The Department of Truth is set in a world where, if enough people believe it, a conspiracy theory will manifest and become reality. For example, in one storyline, the characters have to hunt down Bigfoot, who wanders the world as a hazy cryptid because cryptozoologists have spread the word about his existence. The comic book series centers on Cole, an FBI agent recruited into the Department of Truth, a US agency tasked with trying to rein in this alternative reality.
Across 22 issues, The Department of Truth has taken a scalpel to many American conspiracy theories. The narrative is structured around long monologues in which characters retrace their history, evoking the info-dump process that draws many into the conspiracy theories they devote their lives to. The comic is also crafted to visually evoke the destabilizing feeling of one’s reality becoming unmoored: The general look of most pages is that of glued-together shredded documents, and you’re never entirely sure what you’re looking at, as distortion features so heavily in the comic. The speech boxes rarely fit in their outlines, as if we’re reading something improperly censored or dug up from some dusty, moldering archive.
A reader experiencing The Department of Truth for the first time will likely make connections to the collage-heavy art movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, like surrealism or Pop art. The most direct influence seems to be Brought to Light, a “graphic docudrama” anthology by Alan Moore, Bill Sinkiewicz, Joyce Brabner, Tom Yeates, and Paul Mavrides from 1988, whose style was partially influenced by the propaganda comics the CIA once issued in countries like Nicaragua to disrupt leftist movements. In turn, Moore and Sinkiewicz’s contribution remixed the craft of sequential propaganda to explore the history of American intelligence agencies, which The Department of Truth does as well while expanding its scope to cover a wider swath of American history, bringing out more of the pedagogical angle of the CIA comics.
What I love about The Department of Truth is that it tackles not just all manner of American conspiracy theories but the development of Western propaganda itself. In certain moments, the series helps show how easily those who might never believe in myths about the earth being flat are fully invested in wholly false histories of imperialism and colonialism. The Department of Truth compels its readers to question why they believe anything and how they came to believe it. I talked to the team behind The Department of Truth—writer James Tynion IV, artist Martin Simmonds, letterer Aditya Bidikar, designer Dylan Todd, and editor Steve Foxe—about their process and what makes the comic form so uniquely tailored to cover conspiracy theories. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brought to Light, for example, is another influence, most notably the Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz parts. As with many comic book titles of that era, mixed-media art was fairly common. There’s a kinetic, expressive aesthetic that tends to show itself wherever mixed media is used, and it’s an approach James and I both agreed on prior to any imagery being created for the series. It’s a style that certainly lends itself to The Department of Truth, a kind of found-footage aesthetic that really helped to enhance the paranoid feeling of looking in via CCTV. That grounding in a gritty, real-world visuality sets a perfect platform for the contrasting, and often obscure, off-kilter elements.
The big sin of JFK is that it’s a little too sure it knows the answer at the bottom of the rabbit hole. The guiding principle of making The Department of Truth was not to make a comic that a reader might present as the reason they believe in a dangerous conspiracy. The goal of the comic is more to show how seductive the world around conspiracies can be, and how the powerful use conspiratorial belief to manipulate the public for their own gain.
MLK: Part of my love for The Department of Truth is how it shows what I’ve come to think of as the texture of conspiracy, similar to how Kazuo Ishiguro captures the texture of memory in The Remains of the Day.
The primary nature of the world of The Department of Truth is that it’s ever-shifting, which led to our default balloon style, with each balloon overwritten by another, slightly different one. With the caption boxes, it was James’s idea to have them look like written captions rather than spoken ones, so I took that idea as far as I could, and I’ve tailored each character’s caption style to what I feel their “default document” would be. As reference, I dug into typewritten manuscripts, film scripts, police transcriptions, diary entries, and so on.
MLK: Why do you think the comic form might be well suited for that, as opposed to the other ways we encounter conspiracies?
AB: The first conspiracy theory I was exposed to was in early 2002, when a friend of mine showed me Adobe Photoshop for the first time, as well as a grainy conspiracy video about how George W. Bush had engineered 9/11. I was a generally gullible teenager, but I still felt there was something “off”—that someone figured out an underlying structure to an idea wasn’t as important as why they reached for that idea in the first place. I looked it up and found that this was only one of several theories going around. I realized that this was coming from people who didn’t want to live with the senselessness of the tragedy. They wanted meaning out of it.
There is something peculiarly American about both the serial killer and the conspiracy theory, but they aren’t actually unique to that country. Most countries, communities, castes, or whatever grouping you want to classify the world with have some kind of borderline delirious ideas about out-groups. I think what makes America a beacon for conspiracy theories is that the out-group becomes a far more slippery concept, and conspiracy theories are a great way to fill those gaps. You have real questions about the order of the world, and they are not easy to answer, but a conspiracy theory plugs the gap just fine.
The stereotypical image we now have of a conspiracy theorist is someone sitting in front of their computer in the dead of the night, lost to the world, focused only on the glare of their screen, taking in walls of text, overwhelmed by a newfound understanding of the world and slightly breathless by how the disparate jigsaw fits together. Every time I reread an issue of The Department of Truth, it makes me feel like that. When it presents these theories, you’re not entirely sure the logic all goes together (because, of course, it doesn’t), but you can see the design of the tapestry. You can see movement on the periphery of your sight, another potential part of the system. But if you move your eyes, you can no longer hold it all together.
