When a series maintains a debut as strong as Clean Room, it can become a serious challenge to continue conveying the same level of excitement and urgency in an effective way, but what Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt are achieving here is a rapidly spreading bloodstain. The exact location and nature of the wound remains hazy, but there’s a lot of blood and the bleeding isn’t slowing down any time soon.
The most immediately noticeable thing about the latest issue is that Davis-Hunt is taking far more control of the storytelling than in the preceding two. The best way I would describe his presence on the first two issues was filling out the world around the major events of the issue. What was so critical to his work on the first issue was establishing the dominant themes of the title and how they inform the cosmology of the space the story takes place in. The way that he delivered Chloe’s suicide attempt in opening pages of the debut issue, for example, offered up some of the deepest insights into what he and Simone want to accomplish with the series by telling us exactly how sex and death would be intertwined, something that comes into much sharper focus this issue. In the second issue, he anchored the comic around the chessboard with his careful rendering of Astrid’s fingers toying with the rook, inviting the reader to contemplate the sequence in the depth that it deserved.
This issue, however, relies on a lot more purely visual cues to carry the story, using a combination of the visual language of film and more uniquely comic work. Davis-Hunt opens the issue powerfully by transitioning from a low angle shot of Astrid’s building in Chicago to progressively higher angle shots of Chloe’s home and the highway she’s driving down, using the building, path, and lane markers to create a striking sense of visual continuity that gives it the appearance of being a single fluid motion. The effect is very similar to how Annie Wu manipulates the reader’s fluency in the visual language of film to bolster the kinetic element of her art and paneling in Black Canary. It isn’t immediately apparent on the first reading of the issue (you are reading every issue more than once, right?), but the perspective and composition of the opening page ties directly into what we learn about the nature of angelic and demonic forces at work in the series.
Astrid’s patient this issue, the seemingly innocuous Joe Wei, has had his personal life destroyed by his unwillingness to let his feet touch the floor. Under Clean Room interrogation by Astrid, he tells her that he can’t allow himself more than 171 steps a day because Heaven, he says, isn’t above like people think it is, it’s below. “Every step you take is walking on the screaming faces of the angels,” he says, his face stained with tears. When asked where Hell is, he simply points up. It’s precisely the kind of inversion that Davis-Hunt alluded to in the semiotics of the debut issue, drawing immediate parallels with Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s The Filth that are beginning to reveal themselves in a much more explicit way this issue.
When Astrid interrogated Dwight Fennister last issue, it wasn’t much more than a demonstration for Chloe’s benefit to show her what Astrid is able to bring out of people, but this issue Astrid’s curiosity is piqued by Wei and she takes his claim that Heaven and Hell are inverted at more than just face value, she treats it as secret knowledge she’s intent on discovering the source of, which for the time being validates the claim as being true of the cosmology of Clean Room’s world. Wei tells Mueller that Heaven is a dirty place, identifying it with sod and worms, which completely changes the context of the Clean Room itself and how Mueller uses it. In issue #2 when Chloe visits the Clean Room she undergoes an intensive disinfecting ritual, which she questions Mueller about, asking her what she’s trying to keep out, getting an evasive yet suggestive “Nothing at all,” in response. As Mueller’s interrogation of Wei intensifies, it becomes apparent that Wei, despite being previously passed over, has come into contact with the same kind of demonic creatures that Mueller and Pierce have. The purpose of the Clean Room, it seems, is to help Mueller isolate and identify the people who have been plagued by these creatures. Given what Wei has to say about their association with the air and angelic forces being earthbound in nature, it further seems likely that the Clean Room was created to be the ideal environment to bring the demons out in a space where any trace of anything associated with the angelic has been, well, scrubbed clean.
It throws a brand new light on the murder of Michael Parks, who was found twisted in knots at the beginning of the second issue. The police at the scene described it as the cleanest room the two of them would either set foot in, which at the time seemed to point towards Astrid Mueller’s involvement, but with the revelations that come from her interrogation of Wei and Fennister’s apparent possession following his run in with the monkeys at the close of last issue, it seems far more likely that it was the demons themselves completely independent of Mueller.
