Batman writer James Tynion IV is diving head-long into his fascination for conspiracies in the upcoming Image Comics ongoing series Department of Truth (opens in new tab) with artist Martin Simmonds.
It all starts when lead character Cole Turner finds out all of the conspiracy theories you have heard and joked about in real life are actually true, but covered up by a secretive organization called the Department of Truth.
John F. Kennedy's assassination? A confirmed conspiracy.
Reptilian shapeshifters? They actually existed.
Earth is flat? The Flat-Earthers are actually right.
Scheduled to debut September 30, Department of Truth's Tynion and Simmons talked with Newsarama about their love for conspiracy theories, their long-term plans for this creator-owned series, and how they got together in the first place.
Newsarama: James, Martin, why do you enjoy conspiracy theories?
James Tynion IV: I think there's something very human about being drawn toward the secret histories of the world.
When I was a kid, I grew up on those kinds of 'non-fiction' books about UFO encounters, and cryptids. As I grew up, I was attracted to fiction that explored the secret hidden truths of the world. I loved reading about secret societies and all of that. Starting in college, I started watching the movie JFK a few times every year.(opens in new tab)
I've always stayed a skeptic, and never fully drank the Kool-Aid, but it's honestly important to remind ourselves sometimes that the history we're taught in schools isn't necessarily the true history of the world. That hit me hardest when Donald Trump was elected President, and like many other liberals, I was completely blindsided. I was living in a fictional version of America, where this wasn't possible, and I knew I needed to start reassessing the world around me.
And then I started seeing friends, who I thought were immune to these sorts of plays, retweeting conspiracies that played directly into the American Left's vision of America, and I realized that none of us are immune. I started unpacking history, moving backwards to the creation of the current world order at the end of World War II.
So much has been mythologized to make us process the world in a certain way. And I started imagining an organization tasked with upholding a certain version of the 'truth,' who had been successful through the 20th Century, but who were starting to fail in the 21st Century, with a rise in alternative, competing truths. And then I watched a whole bunch of '70s conspiracy thrillers, and I was off to the races.(opens in new tab)
Nrama: Will you only be looking at American conspiracy theories or conspiracy theories from other countries as well?
Tynion: The Department of Truth will definitely center on America, but seeing as the real America has centered itself in world politics for so long, it's definitely going to tap into other kinds of conspiracy stories as well.
I grew up Catholic, and the Catholic Church is its own lightning rod for conspiracy, so don't be surprised if you see a few threads popping up from that direction as well.
Nrama: You also explore the idea of false memories. What fascinated you to inject this into a story about conspiracy theories?
Tynion: I've always been fascinated by the Satanic Panic of the '80s and early '90s. Just how common and widespread the belief was that satanic ritual abuse was real, and after almost a decade, there was not one confirmed case ever prosecuted in the country.
It's fascinating because the Satanic Panic is the predecessor of all the Pizzagate and Q-related conspiracies of the last five years, so it's clearly tapping into some of our base fears... the idea of some kind of other with menacing intent toward our children. But for those who don't know, what fed into the Satanic Panic (and a wave of contemporary alien abduction accounts), were these impossible stories pulled from children and believed to be repressed memories.(opens in new tab)
Obviously, there is a real and ethical way to deal with repressed memories, but back in the '80s they were pulling stories of children being flushed down toilets into underground caverns by their kindergarten teachers to perform Satanic rituals. You can read the transcripts and see how the kids were led into confirming what the therapists were asking them, without consideration for the truth.
But the idea of a lead character in the present day, who has these memories he knows aren't true, being thrown into a world where the truth is more subjective, felt like really rich territory to mine. Every human life is a microcosm of the sort of fictional history building that societies do.
Nrama: Martin, the book has a very distinct style - how did you go about choosing the look?
Martin Simmonds: First and foremost, I switched from digital to analog for this. We wanted it to look scratchy and messy, and as it's since been described, with a found-footage appearance. Going back to paint and paper seemed like the best solution for this and also adding in collage and photography to some extent.
There are some digital elements - a fair amount of the colouring and other enhancements, but we really wanted to capture an organic feel which I think happens more effectively when you put pen and paint to actual paper.
Nrama: Tell us a bit about the book's main characters.
Tynion: Cole Turner, having taken part in a Satanic ritual abuse trial back in his youth, has spent his life obsessed with conspiracy theories. He worked with the FBI, monitoring conspiracies growing in white supremacist forums, and in his spare time, sought to understand why some people are drawn to believe things that aren't true. After getting swept up into something impossible, he is recruited into the Department of Truth by a woman named Ruby.
Beyond that... A key member of the core cast of the book is a spoiler, and I want to make sure the last page of the book isn't spoiled for as many people as possible.
Nrama: What was your artistic process in coming up with the character concepts?
Simmonds: James had already sent me some descriptions for the main characters, so that was my starting point, and we knew we wanted the artistic style to have a realistic feel to it, so it made it fairly easy to create the look of our main characters, Cole and Ruby.(opens in new tab)
Other characters took some further consideration - for example, the Fictional Woman had been described to me by James, and we knew we wanted something unsettling about her appearance. James described her with Xs for eyes and dressed all in red, but I figured we needed to contrast that with an element of glamour in the hope it'd amplify the weirder elements, hence the retro dress and headscarf. Hopefully, we'll get to see some cool cosplay of this character!
