Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is our second by Vincent Haddad. Similar to his first post for us, Haddad explores the representational limits and possibilities of comics, this time in considering the toxic appeal of conspiracy theories.
Shifts in digital and political culture resulting in the rise of QAnon and the insurrection at the Capitol prompt questions about whether conspiracy theorization has changed in degree or in kind since the 1960s when the term was first popularized. At once, the Internet makes possible a whole matter of effective and crowdsourced web-sleuthing that can uncover crimes that range from porch theft, serial violent crimes, and even “state crimes against democracy.” At the same time, an echo chamber of suspicious minds can merge superficial “investigation” with pure invention, often up-voting not only the most factually far-fetched but also the most degraded and racist tales spun. Conspiracy theory’s hybridization of reality and fictionality position comics effectively in conceptualizing these shifts. Comic stories are told through a visual language of sequential images that implicate the reader in acts of interpretive co-creation, and the relationship between image and text can be brought into tension such that the reader must act as a conspiracy theorist to navigate the narrative.
Here I will explore how three recent comics have addressed this topic: Right State (2012) by Mat Johnson with art by Andrea Mutti, American Carnage (2018-2019) by Bryan Hill with art by Leandro Fernandez, and The Department of Truth (2020-) by James Tynion IV with art by Martin Simmonds. Although all these texts deploy different visual and narrative strategies to explore conspiracy culture, together they demonstrate how conspiracy theorization eludes straightforward representation. While Right State and American Carnage ground their detective narratives in a near-reality of white supremacist militia movements, Department of Truth is more conceptual—if a critical mass of people believe a conspiracy theory, the more reality will bend to fit that theory, i.e. the earth can become flat. Within their varied narrative conceits, all these texts find themselves balancing their momentum as conspiracy thrillers with careful signposting to maintain distance from their seedy and often deplorable conspiracy theorist characters, but the slippage between reader and subject, content and form, make these boundaries difficult to maintain. Juxtaposing these comics illustrates a narrative conundrum in addressing this issue: whether conceptualizing the pleasure of conspiracy theorizing diminishes its political reality and violent eruptions, or whether stories grounded in that reality can adequately conceptualize why such an activity is pervasive across American political and popular culture.
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter popularized the notion that conspiracy theories were a symptom of the “paranoid style” of American politics. According to Mark Fenster, Hofstadter was a “consensus historian,” part of a group of social scientists who viewed American politics as “moderate and pragmatic” and history as progressing through “practical linkages among conflicting political parties rather than as intense ideological battles” (Fenster 27). For them, conspiracy theory was a manifestation of extremist ideologies that deteriorated the social trust of a susceptible mass society and therefore threatened this progression. Hofstadter’s analysis of right-wing conspiracy-thinking in 1964 is as apt today as it was then—and resonates across the comics I will discuss—but this pathology approach to conspiracy theory, as he says “borrowing a clinical term for other purposes,” has not been an effective framework in understanding the pervasiveness of conspiracy in American culture.
Scholarly accounts of conspiracy theory in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Jodi Dean, Peter Knight, and Fenster became more comprehensive and even more generous, viewing conspiracy theory as a symptom of a political class proven to act self-interestedly and illegally, a ratings-driven commercial media, and a monopolistic and opaquely financialized economic system. As Fenster explains, “conspiracy theory does not pose a threat from outside some healthy center of political engagement; rather it is a historical and perhaps necessary part of capitalism and democracy” (11). The persistence of the pathology approach might be explained by a similar eagerness to pathologize as individual character defects many overlapping but not necessarily coterminous features of conspiracy culture, including racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Featuring detective protagonists with marginalized identities, all three texts under discussion admirably attempt to balance their own skepticism of powerful institutions with a reckoning of the racist and homophobic underpinnings of much conspiracy culture. To best understand this dynamic, I follow Fenster’s suggestion that analysis of the “style” of conspiracy culture is preferable to fixating on the pathological: “The latter term that makes up the ‘paranoid style’ concept productively opens up analysis to the study of political culture, rhetoric, and popular discourse; but the former part, ‘paranoid style,’ anchors analysis to a narrow, normative consideration of ideology, pathology, and status anxiety” (32). In this context, understanding narrative and aesthetic style of these comics as they undertake an enormously challenging representational task is crucial, especially when conspiracy is also the main driver of the gripping stories being told.
