Kristen Radtke’s new book, Imagine Wanting Only This, is less a graphic memoir than a graphic essay, which is odd to think about. Comics are concrete, with their pictures and word bubbles, and essays deal in abstractions. But then again, many essays also rely on juxtapositions, the braiding together of two or more separate narratives or ideas, so why can’t an essayist juxtapose words and pictures to tell stories and explore ideas?
Imagine Wanting Only This explores the idea of loss. It begins with two premature deaths: Radtke’s beloved Uncle Dan, who succumbs to a heart ailment (which Radtke may also have inherited), and Seth Thomas, a 24-year-old photographer from Indiana who was hit and killed by a freight train he was trying to shoot. After his death, Thomas’s friends scattered some of his pictures of urban ruins on the floor of an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana; Radtke unwittingly destroys this memorial when, during a college expedition, she gathers up the photos and takes them home, and she remains haunted by this desecration for years.
These two losses resonate through the story of Radke’s 20s, a period marked by restlessness. A native of a small town in northern Wisconsin, she moves to Chicago to study photography at Columbia College, then to Iowa City to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and finally to Louisville, where she settles unhappily into her first full-time job. In between she explores the ruins of Europe and southeast Asia and abandons a fiance in a desperate attempt to avoid being pinned down and turned into a ruin herself. “I can’t believe you’re willing to throw away something good for something new,” the fiance tells her during the breakup call. But for her, the need to move feels almost primal. “Ruins are often born in the wake of stasis,” she muses at one point. “Some nights I pulled up the hem of my clothes and clawed at my skin, searching for signs that I was becoming one.”
One of the greatest difficulties of creating Imagine Wanting Only This must’ve been finding a way to express ideas as images in a way that would be intelligible to another reader. (So often our pictures of things are so deeply personal that they make sense only to us.) Radtke avoids abstraction by drawing in a very clean, almost photo-realistic style, and she makes creative use of diagrams, secondary material like books and newspapers, and, occasionally, a series of panels showing herself telling another person what she’s thinking.
Sometimes, though, she breaks the format wide open. In a stunning sequence at the end of the fourth chapter, she brings together ruins and memory and mortality with images of Mayan temples, the rust-belt ruins of Detroit, and herself, returning home after a long trip to a letter from her former fiance and an empty apartment. It comes as close to graphic poetry as anything I’ve ever seen.