Welcome to “Off The Shelf”, our comic book reviews of recent titles. These are designed to be brief reviews of current books and series that we think you should check out.
Today, Sam reviews Department of Truth: Story by James Tynion IV, Art by Martin Simmonds, Letters by Aditya Bidikar
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Department of Truth #11
Story by James Tynion IV
Art by Martin Simmonds
Letters by Aditya Bidikar
The pandemic has been very good for the comic book industry. According to industry sales figures collected by Comichron, the sale of comics and graphic novels raked in $1.28 billion dollars in 2020, beating even the prior year’s record sales. This in spite of production and distribution problems in new comics caused by the pandemic. Graphic novels especially took off during 2020, as we all had more time on our hands to read long-form stories as well as catch up on series we had missed in the past. All in all, it’s been a very good year for comics.
It has been an especially good year for Image Comics. Image titles were the top three titles in Diamond Distributors’ 2020 trade charts according to bleedingcool.com. Both Invincible and The Old Guard had successful runs on Amazon Prime and Netflix, respectively. Several Image titles, including “Killadelphia” and “Decorum”, have been nominated for 2021 Eisner awards. But no title has probably had the unbridled success and buzz as “The Department of Truth.” In July of 2021, with only ten issues out, Department had sold over half a million single issues. The series very quickly has earned a spot among other legendary Image titles including “The Walking Dead” and “Saga”, and has also earned four Eisner nominations, including best writer, best new series and best continuing series.
There’s plenty of good reasons why Department has done so well. The art is top notch: unnerving, evocative, and emotional. The writing is tight – although some would argue with that in this issue – and gritty. And of course, the insightful and creative way the series deals with conspiracy theories and their effect on society.
Issue 11 concludes a brief arc titled “The Hunt”, where agent Cole Turner’s assignment is to accompany the irreverent Hawk Harrison and field agent Darla Moore on a bigfoot hunt. Darla’s main focus is on keeping “wild tulpas”, in this case manifesting as cryptids such as bigfoot, in check.
The Department has tackled pretty significant issues in the past: flat-earthers, satanism and mass shootings. It was only natural that bigfoot rear its big furry head.
This issue, and the arc, takes a quite slower and more emotionally resonant tack than it has in the past. The Department has to take a hard line managing conspiracies in the wild. It’s not enough to just combat and kill the fiction. To really kill the fiction, you have to kill the people who are the source of the fiction. And the Department has become rather cold to this task, but not so in this issue.
The arc paints a portrait of a very normal man named Evan who was drawn into hunting bigfoot through the desire to connect with his father and who, in turn, wants to connect to his sons in the same way. A significant part of the two-issue series is in the form of a letter to his son, explaining why he hunts bigfoot and how things in his life broke down. In contrast to others in the series who promote conspiracy theories to benefit personally or to tear down social order, the writer says that he wanted to share his love of hunting bigfoot “to show you how big and strange and wonderful the universe is”.
And as a parent, I totally get that. I remember taking my kids to Kennedy Space Center several years ago, and practically rejoiced in the opportunity to actually see some of the amazing things that inspired my own fascination with space and science. Watching their excitement as we passed launch pads and rockets brought such joy to my heart. It made me feel young again. It reminded me of the awe of the universe and the insane bravery of those who chose to venture into it. A return trip this year brought all those feelings back, not only for myself but for my sons.
If there is a bone to pick with this arc, it’s that it relies too much on exposition. Other critics have cited this violation of the law of “show don’t tell” also. As I said, a good chunk of the issue is made up of the text of a letter. Most of the rest of the issue is exposition on cryptids in the form of the protagonists explaining things, either in coffee shops or in the woods.
But it works. The letter shows the descent of the writer both in writing and in art, as the margins and spaces become more and more filled with surreal scribbles and drawings. The discussion of cryptids is interesting and enlightening. The artwork is surreal and powerful. The story told is one that many of us can in some way relate to. We all have the desire to connect and share the things that give us meaning and joy. What happens when those things are rejected though? If we believe in things unseen which reveal a larger world, one that is both frightening and beautiful, does that make us crazy or faithful?
Faith and hope can lead us to venture past the safety of the possible to test unknown waters. That pursuit has led to amazing achievements and discoveries. However that pursuit can also result in alienation and despair. Even the strongest faith rests on a fulcrum. John the Baptist questioned the very Christ he baptized, asking if he was the one we should expect or not. Many have asked the same question of Christ in their own hearts, even if they couldn’t speak it out loud.
The world is a hard place, one that doesn’t cater too much to the impossible. Meaning and purpose though more often comes from what could be than what is, at least in my view. As Thomas Merton wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
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Until next time, watch out for bigfoot poo and Geek be with you.