'Imagine Wanting Only This' Is as Beautiful as It Is Troubling in the Questions it Poses

Through her visually stunning graphic memoir, Kristen Radtke explores themes of love and loss and the impermanence of life in all its forms.

Imagine Wanting Only This

Publisher: Panteon
Length: 288 pages
Author: Kristen Radtke
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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