Discomfort Food Comics: The Department Of Truth #1 by Sean Dillon

The Department of Truth #1

“Truth is a well-known pathological liar. It invariably turns out to be Fiction wearing a fancy frock. Self-proclaimed Fiction, on the other hand, is entirely honest. You can tell this, because it comes right out and says, “I’m a Liar,” right there on the dust jacket.”

-Alan Moore

These are the facts:

On May 1st, 2016, Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer was running a Kickstarter for a book called Neoreaction a Basilisk, a text of horror philosophy that could be argued to be the work by Sandifer most akin to the work of Grant Morrison. I was among its backers. The book’s main essay explores a series of right wing intellectuals (and also Eliezer Yudkowsky) obsessed with technology, the Great Filter, and other such conspiracy theories. It is a book about the Alt-Right and how their intellectual line of thought influences the world. The rot at the heart of society was assuming that the problem with fascism is that the military was in charge. That the solution was to put nerds in charge. Among the other essays in the book (which would act as stretch goals to go along with the main titular essay), there is a study of the hate movement #Gamergate, the web of conspiracies forged by David Icke, and an essay titled “Thesis on Trump.” According to her Kickstarter, the essay is explained thusly:

Because every leftist critic’s got to have a Trump piece, my humble contribution to the genre. The sort of think-piece that notes, “he likes his women like he likes his buildings: big and decorated in gold.” And that’s still only the fourth thesis.

On May 5th, 2016, Sandifer’s Kickstarter would hit the $6,000 goal, achieving Thesis on Trump. Around the same time, Donald Trump would clinch the Republican nomination as their candidate for President of the United States. Most people weren’t worried about the implications of this. I mean, who would vote for Donald Trump. The man failed miserably and spectacularly. There were jokes on The Simpsons about how his presidency would bankrupt the country. No way would he become president.

On May 15th, 2016, I read the main essay for the first time. As a thing I do from time to time, I decided to liveblog the reading for my tumblr followers. My comments are incomprehensible, based on a PDF draft of the book no one else is going to have access to. I make a lot of gestures to where my writing career is going (a disdain for hard sci-fi writers more interested in charts than stories, the importance of empathy, Quentin Tarantino), but the content isn’t worth revisiting even if you could parse what I’m reacting to.

On October 24th, 2016, Sandifer would release a draft of Thesis on Trump, now called Thesis on Trump 16. The essay poignantly never mentions the name Donald Trump at all, writing “He might have had a name. But then he literally built a six-hundred-and-sixty-six foot tower to which he offered up that name, sacrificing it upon its black altar such that the building became a titanic sigil of the sixteenth Major Arcana of the Tarot of the Golden Dawn, symbolizing destruction and ruin, with what remained of the man whose name it ate living within the rotting heart of its penthouse.” It’s a searingly angry piece looking at the rot that Donald Trump has brought to the world. From his racist housing practices to his peddling of the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t actually an American citizen to his long, ugly history of raping women. How, for all his power, all his ubiquity of being rich, Donald Trump is ultimately nothing more and nothing less than a ruin of a man. The essay concludes that he will most likely not become President, but that was never his role in the first place. Trump’s presidential campaign, in terms of the alt-right, was to act as a lead balloon. A means by which phone numbers could be exchanged, contact lists could be compiled, and a proper presidential race for an alt-right, white supremacist, billionaire candidate could be conducted. Given his connections to Mencius Moldbug (one of the three thinkers core to the main essay of Neoreaction a Basilisk), the most likely candidate would have been Peter Theil, a man who demonstrates that for white men, if you’re rich enough, failing upwards isn’t so much a bug as a feature. (Trump, for his part, was running in part due to debt.)