Published in 2012 and set in the near-future of 2020, Right State is remarkable in its prescience, with eerily accurate extrapolations from the racialized conspiracies of birtherism and the Tea Party. Pressed into duty by Kali Jones, a Black conservative working for the Democrats as a White House liaison to promote bipartisanship, and Asif, a Black, Muslim FBI agent, Ted Akers goes undercover to investigate a white supremacist militia planning to assassinate a Black Democratic presidential candidate before the 2020 general election. A facile, America First media pundit, Ted is chosen for his immediate credibility among white supremacists. The views espoused by Ted on television and shared by the militia movement have made a claim to legitimacy on the opposing presidential ticket with vice presidential candidate Shelly Beeker who appropriates Reagan’s now-ubiquitous slogan “Make America Great Again.”
The speculative acumen of this graphic novel relies on its linking of well-worn conservative talking points of the Obama era, like cries for him to simply utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” with the fringe conspiracy theories circulated among white supremacists. Whether it is Asif ignoring the (barely) sanitized views of Ted or Ted ignoring the more uncouth conspiracies of white supremacists, these beliefs are never met with explicit rebuttal because of what is essentially a textual belief in Hofstadter’s pragmatic consensus. This faith can be traced to when public concern over militia groups first came into focus after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. This fever pitch culminated in a Senate hearing inviting militia members to speak publicly “in order to allow the ‘airing’ and ‘ventilation’ of [their] beliefs and activities” with the false hope that they would be self-evidently insane to an American public traumatized and enraged by the recent atrocity (Fenster 53, quoting former Republican Senator Arlen Specter).
In this vein, Ted’s stark confrontations with the violence of militia movements in Right State narratively force him to retreat to a healthier middle. He finally concedes, these “wingnuts are insane,” learning that his prior “legitimate complaints” to organize goodies and baddies by ethnic or religious identity was weak, conspiratorial thinking that only leads to horrific violence. When Ted is first extracted from the militia, he proves his rehabilitation when he exclaims, “thank God, thank Allah, thank Jesus, I don’t care. I never thought I’d be so happy to see an Arab. A nice, sane, friendly Arab.” While this no doubt marks personal progress for Ted, this reorientation towards Asif is complicated, in part because of Asif’s role and representation as an intelligence agent.
The 1995 Senate hearings provide a helpful entry into this relationship between Ted and Asif. A primary objective of the 1995 Senate hearings on militia movements was to rebuild trust in law enforcement after the Waco massacre while cracking down on the threat of the militias’ movement evidenced by the Oklahoma City bombing. For Ted as well as the reader, Asif embodies this fantasy of a restrained, more bureaucratic law-enforcement officer to whom legislators wanted viewers to feel comfortable granting more authority. Legislators’ response to the Senate hearings in 1995 was the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. This act expanded law enforcement’s discretion to initiate wiretaps of “suspected terrorists” and to authorize secretive “removal courts” in deportation hearings, all of which were used to target people who look like Asif or share his religious identity far more frequently than it did militia members (Fenster 67). When this and similar legislation functions to expand dubious and Islamaphobic “watchlists” or to arrest and jail “Black Identity Extremists,” it seems problematic to leverage Asif and his identity to represent the idea of a liberalized law enforcement, literally fading into the background as a convenient narrative pawn in Ted’s rehabilitation for most of the graphic novel. But, as the conspiracy unravels, Asif’s vulnerability to conspiracy culture comes to the fore, regardless of his disposition or professional status.
