| The Department of Truth spins conspiracy theories for the 2020s. |
I've always loved a good mystery. My childhood media diet included lots of Scooby-Doo, Matlock, Perry Mason, Murder She Wrote, Diagnosis Murder, Sherlock Holmes (both in print and on screen), Columbo, and Father Dowling Mysteries. (To be honest, this is an accurate reflection of my middle-aged media diet, too, just throw in Ellery Queen, Nero Wolf, Foyle's War, Mrs. Bradley Mysteries, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, and Miss Marple.) Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game remain prominent among the stand-out reads of my junior high years. When combined with my father's love of shows like Unsolved Mysteries, America's Most Wanted, and Ripley's Believe It or Not, and my grandmother's subscription to The National Enquirer, I was always attracted to tales of crop circles, Bermuda Triangle disappearances, unexplained bullets in the murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, Bigfoot sightings, UFO abductions, and lake monsters from Nessie to Champ. The aspect that most attracted me in The X-Files were the ideas that "the truth is out there" and "I want to believe." I like to think there are still mysteries - and thus still possibilities - in a world that now records, posts, and re-Tweets everything for posterity.
So, yes, I've always loved a good conspiracy narrative. A conspiracy theory is at its heart a mystery. It's a puzzle. A mental exercise. And I've always appreciated the skill of writers who weave plausible conspiracy fictions. James Tynton IV demonstrates absolute mind-bending genius at this in Image Comics 2020 The Department of Truth - and his intricate, shadowy story, is emotionally and aesthetically, enhanced by the dark, gritty, impressionistic artwork of Martin Simmonds.
The book opens with a really standard political conspiracy formula: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, is being questioned and both he, and his interrogator, are clearly part of the cover up for something larger. The trope is common in speculative fiction/alternative history, political drama, and political sci-fi comics. As discussed in my forthcoming Politics in the Gutters, a number of political comics incorporate the JFK assassination: The Red Diaries: The Kennedy Conspiracy, Z-Men: All the President’s Men, The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, Badlands, and The X-Files: JFK Disclosure.
According to professor of American Studies at the University of Manchester, Peter Knight, in his book Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to The X-Files (2000), JFK's assassination was the inspiration for more conspiracy thinking than any other event in the 20th century and the moment is so ingrained in our cultural landscape that it remains, explicitly or implicitly, at the heart of both factual and fictional American histories.
It is, therefore, not surprising that The Department of Truth begins with the killing of Kennedy as a basis on which it builds the conspiracy theories of a phony moon landing, a flat earth, satanic abuse, reptilian governments, and staged mass shootings - all perpetuated by the influences of mainstream media, Presidents Reagan and Trump, George Soros, right-wing radio, shadowy government agencies, the dark web, and conservative social media outlets.
What is surprising is how philosophical The Department of Truth gets in its exploration of these stories. After reading issue #1, I was a little uncomfortable; while I love a good trip down the rabbit hole as entertainment, in the current time of QAnon's influence, rampant unfounded accusations of election fraud, empty cries of "fake news," and the like, it was harder to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the story and I worried that it might add fuel to fires of rampant conspiracies. But The Department of Truth took a somewhat unexpected turn in that these "men in black" are not trying to cover up the truth, but to preserve it.
This comic falls into the time-policing narrative of nexus stories in allohistories - efforts to preserve the timeline so as to avoid catastrophe, like in time travel stories where visitors to the past have to take care to not change history and thus prevent their own birth. In comic book media, the CW's Legends of Tomorrow exemplify such stories. But here, it is not so simple as traveling back or forward in time to "correct" incongruities. Here, it is not about what happens or happened but what people - the public, the masses - believe happened and how those beliefs, regardless of reality, have consequences. Here, it is belief, and not actuality, that creates truth. The Truth may be "out there" somewhere - but A truth is in us.
As explained by the book's central character, Cole, "Collective belief shapes the world, so everything is a little bit true, or has the potential to be true." This idea is expressed in the communication theory called the Coordinated Management of Meaning which suggests that people, though their communication with other people, co-construct their own social realities, which in turn influence them. Communication is a two-sided, or two-way, process of making and managing meaning. In other words, what we say matters because it influences the world - or at least our own little corner of it. Effectively, we tell stories to make sense of the world and our place within it - ourselves, others, relationships, organizations, the larger community, etc. - and we adjust the stories we tell to fit the reality of the lives we live, or we adjust the lives we live to fit the reality of the stories we tell.
Another communication theory adds to this - and to the moral of The Department of Truth that what we believe is truth: Symbolic Interactionism argues that people act toward other people, things, and events on the basis of the meanings we assign to them. Once people define a situation or idea as real, it has very real consequences. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy in which our expectations invoke behaviors that bring about the outcome we anticipated. Or, as Abraham Lincoln explained,"If you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will."
In other words, it doesn't matter if COVID-19 is a Democrat-sponsored hoax or not. The fact that people believe it is a hoax is enough. That belief has real consequences in their behavior, manifested in things like ignoring safety guidelines about gatherings and mask usage. The belief also has consequences in subsequent meaning-making; if a person doesn't believe that COVID-19 is real, but gets sick anyhow - they may interpret the illness as "just a cold" or "just the flu" rather than as COVID-19. The treatment and precautions they pursue accordingly differ as do the ramifications for the people they come in contact with, whose actions and understandings, in turn, may be shaped by their sharing of the belief in COVID-19 as a hoax.
But back to the comic. As a child of the 80s, I appreciate the book's tie-in to the "satanic panic" and I particularly want to call attention to how The Department of Truth indicates that it never really went away, that vestiges of it remain through the present day. Indeed, other comic book media have recently banked on that moment of hysteria during Reagan's golden "morning" in America - particularly the show Riverdale with its allusion to Dungeons & Dragons, ala "Griffins & Gargoyles." (See my comments on that in In Media Res tabletop gaming week.)
But, this is also where my worries return that the book does as much to feed conspiracy theories as to make a case about their power and their inaccuracy. It demonstrates - rightly so - that there is a reason conspiracies like the satanic panic have longevity. That there is, somewhere buried in the conjecture and the delusions, something valid, real, tangible, verifiable. In this case, the reality of evil intentions or corrupted people in the world. And the power of conspiracy theories is that they give shape and meaning to such villainy: if the bad in the world isn't random, isn't chance, isn't arbitrary, if it is deliberate and comes from a definable source, it can be battled. This is the attraction of the conspiracy theory and its power is that it cannot be counter-argued, because every piece of evidence to its contrary is merely part of the conspiracy, part of what the powers that be - whether they're a shadow government, satanists, neo-liberals, or reptilian overlords - want you to think.
~Christina M. Knopf
07 December 2020