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A woman in a fashionable red scarf and gloves pulls down her dark sunglasses, revealing there are just two black Xs where her eyes should be, in a variant cover for The Department of Truth #1, Image Comics (2020). Image: Jenny Frison/Image Comics

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How to make a conspiracy thriller comic in 2020

The Department of Truth dares to walk the line between escapism and dread

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory — as long as it doesn’t get too real.

But in the world of The Department of Truth, that’s exactly the problem. If enough people believe in an idea, it can rewrite reality. The oddly compelling new series from Image Comics follows the government agents who are tasked with preventing the most dangerous conspiracy theories from becoming real.

Really real.

Who is making The Department of Truth?

The Department of Truth comes from James Tynion IV, who’s also currently working on a little book you might have heard of called Batman, with artist Martin Simmonds (Dying is Easy). The comic is lettered and designed quite creatively by Aditya Bidikar and Dylan Todd, respectively.

What is The Department of Truth #1 about?

In our first issue, we meet special agent Cole Turner, an FBI agent who mostly teaches about the spread of memes and conspiracy theories through online alt-right communities. Circumstances toss him into the purview of the Department of Truth, a government organization that seeks to stop those who would create delusions on such a grand scale that they alter reality itself.

A conspiracy theory book? For fun? Now?

“Say it,” says a man smoking a cigarette, “Say it so I know you still remember.” A handcuffed man pauses, and then says “Up is down and down is up.” in The Department of Truth #1, Image Comics (2020). Image: James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds/Image Comics

Tynion says that the inspiration for The Department of Truth began with the 2016 presidential election.

“I was definitely one of the people who walked away from that day reeling,” he told Polygon. “I hadn’t seen it coming, and I needed to grapple with the fact that I had effectively built my own fictional bubble, with its own slanted history. I started reading a lot of non-fiction books about contemporary American history, all the predecessors to the current moment [...] I saw that there has always been a struggle to define the truth and to shape the present day as a culmination of that truth.”

Once he began considering history “through the lens of who wants who to believe what,” Tynion said, “I started seeing conspiracy theories as the weird byproducts of that. They are the rationalizations people make to believe the world is a certain way.” But while conspiracy theories are a testament to the creativity of the human mind and our ability to rationalize away things we don’t like, Tynion was clear on one point: “They are also wildly dangerous.”

He said that making conspiracies entertaining was “the single trickiest thing” about writing The Department of Truth.

“We’re telling a story about the relationship between power and information,” he told Polygon, “and to do that, we’re focusing on the human characters directly influenced by that intense struggle. [...] The onus is on us to handle how we deliver that information, and how we frame it, in a deliberate and careful way. It’s a fine line to walk, but I think we’re up to the challenge.”

What kind of conspiracy theories are we talking here?

The first issue prominently features flat earthers and moon landing deniers, but I couldn’t resist asking Tynion for his favorite obscure conspiracy theory. His answer was the Phantom Time Hypothesis, “which states that the Catholic Church moved the calendar forward 300 years back in the first millennium, and the entire Medieval period is almost entirely fictional. The idea that Charlemagne was invented by the Church, and that it’s really closer to 1720 than it is 2020. But we’re tackling that in issue #6.”

Is The Department of Truth #1 good?

“Did you see it,” Cole asks Agent Ruby, “or am I just completely losing my mind?” She gives him a Look. “Yeah, OK,” he says resignedly, “You’re going to kill me.” “If you keep asking questions,” she quips, “Yeah, probably,” in The Department of Truth #1, Image Comics (2020). Image: James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds/Image Comics

Tynion’s claim to fame may be his work on the Gotham city books at DC Comics, but his creator owned work contains a series of gems. “’70s thriller” and “impressionistic art style” might not be an obvious match, but Simmonds’ style works brilliantly for the tone, painting a lush and yet eerily vague picture of a world where where every room has shadows in the corner and reality is always a little blurry.

It’s hard to say a lot about The Department of Truth #1 without spoiling it — especially the last page reveal, of a central character who was the victim of a previous reality rewrite. But Tynion and Simmonds’ start their book about uncertainty on solid footing, sewing plot threads to pick up later, and introducing a likable cast and some instantly hatable, distressing villains. Still, they’re never flippant about their subject matter, and it’s that dose of seriousness that keeps the fantasy from losing all relevance.

One panel that popped

A tiny private plane soars through a vast abstract painted landscape, ringed with latitude and longitude spirals, in The Department of Truth #1, Image Comics (2020). Image: James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds/Image Comics

I can’t even tell you what this is, it’d be a spoiler.

A distorted image of John F. Kennedy, his eyes covered with red Xs. The cover of The Department of Truth #1, Image Comics (2020).
| Image: Martin Simmonds/Image Comics

The Department of Truth #1

  • $4

Prices taken at time of publishing.

Cole Turner has studied conspiracy theories all his life, but he isn’t prepared for what happens when he discovers that all of them are true, from the JFK assassination to flat Earth theory and reptilian shapeshifters. One organization has been covering them up for generations. What is the deep, dark secret behind the Department of Truth?

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