Uncovering the Quiet Horrors of DC/Vertigo's 'Clean Room'

Creators Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt talk about the secrets behind the psychological horror comic book series.
Jenny Frisson/DC Entertainment

Fittingly for a comic book dealing with hidden fears and unknown danger, DC/Vertigo's Clean Room isn't something that makes you jump out your seat while reading. Instead, it sticks in your head and makes you feel uncomfortable after you've finished. With the first collection reaching bookstores today, creators Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt told THR just why that's a good thing, and hint at what the series is really about.

"I love in-your-face, jump-cut horror, I do. But I also love that horror that gives you a feeling similar to being in a near-miss car accident, where you don't start shaking 'til 10 minutes further down the road. And that's the book we wanted to make," Simone — who's previously written Batgirl and Birds of Prey for DC, as well as a critically acclaimed Red Sonja run for Dynamite Entertainment — said. "Not to say we don't have some viscera, because we clearly do. But I'm blessed with an art and editorial team that has the patience to wait to drop the explosives."

Clean Room is about what lies behind a self-help organization led by a woman called Astrid Mueller, who isn't all she appears to be. The title refers to a particular location, where a person's fears are revealed, but like its antagonist, there's a lot more going on in the series than first seems to be the case. For one thing, Simone said, any Scientology metaphors readers pick up may just be red herrings.

"I have little interest in any one cult or cult-like organization. It's the scope of it that fascinates me," she explained. "I live in Oregon, it's got the highest number of cults per capita in the nation, and I've spoken with many of these people. The rank and file are not ignorant people, or bad people. It's often the good in their natures that is targeted for exploitation. Many believe they are doing good in the world. They are saving people. But there's also the other kind, the kind that simmers a boiling pot of hate and fear. We have a great many militia-like organizations here. I've stated before that zealotry is the death of conscience."

What makes Clean Room "painful," Simone suggested, is that "we want to know Astrid Mueller's heart, and she doesn't share that. We want to know if she's a positive force, or a dire one. And all we have to go by are her actions, which are swift and often merciless. But is she excused for that because she believes she's doing right?"

Unusually for a horror property, Clean Room centers on two women — Mueller and Chloe Pierce, a journalist trying to uncover the truth behind Mueller's organization because her fiance committed suicide months after signing up — with both having agency and power within the story, and not having to be "saved" or defended by a male character.

"It's certainly hard for me to imagine writing the typical slasher movie heroine in the way that they are traditionally portrayed. I just have no interest in that," Simone said (although she added "some of my favorite heroines of all time come from horror and horror-proximity films," singling out Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien).

"The truth is, no one blinks twice if men are portrayed as having all the power in a fictional narrative, it only seems a bit odd when that's not the case, and yeah, a big f— you to that. I love male characters, but there are thousands of writers writing millions of stories like the ones we've had for decades. I'm happier doing the thing that feels more like a frontier."

Simone isn't exploring that frontier alone; joining her on the series is Jon Davis-Hunt, a British illustrator and games designer whose resume includes work on the classic British anthology comic 2000 AD. "Jon's not just the artist, he's a co-creator in every sense, every panel has something he's added to the book," Simone said. "He never stops, he never lowers his enthusiasm. There are times when you just bless whatever fortunes you have, and that's how I feel about Jon on this book."

Davis-Hunt is as effusive in his praise of Simone.

"Gail writes terrific scripts," he said. "They are just an absolute joy to draw. In many cases, she’ll explain a specific scene, not just visually, but with notes on how she wants the reader to feel, or what emotion she is hoping to convey. That really helps, especially with the big, full-page, horror moments. The big splash pages that are intended to really make the reader go ‘Holy shit.’ These notes really help me research a character, or pace out a scene and she’s incredibly creative, writing some really cool, dark and disturbing little horror vignettes. They’re often shocking to read, so I’ll take the scripts and then do my best to draw them in a way that will shock her right back."

(He's succeeded; "He's given me nightmares several times," Simone admitted. "I just asked him to draw the single most horrific image of my career to date, and I'm actually dreading what it's going to look like one he's put his evil spell on it." The image is set to appear in the comic book series' 10th issue, for those brave enough to look.)

"I wanted the horror elements to be able to seep into the daylight, so I did a lot of research on clinical environments, scientific research centers and also a lot of botanical and insect reference," the artist said when talking about his inspiration for the more fantastic imagery in the series. "Places where bright colors and light mix in with practices or organisms that involve fairly horrific stuff. From there, I just try and make the scenes in the book seem as ‘normal’ as possible, or rather, stay away from more traditional or gothic horror elements."

The collaboration between the two allows Davis-Hunt room to improvise, he explained. "I also enjoy playing with pacing and time within the book too, so quite often, I’ll add in extra panels, just to add some additional weight to a specific character moment. A little pause here or there so I can get across the reactions she has mentioned to specific dialogue."

Working in American comics, where the average issue length is 20 pages, compared with 2000 AD's five- to six-page episodes, allows for that kind of experimentation, he said. "On Dredd, you could get five or six scene changes in as many pages, filled with a dozen different characters. In Clean Room, I might get as many pages on a single scene, which makes me think more about that specific space, as you want to make that as interesting for the reader as possible. That’s made me think a lot more about what the characters are actually doing in the scene: What are their hands doing? What are they leaning on? What is actually in this space?"

In this series, of course, that last question might be more complicated than it first seems. As Simone put it, Clean Room isn't just about the relationship between a journalist searching for the truth about a charismatic self-help guru. It's that, in her words, "all the ridiculous nonsense about demons and aliens that Astrid has warned her inner circle about — well, that may all be coming true." What is actually in this space?

Clean Room Volume 1: Immaculate Conception, which collects the first six issues of the series, is in bookstores now.