In the climax of the graphic novel, the reader learns that Kali Jones, the Republican liaison who epitomized Hofstadter’s “practical linkages among conflicting political parties,” is instigating the bloody conspiracy of “wingnuts.” Moreover, Kali and the militia never planned to assassinate the Democratic candidate, but to make a martyr of the milquetoast Republican candidate by framing Asif as the killer, stoking Islamophobic bigotry, and carrying Shelly Beeker to the seat of power. Even as the narrative accurately and predictively renders the fringe and center of the modern Republican Party as indistinguishable, the resolution returns the reader to a healthier liberal consensus through the exposure of the conspiracy and a promise of carceral punishment for the perpetrators, including Kali. The final page shows the embittered face of one of the deceased white supremacists’ children, an ambivalent ending that could be read either as a warning for how vigilant law enforcement will need to remain to maintain this liberal consensus or as a warning about the recursiveness of violence when counterinsurgency techniques are used to enforce conspiracy culture.
Published in the middle of the Trump presidency, American Carnage complicates Right State’s resolution by implicating its detective protagonist in the violence of the carceral state while maintaining the bigoted violence of white supremacist conspiracy culture. In the miniseries, FBI agent Sheila Curry seeks revenge for her partner who was lynched while investigating a charismatic, independent Senate candidate Wynn Morgan and his ties to a white supremacist militia. Needing to go off the books to pursue the case, she reaches out to Richard “Rick” Wright to go undercover, as he can pass as white and has little to lose. Rick was fired from the FBI after shooting and killing an unarmed Black child, and his resulting self-loathing and alienation, crisis of racial identity, and political and professional disillusionment sensitize him to the hypocrisies on “both sides” and make him sympathetic to how conspiracy culture can fill the void of political powerlessness. Unlike Asif, the calm and dispassionate bureaucratic agent of liberal hegemony, Rick’s perspective creates a more fractured, volatile perspective of the conspiracy thriller that unfolds—reflected in its more color-saturated and hyper-violent art style compared to the black and white art of Right State.
In this way, American Carnage introduces a different set of questions about conspiracy culture and its allure for communities of color whose health, safety, and liberation have all been compromised by actual criminal conspiracies enacted or abetted by the government. At the start of the narrative, Rick argues his racial experience prioritizes a distrust of Sheila’s warrantless surveillance of a citizen more than it instigates a fear of Nazis. The text continues this juxtaposition of race and conspiracy culture in the following scene, wherein the militia-aligned Wynn is giving his stump speech at a Black church, and there he finds a sympathetic ear due to a shared disillusionment in government and feeling of abandonment. While conspiracy culture is an objective reality of Wynn’s milieu—particularly narratives of white genocide and crises of fertility in a breeding war—the text broadly prioritizes the feelings of alienation and anger that might make conspiracy culture attractive over particular theories themselves. In this sense, American Carnage echoes a more progressive critique of how conspiracy culture can seduce vulnerable people who feel alienated and powerless, and then direct those feelings towards ideologically disadvantageous and toxic political ends. Though this purpose is clear, it is disappointing that the ultimate expressions of contrarianism among multiple Black characters in the story find only a narrow spectrum of possibility: they drop the rhetorical bombshell that they are Republican or even voted for Trump, but never that they have become anti-capitalists, prison abolitionists, or any other labels deemed too left-of-center.
Despite this limitation, American Carnage succeeds in expanding the critique of conspiracy culture in Right State to include the “moderate and pragmatic” consensus and its fetishization of the carceral state. Rick explains his mixed racial identity prepares him for undercover work because he has always had to perform different roles in different contexts. Yet this racial awareness does not make him the fantastical liberalized officer that Asif is. As part of his collateralized while undercover in the militia movement, Rick kills another innocent Black person, this time a man defending himself when he is targeted by the militia members in a brutal hazing scheme for Rick to prove himself. Additionally, he forces Sheila to listen to live audio of him terrorizing the family of a white supremacist to get information about her partner’s murder. Predictably, Wynn’s equally ruthless daughter Jennifer discovers Rick is a biracial FBI agent—both facts serving as dangerous blackmail against him—and Rick must further compromise the FBI, its overt interests in the case, and any semblance of its supposed rule-abiding restraint, to stay alive. In other words, Rick is both subject and agent of the logic of criminality, which the text recognizes is not and has never been colorblind. If we read Rick as a symbol for institutional and social trust in an age of racialized conspiracy, his guilt and alienation reflect the fact that there is no “pathology-free” or redemptive center in American mainstream political discourse from which to pleasurably unravel conspiracy narratives.
