Kristen Radtke’s debut book is one of the most striking and interesting comics of the year. “Imagine Wanting Only This” is a nonfiction graphic novel that is partly a memoir, but Radtke’s interest is in larger issues like ruin and destruction, the heart defect that runs in her family, the urban decay she saw in post-industrial cities and towns, and the collapse of relationships and towns and civilizations.
These are the questions she ponders over years traveling from Wisconsin to Iceland, and Detroit to the Philippines. Radtke also ponders the question of home — as someone who has always been restless she asks, “imagine wanting only this,” because she just can’t.
Radtke’s “Imagine Wanting Only This” is out this week from Pantheon Graphic Novels, and she spoke with CBR about the book, the ideas behind it, and how she came to comics.
CBR: Where did the idea behind “Imagine Wanting Only This” start?
Kristen Radtke: I was writing a lot about abandoned places in graduate school — a lot of prose pieces — and it evolved slowly from there. It took me a couple of years to realize it was the makings of a book and not just disparate things I was writing.
If you wrote this as a prose book we could talk about Rebecca Solnit and Susan Sontag and lot of people who work in this form, but there aren’t many comics like this. Did you have a model for what you were trying to do?
Not really. I didn’t grow up reading comics. My education in comics was later than I would have liked it to be. The nonfiction comics I was reading were Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman. The ones I knew were the big obvious players.
Those people are writing memoirs to address larger issues while you’re writing about these issues and ideas that intersect with your life.
Which was a trickier part — talking about a model — because I was navigating, how do I keep it engaging if there are pages that don’t contain any people, for example. That was something I really struggled with at first.
You attended art school and then you got a masters degree in writing. Were you always writing and drawing, just not together?
Exactly. I was writing and drawing just not necessarily together.
When did you start making comics? In college?
No, it was well after. I wrote and drew my first graphic essay my last semester of graduate school. I was 24.
When you started writing that first graphic essay, what were you trying to do?
I had been trying to incorporate images into my writing for a couple of years and it was always this little failure where I’d try to do a drawing in the corner of the pages. You just couldn’t translate in a word document with a picture in the corner.
I of course knew about the comics form and I started to read graphic memoirs and things like that. I loved the idea of that, but the idea of taking on that kind of a project was so overwhelming and felt impossible to me. The ability to draw a person that looks the same for two or three hundred pages or a room that looks the same for that many pages seemed impossible. I was really resistant to it because I just didn’t think that I could do it. I think I learned how to do it through the process of actually making the book.
Did the book start as a series of shorter essays?
That’s totally how it started. After I started doing the graphic essays, which I loved doing, I thought maybe I’ll make a book that has some graphic essays in it and some prose essays in it. That was the conceit for a while. Then finally I gave into the idea that I could handle the whole thing as graphic.
They were essays, but not memoir?
The memoir part was really encouraged to me by my editors at Pantheon, who are great and I think they were right. It’s a helpful access point for an average reader. My character is a guide through those spaces. I think it might be hard to tether a reader for that many pages without that narrative, but it definitely wasn’t what I set out to write initially.
I remember when you were asking the doctor to describe this heart condition that runs in your family and he said that the heart beats itself to mush. This idea of ruin and destruction is the connective tissue of the book. Were you aware that this is what connected these interests and obsessions of yours, or did you come to understand that later in the process of making the book?
I didn’t necessarily know the way that these things worked together until later. It took a while to realize that everything I was writing was about some sort of aftermath or some sort of coming towards an end. The way human bodies can become ruined the same way that places can. I think it was through the process of writing these pieces that I came to that as a theme.
I was fascinated to learn about the Peshtigo Fire, and I loved the section of the book where you address this — and like a lot of readers of the book, I had never heard of this event.
I was a little bit self-conscious about that. Writing history is really hard and I was not sure how I could keep it engaging and move the narrative forward. It was definitely one of the trickier parts [of the book] for me. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin where I had this background knowledge of this big fire that had happened on the same day as the Chicago fire. I didn’t realize until college or maybe after, that this isn’t something that everybody learns about in history. Everyone has heard of the Chicago fire, although it was a much much smaller fire. The idea that this whole region could be dramatically different if not for this one event is really interesting.
And the fact that this fire was a case study for scientists developing bombs and munitions.
I really wanted to find military documents that cop to that because there’s references to it all over the place. I worked with some pretty intense librarians trying to find evidence of that. I’m sure it’s just classified or there’s the possibility that it doesn’t exist. All points add up to the fact that this natural fire was a catalyst for this manufactured fire as a means of warfare. Which is of course horrifying. It’s such a bizarre turn of events that this is a fire we have no recollection of that led to this massive destruction all over the world.