On November 8th, 2016 I came out as bisexual to my roommates. It was a small moment, all things considered. But it was my own. I felt safe expressing this aspect of my identity (of which I didn’t realize until around a month prior). But it was nevertheless mine. It felt right saying the words to someone else. They didn’t respond, not really. They were more focused on the results of the election. I never brought it up again and neither did they. It was looking good for Hillary Clinton. I voted for her not so much out a belief that she would make the world a better place. I had begun to have a growing suspicion that the job of the President isn’t a job that attracts good people. Her policies were largely not to my liking, I’d have probably preferred Bernie Sanders to her. But, when given the choice between her and Donald Trump, I went with the lesser of two evils.

My heart sank when the results came in.

When things were getting worse.

And worse.

And worse.

I called my brother to have someone who wasn’t there with me, someone I knew who wasn’t in the room. He tried to reassure me about my worst fears. But my brother was a Jill Stein voter and a few years deep into his Sargon of Akkad fandom (a fandom which would end a year or so later). He had a smug arrogance to his reassurances. Like my fears of the future, of a President Trump and a Vice President Pence weren’t justified. That we weren’t all doomed. I exploded at my brother, screamed to the top of my lungs out of fear and anger and hopelessness. I told him to go fuck himself. Told him that it was wrong for him to act as if this isn’t a horrible, awful thing that’s happening. I screamed and I yelled and I cried. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was having a nervous breakdown. I was collapsing. I was fucked. A queer autistic left leaning liberal wasn’t going to do well in Trump’s America. Sure, I was white, but that only gets you so far. My fears were palpable. I apologized to my roommates for screaming after I called my mom to get an alternative perspective. (She’s a Republican, but has been growing slightly more liberal over the course of the Trump presidency.)

On November 9th, 2016, Sandifer would remove Thesis on Trump 16 from her website due to the events of November 8th.

On May 3rd, 2017, I began reading Grant Morrison and Richard Chase’s run on Doom Patrol. I had purchased a copy of the three trade edition using a work discount. I have a preference towards non-omnibus editions of books as it’s easier for me to read them in slimmer volumes. (My attempt at reading Jerusalem that previous December was not as successful as I would have liked, though my Grandfather dying at around the same time didn’t help matters.) Immediately, I’m entranced by the run. I had only read snippets of the book prior to getting the whole thing, images pasted out of context on scans_daily aping the shape of a narrative. Nevertheless, the book was a fascinating read, highlighting ideas of realities consuming the real world, fictions becoming facts, and the overall absurd nature of the universe. Moreover, I fall in love with Crazy Jane. Someone who isn’t quite all there, who sees the world differently than other people, who stands in the rain wondering what the point of it all is. Why shouldn’t we give up? Robot Man’s response warms my heart. It’s not complex, it’s not awful in its cruelty. It’s just a request to “Come in out of the rain.”

On May 7th, 2017, I arrived home after graduation to find, sitting on my bed, a copy of Neoreaction a Basilisk. It wasn’t a copy of the full book, just a Kickstarter edition of the main essay. In this version, Dr. Sandifer printed out the pdf of the main essay, cut it up, and taped it onto pages of Blake’s Europe a Prophecy. She then scanned the book and made that into a book. I got the full color print of the book, highlighting the deft colors of Blake’s original. I read the book in my brother’s Brooklyn dorm room as he gets ready for his own graduation and remember why I was so fond of it. I notice some flaws here and there, but the book holds up extremely well. The first sentence reads “Let us assume that we are fucked.”

