Thomas Alsop, now available in a gorgeous TPB from Boom! studios, is an example of that rich collection of fiction and art that tries to bring the ancient past to America. That impulse seems like it’s, if not at the centre, at least close to the centre of the American Gothic imagination. And being America, that deep past can’t truly reach back much farther than 1492, unless one finds a way to connect it with the Native American experience. (Manifest Destiny, I have to note, is a great example of that.) It turns out that this book does reach for that connection, and also creatively incorporates the ancient African traditions, brought to the shores of North America under horrifying circumstances.
But in any case, the occult/gothic impulse is in a large part about reimagining places, particularly New York City, as if there were London or Paris or Istanbul or at least somewhere where the history goes back further than brass buttons and rifles. And an easy and effective path back to that past is through the evocation of the supernatural, the uncanny and divine. That’s a big part of what’s going on in this arresting book by Chris Miskiewicz and Palle Schmidt.
Schmidt’s art sets the tone right from the start, employing an impressionistic, painterly eye and muted colours, hitting hints of that off-primary spectrum of orange and purple (which has the side effect of subconsciously evoking royalty). The royalty angle is actually quite an ironic juxtaposition, as we first meet our eponymous hero somewhat the worse for wear in the middle of an apartment wearing only boots and an electric guitar. It’s one of the several times Thomas Alsop, self-described “media sensation” and icon of New York, has to be dusted down in time for his television show, in which he plays magic tricks and uses well-developed supernatural powers for the purposes of low entertainment.
But Alsop’s powers are no joke: he’s the inheritor of a long tradition (well, at least back to the 1700s) as a specially appointed mystical guardian of the area from occult forces, “The Hand of the Island”. We are shown some flashbacks to 1702, in fact, detailing the lives of Alsop’s forbearers and their mistakes and triumphs during the colonial period. This power was inherited through the Native Americans of the area, but is now in the hands of the Alsops.
The Hand of the Island is no small appointment. Previous holders of the power viewed it as a terrible responsibility, but Thomas is a self-indulgent rock and roll-driven narcissist. So he takes care of supernatural problems not necessarily in the old way, through ritual and negotiation and the forging of ancient agreements, but like a modern man, by taking out his gun and shooting something. It’s in fact one such impulsive, thoroughly modern action that sets off the chain of events in the plot of this series, bringing Thomas into conflict with his own family and the rules by which they have lived since inheriting this power.
But there’s another power in operation, as Thomas finds out during one of his “visions”. In 1702, a shaman was brought to Manhattan from Africa as a slave, and put a curse on the island, giving rise to a slowly growing corruption and evil.
These are gloriously rich metaphors. Wall Street corruption is an obvious link, as is the emphasis on slavery as America’s “original sin”. That is, everything wrong with America can be traced back somehow to slavery and the culture around it, at least so goes the hypothesis. Here’s where Thomas Alsop edges over into genius, as the story ultimately becomes about 9/11.
Thomas has a vision of the people killed day, their spirits still trapped where the Twin Towers stood. His mission, as the series goes, is to free them from purgatory, and doing that requires blood oaths, beer, punk rock and a box hidden in the bathroom at CBGB’s.
This is a visually arresting book rich with context and metaphor and vibrant characters – not just Alsop himself (who has more than a little John Constantine in him), but also Emma, rock bass player, British and full-on witch. It’s rock and roll gothic and it takes on some very important issues at the heart of America’s relationship with its own soul. Perhaps in some ways it’s trying to give meaning to 9/11, which is a very understandable motivation. A lot of art is an attempt to bring meaning to the sometimes horrible things that happen in the regular world. In the case of Thomas Alsop, it gets the job done with style.