You end the book with a beautiful but disturbing scene of New York underwater. Do a lot of people who live in New York fantasize about this?
I don’t know. I feel like in general this is something that we all do. I think we all have these disaster fantasies in our heads at all times. Certainly the rise of environmental catastrophes and terrorism, and the ways that those things are represented in movies, I think has really exacerbated that.
You then end the book with the notion “you will have touched nothing on the earth” followed by a white page. It’s not a comforting ending. [Laughs]
[Laughs] My editor definitely encouraged me in a different direction and thought it was too bleak for the end, but it just felt like the right way for the book to end for me. I couldn’t rationalize a different ending. I hope it doesn’t depress too many people.
Could you talk about your trip to Iceland, which you depict in the book.
That might have been the last abandoned place that I went to for the book. It was very strange. I remember that day when I went to the island and the weather was really bad so the boats were all canceled and we were stuck on the island overnight. There were no hotels so I walked door to door to find someone who would put me up.
It was a weird thing to be trapped on this island that people had waited to come back to and rebuild their homes on. I’m just so fascinated and amazed by this idea of home being so strong that you come back and rebuild an identical life right across from where you did it before.
I bring up Iceland because you talk about restlessness early on and the Iceland section felt like you confronting something on a more personal level than in other trips.
I think that’s true. But also I was confronting it in a way that was envious. That maybe there’s this quality in me that’s missing that’s necessary in order to create a stable life or a stable home. Because I think that is pretty extraordinary. Also this is a very first world phenomenon. In so much of the world people are just hoping to hold onto the spaces that they were born into. That was definitely something that I struggled with a little bit in the project.
What was the biggest challenge for you as an artist in making this book?
There are a couple. In the Iceland chapter I was confronting some internal issues and figuring out the visual backdrop for that was one. I can’t draw myself taking a walk at night thinking about things because I’ve done that twice in the book. That’s probably too many already. It’s figuring out how to have those moments in a way that still feels interesting visually. That was tricky. And then drawing rooms consistently was hard for me. Consistency — especially when I was drawing those moments at different times and recreating that space — was a challenge.
A complicated landscape drawing can take days. I tend to be happy when I know that a page will just involve two people having a conversation because it is so much more quick to move through, but it’s amazing how boring it can get to draw anything over and over. I’m working on this series now about urban loneliness and I’ve been drawing people in public spaces and if I have to draw another brick on a building or a car — I’m going to have to do both of things tonight. It gets so arduous I just want to something different or in a different way or use different colors or something. It’s really the repetition that gets me so troublesome to me.
I loved the dust jacket and then the drawing on the book. Though I’m not sure how many people take off the dust jacket to look at the book, it really does set the tone for the book.
[Laughs] Thank you. I was glad they went for it. It was something I had in my mind really early on. I didn’t envision it to be that exact scene, but early on I thought what if the jacket is of a scene and then when you take it off it’s the same scene but ruined. Later, I figured out I could use that airport scene and modify that.
Pantheon would go, that’s a crazy idea — let’s do it!
Now that you’ve become part of the comics world, how have you found it?
I feel like the comics world is a pretty close community. I’m not really sure how to navigate that. The comics artists that I’ve got to talk to, like Tom Hart who wrote a beautiful blurb for the book, have been so wonderful and welcoming. It’s been an opportunity to talk to someone about comics in a way that I didn’t really have before. Most of my friends and colleagues are writers and they can be helpful, but to have someone to talk through the process of making a comic or the challenges of that have been really great it’s something I didn’t necessarily think I would find. Tom is great. He was so much more generous than I ever would have expected.
Having done this, do you want to make more graphic novels?
Yes. I’m working on two more books. They’re both graphic. I don’t think I would go back to a prose book, at least not right now.
More nonfiction, or what are you thinking about?
I’m working on two projects. One is the urban loneliness project I mentioned to you which I’ve been publishing pieces with online at the New Yorker. It’s just short essays interspersed with full page drawings. It’s been a nice project after the book length project, which took my whole life. [Laughs] And then the one after that I think will be a novel.
I’m ready to step away from nonfiction for a bit. I’m doing that one in color which is great fun — and a whole new set of challenges. It’s just nice to do something different. To work in a whole new way and to see what you can accomplish in a whole new way.
“Imagine Wanting Only This” is available now from Pantheon Graphic Novels.