With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week, we’re taking a look at one of the most haunting recent horror thrillers in comics.
It was a concept that could easily go wrong — and quickly. However, when Image’s Department of Truth premiered, it was instantly clear that this wasn’t just exactly the book that was promised, but also something very special. Coming from James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, Aditya Bidikar, and Dylan Todd, the series told a story about a world where all the conspiracy theories could become real and the agency preventing that from taking over the world.
Agent Cole Turner is an FBI Analyst and Quantico lecturer specializing in radicalization and extreme nationalism. When an undercover assignment reveals a horrifying truth, he is recruited into the Department of Truth, an organization created to protect reality itself. He quickly finds himself drawn into a horrifying world of monsters and conspiracy theories, as well as a terror from his own past that may consume him.
Tony Thornley: Man, I think I promised you that we were going to finish out the month with a bang, and after re-reading this book, I know we delivered. I think Department of Truth might be one of the most horrifying comics that’s been published in the last decade. Think the thing that scared me the most was how close this is to reality.
This is a comic not just about conspiracy theories but misinformation and how it spreads. In the world of the series, if enough people believe it, it starts to manifest in the real world, and cause problems, and then if even more believe it, it basically re-writes history and reality. There are references to Flat Earthers, Moon Landing Truthers, QAnon, the Cold War, the Satanic Panic, Sandy Hook Truthers … I mean, we’ve talked about sci-fi that’s fifteen minutes removed from the present day? This is horror that’s standing just outside of our peripheral vision.
Brendan Allen: There’s a line in the first few pages, “They want reality to make sense in a way that makes them important, and special,” that really sums up a whole lot of the crap that’s happening in the world today. You mentioned the Flat Earthers and Q and other “truthers.” I want to add COVID science deniers and anti-vaxxers into that mix. It’s all the same mentality. That need to feel like you’ve got more of a handle on life and circumstance than anyone really ever could. That’s “real life” scary, because it doesn’t take much searching to find these folks all around you, and for the most part, they’re normal, functioning humans otherwise.
Tony: Oh yeah, absolutely. This might be one of the most timely comics I’ve ever read for exactly that reason. It’s barely even allegorical.
I feel like this is one of those perfect synthesis of creative teams. It’s one of those books that I don’t think would be nearly as good without any member of the team. Tynion’s scripts feed into Simmonds’ art, and Bidikar’s lettering work is some of the most stunning I’ve seen in years.
Brendan: This is definitely one of those books. Every element is so perfectly fitted, it’s like one person did everything.
Tony: I think one of the most effective things Tynion does is weaving a tapestry with his words. This is one of the most exposition and narration heavy comics on the market right now, and I actually enjoy that. This comic, paired with Tynion’s Nice House On The Lake with Alvaro Martinez, is the reason I think he’s the best writer in comics right now.
If you want to look for why, I think you need to talk about issue #3, and how Tynion writes the most frightening and heart-breaking issue of the volume. It takes a single, tragic event of the last 15 years, then the conspiracy theories around it, and shows how misinformation can break and twist a person until they believe the lies are the truth. The horror of this mother, the parent of a child killed in a school shooting, slowly dabbling in the conspiracies, then the misinformation, until there’s doubt there. Then she gets a package from the villains at the heart of the piece, Black Hat, and they feed on the misinformation to give her this warped view of reality. And suddenly, she breaks. It’s so damn scary.
And I have been lucky to avoid that in my own life. I have a child with autism, and the autism community has a line drawn down the middle — the pro-vaccine and the anti-vaxxers. The anti-vaxxers are often parents who are preyed upon because they’re vulnerable and just looking for a “why did this happen” instead of “how can we move forward.” Those who prey on them offer answers that are nothing but bullshit, but somehow they make the bullshit appealing enough that the vulnerable don’t realize what it actually is. My family has been lucky enough to stay ahead of it and be smart about it, but we have (former) friends who are all-in on the lies and have now begun to spread misinformation themselves.
It hits way too fucking close to home.
Brendan: Yeah, about that. We’re a medically sensitive household, and there’s just way too much nonsense floating around about why kids physically need to be in school right now, and why they shouldn’t be wearing masks, and how kids don’t get COVID, or don’t get it as bad, and fighting the school vaccine mandates … It hit so close to home, so accurately, it made me uncomfortable, almost to the point where I didn’t want to finish the thing.
There’s another spot in the script that says “The more people believe in something, the more true that thing becomes. The more reality tips in the favor of that belief.” That bit reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where the strength of belief systems and their individual gods is based in the number and tenacity of their followers. While I was thinking about that, it hit me that both stories are amazing allegories for the near-religious zeal that many of these groups are demonstrating in real life.
Tony: Yeah, it really is. I mean, even just the first issue description of the Flat Earther guys — it made them feel like a dangerous cult.
Brendan: Are they not? I’ve seen some of those Flat Earther cats lose their everloving minds when their ideas are challenged.
Tony: Oh definitely.
Simmonds honestly should be a superstar coming out of this book. He reminds me of those real amazing artists of the early Vertigo era — McKean and Keith — or the master of gorgeous abstract storytelling, Sienkiewicz. His art is abstract enough to be unsettling, but he’s got a great sense of storytelling. His layouts are always interesting, his figure work is clear, but as it gets scarier, it gets more abstract… It’s just an incredible singular work.
Brendan: Again with the creative synergy on this project, Simmonds’ linework and coloring are amazing and fit the script beautifully. There’s a little bit of a rough quality about it that reminds me of newspaper clippings and the decoupage of a disturbed conspiracy theorist piecing together bits of “evidence” on their basement walls.
You mentioned the layout. That’s another spot that I don’t think gets mentioned enough until it’s so extreme that you can’t help but notice. The layouts in the “quiet” sequences are all ordered, not too far off standard nine panel pages. The deeper the story gets into the conspiracies, and visions, and episodes, the more torqued out of shape that grid becomes, until you get to sequences where the gutters all but disappear, and the panels look like fragments of broken glass. Incredible stuff.
Tony: I have to point out his monsters too. The Star-Faced Man and the Woman in the Red Dress are terrifying, both in their own ways. The Star-Faced Man is all elongated limbs, too sharp angles, and twisted perspective. He’s this horrifying demon that you’d expect in a story like this.
But then the Woman in the Red Dress … she’s this haunting, beautiful figure. Simmonds always makes sure she’s the most striking figure on the page when she’s present, your eye is always drawn to her. Then she removes her sunglasses, and you see two X’s instead of eyes, and she’s just deeply unsettling. She’s executed perfectly, and that’s all Simmonds here.
What’s your verdict?
Brendan: It’s good, but there are a few parts that it’s almost heavy handed in the parallels between the allegory and real life. I don’t mind so much about the references to Area 51 and the JFK assassination, but the more modern conspiracies kind of get me worked up because we’re dealing with the real life consequences of this phenomenon right now, and it sucks. So, too soon for me. That’s not a dig on the book. It’s undoubtedly intentional.
Tony: Yeah, as much as I enjoyed it (and genuinely, I think this is one of the best books on the stands right now), I agree. It’s not like we talked about with Memetic — that it’s entirely allegorical. This is very close to the current real world. What’s up next?
Brendan: We’re going to do a horror book that’s set in one of my all-time favorite horror settings, IDW’s Sea of Sorrows by Rich Douek and Alex Cormack.
Tony: Sounds great, I’m looking forward to it.
Department of Truth V1: The End of the World is available now from Image Comics.