Hilary Mantel said that history is not actually the past; it is the method we have of organizing our ignorance of the past. It is no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth. The map is not the territory, and the pattern, whether it makes sense of the world or not, is not the truth.
JT: Most comics I write try their damnedest to play within a traditional structure. They use dialogue and paneling to guide the reader’s eye. With The Department of Truth, we deliberately try to throw some of that out of the window at key moments. When we enter one of the paranoid conspiratorial info dumps, oftentimes we’re setting out to overwhelm the reader. The storytelling becomes more abstract, and the density of words on the page increases. Ultimately, you end up taking away more of a feeling of the conspiracy than the specific information we’re giving you about it. Comics can accomplish that kind of abstraction better than most other media. Readers can control how quickly or slowly they move through the words and images until they reach the next sequence, in which the storytelling is more grounded and literal. You get the readers to participate in breaking rules with you.
SF: It’s been funny, too, to recognize that the long monologues are probably the single biggest make-or-break point for a certain type of reader, who just doesn’t want to see comics veer off from more traditional paneling and flow. And that’s not inherently closed-minded, depending on your philosophy about what constitutes sequential storytelling, but I usually find these moments to be some of the most visually exciting, since Martin and Aditya get the most flexibility to play and explore and twist the readers’ expectations.
MS: Flexibility—to be able to play around with structure and appear to break the rules—is at the core of what makes The Department of Truth’s structure and design unique. Chaos on a page or a sequence of panels is generally bookended by pages that employ formal structuring. It’s that contrast which helps to amp up the moments of intensity and disorientation. I like to think of the abstract approach to some pages as a kind of visual disinformation, a way of creating some form of additional noise in, around, or over the more direct aspects of the storytelling. That, to me, is comics and conspiracy echoing each other on the page.
MLK: The art style of The Department of Truth is heavily reliant on collage. What explains that choice?
MS: My relationship with collage goes back to my love of comic artists Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, and Jon J Muth, mixed-media artist Robert Rauschenberg, and graphic designer David Carson, among others. Before The Department of Truth, I always worked digitally, trying to replicate the look of traditional art and mixed media, but the switch to an analog approach seemed the obvious choice for this title. The similarities between collage and conspiracies lay in the power to distort an image or an idea. Photo-collage could be a way to take something we all recognize as mundane and distort its meaning, much like the way conspiracies come from distorting a truth. Part of the appeal of collage is the imperfections that naturally occur: Glue spreads to obscure a part of a panel; elements overlap to create double exposures; collage pieces layered on top of each other cover up the parts we want to obscure or distort.
DT: For me, the idea of taking a lot of different pieces and forcing them to make some sort of artistic sense is exactly the same thing conspiracy theories do for reality. There was a time, back when bookstores were a thing, when I’d scan the conspiracy-theory books and see how they all managed to take the same bits—JFK, MK-ULTRA, reptoids, cryptids—and try to come up with a grand unifying conspiracy theory. It’s a collage of half-truths and disinformation.
MLK: I find that The Department of Truth dissects the very allure and function of conspiracy theories, particularly in the American context, quite well. But you have been criticized for perhaps irresponsibly putting a spotlight on these unseemly stories.
JT: The core thesis of the comic is that America itself is a conspiracy theory. This land was settled by religious extremists and populated by hucksters and charlatans. We’ve always been storytellers and fabulists chasing fortune and paradise, willing to believe anything and everything that brings us closer to our goals. We are not American because our ancestors have been here for thousands of years. The thing that makes us all American is not a common blood or a tie to the land; it is simply a shared idea. And that idea is malleable, and in the last decade, I think a lot of Americans have felt how unstable it all is.
If the series has a goal, beyond just exploring what it feels like to live in a world dictated by increasingly disturbing beliefs, that goal is to make our readers wary of people who claim to have all the answers, who know the hidden truths. To question authority and reject being swept up in a fantasy just because they find it comforting. Sure, sometimes there are in fact shadowy rooms filled with people making malevolent decisions. But the truth is usually more complicated than that, and while grappling with the chaos of living in the world isn’t easy, it’s our responsibility to live in that discomfort.
SF: I saw it suggested recently, in the Garbage Day newsletter, that QAnon is “a mass-coping mechanism for living in a world with too much content.” Who among us hasn’t felt that daily life is overloaded with “content”? If conspiracy theory is a radicalized, irrational belief, then I think the core idea of nations, patriotism, and collective belonging in an institution built around lines on a map—in any sort of “community” based on something so arbitrary and so out of our individual control—borders on conspiracy.
I can only speak for myself here, but I feel pretty strongly that the role of art is not to be didactic, and that, short of explicitly bigoted manifestos, “responsibility” is rarely a useful metric for assessing the good or bad execution of an artistic project. If you read the series and pay attention, it’s difficult to walk away feeling like we’re endorsing any of these conspiracy theories, even the “benign” ones. The Sasquatch arc is fun because it’s about hunting monsters, sure. But it’s also about the pursuit of this impossible thing destroying a man’s life and fracturing him off from his loved ones.