I love a good conspiracy theory. I’m not someone who believes in them, though. I just find them endlessly fascinating—especially as a storytelling device. With how often they’re used in serialized TV, it’s amazing that more comics don’t embrace conspiracies, given how serialized modern comics are. The Department of Truth, a new series from James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds, dives headfirst into conspiracy territory, weaving a tale that is as captivating as it is surprising. The writing is a masterclass in world-building, character development, and mystery storytelling. The artwork is superb, being beautifully atmospheric without hindering the storytelling. All in all, it’s a must read. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: This review features mild spoilers for the first five issues of The Department of Truth. Read at your own risk.)
The Department of Truth, volume 1: The End of the World
(written by James Tynion IV, illustrated by Martin Simmonds)
COLE TURNER has studied conspiracy theories all his life, but he isn’t prepared for what happens when he discovers that all of them are true, from the JFK Assassination to Flat Earth Theory and Reptilian Shapeshifters. One organization has been covering them up for generations. What is the deep, dark secret behind the Department of Truth?
What if every conspiracy theory ever created could be true if enough people believed in them? Who would maintain order and a record of what’s actually real? This is the word Cole Turner finds himself in at the beginning of The Department of Truth—a world where the moon landing is fake, and the earth is flat solely because people believe it to be true. Lee Harvey Oswald leads the Department of Truth, a government-run organization dedicated to ensuring these conspiracy theories don’t gain enough believers to become truth. Oswald and the department quickly recruit Cole in their quest to preserve reality as we know it, but there is a greater threat lurking in the shadows. A rival organization that wants to see these conspiracies take root? Why? Which side is right? Which side is wrong? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Does the truth even matter? These are the questions at the heart of volume one of The Department of Truth.
The Department of Truth feels a lot like The X-Files in several ways. There’s the obvious one—it’s a story about a government organization that investigates fringe theories. But the similarities run deeper. Each issue of The Department of Truth has a case-of-the-week (or month, I guess, since the comic is published monthly). These procedural elements are intermingled with an overarching plot that sees Cole, Ruby (his partner), and Oswald uncovering evidence suggesting they’re fighting the daddy of all conspiracies—orchestrated by a mysterious group, Black Hat, who seem to keep cropping up behind every corner. The similarities run even deeper, though—like The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, Cole has his own traumatic childhood connection to the Department of Truth. He was a victim of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a conspiracy that acts as a kind of precursor to a certain modern-day conspiracy that shall not be named but is central to the comic’s overarching mystery.
I point out these similarities not as criticism, but as praise. Like a good TV show that merges procedural and serialized elements, The Department of Truth moves at an excellent pace. Exploring a different conspiracy theory in every issue gives the series a sense of variety while the overarching plotline gives it a sense of unity. It’s a structure that works very well, ensuring that no chapter feels disposable while also ensuring the series doesn’t settle into a creative rut. The conspiracies are varied—there are false flag operations, assassination theories, even reptilians—but they’re all unified by this organization that focuses on eradicating them. It’s an idea that feels like it could go anywhere, and Tynion takes it to some captivating places. The work that Tynion does to establish the world of this comic, and Cole’s backstory, is remarkable. He doesn’t overload his readers with too much information all at once. Instead, like a good conspiracy, everything is slowly unraveled, with small breadcrumbs leading to bigger ones until an entire tapestry has been revealed. This isn’t a story about conspiracies; rather, it’s a story about the power of stories. What stories get to be true and who gets to decide that? Tynion doesn’t answer any of these questions yet, but the care with which he explores these ideas is well worth the price of admission.
The artwork of any comic can be a subjective, and sometimes polarizing, experience. Some people love abstract artwork while others prefer artwork that’s more utilitarian in purpose. I fall somewhere between these two sides, though I tend to lean toward the latter. I say all of this as a preface for how much I love Simmonds’ artwork in The Department of Truth, even though it is more abstract than I normally prefer. Here, that abstractness helps expand the atmosphere Tynion’s created with his writing. Everything is a little smokey, almost as if it’s in a state of flux, ready to change at any moment—much like the comic’s depiction of truth itself. However, the artwork is never so abstract that it detracts from the story being told, or makes it difficult to follow the plot. Instead, Simmonds’ artwork feels suitably stylistic. In moments of fantasy, his imagination shines brightly as he gives creative designs to things like the Reptilians or a demonic creature with a pentagram etched into its face. But mostly, everything is very shadowy and noir-like. It’s a style that worked well for me, but won’t be for everyone.
And that’s honestly the case for The Department of Truth as a whole. It’s not going to be for everyone, but the people it is for are going to adore it. Each issue is a mixture of fun, case-of-the-week stories that explore a new conspiracy and of serialized plotlines that get furthered every issue. The world of The Department of Truth is one that feels rife with possibilities—there are so many directions Tynion and Simmonds could take this story, all of which feel equally exciting. It feels like a story that could go for years and years while also feeling like one with an endpoint in mind. It’s clear that there’s a mystery Tynion and Simmonds are unraveling here, and it’s introduced so brilliantly in this first volume that it’s easy to become enthralled by it. All in all, it’s a comic unlike most comics I’ve read lately. It feels like a TV show in the best possible way and I am captivated. I can’t wait to see where things go from here. If you’re into conspiracies, mysteries, or just really good, unique comics, The Department of Truth is a must-read.
4.5 out of 5 wands.