On January 11th, 2018, my physical copy of Neoreaction a Basilisk is printed. I received the book as part of a small order of just that book due to getting a $10 gift card to Amazon. I bring the book with me down to Florida. It’s been one year since my Grandfather died, and my grandmother can’t be alone. Alzheimer’s is rampant within our family and I often fear for the loss of my own memories. As I read the book, I consider aspects of a small writing project I’m doing. A series of reviews for the magazine PanelXPanel wherein I discuss the comic Mister Miracle. I am considering ending the series by discussing my family’s history with mental illness from my brother’s depression to my own suicidal thoughts. I ultimately decide against it in favor of something else. While I’m reading the book in Florida, I come to the realization that my favorite essay is not the main one or the retitled one on Trump now called Thesis on a President. Instead, it’s the one on David Icke. Icke’s a rather odd fellow known more for anything else than his theory that the world is run by lizard people. It is, as with many a conspiracy theory, inextricably linked to anti-Semitism. But the pathology of Icke is certainly of some interest, if only to highlight where one can go wrong when trying to make sense of the world. The difference between being a magician and being a conspiracy nut is, in the end, a difference of reality. One acknowledges that it’s all bullshit while the other sees it as the key to revealing how they are secretly the hero of this fallen world. The line between “Lizard people control the world” and “Lee Harvey Oswald is actually a member of a secret government office” is thin, but vital in order to understand the world. Ultimately, Sandifer aligns herself with Alan Moore’s stance (as would be obvious to anyone who’s read her work) that the world is rudderless. Or, in her own words, “the world cannot be made sense of; there is no biggest secret that will finally make it all click into place. Instead, the world is interesting.”

On January 28th, 2019, I began reading The Invisibles for the third time. The first time was in High School while driving around the northeast looking for colleges for my brother to attend. I ended up giving up around the seventh volume either because of my own unwillingness to read the book or because I had to return them to the library. The second was in college, though prevented from being anything more than a cursory glance due to having to return to college. The third time was for a roundtable with critic David Whittaker. Overall, I prefer the work Morrison did with Doom Patrol. It’s less messy, less problematic. While thinking about the book, I come to the conclusion that, much like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, it’s a psychochronography. Psychochronography is a kind of literary analysis where one focuses on the history of the world not through the lens of traditional historical events, but rather from a different lens. An eschewed lens of the world as a lens of London through a map of Paris is. I myself have written psychochronographies in the form of looking at the history of the 1980’s through the lens of two months and a famous Spider-Man comic that came out within them. In the case of The Invisibles, it’s a psychochronography of the conspiracy theory. From the fall of kings to the government secretly having the AIDS cure to lizard people. Morrison avoids the typical anti-Semitism of the conspiracy theory by embracing diversity and acknowledging the failures of conspiracies. The term psychochronography, incidentally, was coined by Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer.

It’s May 11th, 2019. I am working on my book One Must Imagine Scott Free Happy. I took a short break and walked to the library. While walking, I went on twitter to see what interesting people are saying. Among them is critic Sam Keeper, who notes that abstract expressionism was actually part of a CIA psyop. A conspiracy to make the art of the Soviet Union look bad. A rejection of telling the audience themes (which is to say political messages) over showing them in ways that look nothing like what’s being expressed. I note that a former CIA agent is writing for DC Comics. I then realize that I’d have to write about the implications of that in the book. After sending the tweet, I changed the song I was listening to Alan Moore’s spoken word piece Brought to Light about the CIA’s history of conspiracy, from which Alan Moore would conclude that the world is full of conspiracy theories bungling into one another. That the world was rudderless. (Sometime later, someone else would posit that King was actually a CIA psyop to destroy the leftist legacy of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby, to which I would respond that clearly the entire history of comics within the Big Two did more to besmirch their influence than hiring an ex-CIA agent to write for them and that the CIA had more pressing matters than the influence of a dead man and a crank. There’s no international enemy to deal with.)

