core principle having been used to wipe out entire communities, it ties in neatly with her fascination with the ruination of both ourselves and our surroundings.
The title itself refers to her thought process upon arriving in Iceland after developing something of a passionate obsession with a travelogue documentary. In the film, the decimation of a village by a volcanic eruption is recounted with the narrator pining for the views of the gorgeous landscape that were once his. As Radtke takes this loss of familiarity, stability, and comfort into consideration, she looks out at the same view and imagines what it must have been like to want nothing but a return to that which once was.
It’s a tragic paradox within which to become trapped as we all will never have a chance to return to who, where, and what we once were. Through the slow march of time, everything around us betrays its inconsequentiality. It’s a sobering worldview and one that it seems everyone encounters at a certain point in life. Rarely does anyone manage to do so in such a thoughtful, personal manner. Imagine Wanting Only This is as beautiful as it is troubling in the questions it poses.
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