Conspiracy theories have probably been with us since Ug had a bad day hunting on the plain and, back at the cave, thought it’d be easier to blame his misfortune on Gruh across the river.
However, their influence has never been more virulent than it is right now, powered by a widespread sense of grievance, confusion and alienation and enabled by an army of manipulative social media superspreaders. It’s easy to lose your way: to paraphrase Doctor Manhattan, the truth and a lie contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference.
Anyway, it’s no surprise that the counterfactuals and through-the-looking-glass worlds opened up by conspiracy theories have provided potent storydust in comics and beyond. And so, for his first Image Comics series, acclaimed Bat-scribe James Tynion IV has collaborated with breakout artist Martin Simmonds (Dying is Easy, Punk’s Not Dead) to launch The Department of Truth – a promising new series that looks ready to dig into the appeal and the danger of going “down the rabbit hole”.
Cole Turner is an FBI agent tasked with shining a light into the dark corners of the internet where the alt-right nurture their resentments and spread their viral ideological poison. That leads him to a Flat Earth Society convention, which leads him in turn to a trip on a private jet with two billionaire Texas oil barons who finance a large part of the activity he’s tasked with investigating.
But just when you might think you’re entering “What if it all was true?” territory, the book’s creators swerve into something altogether more intriguing that embraces the power of the collective subconscious and the mutability of reality itself.
The issue is structured around a lengthy interview between the dazed and disoriented Turner (a pleasingly vulnerable protagonist) and a geriatric Man in Black. There’s one brief bout of gunplay, but this first issue is built on investigation, recollection and Cole’s terrible realisation that he’s become part of the foundational story on which all the rest are built: things aren’t what they seem. It’s a tribute to Tynion’s taut scripting and Simmonds’ vibrant storytelling that this largely conversational story creates propulsive page-turning momentum. And they drop an absolute cherry on the top with a last-page reveal.
There’s a clear influence to the look of some of these pages, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter. What Tynion and Simmonds bring to the book is that most desirable of things: pure comics, crackling with the versatility and verve that are absolutely unique to the form. That extends to letterer Aditya Bidikar, whose novel speech bubbles pop off the page, and the design of the book by Dylan Todd, which hums with punky graphic energy.
I don’t read many industry comics these days, so prior to this I was aware of Tynion and Simmonds rather than familiar with their achievements. Here, though, they bring their A-games and justify their star billing. This is a cracking first issue that isn’t a storyboard pitch for a broadcaster or an orphan chapter kicking its heels until it appears in its collection. It’s unashamedly a blistering monthly comic book of the kind I’d largely given up on.
James Tynion IV (W), Martin Simmonds (A), Aditya Bidikar (L), Dylan Todd (D) • Image Comics, $3.99
Review by Tom Murphy