On July 24th, 2019, music critic Andrew Hickey posted a piece about Dominic Cummings, the architect of the vote leave campaign in England. He was largely (and illegally) responsible for the narrow victory of fascism in the 2016 referendum. While looking at his blog, Hickey discovered that on the recommended blogs list, a large majority of them were part of the same AI Cult: LessWrong. Founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky, LessWrong was a rationalist blog that wished to bring about the rise of an AI god. It didn’t matter than none of the members were actually in computer science and their relationship was more akin to a Hard Sci Fi writer thinking that if he had just enough charts, he could get away with not having a plot as opposed to actual writers like Jonathan Hickman, who breathes in his chart fetish. LessWrong would ultimately fall apart due to a concept called Roko’s Basilisk, wherein the AI god they worship actually wants to kill a simulation of them. As Yudkowsky put it, “YOU DO NOT THINK IN SUFFICIENT DETAIL ABOUT SUPERINTELLIGENCES CONSIDERING WHETHER OR NOT TO BLACKMAIL YOU. THAT IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE THING WHICH GIVES THEM A MOTIVE TO FOLLOW THROUGH ON THE BLACKMAIL.” The existential dread at the heart of this quote is that, for the LessWrong community, living forever inside a computer is their dream come true. For this cruel, vengeful god to exist and torture them for not spending all their money in creating it would result in it torturing them all forever in a computer simulation. “It is a silly place,” as one famous comedian put it. Many of the escapees of LessWrong would align themselves with reactionary figures due to their shared hatred of women and belief that the problem with fascism was the leadership wasn’t that smart and if they were in charge, things would have been better. Most notable of whom is Mencius Moldbug, notable for arguing that Steve Jobs (or a billionaire like him) should be made King of America and that black people make particularly good slaves. A more interesting figure is Nick Land. Land was once a member of the CCRU (and if you can explain what it is beyond “they smoked pot and acted as if talking about science fiction made them scientists,” I will give you a hug) who, due to a nervous breakdown in China, became the great reactionary thinker of the 21st century by his seminal text, The Dark Enlightenment, wherein Land argues that White Supremacy is the best methodology to push humanity into evolving face tentacles. The two things that tie these three thinkers together is that they are all funded by Peter Theil, a man who wants to live forever no matter how many children have to be sewn to his chest, and they are the core protagonist of Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer’s essay on horror philosophy, Neoreaction a Basilisk.

On September 30th, 2020, the first issue of The Department of Truth came out. The art style used is reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz, as every critic who’s reviewed the comic has said. But it looks more like the Sienkiewicz of the Alan Moore graphic novel Shadowplay: The Secret Team than his work on Stray Toasters. Shadowplay, for those unfamiliar, was part of a graphic novel called Brought to Light about the dealings of the CIA (and would be later be adapted into the spoken word piece Brought to Light). The conspiracy at the heart of America out to serve the American Dream. A dream thought up by rich white supremacists who were sick of being taxed for doing well in capitalism and wanted to keep their slaves and take land from the native population.

Many signs of Shadowplay’s influence on The Department of Truth can be seen. The color pallet and style of the aerial shot that opens the main action of the narrative is reminiscent of Sienkiewicz’s satirical take on the Statue of Liberty. The lettering style used by Aditya Bidikar is, if not directly riffing on it, kin to the lettering used in Brought to Light; square, messy expressive letters, and a tendency to change color to fit mood. Even the subject matter of a conspiracy infecting the world has its place in Moore’s “Dreams have us” landscape.

Equally, the ideascape of The Department of Truth has Grant Morrison lurking in its corridors. A story about a secret government agency attempting to keep the order of things, preventing a rise of a new reality of cruel and awful ideologies, sounds like a storyline from a non-existent ongoing version of The Filth. There, Morrison took the worst instincts and thoughts he could imagine and forced himself to confront a lot of his worst instincts (though, sadly, not his mild 90’s drag scene influenced transphobia), all his base assumptions, and find a new path forward. In this regard, The Filth is perhaps one of Morrison’s greatest works. (Coincidentally, this comic series was released at the tail end of his “I’m friends with Mark Millar™” phase, at the cusp of his “Fuck Mark Millar™” phase.)

That isn’t to say Morrison’s work isn’t without self-critique. Indeed, one of my favorite sequences within The Invisibles is a moment when the narrative critiques its own existence within the capitalist system as a mere proxy for revolution to make the comics audience feel like they’re helping by buying this product rather than actually fight against the systems of capital.

