A review of Only the Dead by Wolfgang Carstens and Janne Karlsson

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Only the Dead
By Wolfgang Carstens and Janne Karlsson
Svensk Apache 2014
Illustrated chapbook b/w 36 pages
USD 7 plus shipping, Order through svenskapache@gmail.com

Your impending death is closer than ever. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I expect you already knew. However difficult it is to comprehend, we all know that the first person narrative we carry around must cease. So what do we do with this delightful knowledge? We could perhaps invent a soothing afterlife to extend the story of our lives. We could take hundreds of vitamin pills and join the Methuselah Foundation in the hopes that science will eventually overcome our biological imperative. We could complain bitterly about mortality. Or, we could use this little reminder to enjoy the life we have now, with all its inherent heartbreak, pain, and joy. This is the not-so-subtle theme of Carstens and Karlsson’s Only the Dead.

The book presents as a short comic book, with rather graphic Robert Crumb styled cartoons depicting the nature of death with its absences against the pains of being alive. It’s “only the dead” who can fully appreciate such things as aging, aches and pains, another day, another kiss, another orgasm. Only the Dead is the ultimate self-help book, providing, as it says, a “foundation to rebuild”. Both the text and the images are simple, delicate, and blackly fun, and the book makes its point. Life is too short to spend it whinging or waste time on things that don’t matter. Karlsson’s cartoons are deliciously gruesome, and full of all sorts of detail, from missing limbs to crawling worms.

I would say that this book isn’t for the squeamish, or those who prefer to think about death as something that doesn’t really happen. I personally think it would make a superb birthday card – a day when everyone needs a little extra reminder that life is worth living “to the point of tears”. Maybe don’t give it to anyone under ten (though I knew a few canny nine year olds who would love it). Otherwise, clear off your self-help shelf, forget about Hallmark and syrupy sentiments, put the Xanax back on the shelf, and grab hold of a copy of Only the Dead. Then go and “be ruthless.”