This becomes especially clear in the resolution of the series. For Jennifer and the rest of Wynn’s followers, the belief in white supremacy and whatever racist conspiracies can confirm that belief must be objective truth or, as Jennifer tells Rick, “the natural order of things.” She continues, “The insanity is trying to change what America has always been. Erasing history. America was always the vision of my ancestors. It was by their grace that people like you exist. But let’s not talk about the world. Let’s talk about you. What do you want?” This fluid transition from “the world,” unchangeable in its own racist historical erasure dressed up as objective fact, to his personal feelings of alienation encapsulates how the worst of conspiracy culture ensnares people yearning to satisfy a power fantasy. Cornered, Rick sees no way out of this rhetorical circle backed by violent, political, and conspiratorial power. Rick replies, “You win with words, Jennifer. So I have to take them away. Talk again and I’ll kill you.” She does, and so he does. Rick then uses the existing apparatus of racist policing to finalize his heroic act. Knowing what the result will be, when confronted by police he—like the child he once killed—reaches for his cell phone, effectively committing suicide by cop. Rick sees his death as an opportunity to exonerate the FBI from the extrajudicial murders committed in pursuit of Wynn, all his crimes are now the acts of a rogue agent. In a voicemail, Rick explains, “I’ve eaten the sin, Sheila…and I’m the monster you’ve always needed.” His martyrdom is deeply unsettling: both in its gesture towards heroic redemption for a law enforcement officer who has killed multiple innocent people and in its faith that the conspiracy-theory fueled militia and the diffuse threat of white supremacy disappears with Wynn. The tragic resolution instead only exposes that both are utter fantasies at the heart of the notion of a liberal consensus.
The Department of Truth further accelerates American Carnage’s faithlessness in a grounded truth from which to base a functional, liberal consensus. In the series, Cole Turner is a mild-mannered FBI bureaucrat who has a personal interest in conspiracy theories because as a child he was traumatized by the Satanic Panic in the 1980s. Told retrospectively from his own interrogation, the first issue follows Cole attending a “flat earth conference” to gather intelligence. By invitation from libertarian billionaires, he is flown to the literal edge of a flat earth. When they land, mysterious agents murder everyone on board, intercept Cole, and question him. The issue concludes with the revelation that his interrogators, Lee Harvey Oswald and his partner Ruby, lead a para-governmental agency known as the Department of Truth charged with squelching conspiracy theories before they reach a critical mass of belief and become true.
The scratched and dark water-color art style by Martin Simmonds and lettering by Aditya Bidikar often come into tension with one another and obscure details such that the reader, like Cole, must act as a sleuth. Even more than the other texts discussed, The Department of Truth replicates conspiracy rush, or “the impossible, almost utopian drive [of conspiracy culture] to seize and fetishize individual signs in order to place them within interpretive structures that unsuccessfully attempt to stop the signs’ unlimited signification” (Fenster 13). The serialized, ongoing story is interesting in its several narrative paradoxes. It raises the existential stakes of conspiracy in its story-world by having the entire grounds of world-historical reality at stake. Yet, by sublimating these signifying pleasures into a conceit that exaggerates the power of fictionality to produce reality, the comic risks not taking the dangers we see play out in Right State and American Carnage seriously enough.
The Department of Truth #3 (November 2020) demonstrates the narrative horror required to inject sufficient readerly self-awareness and apprehension into a story-world whose own existential reality is already constantly at stake. A mother who lost her child in a school shooting is re-traumatized by the right-wing conspiracy that she and her son were actually crisis actors in a false flag operation to take away people’s guns. In the story, she is sent a thumb drive with “evidence” of acting classes with her son, and as doubt creeps into her mind reality begins to shift—she and her deceased son start to become crisis actors. Ultimately, Cole and Ruby must break into her apartment, steal the thumb drive before she releases the “truth” to the world, but whose own intervention thereby confirms in her mind a grand conspiracy and leaves her even more unhinged and traumatized than before. This issue is among the tensest and most frightening single issues I have ever read and demonstrates the lengths that the fictional conceit must go to show itself to be a responsible mediator of conspiracy rush.