Another comic within the DNA of The Department of Truth is that of The Nightly News. Created by Jonathan Hickman, it tells of a conspiracy of murdering newsmen for, if I recall correctly, selling a narrative that hurts people with its lies. Fake News, as the kids say. It’s very much a post-Filth text the way The Department of Truth is a post-Nightly News text.

Key to The Department of Truth’s success is its ability to understand its narrative. Where Morrison, Hickman, and even, at times, Moore can get lost in their labyrinthine designs, James Tynion IV is keenly aware of what’s going on with his maze. Unlike The Invisibles, The Department of Truth explicitly acknowledges the anti-Semitic nature of the conspiracy theory as well as embracing the diversity that The Nightly News rejected in favor of largely cishet white dudes angry at the world (which, to be fair, is a large demographic within the terrorism community).

But at its core, The Department of Truth is a story about a world on the brink of becoming something horrible: a false reality where the world is flat, the lizard people are in control of the Jewish Banks, and there never was a Moon Landing could be turned into reality if The Department of Truth doesn’t stop the (not) Koch Brothers from making it happen. Because there’s money to be made in the world secretly being something else. Of being the only one with the secret truth at the heart of the world and the only one who could stop the SJW snowflakes from taking away your freedoms. Conspiracy nuts are perhaps the easiest rubes of all because they look at a system of cruelty and want someone to blame as opposed to centuries of oppression from a faceless system.

It’s easier to imagine a Kosher Lizard Person rules the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

That same day, Douglas Rushkoff would release a podcast interview with Grant Morrison. Conducted in the midst of Morrison’s “Oh fuck, I’m culpable for Mark Millar™’s existence and was part of the problem” phase. As such, Morrison lays out a lot of self-criticism with regards to his previous work. Though never explicitly, Morrison discusses how the leftist ideas he and Rushkoff exposed during the Disinfocon days (which is only different from the CCRU by virtue of being somewhat aware of being bullshit), including the desire to infect the system from within by becoming the sociopathic billionaires and twisting capitalism into something useful. The system’s too big to be changed in this regard and Morrison wants nothing to do with the sociopathic billionaires who run the world because they’re fucking bastards. (Rushkoff can attest to this as he was once asked by a group of Billionaires what they could do to prevent the guards they hired to protect them when climate change forces everyone into bunkers and money becomes useless. He was laughed out the room when he suggested “Treating them like they aren’t your personal slaves and maybe prevent climate change from getting that bad.”) Indeed, the conversation opens with an acknowledgement that Qanon (the conservative conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is leading a secret war against leftist Satanists who want to rape our children in the basement of a Pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement) would have fit in The Invisibles and that the President of the United States is working under magical thinking and his strongman tactic of denying that there’s a problem is failing miserably in light of COVID-19. In his later years, Grant has found that he’s not an activist. That being an activist doesn’t change anything on the large scale and only makes things better on the small scale. He’s all for smashing statues of racists and fighting back, but that’s not his role. (In another interview, he noted that role belongs to the queer margins, acknowledging trans people by a term that isn’t a slur for perhaps the first time in his whole career). His role is to tell stories for people to feel acknowledged, no longer alone in this mad, mad world. To take care of the cats he finds on the streets, the community he calls home, the people who need it. Perhaps fittingly, Morrison’s conclusion expresses the tactic that Neoreaction a Basilisk suggests the left do when they are fucked: Haunt the future. Create ideas that people have to reckon with.

On October 2nd, 2020, Donald Trump would tweet that he and his wife have COVID-19. I snark in a twitter DM with David Mann and Ritesh Babu that Grant Morrison just killed the President of the United States.

And lo, the conspiracy.

“Humans just lead short, boring, insignificant lives, so they make up stories to feel like they’re a part of something bigger. They want to blame all the world’s problems on some single enemy they can fight, instead of a complex network of interrelated forces beyond anyone’s control.”

-Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco

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