I spend a good deal of my time looking for new horror series on the comic market, and stalking my favorite authors. I wasn’t a huge fan of Gail Simone’s Batgirl run, but I absolutely adored her Red Sonja run, so I was shocked to learn that she has been writing a horror series. I’m not sure how Clean Room escaped my notice, but after binging over the weekend, I am hooked.
Clean Room is one of those series that is kind of difficult to explain. On the surface, it seems very straightforward: a reporter, Chloe, seeks to learn the truth about a positive-thinking cult run by an enigmatic woman, Astrid Mueller. What seems as a straight forward “cults are bad, mmmkay?” story quickly turns on its ear, as it’s revealed that evil walks among us, and Astrid Mueller’s cult might be the first line of defense against it. In other words, the series walks the line of get-to-the-truth mystery, and good old fashioned horror.
I can’t emphasize that enough, either: this is a horrifying series. Most of the horror rests on the hands of the artist, Jon Davis-Hunt. He has a particular knack for expressing unsettling facial expressions, and his demonic creations are just bloody enough to not go overboard. Couple this with Simone’s deeply unsettling dialog for her monstrous creations and the entire series has a distinctly unsettling feeling.
I will say there are a lot of elements in the comic that would normally grate on me. For instance, I’m generally sick of the plucky reporter character, but Chloe isn’t just your standard “I’m looking for the truth!” story-scooper we’re so often presented. Like everyone else on this carefully positioned chess board, Chloe is so much more than a single label. She’s a reporter, she’s a believer, she’s an optimist, and she doesn’t have all of the answers. She wants them, but it’s clear that Chloe has a very long road to traverse before she understands.
That extends to most of the characters, as well. They feel so much richer and more dynamic than just a single label; Killian isn’t just the strong arm of the Astrid Mueller foundation. In fact, I suspect there is a lot of turmoil bubbling just beneath the surface within Killian, post-Astrid’s message to her. Likewise, Astrid goes beyond that of the standard Hollywood cult leader.
The series has a lot going on with the series thematically. On one hand, we’re presented with the standard sleazy, televangelist cult leaders, and Astrid’s brother, early on, seems to thumb his nose at tradition religion. And yet, there is a demonic character who appears to have been “cleaned” by a traditional exorcism; he still exists, but he’s no longer evil. (This incident also makes me think these things are demons as opposed to aliens, but to be honest, I’m not completely certain.) There’s also a very strong undercurrent of loss, grief and guilt. Very few stories every truly capture the complexity of these, and Clean Room definitely on the right track for it.
As I wrapped up Clean Room, it dawned on me that this is yet another demonic series I’m reading, along with Outcast and Black Monday Murders. Horror themes often come in waves; in the ’70s horror stories were obsessed with demons and other Christian mythological evils. After a deluge, the demons eventually gave way to the ’80s slasher craze. I’ve always held a soft spot for the evils-of-the-world type of stories, which might be why I gravitated toward Clean Room. I came for the demons, I’m staying for the complex characters and fascinating plot hook.