This issue frames the following issue’s grand narrative linking the Kennedy assassination with a forgery of Obama’s birth certificate and a coverup of Jeffrey Epstein’s murder with a chastened who-could-believe-this amusement. Yet, the lure of the narrative’s own conspiracy is harder to resist. In the conclusion of the series’ first narrative arc in The Department of Truth #5 (January 2021), we can see the effective interplay between the narrative, aesthetic construction of the comic and the real-world status of the reader’s social and institutional trust when Cole first meets Black Hat, the organization behind promoting these toxic conspiracy theories. Pointing to the morally compromising actions the Department of Truth have already asked of Cole, Black Hat poses a question to Cole that succeeds in seeding doubt: if the U.S. government is aware of the power of storytelling to shape reality, how can we be sure the Department of Truth has not created their own divergences already? Black Hat explains that the Department of Truth “was formed to reshape the postwar world with America at its center, rather than all the imperial powers of the previous two hundred years.” Maybe, Black Hat suggests, the U.S. government exploited its ability to alter world-historical events through shaping narrative beliefs to win the Cold War. Or, to strike a more personal nerve for Cole, Black Hat accuses the Department of Truth of knowing “Reagan’s not going to get his shining city on the hill without some devils in the shadows,” referring to the traumatizing Satan of his childhood.
As a reader, despite every warning about the danger of conspiracy theorization, this fictionalized suggestion is completely believable. Black Hat capitalizes on the deservedly eroded social trust of American intelligence agencies, literalized by the horrors experienced by Cole, and deploys conspiracy theory as an agent to further erode social trust in liberal democracy. And it totally works. Like Cole, a suspicious-minded reader no longer knows whether, if either, Black Hat or the Department of Truth are agents for justice. Its seriality and comic novelty play into this as well. Common to form, the advertisements for next month’s issue tease questions about the foil for the Department of Truth and apparent villain, like “Who is the Black Hat?” But, in the context of its content, these advertisements reproduce the pleasurable sensation of conspiracy theorizing generally, and arguably even evoke QAnon, whose dumps predominantly take the form of questions—for example, “Why does Potus [sic] surround himself w/ generals? Why go around the 3 letter agencies? What is the military code?”—that stoke crowdsourced decoding efforts by anons and qtubers. In this sense the comic uses its narrative allure to expose the uncomfortable permeability between a rational, liberal reader and the deplorable actors online.
Although this essay has applied pressure to various aspects of these texts, I find them all to be outstanding achievements of the comics form as a vehicle to deliver three different and provocative attempts at broaching an enormously difficult representational task. On their own, they reflect certain conceptual limitations about conspiracy theorization that are common in American public discourse. Where Right State presents a competent FBI bureaucrat facing off against a violent and conniving white supremacist militia, American Carnage shows the frailty of this fantasy with a detective both implicated by the racial terror enacted by the state and victimized by the racial terror enacted by the conspiracy-fueled militia movements. Sharing the liberal sensibility of those texts, The Department of Truth engages the reader in the pleasures of an interpretive and aesthetic practice of conspiracy, making the boundaries between the reader and the more heinous elements of conspiracy culture harder to see. Collectively, however, these texts produce a more complete picture of an evolving and frightening political style, one that we should expect to need a multiplicity of aesthetic practices to fully define.
Vincent Haddad is an assistant professor of English at Central State University. His writing on comics and culture has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Black Perspectives, Post45, and The Rambling. He has an article forthcoming in INKs titled “Detroit vs. Everybody (Including Superheroes): Representing Race through Setting in DC Comics.” He has contributions on race and comics in the forthcoming edited collections BOOM! #*@&! Splat: Comics and Violence and The Comics of Karen Berger: Portrait of the Editor as an Artist.