Clean Room is one of the creepiest comics I’ve ever read. This is at least somewhat unexpected, given it’s written by Gail Simone – best known for colourful character action series’ like Batgirl and Red Sonja. Sure, she’s written darker stuff before, and artist Jon Davis-Hunt cut his teeth on the likes of Judge Dredd, but this collaboration is a new extreme for both of them. It is, hands down, one of the most unsettling comics I’ve ever encountered.
At the centre of Clean Room is Astrid Mueller, the head of a cult-like self-help organisation that spawned off the back of the popularity of her novels. The allusion to Scientology here isn’t exactly a hidden, but it’s one of the few things about the Honest World Foundation that isn’t shrouded in mystery. Why are Mueller’s celebrity adherents seemingly always caught up in scandal, and how do these incidents keep getting swept under the rug? Why are some of her most committed disciples winding up dead? What is the enigmatic Clean Room that gets talked about in hushed whispers?
These are some of the questions journalist Chloe Pierce sets out to answer after she comes home day to find that her husband Philip, a freshly minted but devout Mueller acolyte, has killed himself. Her goal is to expose the Honest World Foundation and get justice for her husband, but it’s a rabbit hole that goes deeper than she could ever have imagined, and to make matters worse, she’s haunted by visions of Philip, with half his face missing, and strange, hideous demons.
As a work of psychological horror, Clean Room is potent, a feat made all the more impressive by the chosen medium. Comics occupy a weird limbo – the visual element makes it difficult, as a reader, to let one’s imagination run wild and conjure up horrors worse than any creator could prescribe, but they don’t have the benefit of a full suite of audiovisual techniques used by films, TV shows, and games. And yet, through great writing and masterful page composition, Clean Room manages the sorts of mind tricks that psychological horror relies on, despite the limitations of the medium.
It becomes apparent early on that supernatural beings are very real in the world of this book, but the structure is such that, even with this knowledge, the lines between reality and hallucination are often blurred. “Yes, I know that demons exist here, but is this particular demon real, or a figment of Chloe’s imagination?” With the seeds of doubt sown, it’s easy to empathise with Chloe, who is wading through similarly muddy waters but with much, much higher stakes.
The other thing that makes Clean Room’s horror so effective is the sheer quality of Davis-Hunt’s art. I said before that no creator could craft something as nightmarish as the reader’s own subjective imagination, but a Japanese artist by the name of Junji Ito is one exception to this that. Ito has a way with truly terrifying body horror imagery by taking the mundanity of everyday life and bastardising it, making bizarre scenarios seem believable and even plausible. I mention Ito because Davis-Hunt’s work in Clean Room bears a strong resemblance – not necessarily in his drawing style, but in tone – achieves a similarly unsettling effect.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, Clean Room isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s violent, confronting, disturbing, but that all works to create an atmosphere that’s as enchanting as it is alienating. Reading it, I’m torn between an urge to discover answers and a fear of what those answers might be, which I think might be the highest compliment one can give to a work of horror. It’s an ongoing series, too – Immaculate Conception is just the first volume, collecting issues #1 to #6 of the monthly comic – so for better or worse, there are plenty more stones left to overturn.