The Star-Faced Man is weirder still. We wanted something nightmarish and creepy, so decided to develop the design with model-making and photography, so he looks very different from everything else around him. We created a model of his head, photographed it, and used collage on the page to make him seem particularly other-worldly. And it seems to have struck a nerve with people, from the preview images we've released of the Star-Faced Man, we've already started seeing some amazing fan art based on him. I really look forward to seeing more!
Nrama: How did you two connect for the book?
Simmonds: I was already a big fan of James' work, so that in itself was enough, but once he explained to me what the project was, and sent me the project bible which mapped out the series, I knew it was right up my street. I've always loved conspiracy theories centered around ufology, but the Department of Truth deals predominantly with conspiracies outside of that area, and that was very appealing. It meant I'd have the chance to explore new approaches to my artwork and work on something challenging both artistically and thematically.(opens in new tab)
Tynion: I had known Martin's work through Punk's Not Dead (opens in new tab) and Friendo (opens in new tab), but it wasn't until I saw a series of Inktober pieces he did a few years ago that I knew he was the man for the job.
I had been chatting with Matt Rosenberg about who my dream artist was for the book, and I basically said "I wish I could find a hybrid between Bill Sinkiewicz and Dave McKean as they were around 1990" and Matt asked if I had seen Martin's work. Seeing those Inktober pieces, which were skritchier and inkier than the work of his I'd seen before made it click, and I reached out to him to ask if he was interested in working together, and if he had any interest in pushing further into that style. Thankfully he was. That was right before New York Comic Con, 2018.
Nrama: What's your collaboration process been like?
Tynion: Honestly, I keep throwing all the crazy stuff in my head at Martin to see what he cooks up. The upside with every issue being standalone means that every issue comes with its own aesthetic quirks. I'm trying to outthink and outdo myself issue to issue. Right now, my favorite issue is Issue 3, because Martin so wildly outstripped my expectations from the script. Before that, it was issue 2. I'm sure if you ask me in a month or so, it'll be Issue 4.
Nrama: How many issues do you want this story to run for?
Tynion: Originally, I wrote out a 15-issue outline, but since we've gotten moving that's expanded to roughly 32 issues. There's a lot of history and material to mine with this book, and I am very excited to get to mine it.(opens in new tab)
Nrama: James, this is your first series for Image Comics, why do you think this title was the perfect fit for the publisher compared to Boom! Studios and some of the other publishers you've worked with in the past?
Tynion: I've been tremendously lucky to work with a lot of great publishers in my career. Obviously, I've done a lot of work with Boom! Studios, and I'll always be loyal to them for betting so hard on me so early in my career. I have the benefit of having two franchises running with Boom! right now in Something is Killing the Children (opens in new tab) and Wynd (opens in new tab), both of which are going very well.
But at the end of the day, I share the rights to all my Boom! properties with the company and there are limits of how far I can push things. The biggest benefit to Image, beyond getting to be a part of its storied history, is that it's purely creator-owned comics. Once I got the thumbs up that I could do the book, I built it all with my own handpicked team. It helped that I had a vision for the project, and I found an artist as willing to push himself as I was.
It's been a tremendous amount of work, effectively, working on an Image title is like running your own company, but as someone who likes to control every step of the creative process, it's been extremely gratifying. I've loved working directly with my team to create a visual language for this book that's wholly its own. It seemed like the perfect book to give the whole Image process a test run. So far it's been extremely gratifying.(opens in new tab)
Nrama: James, for fans of Batman (opens in new tab), Something is Killing the Children, and your other work what do you think they'll enjoy about The Department of Truth?
Tynion: For Batman fans, I hope this appeals to the detective in you.
For fans of Something is Killing the Children, I hope this appeals to your love of the horror genre. The Department of Truth rests right in that thriller/horror space, in the middle between the two.
Imagine an X-Files that goes to some weirder, more existential places.
The other touchstone that I want to point to are those classic, long-run Vertigo series, where it felt like every arc you were learning a bit more about the world. Fables was as much a primer in the world of fairy tales as it was a story that used all of the pieces of it.
I want people who are genuinely curious about the history of conspiracy theories to enjoy this book, to see how it explores each of the theories through fiction. The thing that I hope people really like about the book is that every issue is going to be fundamentally standalone. There are larger, building myth arcs, and reading the whole story will give you a lot to chew on, but I'm doing my best to make every single issue something complete in and of itself.(opens in new tab)
Nrama: And on one final note, what's your favorite conspiracy theory?
Tynion: The JFK assassination and all its permutations are really the mother of all conspiracy theories. It's what I've done the most reading on, and will continue to do more and more reading about all of my life...
But the theory that's really capturing my mind recently is the Phantom Time Hypothesis. The idea that Charlemagne is a fiction and about 300 years of the Middle Ages were invented by the Catholic Church to make people think that the fall of Rome was much longer ago than it actually was.
My other favorite conspiracy theory is the Wild West, and how it connects to the above idea. Fictional periods of history we create to push trauma further and further into the past. I think it's fair to say that that's going to be a recurring subject in Department of Truth.