Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Every day this month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
Today, we’re thrilled to have an interview with James Tynion IV, the shadowy mastermind behind the unstoppable Image Comics series, The Department of Truth (just optioned for TV!), which follows a government agency dedicated to squashing conspiracy theories before they infect too many people. We talked to him about his own interest in the topic, why he thinks it’s important to bring conspiracy theories into the light, and what was going through his head on January 6.
AIPT: How did you become interested in the idea of conspiracy theories to begin with?
James Tynion IV: I think some of it is just a byproduct of when I grew up. I was a kid right in the middle of The X-Files, and because of that, I think that there were — like, in the early, mid-’90s, there were all of these “non-fiction” books about UFOs, and cryptids, and stuff like that, that were made for kids, that were in my school library. I gravitated toward the weird and the “unknown.” Books about all these strange, potentially true things.
Early on, it was all aliens. Aliens were the thing — that’s what I was most drawn to. I had a whole shelf of books; I went from dinosaurs to UFOs. I could tell you about different UFO encounters. And that started an interest. But I’ve always been drawn to secret histories, and fiction about secret histories. There’s always something compelling about the people who “really know” something.
Growing up, I would dabble in things were conspiracy-adjacent, especially in and around the assassination of JFK, which is one of the deepest rabbit holes you can go down, but it’s also one of the shallowest rabbit holes. It doesn’t take you to that many dangerous places. It can, if you let it. Talking about, “Did the CIA do it?” or “Did the mob do it?” — that doesn’t get you into the world of, you know, Jews are running the banks, and these scarier conspiracy theories. [But] you can see how other conspiracy theories lead people down much more frightening rabbit holes.
I would do some reading around that, but a lot of it was a bit more passive. Basically, every year or so, I’d rewatch Oliver Stone’s JFK, then I would go down a rabbit hole for a few weeks, until I got distracted and started focusing on other things.
AIPT: But you’ve kind of turned the corner since then. I get the feeling you don’t take them as seriously as you used to.
JT: No, and honestly it’s something that — well, the JFK one is really interesting, because it gives you a framework to look at the United States government where there’s an element that’s actually good about thinking about the government, in terms of, what does the government actually want? Who benefits? I think a lot of times, what conspiracy theories mess up more than anything, is the idea of people making concrete plans and acting on them. But a lot of times, people in power are going to work to maintain and protect their power. That often puts the average people of the world at a disadvantage, and I do genuinely believe that. I don’t think there is a conspiracy behind that, I think that is a natural byproduct of how we’ve built our society.
And I think it’s messed up that we have a society built that way, and I think there are a lot of elements of our society that are designed to obfuscate the fact that society is not built to benefit the most number of people. And I think the inherent contradiction puts people — it leads them toward conspiracy, because what the government says and what they do is often different. Once you accept that that’s true, you can go down all sorts of rabbit holes shaped by your own anxieties and your own prejudices. That’s what a lot of people do.
AIIPT: Knowing how charged beliefs about these kinds of things can be, I got to ask — did editorial at Image have any reservations about greenlighting this book?
JT: Image doesn’t really have an editorial department, per se. I did bring on someone, Steve Foxe, who is someone I trust, and is someone who I know is sensitive to — you know, I don’t want to go too far. I have some core ethics of the book that, especially when talking to other people about it … there is a conversation about — I never want somebody to hold up this book and say, “This is why I believe.” That is why I wanted Department of Truth to be rooted in this larger than life concept, and that larger than life concept is the idea of the subjective reality, and as we start seeing how all-encompassing subjective reality is, we’re going to see how UFOs, how cryptids, how other things factor into this mythology.
I think that gives us one step of removal. So then the book becomes something that’s not characters talking about, “What is the true secret history of the world?” It’s a book where people are talking about, “Oh my God, this number of people believe this thing, and that’s dangerous.”
I didn’t want to shy away from contemporary conspiracy theories, because I think one thing that makes so many have a difficulty coping with or rejecting all the QAnon stuff you see spreading so rapidly around is the fact that conspiracy theories have been pushed so far into the past that it’s like, “Oh no, no, that isn’t a conspiracy theory. I wouldn’t fall for a conspiracy theory; that’s … Elvis is secretly alive, that’s Weekly World News, and Bat Boy, and all that stuff. I don’t believe in any of that crazy stuff, but look at this! I’m uncovering the truth here!”
AIPT: The funny thing is that, you mentioned QAnon — I’ve seen people compare that to the old Jewish blood libels. So it’s like, yeah, it’s new, but it’s almost like a cover song. It’s like the song is the same, even if the singer changes.
JT: The blood libel goes directly to the Satanic panic, goes directly to QAnon. It’s like 1, 2, 3. The idea has basically popped up every generation, and it takes on its own form. And it is important to remember how many of these theories have this core racial component, which is something that we will unpack in the book, as the many layers of the onion peel open.
AIPT: I’m gonna guess, before January 6th, most of the rest of the nation didn’t really know about QAnon. Or, at least, they might have heard [of] it, but didn’t really understand what it was all about. When you saw the footage of the rioters at the Capitol building, wearing QAnon merch, paraphernalia — what did you think, having written this book?
JT: Honestly, it scared the crap out of me. I remember having a few conversations with friends that week, because I had been plugged into the conspiracy world, and I’d been doing research on conspiracy theories and the people who believe them, for the last — I came up with the pitch for Department of Truth in 2017, and I’ve been reading steadily. The book has been in development since then … but I’ve been reading a lot about every facet of QAnon. QAnon actually, in the initial outline of Department of Truth, was going to play a bigger role, because I thought it had receded as a cultural concept, until everyone being home and on their computers just whipped it all back up, magnified by the election.
It was really, really scary. Because it’s not only just the QAnon stuff — I’ve been doing a bunch of reading on the ’90s militia groups, specifically the intersection of the Oklahoma City bombing, the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the connection between all that and the major white supremacist groups at the time. It’s one of the things where, culturally, those groups fell by the wayside for almost 20 years. But they continued existing, and now they are taking their opportunity. So you have a mixture of people at the Capitol building, where everyone is leaning toward this sense of, “Oh, this is a bunch of QAnon nutty people,” but they’re also people who have been living out in encampments in the woods, who have been training to overthrow the government for 20 years.
AIPT: Have you been surprised at all at the overwhelmingly positive response Department of Truth has received, both from critics and from the market?
JT: Yes. [laughs] This was the big thing — it’s a book that plays with contemporary reality, and contemporary politics, but I didn’t want it to read like a partisan book, because what it touches on transcends the left-right divide. There is something more universal at play, and bigger threats at play. I think my personal politics are pretty obvious, but launching a book about conspiracy theories in the middle of a presidential election, in the middle of a plague — I was worried that it would be too bleak … or it was going to be too political in a time that nobody wanted something political.
Or there was the — I never really believed this, but a few people asked me early on, “What if Trump loses and the conspiracy stuff dies down; are people still going to be interested in your book?” And I’m like, “I don’t think any of this is stopping because one person is in the White House.” It’s become too much of a cultural moment; there are too many facets to it right now.
We’re doing an in-depth article on every conspiracy theory seen in the comic, so be sure to follow the Department of Truth category on AIPT to find out what’s real, before THEY take your thoughts away!
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