By Nikolai Fomich
[*Major spoilers for Thomas Alsop #1 and #2 follow! Pick up the first two issues before going any further.]
Chris Miskiewicz and Palle Schmidt have created in Thomas Alsop a tale about New York hauntings. Sure there ghosts – Thomas even shoots one – but the most interesting kind of haunting in this new mini-series from BOOM! is that of history.
Thomas Alsop is about the importance of Manhattan’s history and how the material remains of its past affect its present. The titular star is the current “Hand of the Island” – a role passed down through his family since 1699, after his ancestor Richard Alsop gained supernatural powers and the ability to “hear” Manhattan Island’s calls from a Mespeatches shaman. Thomas’ role as magical caretaker, however, has taken an unexpected turn – after having been caught on video, he’s gone viral and become a media sensation.
Miskiewicz and Schmidt’s story begins in 2011, with Thomas living in decadent indulgence. His celebrity has provided him with the means to buy enough alcohol and drugs to numb him so that he can cope with a role he hates. The other members of the Alsop family aren’t too happy with Thomas’ new position as Hand either, his cavalier behavior creating tension between the Alsop’s and New York’s other prominent magician families.
Schmidt’s storytelling is superb and he uses both shading and especially coloring to great effect. Each moment has its own distinct feel and he manages to pull the reader immediately into different times and realms with deceptive ease. His art is almost impressionistic in places, and he always effectively conveys the mood of the moment.
The creators make a wise decision in linking many of Thomas Alsop’s magical abilities to material objects, such as a gun. This avoids the series from falling into the problem many stories starring magic-based characters often have – namely, protagonists getting out of jams through seemingly random abilities. Utter a few words, make a hand gesture, and – PRESTO! You’ve defeated Umar the Unrelenting (I say this as a huge Doctor Strange fan). Thomas’ use of such objects helps avoid the kind of contrivance found in a lot of fiction staring magical characters. It also firmly situates Thomas in the everyday, which makes his use of magic more remarkable and exciting. That’s not to say that Thomas Alsop forgoes the fantastical for the mundane – supernatural elements form the foundations of this story. Thomas Alsop simply uses its high concepts judiciously.
The objects Thomas Alsop uses for magic also anchor him in his family history, each item coming from the “Alsop Family Armory” and thus connecting him to past cases previous Hands were involved with. The material past provides the means through which the Hand of the Island can protect Manhattan, and the usefulness of these items emphasizes the importance of Alsop tradition and history.
But history isn’t merely represented through past relics in this series – we see history play out before our eyes. There’s another story told in Thomas Alsop, a story set in 1702 and featuring Richard Alsop, the first Hand of the Island. We see in the first two issues the beginnings of a major conflict between Richard and the Black Ring, a corrupt magic society, unfold. In spite of Richard Alsop’s efforts, the Black Ring has brought in a slave ship, “its wood corrupt with arcane spells meant to hold and confuse the shaman,” referring to one of the African slaves aboard.
And just as Alsop family history is vital to Thomas’ present, so too is New York’s own past important for its future. Thomas learns through the news that the remains of the London Rose, the same slave ship his ancestor attempted to prevent from coming into New York, has been found at Ground Zero (the World Trade Center was in fact built upon massive slave graves). And when he decides to visit Ground Zero for the first time, to pay his respects to a former bandmate who became a firefighter and died on 9/11, Thomas makes a shocking discovery: the spirits of those who died on 9/11 are still trapped there.
Many readers may find this distasteful. Some might argue that to portray the victims of 9/11 as ghosts is disrespectful, simply on principle. I’d argue that it does indeed depend upon the story, and that we should wait and see how the rest of the series plays out. Further, I find this idea far less distasteful than the repeated political desecration of 9/11 victims, the metaphorical conjuring of their spirits to justify all kinds of criminal and destructive policies.
It’s also important to consider which massacres are considered sacrosanct in popular culture – the genocidal aggression of colonial Europeans against “Native Americans” in the United States has not prevented creators from telling all kinds of objectionable stories even today, wherein Native American deaths are treated with callous indifference. American slavery, though sometimes also treated with irreverence today, has slowly begun to be portrayed with more sensitivity in popular media, largely due to the influence of African American creators. If the portrayal of 9/11 victims as ghosts is somehow inherently objectionable, then surely so is the use of magic in connection to the Atlantic slave trade. 9/11 should not be held up as any more sacrosanct than those other monstrous and more colossal crimes.
Thomas Alsop is tale about the haunting of the present by the past. It’s about how Thomas and New York itself must each cope with old and new traumas if they are to move into the future. The recovery of the London Rose at Ground Zero brings two grievous legacies together, one local and one worldwide – 9/11 and slavery. The Island brings Richard and Thomas together in their dreams as a response, their respective missions shared in a way we’re only beginning to understand. The mingled material remains of the London Rose and the Twin Towers haunt the New York of Thomas Alsop and how Chris Miskiewicz and Palle Schmidt’s character confronts these mysteriously connected legacies is sure to be as thought-provoking as it will be entertaining.
Come back next week when artist/writer Palle Schmidt and I chat about comics, his career, and more Alsop!