A new outline of Mueller and her true motivations is traced during her exchange with Wei in the Clean Room that is the most intriguing and compelling one yet. When taking into account Fennister and Wei’s experiences in the Clean Room, it appears that Mueller created her facade of a “self actualization” organization in order to attract people who had experienced significant trauma in their lives with the goal of using the room to weed out the people whose trauma was completely mundane in origin and those who ran afoul of the same kind of demon as the one involved in the car crash and ensuing chaos that transformed Astrid’s childhood.
“At age six she was deliberately hit twice by truck driver Jonas Kemf. She should have died. The crowd gouged out both of Kemf’s eyes and three decades later, my fiancé read her book and splattered his brains on my kitchen cabinets. She needs to be stopped,” Chloe tells Reed over waffles and ice cream, reiterating basically all we know for sure about Astrid and painting a portrait that suggests Chloe believes Astrid can compel people into violent acts. Based on what we’ve observed of Mueller as well as the creatures that lurk behind the scenes of these traumatic incidents, Chloe’s perspective on Mueller, which was effectively our initial presentation of her, appears to be completely mistaken. Setting the story up with a largely or completely incorrect perspective on Mueller is a brilliant move that ties directly into just how fully reversed the notions and coding of good and evil are in Clean Room.
Underscoring Chloe’s misunderstanding of the term “frell” which she takes to mean an interloper into Mueller’s organization, but when we see it being used internally in a conversation with Mueller herself at the beginning of the issue, it’s used to mean a person who was tested by the organization and judged to be beneath notice, a person who was thought to have no known contact with the demons that Mueller is hunting. What emerges in the exchange is the ways in which Mueller’s organization both conforms and diverges from the Scientology-like model that it was initially presented as. Without correcting Chloe’s misuse of the term Reed confirms to her that they are encouraged to lie to outsiders in the same way that all kinds of cult like organizations are, but it seems less and less likely that the economic or psychological exploitation of her followers plays into Mueller’s motivations in the slightest.
Where Mueller does appear to employ the same kind of Masonic structure as Scientology, the LDS church, or Aleister Crowley’s Thelema is in its hierarchy, that the true nature and aims of Mueller’s work are concealed from those who haven’t achieved a given rank within an organization. There’s a basic understanding of the structure and purpose of their work in “self-actualization” given to the rank and file members, but the wider cosmology and the existence of the demons that Mueller seeks to bring out in the Clean Room are only revealed to the inner circle, much like the hotly contested “Xenu Myth” contained in the OTIII segment of the upper levels of Scientology training intended to achieve self actualization. Instead of using Mueller to satirize Scientology or draw attention to the many allegations brought against the organization, it appears that Simone is more interested in manipulating the expectations of the audience around Mueller and the true nature of her work.
The other way that Simone works to subvert expectations this issue is with Mueller’s head of security Reed. After sweeping in to rescue Chloe from a gas station attendant, she takes her to a diner where she hits on Chloe in an incredibly forward way. She barely manages to begin a response before they get interrupted by a news report, but Chloe took in Reed’s fighting with awe, describing her internally as magnificent, more than likely reciprocating Reed’s thoughts in finding her “obscenely attractive.” It’s all part and parcel of Chloe’s shifting understanding of Mueller and her organization, but it also feeds into how Simone intertwines the transgressive thrill of violence with sexual desire.
It’s also indicative of how Simone’s approach to queer representation has evolved over her career. Simone has worked for years to develop characters that resonate with her readers, and while some of her plans, like marrying Wonder Woman’s mother to one of her royal guard, didn’t come to fruition, her determination on that front has delivered important results like Catman being introduced as bisexual in the second volume of Secret Six and the creation of Alysia Yeoh. But what we see in Clean Room represents a transition from the enduring standard of counting and categorizing individual characters to presenting, like Conner and Palmiotti in Harley Quinn, a setting where straight isn’t considered the default, which is exactly what the medium needs to move forward.
Simone and Davis-Hunt continue to develop as a team, and with much of the initial setup of the story in the rearview mirror, Davis-Hunt is able to come to the forefront more often delivering the most unnerving sequences in the comic so far by driving the action through the body language of Dwight Fennister as he reappears following his run in with the monkeys at the climax of the previous issue. Clean Room is, more than ever, an experience that demands to be done as a monthly series as the mysteries continue to unravel.
Written by Gail Simone
Drawn by Jon Davis-Hunt with colors by Quinton Winter
Lettered by Todd Klein
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Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.