Clean Room Vol 1: Immaculate Conception
Gail Simone (Writer), John Davis-Hunt (Artist), Quinton Winter (Colourist)
Vertigo Comics, 2016
Clean Room is centered around a self-help movement/cult run by a horror fiction writer named Astrid Mueller. The movement is called the Honest World Foundation. They prize emotional self-control, and the titular Clean Room is a white climate-controlled space where members are led to confront their deepest fears. The parallels with Scientology and their goal of going Clear are obvious.
But the story goes in directions that are not obvious. The opening scene in the series is a kind of origin story for Astrid Mueller. As a young girl she is deliberately run down by a motorist, and awakens in the hospital seeing demons. It's hard to tell if they are hallucinations, and the point of the story isn't made clear until a couple of issues later--so it's confusing at first. The focus immediately shifts to reporter Chloe Pierce, who is attempting to commit suicide, unable to cope with her fiancee's suicide. He was an actor heavily involved in Mueller's movement (the Hollywood connection is another reference to the Scientology phenomenon).
After her rescue she becomes obsessed with getting to the bottom of the Foundation. At their headquarters she manages to interview Mueller herself. A vision she has during it--which she does not reveal to Mueller--convinces the cult leader to show her the Clean Room, where she will sit in on a therapy session. It's a deeply unnerving experience, due both to Mueller's bullying emotional techniques and to virtual reality effects that everyone in the room experiences.
Chloe leaves determined to expose the movement, but quickly finds herself unexpectedly involved with it. And another session in the Clean Room (as well as a mysterious visitor to Chloe's home) demonstrate that the demons talked about in Astrid's book are real. This aspect of the story reminds me of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles: there is a realm beyond the reality we know, and it's hostile to human life. This collection is a satisfying chunk of story, but it is still probably just a prelude for what must come next.
Enjoyable to see Gail Simone stretch this way. Clean Room has an interesting premise, with very creepy horror always just below the surface. Astrid Mueller is already proving to be more than the simple villain she first appeared.
Thought I should say something about the art. It's usual practice for the artist to get co-creator credit on a creator owned series, but this one just says "created by Gail Simone." Nevertheless it's clear that Jon Davis-Hunt had significant input as the creator of the character designs. There is a "Drawing Room" supplement at the end of the collection showing some of his character sketches. His style reminds me a bit of Frank Quitely, although not as stylized. It's basically realistic, with slightly exaggerated facial expressions--which has the benefit of making the characters individual and recognizable. He also does a great job on the demons and other horrific events in the story. And he uses a variety of panel layouts, to good effect.