In Clean Room, a new psychological horror series from comics imprint Vertigo, writer Gail Simone and artist Jon Davis-Hunt explore the depths of the human psyche—and what happens when such depths are ruled by a master manipulator. The series begins when a journalist, Chloe, takes interest in self-help guru Astrid Mueller. Chloe's boyfriend was a devoted believer in Ms. Mueller's teachings—that is, until he committed suicide. As she investigates Ms. Mueller's practices, compound, and followers, Chloe's findings become increasingly unsettling. And then things get wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat terrifying. Gail Simone spent some time away from giving readers nightmares to discuss her new series, how she crafts a mystery, and Hell multiplied by ten. [The Clean Room series is currently available via Kindle and comiXology.]
Alex Carr: There is so much darkness in the first issue of Clean Room: suicide, suicide attempts, a car crash, hallucinations that may be real, and pink...demon creatures. Readers who are familiar with your superhero work may not recognize this Gail Simone. What led to Clean Room bubbling to the surface?
Gail Simone: We live in a world where old-world fears have been enhanced with new-world technology. A lot of classic horror tropes seem a bit quaint in a world where people we’re never even aware of can know everything about us. I’m not afraid of vampires, but the things we are afraid of as people—terrorism, cyber-attacks, invasion of privacy—these things are real. They are our new horror.
And there is always an audience for someone who wants to exploit fear. That’s what a great many of these charismatic figures do, they find your fear and monetize it. They only profit when you’re in pain. The line between movement and cult is very real thing, oftentimes.
So we wanted to explore the idea of the most invasive, most successful “self-help” movement ever. And the dangerous, dangerous woman who runs it all with an iron fist and a molten gaze.
AC: When you work on a title where the mysteries propel the reader, how many of the answers do you already have planned? Do you work backward from the answers, or do they come to you as you write?
GS: Oh, it’s all planned. There are books where you can wing it a bit, but not this one. It’s not Lost, I want there to be a solid answer for everything, and I want that answer to be shattering.
AC: How do you balance providing answers and piling mystery upon mystery?
GS: The detective genre has a concept known as the “fair play mystery,” meaning all the information needed to find the killer is provided in the story, there’s no hidden twin coming from Borneo at the last moment. I believe in that idea in whatever genre I work in. I don’t want to cheat. Give the reader a mystery, but make it meaningful, make it compelling. Then lower the sledge.
AC: Chloe Pierce is our protagonist, and yet Astrid Mueller is an overshadowing presence throughout the book. Why not make Astrid the focal character?
GS: I think you could ask the same question of Darth Vader or the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. We wanted a point-of-view character, but more than that, we wanted someone to struggle, to face what seems like an overwhelming, far-too-powerful organization.
GS: I am going to leave that for readers to decide. But I will say this: Astrid believes she is doing something necessary. Does that excuse what she does? That’s your call.
AC: Chloe’s boyfriend committed suicide after falling for Astrid Mueller’s self-help program, and much of Clean Room seems critical of the industry. Was there a particular book, method, or personality that sparked the idea for Clean Room?
GS: I am a huge advocate for mental health professionals, and I’m absolutely for anything that helps people, whether it’s a method I understand or not, that’s not relevant. But there are scammers out there, and they take advantage of people, and that is appalling and cruel. There are real-life bad people out there, and a lot of them commit crimes of the heart and mind, rather than rob banks.
AC: The Haverlin brothers are early peripheral favorites. Will we be seeing more of them?
GS: Absolutely. I have done a lot of conventions and appearances in the South, and there’s a real dichotomy between who you meet there and the preconceptions of the rest of the country. I wanted to have the Haverlins represent the kindness, courtesy and neighborliness that a lot of people in the South seem to have imbedded in their DNA. I love ’em.
AC: Lastly, why pink for such sinister-looking creatures? This seems like a deliberate choice.
GS: This is a book about nightmares, and so, I felt my own nightmares were perfect fodder. I’ve used just about every bad dream I’ve had since childhood somewhere in this book, and when that wasn’t enough, I asked others for their own, and put those in. Fortunately, the book is drawn by the brilliant Jon Davis-Hunt, who lives to draw this stuff. I ask him to draw Hell, he gives me back Hell multiplied by ten. He’s just got the gift, the gift to disturb. He’s a magnificent artist for many reasons, but this particular talent, to put a bad dream on the page, that’s very rare. The question is…are the nightmares real?
Our thanks to Gail Simone and Vertigo for the interview.
P.S. See also our interview with the writers of Survivors' Club, another new series from Vertigo.