Gail Simone (writer), Jon Davis-Hunt (artist), Walter Geovani (artist), Quinton Winter (colorist), Jenny Frison (covers), Shelly Bond (editor), Molly Mahan (editor)
Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics)
Spoiler Warning: this review contains some general spoilers about the plot and characters
What it’s about: A reporter loses everything and vows to uncover the secrets of the self-help cult leader she blames for her boyfriend’s suicide.
Content note: Holy shit. There’s a LOT of suicide, murder, mutilation, gore, being made to doubt one’s experience of reality, and so on. There’s implied and alluded-to sexual violence, but none on the page. Lots of fucked-up sex stuff, though again, the worst of it is off-screen. And so much body horror.
What it’s really about: Trauma and understanding one’s relationship to the world. Also heavy themes of sin/redemption, but the point is that that isn’t the point, really.
Reporter Chloe finds out that Astrid Mueller, the cult leader, is building an elite cthulhu-fighting cadre disguised as a multi-billion-dollar Hollywood self-help cult. Like Scientology, only they don’t like the cthulhus. (I’m going to call them cthulhus because they’re never given a proper name or descriptor in the story, and it’s funnier to me than calling them “entities.”) Then she finds out that the cthulhus are real, and that she’s one of the few people who can see them. The cthulhus try to destroy Chloe, Astrid, and everyone else who opposes them and plunge the world into madness and suffering, like you do. It’s very bad, and then the “good” “guys” “win.”
How queer is it: Very queer, though it’s kind of quiet about it. It’s a story that very much focuses on the horror and the plot first and foremost, and fills in all the rest with queerness. There are main or major supporting characters who are lesbian, gay, and bi, and homophobia is cast as a villainous trait several times. Astrid is implied to be ace, but it’s unclear if that’s a matter of orientation or single-minded devotion to her cause. The cthulhus and Astrid use people’s shame about sex against them, but never shame about queerness.
How trans is it: Basically zero. There is one character who is initially introduced with a goatee and hair/clothes imitative of Astrid’s. This read to me as possibly trans or gender non-conforming, but he’s quickly revealed to be a sort of Silence of the Lambs/Psycho type of obsessed creep. He’s murderously misogynistic and not at all trans. I resent the use of the “serial killer makes himself look like the target of his obsession” trope, due to its dangerous implications, but the creators do quickly back off of making him look like Astrid, so perhaps they realized their mistake.
Simone said on Twitter that there is a trans character in Clean Room who has not yet “been outed,” and that she plans to develop this character further in later volumes (which are not currently announced).
How feminist is it: Very! All of the primary movers in the story are either female or alien cthulhus with no discernable gender. The cthulhus are mostly coded as male, though. There’s plenty of Bechdel-positive dialogue, and none of the female characters are acting at the behest of men. Women work together, they fight each other, and so on. One odd point: Chloe’s boyfriend is fridged. Her initial motivation is his death. Since Gail Simone invented the term “Women In Refrigerators,” this seems to be a pointed reversal.
How race is treated in it: Let’s say interestingly. Chloe is a woman of color. One character (violently) identifies her as mixed-race, but it’s unclear if Chloe would identify herself thus. One issue by a fill-in artist, Sanya Anwar, follows the story of another woman of color. Several supporting characters are people of color. For all that, race is never really dealt with aside from the one time Chloe is attacked for it. Several depictions of beautiful/sexually desirable bodies include only white bodies. Nothing really jumps out as hugely harmful, but it could’ve been done better, certainly.
There is, however, an exploration into “redneck” whiteness. Chloe’s neighbors are white, bearded, baseball cap-wearing, shotgun-toting, stereotypical rednecks. Except they’re nice to her, rather than displaying the stereotypical racist violence. They save her life, protect her, obey her, and fight by her side. One of them is implied to be gay or bi, and they cite a cthulhu’s homophobia as one of the reasons they attack it. On the other hand, the obsessive not-trans serial killer is also depicted as redneck and motivated by violent misogyny. It’s a clear, perhaps somewhat heavy-handed attempt to illustrate the difference between “good” and “bad” rednecks. Gail Simone has lived most of her life in a very rural, presumably white, community in Oregon, so it’s easy to infer why this might be an issue on her mind, but it’s not well-executed here, possibly due in part to the polarization and extremity of characters in the horror genre.
How does the story work structurally: It suffers somewhat from the shortened timetable, in that the ending feels a little rushed, but it hangs together well otherwise. It mostly doesn’t fit a three-act structure, in that it starts in the middle of the protagonist facing defeat and darkness, and it has several points of climax and ebbing tension well before the end, but that works in a serial story. If it had been written as a single long graphic novel, it would have had a very different structure.
How does the story work formally: The star of the show here is definitely Quinton Winter. The coloring works in a very similar way to The Wicked + The Divine, though it’s much less flashy for the most part. The cthulhus are pink, which is meant to look out of place and emphasize that they aren’t “real,” in that virtually everyone can’t see them. Rather than allowing this to be a limitation, Winter uses an impressive array of shades and hues to capture the horror of these monsters while staying true to the device. I found myself forgetting they were pink at times, then realizing it all over again. The other colors in the book tend to be a cool, earthy palette, which makes not only the pink cthulhus but also the red blood and gore stand out dramatically
The eponymous Clean Room itself is stunning thanks to Davis-Hunt’s and Geovani’s lineart as well as the coloring. The Clean Room is a mysterious white room with a mysterious white orb in the center and a dramatic irising door. Astrid can turn the room into a place and time from the memories of one of the room’s inhabitants. It is stark, glaringly white, and often drawn without panel borders. The shifts into the memories of its inhabitants are shown with in-panel art that sometimes blends seamlessly into panel transitions. Visual elements from the memories get brought back to the inert Clean Room in subtle ways.
My conclusion: Clean Room is a thrilling, horrifying ride with both effective literary/artistic devices and some real insights into human nature. It is neither boringly nihilistic nor unbelievably charitable. It deals repeatedly with issues of emotional and physical trauma without trying to offer any facile “answers.” Chloe is a relatable tormented protagonist, Astrid is a chilling, impressive villain/anti-hero, and the cthulhus are legitimately disturbing monsters. I would not recommend reading it straight through in a few hours as I did, nor right before falling asleep as many of Simone’s fans apparently did, but I would recommend reading it.