The first conspiracy theory wormhole I really remember falling down was the one about Andrew WK being replaced by an actor, either because of contractual disagreements, or the Illuminati, or something more insidious, depending on who you ask. It was the commitment to the verisimilitude of the fiction that really drew me in. I enjoy Andrew WK; when I really when I get pumped up, I put on "I Get Wet," and the power-metal synth-pop ballads about partying make all my problems go away. I'm also endlessly entertained by his shtick as the Greasy Guy In A White T-Shirt Who's Also A Self-Help Guru And A Piano Prodigy But Mostly Just Makes Rock Songs About Partying.
Who the hell would invest so much time in a conspiracy about that guy?!
Of course, this was some 15 years before QAnon became prevalent. But also a weirdly perfect setup to explain the appeal of Department of Truth, a new Image comic book written by James Tynion IV with fittingly impressionistic art by Martin Simmonds. It's an X-Files-esque story, wherein FBI agent Cole Turner gets recruited into a new, different government organization: the Department of Truth. Lead by Lee Harvey Oswald—yes really but also maybe not, we'll get to that—the Department of Truth is the part of the intelligence community tasked with keeping objective reality stable and intact. With making sure that conspiracy theories stay as fringe beliefs, and nothing more.
Clearly, this task is easier said than done.
Like Fox Mulder's poster declaring, "I want to believe," the world of Department of Truth is highly susceptible to the power of belief—and that's why conspiracy theories pose such a danger. If enough people believe that—say, hypothetically, for instance—that Andrew WK is an Illuminati crisis actor, or that the Earth is flat, or that all Democrats are part of wealthy cabal of Reptilian alien pedophiles, then those people can, in fact, will that reality into existence. It's the job of the Department of Truth to cut off those insidious beliefs at the head before the infection (infestation?) grows. As soon as the organization gets word that, somewhere, things are literally Not Quite What They Seem anymore, an agent is sent in to "correct" reality, in any way they can.
It's a heady concept, and yet, also one that feels frighteningly relevant to the world right now—where indeed, it can often seem like people are living in completely separate versions of reality. In the case of Department of Truth, this is the very literal reality that the agents have to deal with. It's a captivating premise, and one that's also ripe with complications. Is Director Oswald actually the Lee Harvey Oswald? Or is he himself a manifestation of someone else's beliefs? Who gets to decide what actually counts as "objective reality?" What about the lies we tell ourselves in order to cope with the chaos of the world? If the strength of a belief can change our reality, than one's own self-delusions can literally change the world, for better and for worse. Or, what if a mysterious cabal tries to use that power of belief to manipulate people into literally changing reality to suit their own insidious purposes?
Questions like these are both the appeal, and the most frustrating part, of Department of Truth. Much of the first 4 issues—the fifth one is out this week, completing the first trade paperback collection—is dedicated to essentially presenting these questions. We meet Cole Turner as a new agent, getting answers about the world of the story as he familiarizes himself with the world of the story. But with one exception (which we'll get to), most of that setup is comprised of talking heads. This is certainly helped along by Simmonds abstractedly noir-ish visuals. The art has a gritty vibe that feels sketched in and obscured like the edges of a Lynchian nightmare—which is, frankly, perfect for this kind of story.
That being said, the impressionistic art doesn't help the characters in the book escape their cypher-like nature. We don't even get to know Cole that much as our protagonist, other than the fact that he's gay and married and used to teach about online extremism at Quantico. There's obviously something special about him that makes him important to the Department of Truth, or the conspiracy-behind-the-conspiracy that they're chasing. But he, and the story, are so caught up in the philosophical abstractions and world-building that we don't really get a chance to know the people yet.
This is true even in the most stand-out chapter of the series so far. Issue #3 focuses on a mother who lost her son in a school shooting. Wrecked with grief, she starts spiraling downward, searching for any answer to explain the awful tragedy that befell her family. Soon enough, she's a true believer that the whole thing was a false flag operation…and as that conspiracy starts to become real, it threatens to destabilize her entire community. This is the only time we really get to see a "normal" day-in-life of the Department of Truth. And while the mother is still kind of a stereotype of a white suburban mom, the story is gut-wrenching enough to make you really care about her. You almost don't want the Department of Truth to shatter the illusion (delusion?), because of how much it means to her.
Overall, Department of Truth is still a story worth experiencing, because of how it dares to change the way that we approach conspiracy thrillers in the world right now*. It's a popular genre of storytelling that isn't going away. But there's also something irresponsible in reiterating this idea that everything is in fact a tightly organized conspiracy, during a time a QAnon adherents are literally storming government buildings and assassinating mob leaders. Five years ago, the British version of Utopia was exciting even as it bordered on something uncomfortable; in 2020, the Amazon Prime American remake just came off as a manifested wet dream for people who don't believe the science of COVID-19. Department of Truth presents a blueprint for conspiracy thrillers in an age of conspiracies, and I'm excited to see where it goes.
*Admittedly, I may be more hyper-attuned to the nuances and complications of writing this kind of story at this time. Last year, I finished writing a 500-page novel about an addiction support group for conspiracy theorists, with a conspiracy at the center that ends up destroying reality, so I've spent a lot of time grappling with these same ideas. Hopefully, that book will sell soon, and I can post about it here! (hint hint to any agents or publishers who are reading this right now)