Department of Truth – Subjective Reality in the Modern Age

An FBI agent attends a Flat Earth Convention. He’s a special agent who specializes in online conspiracy theories, so he’s morbidly curious. He wants to see his subjects in their element. While he’s there, he’s spotted and recognized by one of the richest men in America who graciously invites him to a “private event” going on in the same hotel. The agent is ushered into a room with other guests and watches a strange movie. It’s footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But it’s from a completely different angle and in one brief shot, he sees the flicker of a director. The rich benefactors gleefully tell him that it’s from Stanley Kubrick’s personal collection. But this is only the beginning. He and the other guests are driven to a private airfield and ushered onto a private jet. The FBI agent, still overcome by the sheer impossibility of the situation, passes out shortly after takeoff. When he awakens, the plane has flown south, all the way south. But instead of flying over the South Pole, he is invited to look out the window…at the giant ice wall that encircles the Flat Earth. Now numb with incomprehension, the man sits awestruck as the plane lands. He and the others disembark as their hosts gladly explain that they’ll take them up in a helicopter tomorrow, nobody knows how high the ice wall stretches. However, before they can be taken to the base camp, a woman in an unassuming black suit shows up and levels a gun at the group. She deals with the others and rescues the FBI Agent. Several days later, he’s debriefed and given an explanation. The world is round, American astronauts landed on the moon and of course, conspiracy theories are not real. But the truth is even more disturbing because while those things aren’t true, reality isn’t actually objective. Reality is pliable, and if enough people believe in something, then it will become true. What’s more the agent, Cole Turner, has just been recruited into the government agency that exists to make sure these things stay fictional. So begins James Tynion IV’s ongoing horror-conspiracy comic, The Department of Truth.

So it looks like I have a habit of doing back to back comic essays about authors I like. A few months ago, I wrote a (surprisingly cathartic essay) about another one of James Tynion IV’s hit horror series, The Nice House on the Lake. Now it’s time to talk about an ongoing series that he’s been putting work into for a long time. Department of Truth is, as I said above, a horror comic about conspiracy theories. It’s set in a world much like our own, but one which is powered by a sort of magic where people’s beliefs can directly affect reality. This works on a big scale, as seen in the first issue, where Totally Not The Koch Brothers have engineered enough belief in a Fake Moon Landing and a Flat Earth to make those things appear real. But it also works on a smaller scale. The premise creates some deeply unsettling implications for things like the Satanic Panic of the 80’s, UGO sightings and even the idea of “angels.” Honestly, it’s probably the closest thing to the Magical Realism genre I’ve read in a comic book. The story follows Agent Cole Turner as he’s inducted into the messy business of keeping conspiracy theories fake. Over the course of the series, Turner learns more about the Department and its history since being founded in the aftermath of WW2, the real powers that control reality and that he might have a much more personal investment in this new world than he realizes.

Conspiracy Theories as an idea are super popular right now. Part of that is because of other genre fiction projects that focus on them. Welcome to Nightvale is a very popular narrative podcast set in a town where all conspiracies are true. Its appealing mixture of quirky comedy and bleak, eldritch horror made it an early favorite of the podcast boom since the early 2010s. There’s also stuff like the SCP Foundation, an online collective fictional universe about a mysterious extra-governmental agency that is strikingly similar to Tynion IV’s Department of Truth. Short for Secure, Contain and Protect, the organization is tasked with finding and containing dangerous objects, people and creatures with dangerous powers. There’s also media like The Last Podcast on the Left, which is a nonfiction podcast where three comedians explain things like conspiracy theories (along with serial killers and cryptids) while ruthlessly mocking them. That’s not to mention more traditional media like Oliver Stone’s film, JFK from the 90’s. Every season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan series seems to hinge on a complicated geopolitical conspiracy. Even Netflix’s most popular TV Show, Stranger Things, is partially about a conspiracy within the US Department of Energy. Heck, one of the recent Star Trek movies of all things was basically a thinly veiled treatise from a 9/11 Truther. Sadly, that’s to say nothing about the very real rise in conspiratorial thinking in the digital age. Apart from occasional dalliances I can’t say that I’ve ever really gotten into this genre. So why did Department of Truth hit me like a ton of bricks?

