November 25, 2020

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Department of Truth Issues 1-3 by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds

Department of Truth
Written by James Tynion IV
Illustrated by Martin Simmonds
Lettered by Aditya Bidikar
Designed by Dylan Todd
Edited by Steve Foxe
Published by Image Comics

Department of Truth is a comic that I wish didn’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite right. Department of Truth is a fantastic comic that I very much enjoyed and highly recommend to anyone looking for a dark, smart commentary on our current times. What I mean to say is, I wish that the current circumstances in our country/world were such that a book like Department of Truth didn’t need to exist. In order to really dive deep into Department of Truth, I need to discuss spoilers. So, consider yourself warned. But honestly, knowing spoilers for Department of Truth will not make that much of a difference for your enjoyment. A lot of this book is so philosophical and high-concept that knowing that certain things happen doesn’t actually make a difference.

 It’s also impossible for me to discuss the Department of Truth without getting extremely political. This is a book with a clear point of view that I very much appreciate. It's not subtle, but these are not subtle times that we are living in. I don't know how to not be political during the times in which we find ourselves; more to the point, "not being political" is in itself a choice, and an act of tremendous privilege.  

The central premise of Department of Truth is based around the idea that belief itself shapes reality. Not just in an abstract, philosophical sense of "your perception shapes your reality" but in an actual "what people collectively believe can change and warp reality itself" sense. In a better, more just, more rational world, this would be an absolute absurdity that would exist purely in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. It would just be a fun, ridiculous concept. However, let’s look at the reality that we actually do live in.  Right now, we are hopefully very close to the end of the lunacy that has been the Trump presidency. And yet, even though he lost, I still don’t feel at ease. President Trump and his allies are attempting to undermine democracy by bringing case after case after case in order to hopefully, eventually, find something that sticks. He, his staff, the Republican National Committee, and various allies and underlings also continue to issue ridiculous statements such as "he won in a landslide".  The strategy makes no logical sense. None of it makes any sense. However, I’m not even sure if winning is the ultimate goal. They’re trying to sow doubt in democracy, and even more than that they are trying to, in some ways, make people question reality itself.

This sort of behavior is clearly not new for the president, his supporters, and the entire right news misinformation sphere. They have been deliberately spreading false, reckless, absurd information around the country, for years, in an attempt to somehow create their own reality bubble. If you watch Fox News, you would think that the President has done a wonderful job in leading the fight against COVID in this country. The reality (230,000+ dead Americans later), sadly, is of course that nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s not just Fox News, it’s the entire right wing ecosystem of media, far right sites, insane conspiracy theories; the entire movement exists to spread disinformation. It is an attempt to overwrite reality itself.

It is into this climate that the comic Department of Truth enters. The premise of the book, as I mentioned, is (from a logical sense) absurd, but to quote Korg from Thor: Ragnarok, "the only thing that makes sense is that nothing makes sense."  And I can't imagine a better artistic team to bring the "nothing is real and nothing makes sense" world of Department of Truth to life than artist Martin Simmonds, designer Dylan Todd, and letterer Aditya Bidikar.  

Simmonds' work in this comic is an absolute revelation.  As much as I enjoyed his work in Friendo, that comic did not prepare me for the incredible leveling-up by Simmonds in the pages of the Department of Truth.  Simmonds' absolutely staggering work is one of the fundamental elements in creating the absurd, conspiratorial feel of the story. Simmonds' work here is scratchy, angular, sometimes messy, and often downright weird. And all of that weirdness and perceived imprecision works perfectly in telling the story and setting the tone of these issues. The art here is so much about setting the tone. And what is the tone? It's like X-Files, but weirder, and more supernatural, and filtered through the fog of memory and the haze of confusion. 

All of that comes across perfectly in every page. The scratchy lines and the occasionally blotchy or imperfect coloring works seamlessly in this story. This is a weird world, and we are (as readers) going down an insane rabbit hole. So, if Simmonds were to use the clean style he used in Friendo (as colored there by the talented Dee Cunniffe) the art would feel completely wrong. This is a world of walls covered with articles and blurry photos. This is a world full of exaggerated and distorted facial features, because that's how someone might remember them.

This is a world of shadowy rooms, and mysterious gatherings, and people seeing things that couldn't possibly be real. For this world, Simmonds' warped perspective, foggy colors, and varied panel layout provide the perfect disorienting effect for the reader. The colors from Simmonds also perfectly add to the confusing unreality of this story. A lot of these issues is told through the fog of memory, or it's told by reference to old, scratchy videotapes. FBI Agent Cole (the protagonist and our p.o.v. character into this weird world) doesn't entirely believe or understand what he's seen, and the art reflects his memories in that way. In issue 2 (concerning the phenomenon of "Satanic panic") the art (as seen below) becomes completely absurdist, and this really conveys the distorted memories and stories that the children who were "victimized" by Satanic cults told their interviewers.

