The Department of Truth: The Complete Conspiracy Book 1 (2023)
Reprints The Department of Truth #1-17
Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Martin Simmonds, Elsa Charretier, Tyler Boss, and John J. Pearson
Truth is difficult to come by these days, especially in the United States. I speak from experience. I was homeschooled throughout my childhood, the eldest of four children who were also entirely homeschooled. My parents’ basis for this decision was fueled by the Satanic Panic of the 1980s; I was born in 1981. They were Born Again Christians coming out of the Jesus Freak era of the 1970s, where the Christian Right fully secured its power base, preying on young people disillusioned by the previous decade of collapse. Growing up, our house had the expected paraphernalia of such beliefs. There were, of course, narrow-minded curricula from the usual suspects: Bob Jones University Press and Abeka. It was common during the afternoon to hear the hate-filled spewing of Rush Limbaugh coming from a radio in the kitchen. He was often joined by prestigious reactionaries and fascists like G. Gordon Liddy.
Then there was the genre of Christian radio with hosts like Bob Larson, who would tout on-air “exorcisms.” In retrospect, as an adult who understands the foundations of material reality, I now know that these were either A) severely mentally ill people whose disabilities were manifesting as a result of the framework they had been instructed in as children, B) pranks callers or C) staged phone calls by people working for Larson. We also had magazines like Focus on the Family and its sibling publication Plugged In (a newsletter on the evils of mainstream film, television, and music) arriving in our mailbox regularly. My parents were paid members of the HSLDA (Homeschool Legal Defense Association) and held lawyer Jay Sekulow as part of their board before he served as a member of Trump’s legal team. They would send mailers warning parents of teachers in public schools instructing their students to practice literal witchcraft. My view of the world outside my tiny bubble in rural Tennessee growing up was quite horrible.
I found escape from this destructive fantasy in both books and comic books. At the time, I couldn’t explain why but inside, I knew so much of what my parents and the media they listened to was feeding us was bullshit. Now, I reflect and realize that it was related in some way to my autism. My whole life, I have looked at people and texts and felt like I could somehow see the authenticity or the inauthenticity, and every time I have been right. I’m not better than anyone, just that in some issues, my perception is attuned to something; my neurodivergence lets me slip outside the framework to see the world as it is rather than those in power would like to present it. I am not extrasensory; I can ignore the filter and see reality. For some people, the fantasy these conspiracies presented was a comfort from the unfortunate truth, so they sunk further into the mire until now we stand back and observe the States and see a landscape of horror. The world is chaotic and dark, and until we are willing to dive in and fight back against the darkness to create a better world for everyone, we will keep getting lost in the lies.
FBI Agent Cole Turner has seen something that challenges his perception of reality. While on assignment to investigate flat earth conspiracies, he attends a convention. His feigned interest draws him deeper into an inner circle that includes analogs for the Koch Brothers. They invite him aboard their private jet to see the edge of the flat Earth, and he sees it. A group of agents from some alphabet org show up and gun down everyone except for Cole. Instead, he is offered a spot in this seemingly hidden group, The Department of Truth, a governmental agency bent on controlling the outbreak of conspiracies. Here’s the world’s truth: all conspiracies become true when enough people believe in them. There is a magic that courses through our world, and when enough people become devoted to an idea, that idea manifests as material reality. This means the Earth is both flat and not flat depending on the mental state of the person you ask.
Cole is thrown for an even bigger loop when he learns the identity of the head of the Department of Truth: Lee Harvey Oswald. How the man who supposedly killed JFK is still alive and working for the government is one of many stories that Tynion plays out throughout these first seventeen issues. At the forefront, though, is Cole’s experiences as a child. He attended a school where the staff was accused of drugging children and making them participate in satanic rituals. Cole’s father never believed, yet his mother, a psychologist who saw an opportunity to write a book about the experience, went along with the accusations. For a long time, Cole believed and would have nightmares about a tall, grinning, devilish man who implored Cole to eat the flesh of babies. These rituals never happened, yet that demonic man became real and is still out there somewhere, holding some answers to what really went on in Cole’s childhood.
I’ve become a fan of Tynion’s writing in the last year, and none of it has struck as strong a chord with me as this one. It is one of the most socially relevant comics I have ever read and showcases an author who profoundly understands the pathology of the broken Western psyche. One of the most heart-wrenching stories comes in the third issue collected here, which focuses on the aftermath of a Sandy Hook-style mass shooting. Mary, the mother of one of the children murdered in the shooting, lives inundated with the ramblings of an Alex Jones-type and his followers who scream obscenities as she goes about her life, decrying her as part of false flag conspiracy.
Mary eventually receives a dossier from a group called Black Hat with evidence, including videos of her and her son auditioning for a covert organization to participate in the “staged shootings.” She has no memory of doing this, but it’s all on film, so it has to be true, right? To not fall into suicidal depression, this poor woman falls deep into the conspiracy rabbit hole, believing that she was a willing participant and they must have brainwashed her after the fact. Cole and his partner take a backseat for this one, focusing mainly on Mary’s breakdown and ending in a manner that would give Rod Serling chills.
Popular conspiracies surrounding UFOs are brought in, mixed with accounts of Men in Black and the Mothman. Midway through the collection we get a two-part story about the hunt for Bigfoot that left me a crying mess. While Cole and associates are hunting down the Bigfoot idea that manifested in reality, they are paralleled by an elderly man who has spent his whole life trying to catch the beast. Through rambling letters to his estranged children, we learn about why he became devoted to this, how his late wife humored him at first but as time went on realized this was a dangerous mental illness, and now he’s alone in the world penning a letter that he’s going to discover the truth and be at peace finally. Tynion knows precisely how to reach in and tear out our hearts, teaching us that even if we completely disagree with these people, to remember that they are broken humans at the core. They need love and people to look after them.
The collection throws some interesting curveballs at us in that the book’s final third includes some issues from earlier in the run that was held back when collected. In this way, we have the first complex stage of the conspiracy underneath it all laid out. People we thought we could trust are revealed to be much more than initially told. Lee Harvey Oswald’s role in the JFK assassination becomes much more precise, and Cole’s PTSD from his childhood caught inside the Satanic Panic is unraveled. The Department of Truth comes with the highest recommendations I could give, one of the best ongoing comics I’ve read in a long while. It manages to walk that line of being genuinely entertaining as a mystery box scenario but also tying its ideas to the ongoing collapse of reality in the minds of Americans we see happening now. If you need to pick this one up.