Part of it is the astoundingly good art from Martin Simmond. One of my problems with things like Welcome to Nightvale or the SCP Foundation is that their presentation is so clean. Nightvale is framed as a radio show hosted by a blandly amiable man named Cecil Palmer. SCP stories are literally collected in a Wiki (like Wikipedia) and most of them are written as dry government entries. This dry, distant and almost clinical style can give the reader/listener a sense of disquiet but eventually that feeling is replaced with a sort of detached acceptance. Yeah, things are weird, but everyone else in the story seems to be taking it okay, so why worry? Not so with Department of Truth. Simmond’s visuals for the series are erratic, and often completely avant-garde. Characters are scratchy and indistinct, faces are often obscured by shadows. Even Agent Turner’s eyes are usually masked by big, Coke-bottle glasses. Colors are often-washed out and drab. Backgrounds are even more indistinct and often fall away completely in favor of fantastical tableaus and metaphorical landscapes that are equally beautiful and disturbing. Very few comics use splash pages as well as Department of Truth does. Even guest artists like Elsa Charretier, Alison Sampson and David Romero take this disjointed and erratic style and add their own flourish.

Oliver Stone’s film, JFK might be notorious for its sense of self-righteous truth telling, but the film’s pace and editing perfectly captures the thrill of uncovering a conspiracy. The quick editing coupled with rapid fire dialogue creates that sense of “someone has to be told” urgency that makes the idea of believing in a conspiracy compelling. Martin Simmond’s art has the same effect in Department of Truth. From the positively electric first issue (which I completely failed to do justice to above), Cole Turner is never really given a chance to catch his breath. He’s thrust from case file to case file, and while an overarching story is gradually built up, Cole is never really told anything. It’s a full eight or nine issues before anyone even bothers to explain how the whole “belief is reality” thing works, and how the Department can possibly clean up messages like a giant wall of ice in the South Pole. The art and the narrative work in tandem to keep Agent Turner and the reader off balance. Even once the story calms down, the art keeps things indistinct and vague, sometimes literally. This isn’t a story about discovering a conspiracy. It’s a story about the horrifying realization that everything you thought you knew is wrong. And then following that logic to even more unsettling conclusions.

Worldbuilding is not something I often talk about in my reviews. It’s a word that usually refers to the mechanics of science fiction and fantasy settings. It can be a byline for how much effort the creator put into a fictional world to create a sense of verisimilitude. Worldbuilding means different things to different people. To JRR Tolkien, it meant crafting his own languages and histories for all the distinct cultures in his world. For Robert Jordan it was about applying his degree in nuclear physics to hashing out how a magic system might work. For Harry Turtledove it’s about meticulously keeping track of both real world history and the alternate timelines in his novels. To sci-fi novelists it might be explaining how the light speed travel works or the biology of strange aliens. I don’t often like talking about worldbuilding because it always feels like a weird crutch in terms of analysis and critique. Like, speaking personally I don’t want my genre fiction to come with homework. I care about characters, storytelling and theme, not how your magic system operates. But in some cases, the worldbuilding justifies the entire venture. If I have one major critique of Deaprtment of Truth its that the narrative frequently feels the need to stop and explain the origins and details of the conspiracy du jour. Literally in a moment of narrative climax, the story will cease and the characters will give the reader a lecture about the origins of the Satanic Panic, or something. This can be a little tedious for someone like me, the kind of nerd who knows who Jack Parsons is, or that conspiracy theorists are obsessed with the Denver Airport, but I can understand the need to elaborate on this nonsense. But more importantly, these moments of exposition help to flesh out the world and expand on the fundamental ideas of this setting.

