Wednesday, March 31, 2021

How the World of Fiction Became True: On The Department of Truth


From The Department of Truth by James Tynion and Martin Simmonds

I have not been to my local comic book shop in a year. I went once in the summer to pickup a few things curbside, but that limited to me to pick up a few things in my pull list. I have not walked idly through the racks looking at new comics, searching for that elusive new thing that would be worth reading in a long time. I have even spent some time going back and reading old comics (as I blogged about here.) The collected trade of the first five issues of The Department of Truth is the first thing that I have read in months to break this pandemic imposed interruption of comics.

After a brief preamble involving the assassination of Kennedy, ground zero for conspiracy theories in the US, the story of The Department of Truth opens with Cole Hunter, an FBI analyst who specializes in monitoring and analyzing conspiracy theories and other fringe groups online. As the story begins he is undercover at a Flat Earth Society Convention (depicted above). His cover is blown by a mysterious figure who identifies him on the way to his hotel room. This leads to an invitation to meet with Kenneth and Bertram Boulet, a kind of Koch brothers--fossil fuel billionaires who channel their money into various anti-science groups and causes, including "Flat Earthers." The Boulet brothers invite Cole to an exclusive screening of behind the scene film of the faked moon landing, taken from Stanley Kubrick's personal collection, and then to a private flight to the edge of a seemingly flat earth. Before Cole can process all that he has seen or experienced a mysterious assassin appears and kills everyone except Cole. The mysterious figure then takes him to meet the director of The Department of Truth.

The Department of Truth claim that it exists to protect reality as we know it. This task is made necessary by the fact that truth is the product of a consensus. If enough people believe the world is flat, it becomes flat, and so on. Conspiracy theories do not reflect a marginal view of reality as much as make it, which is why they need to be monitored and eliminated or else reality itself changes. If enough people see the end of the world, the world as we know it comes to end (to use the title of this first collection). In some ways this makes the comic series similar to what I would argue is one of the best comic series of this millennium, and that is The Unwritten. In both stories there are are shadowy forces controlling the world, but controlling how people think about and understand the world. Of course the major difference being where The Unwritten was about fiction, about controlling the world through narratives, The Department of Truth is about reality, about who gets to control what counts as reality as fact. This opposition is not as rigid as it would seem, "truth is structured like a fiction," or, as it is put in The Department of Truth, what gets to count as a meaningful fact, as a sense of reality depends in large part on narrative, both the narrative that such facts tell, or can be made to tell, as well as the existing counter narrative.

The interesting thing about The Department of Truth is how it represents the current moment, our moment, as both a qualitative and quantitative change in the nature of conspiracies and alternative accounts of reality. It does this first by layering different conspiracies on top of one another, we get references to flat earthers, reptilian overlords, JFK, false flags, satanic panic and so on, not just as throwaway references but as background to characters. We learn that Cole's interest in conspiracy theories stem from his own history with the "satanic panic" that ran rampant throughout the eighties, as satanism was seen everywhere from music to daycares. Cole doesn't know if what happened to him, his encounter with a malevolent man with a star on his face, was real or imagined, but it profoundly scarred him.

Maybe it is my own interests, I have been doing some research on conspiracy theories, or maybe it is just serendipity, but I have seen the satanic panic come up a lot recently. In this age of Qanon it seems less and less like some odd remnant of a bygone age, like Tipper Gore and Jello Biafra debating decency, and more and more like our prehistory. We seem to be living in an altered reality where things that used to be at the margins, relegated to Jack Chick comics and cheesy after school specials about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons have stormed the Capitol. As many have noted, conspiracy theories seemed to have changed, taking on a more prominent role in politics. The Department of Truth does put forward at least one reason for this, one that has little to do with bubbles or the relativistic evils of postmodernism; as the panel above indicates, for some people the election of Barack Obama broke this country. It broke with the existing narrative people have of the world and became the point around which different versions, different realities could coalesce. 

I should say that is how things seem at least a few issues in, and I don't want to summarize the entire five issue arc, or spoil everything, but there is one last point worth noting. A comic book needs its villains, needs conflict. In The Department of Truth this takes the form of an even more shadowy organization known only as "The Black Hats." They seem as intent on disrupting reality as the Department of Truth is in maintaining it. This simple opposition is subverted in the fifth issue, the last issue in the first trade collection. Cole finally meets a member of the Black Hats, Martin Barker. (I do not know if he is intentionally named after the cultural studies scholar of comic books and censorship). In their conversation Barker not only questions why there should be a dominant truth, a reality determined by the majority in order to keep the masses in line. Why there should be only one reality? Only one narrative. The real question comes when Barker asks what reality, what narrative, is being maintained. As he puts it to Cole, "You are working with the bad guys, trying to keep a stranglehold on the truth in the name of a dream that died sixty years ago." The last bit refers to the assassination of Kennedy, but more generally the decline of the US empire. The reality that the Department of Truth is protecting is not just one where the Earth is round and not filled with lizard people, but it it also one in which the US is seen as the unquestioned ruler of that earth. The dominant reality cannot be separated from the reality of domination. 

This seems to me to be the most striking aspect of the comic, at least so far, and the aspect that pinpoints our current situation. The social and epistemic crisis of fake news and conspiracy theories has forced a bad choice in that many of the solutions and alternatives to this crisis, such as fact checking or automated content moderation, are often ways of reinforcing dominant authority and the dominant narrative. When it comes to choosing between conspiracy theories and the open conspiracy of news organizations that support the rule of wealth and property both are worse. I do not know how the comic will resolve this, but it does an interesting job of pinpointing the predicament of those who are caught between proliferating conspiracy theories on the one hand and a rigid and worn out consensus on the other. As soon as I can get back into a comic book store I will be interested to find out how this story continues. It has to be more entertaining than how this conflict plays out in real life. 

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