In additional to feeling like a fever-dream, the whole experience of Department of Truth has an underground, DIY feel that also perfectly complements the story. The colors have a splotchy, imperfect feel to them. The mixed media that Simmonds uses (ink, pencil, watercolor, acrylic) really give the comic a homemade feel which calls to mind the work of Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, but also remind me of punk rock zines from the 80's and 90's. The lines surrounding the word balloons throughout the series deliberately do not at all line up with the word balloons themselves, giving Bidikar's lettering of the dialogue an additional element of seeming disjointed and hand-crafted, adding to the homemade, underground feel of the book. 

The sense that one is reading a secret, underground document works consistently throughout the first three issues of Department of Truth. The covers are black and white and red, and are based on odd repetitions of historical photos that have been photocopied and drawn over; these covers also recall the feel of underground publications from a pre-digital age.  The experience of reading these issues is the experience of going down the conspiracy rabbit-hole, and so it makes sense that it would feel like the sort of material that might be created by conspiracy theorists (either in some sort of pamphlet, or on some sort of murder-board with red string all over it).  Department of Truth really is an example of art and lettering and design working at the highest level to perfectly create a sense of both genre and tone.   

The story begins with a brief prologue in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The story jumps to the present day as FBI agent Cole is being interviewed by two people in a shadowy room. Cole investigates internet conspiracy theories as part of his work, and he recently attended a flat earth conference, sponsored by two oil billionaire brothers (that are clearly based on the Koch brothers). He makes his way into their good graces, and eventually they show him a video of something that shouldn’t be possible. Footage of the moon landing, appearing to be a fake (as it appears to show Stanley Kubrick off to the side, directing the whole endeavor).  And then Cole gets on a plane that goes and goes and goes for a very long time and eventually the plane lands in front of the wall of ice in the Antarctic, that apparently exists at the edge of the world. Apparently, the world is flat? 

The senior agent explains to Cole that of course the world is round, this is an easily scientifically provable fact. But apparently the collective beliefs of people are powerful. So powerful in fact, that if enough people were to believe that the world was flat, that would make it so (like the Tibetan concept of a Tulpa, a being or object created through belief). Reality would essentially be overwritten such that the world was always flat. And that’s where the Department of Truth comes in. Their job is to stop conspiracies and fringe ideas from gaining too much strength; essentially, their job is to keep reality the way it's supposed to be. Cole also saw a woman there, who seems to have some sinister role in altering reality.

Cole is of course taken aback by all of this, and in the second issue of the series he realizes that he has a personal connection to cases that the Department has been exploring. He was one of the kids in the 1980s that purportedly was taken in by some sort of Satanic cult (when this was a thing people were actually scared about). Cole realizes that there are some elements in his story that disturbingly line up with some other phenomena that people have been experiencing now. What Cole and his fellow agent Ruby realize is that there may in fact be more organized sinister forces at work in spreading misinformation (beyond of course all of the actual people that are in the business of spreading misinformation). 

The most recent issue of Department of Truth is pretty intense and is, frankly, not an easy read. Most of the issue is concerned with a woman whose son was killed in a school shooting. One would hope that her son's death would be the end of her suffering, but it is not.  After the shooting, she begins to be regularly harassed by conspiracy theorists and "gun enthusiasts". They accuse her son of being a crisis actor and the entire shooting and aftermath is suggested to be a false flag operation. Those are terms that she didn’t know until all of this happened, but she’s quickly bombarded with the idea that her son is in fact alive somewhere, and this is all part of a massive conspiracy to sway public opinion in favor of gun control. The pressure from these people is so relentless that she eventually finds herself beginning to question her own reality, and wonder if maybe in fact her son is alive and the entire thing was a staged hoax. She is sent a video which appears to suggest that she and her son were involved in staging the entire thing, which is where the Department of Truth agents step in they destroy the video and any evidence that her son could possibly still be alive.  The idea here seems to be that her anguish and confusion is willing into existence the idea that she and her son and all the other purported victims of gun violence are in fact part of some enormous conspiracy.

Tynion has really hit on a fundamental idea in this story. They say that history is written by the victors, but it's a strange thing to watch people try to fight that battle in real time.  Though I'm not sure if "writing history" is the goal, or if there's something else at play.  It seems (at least in part) to be about making sense of the world.  As Cole says in issue 1:

It's a desire to reject the aspects of life that feel too complicated and build a more comfortable reality they can understand. And more than that...it's a sense...that if they're right, and they're onto the truth that's been kept secret all this time...well, then they're heroes, aren't they?