In one of the book’s later issues, it’s revealed that first director of the DoT was Frank Capra. As in, the director who produced wholesome American films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Why We Fight. That makes sense when you remember that the conspiracy theories and the cryptids the story focuses on aren’t really the point. The point is that this is a world where belief controls realities. So why wouldn’t the government employ a filmmaker famous for defining a wholesome image of the United States? It’s established that the Soviets employed a similarly influential filmmaker, Dziga Vertov, in a similar role. One of my biggest complaints with a lot of conspiracy narratives is that there’s always an organization whose job it is to sweep everything under the rug. At first, it appears like the DoT is exactly that, but the truth is that they’re a much more explicitly national organization with the goal of ensuring the dominance of a specific narrative. You could argue that they aren’t the good guys, especially when you look back at the later half of the 20th century and how badly those post-WW2 ideas about America began to fray and strain under controversies like Vietnam and Watergate. That’s way more interesting than yet another story about MKUltra, Black Helicopters and secret societies. Plus, it makes the main villains even more terrifying.

The antagonists of Department of Truth are a shadowy organization called Black Hat. Relatively early on, their leader confronts Cole and offers him his view of things. If it’s true that the world is literally shaped by popular opinion, shouldn’t they give the people what they want? It’s an incredibly scary notion because we can see it happening everyday in our own lives. One of the things that makes the early issues of Department of Truth so engrossing is Tynion’s willingness to use Proper Nouns and blunt allusion. In the first issue, the two rich benefactors who corner Cole are clearly modeled on Charles and David Koch, a pair of very rich American conservatives who have made a point of funding a great deal of reactionary media for their own personal gain. Similarly, the third issue is a frankly harrowing short story about the aftermath of a school shooting. The story is a razor sharp condemnation of those radicals who believe that such incidents are fake. QAnon gets namedropped a few times. In one early issue, a reporter for the Washington Post receives a lead that demonstrates how every crackpot theory about President Obama was right. It’s explicitly stated that part of the reason Black Hat is able to keep ahead of the DoT is their effective use of social media to radicalize new groups.

This willingness to name name and ground the story in the here and now is what keeps the horror of this world relatable. It’s no secret that Americans are more politically divided than ever. Part of me wants to be unbiased and say that there are factors on both sides, but it’s painfully obvious that a great of this division is because the American Right has been radicalized by the media they consume. Fox News, Brietbart, OANN, and the the army of Reactionaries on YouTube have made lots of people very wealthy by, as villain of this comic says “giving the people what they want.” Their viewers are kept in an endless cycle of paranoia, and righteous anger, aimed at a culture that they believe exists solely to oppress them and their values. As I’m writing this, the Right has gone on a crusade to protect gas burning stoves from the evil Democratic scheme to…I don’t know, steal them from your homes? Or something? All of this because one doctor on TV said the data shows children living in homes with gas stoves have a much higher propensity to develop asthma. These people are literally living in a different subjective reality from the rest of us. It’s ridiculous but it’s also worth remembering that a very disturbed individual shot up a pizza join in DC only 6 years ago, He did this because he thought they were secretly part of a child trafficking ring. That’s why the first issue feels so terrifying and where a lot of the horror comes from as the rest of the series progresses. It comes from that unnerving feeling in your gut when you realize how horrible things really would be if these deluded souls were right. And it’s the goal of the story’s antagonist to let them be right. And in this comic book, as in real life, that is a terrifying prospect.

Conspiracy theories scare me. Not because of their content or the possibility that they might be right. Conspiracy theories scare me because conspiracy theorists scare me. Seeing someone zealously declare their belief in a reality so fundamentally divergent from my own is an unnerving experience for me. Part of the reason I became a school teacher is because I believe I’m doing an unvarnished good by educating the next generation. Whatever subject I’m teaching, I try my best to impart critical thinking skills and a wariness of popular narratives. In many ways, Department of Truth is one of my nightmares, not only a world where conspiracy theories are or can become real, but one where nothing is fundamentally real. But it’s a also a series that’s very much about thinking critically and questioning authority, the same skills I try to pass on to my students. I’ll admit that Department of Truth isn’t for everyone. It’s a weird series that couches a bunch of surreal big ideas inside a lot of niche knowledge about history and mythology. The characters are very rarely warm or even likable and while I personally love the art, I can totally see a regular comics fan bouncing off the more avant-garde style. But for a very specific type of reader, it might be the best story in its genre. It’s also the kind of non-superhero comic that I would totally recommend to non-comic book readers since the combination of art, mature storytelling and bold, even aggressive stance marks it as special. Or you could avoid it and that’s fine too. Just try not to think about the Men in Black or UFOs too hard…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s