Old, disintegrating architecture is a primary feature within the black, white, and gray pages of Imagine Wanting Only This, the debut graphic memoir from writer and artist Kristen Radtke. The loss of a close relative — as well as an effort to understand the “inscrutable heart defect” that took his life — sets into motion a search for permanence in the book, one that exclusively positions the author in cities and mountainside villages that are most emblematic of life’s fragility. In her often spare illustrations and copy that blend formality and diarizing, Radtke’s exploration of her recent past as well as our fleeting present takes the shape of unreliable relationships and spontaneous travel, in which compartmentalized researched histories of numerous locales are as instructional for the author as they are a probe of her family lineage.
“It felt like I had to see everything, as if it was the only way my life would count or matter,” writes Radtke. “I didn’t care where we were going as long as it was someplace new.”
An inspection of abandoned buildings and shuttered city centers with her college boyfriend Andrew in Imagine Wanting Only This goes toward unpacking the author’s penchant for ruins. For Radtke, it’s not so much the universal appeal to Instagram urban disrepair as it is “the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.”
“Perhaps critics call images for Detroit ‘perverse’ because they mirror a life we recognize,” she notes amid a brief examination of what Harvard University’s Svetlana Boym called “ruinophilia” that helps clarify the inquiries at the center of Radtke’s comic. “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.”
As an idealistic art student in Chicago, Radtke and Andrew scout out a timeworn cathedral in Gary, Indiana, a once-populous city that suffered crippling manufacturing job loss and economic damage owing to a “tidal wave of white flight” that originated in the 1960s. They peer through a broken window at its rotting framework and collect moldy photographs from its “splintered floorboards.” When a classmate in the first chapter of Imagine Wanting Only This discusses “the decay of contemporary culture,” we’re not far an eight-panel, two-page aerial perspective spread of a cramped bedroom Radtke shares with Andrew in a “crumbling neighborhood on Chicago’s west side.” After a brutal winter season, the bedroom’s walls grow musty and moldy with dampness that is rendered in smudgy black blotches around the pages’ narrative captions. In the living room, a cobbling of “free furniture” sits on a small room rug that is cleanly distinguished from the hardwood floor and the countless flecks that Radtke has snaking across its planks. Longtime residents of communities such as Humboldt Park in Chicago have struggled to hold onto their homes in the face of gentrification, and Radtke describes her shared space as having “the kind of rehabbed interior that looked expensive until you touched it.”
Partially a travelogue and examination of how we interact within a space—a trait that Radtke’s book shares with her powerful series for The New Yorker—Imagine Wanting Only This is also the portrait of a nomadic observer. For a stay in an Italian city near Milan, the artist takes in architectural permanence and brawn in stone buildings and age-old religious traditions. She illustrates in great detail eighteenth-century Gothic arches and ornate interior patterns. I hoped for a closer look at the majestic rib-vault ceilings and comparatively modest building facades that lined the piazzas. They’re drawn beautifully, each decorative carving reproduced with such attention to depth and individual flourishes that, aside from the wildly untamed mop of worming curls atop Andrew’s head, the book’s sparse and unadorned characters are nearly featureless against the backdrop of these structures.
Later, Radtke’s grant-funded travels take her to emptied military barracks in the Philippines, to temple ruins in ancient Angkor, Cambodia, and elsewhere. She integrates photography into a handful of panels on these pages, fleshing-out the narrative that her fussily drafted buildings have to share and strengthening the context with records of their long history. Also in the fore are steady observations on death, a compiling of notes on how an ancestor fared in “the most devastating forest fire in American history,” and studies of the genetic heart muscle disease that killed Radtke’s uncle.
Decay is everywhere in Imagine Only This‘s frequent journeys to “gutted mining towns and looted industrial buildings,” where Radtke ruminates on her comic’s recurring themes: that life is fragile, that everything meets its end, that nothing is forever.
“There are things we know about the lives we made,” Radtke writes. “I painted this room. I bought this table. I washed these sheets and made this bed. We forget that everything will become no longer ours.”