Everyone wants to feel like they're the hero of their own story. And people want to understand their lives in ways that make sense to them and also reinforce the point that they are fundamentally good people.  So, believing in something absurd, and holding fast to that belief, and insisting that this absurd belief is the real reality. Well, that frankly describes religion generally, but it definitely describes conspiracy theories.  Such as with the ideas of crisis actors and false flags and the like. People tell themselves a story, that gun owners in this country are under siege, and that any attempt to exercise any form of control will result in all guns being taken away. So, these people who love their guns and are simply standing up for their Second Amendment rights as Americans - they're the real heroes. And people who want to take away their guns will do anything, and sink to any level in order to take away those guns. Presumably these people want to continue to think of themselves as good people, and not people who condone mass murder.  So, when there is a school shooting, rather than confront the reality that their precious guns have been used to kill children, they decide that the reality must be that there was no actual school shooting at all. These people are actors, and these children are all reading from scripts. 

While these ideas are (to me, and hopefully to you) reprehensible, they provide some sort of logic to justify a world where radical gun rights supporters are heroes.  But it's not enough to simply believe this idea for yourself. If no one else believes it, then gun owners are still murderers with the blood of children on their hands. So people embrace these ideas, and they promote them on the darkest corners of the internet and then they make their way into more mainstream news sources. And they harass the families of these so-called victims. Because in their minds, these fakers are the real villains, and they're the real heroes. 

Do people really believe the conspiracy theories that they promote?  And are they really trying to convince everyone that what they believe is true?  I don't know (and a lot of me very much does not care).  Some of them might have convinced themselves, and some might promote these ideas in order to sow doubt and confusion.  The goal being to spread enough misinformation so that the absurd conspiracies can sink in and at least leave some sort of impact. Not enough to necessarily make the larger society believe everything that the conspiracy theorists tell them, but enough to cause people to doubt everything. If there’s no reality, if everything is absurd, and if you bombard people with enough information or misinformation or propaganda or lies, eventually some of that will stick, regardless of the truth of it. 

And if nothing else, the constant stream of misinformation will wear people down, such that they might believe that anything is possible and nothing is true. This is maybe the most insidious idea that Tynion and company are getting at in Department of Truth. The objective of those spreading misinformation may in fact be to win people over to their side. But, even more cynically, it may be to simply produce a population that rejects the very ideas of truth and reality entirely.  

One idea I'm very curious about in Department of Truth is the idea of the "Black Hat", which seems to be some sort of sinister force behind the spread of misinformation.  The story seems to be suggesting organized, sinister actors that may be behind some of the more prominent efforts to warp and change reality. I'm more than a little skeptical of that idea, but I'm absolutely willing to give the creative team here the benefit of the doubt. I think the suggestion that there is some central organized "villain" behind the spread of misinformation is an idea that lets people off the hook too easily.  I think of the end of Wonder Woman movie. Diana is convinced that if she can just kill Ares, it will stop World War I, and more generally stop wars. She thinks that the human drive to wage war is something that can simply be defeated by killing a bad guy.  But she's wrong.  Killing Ares does not and will not end the wars.  Similarly, I am dubious of the notion of a central villain that's responsible for the spread of misinformation. There are for sure prominent actors, but I don't want to let regular people who spread misinformation off the hook too easily.  But like I said, I give the team here the benefit of the doubt, and I'm sure that whatever they have planned for the story, it won't be facile. I recently reviewed another book by Tynion, Something is Killing The Children.  It's a horror story that, like the best horror stories, is a metaphor and allegory for the current times in which we are living. Tynion doesn't pull his punches there, and I don't think he will do so here either. 

The spread of doubt and confusion is what I believe is going on with the President and his allies. I don't think they necessarily expect to win. I think the goal is to create uncertainty, and to de-legitimize the upcoming Biden presidency before it even starts. It already feels like millions of Americans are living in separate realities. So in their reality, Trump will be the rightful winner in 2020 "by a landslide", and reality, well, reality is just something to be manipulated just like anything else.  It's insidious, and the current reality we're actually living in doesn't feel at all different from the world that Tynion is creating in Department of Truth.  Honestly.  

What the creative team is saying here isn't that much of a stretch. Are there people all over the world who are hell-bent on spreading conspiracy, lies, misinformation, and "fake news"?  Clearly. Do they have an agenda?  Of course.  Does that have a significant impact on what people believe to be the truth or reality of the world around them? Absolutely.  So if the ideas behind Department of Truth make you uncomfortable?  Congratulations, you're not a sociopath. 

Department of Truth can be a challenging read when examined as being fiction that's barely fiction. It's not exactly escapist fun.  But not everything should be pure escapism. I appreciate and respect the way that Tynion and the entire creative team are reckoning with uncomfortable, terrifying aspects of our society. Department of Truth an important, insightful, and timely read. It also happens to be a stunning, incredibly realized work of art. If you're looking for weird, gorgeously bizarre, provocative comics, I can't think of a better recommendation than the Department of Truth.