Clean Room is not a typical comic book. I know, what is these days?
But this one has a message. I know, I KNOW.
Would you believe it’s a … skeptical message? That’s communicated purely through the telling of a story, not by beating you over the head with preachy exposition?
Yeah. Now you know.
Before Vertigo’s Clean Room #1 was even released, writer Gail Simone was flying a rational banner against the cult leaders and self-help gurus that take advantage of people’s emotions. In September Simone told Comic Book Resources:
I’ve been studying this phenomenon for years, and it’s such a fascinating, dangerous combination. People who want answers will always flock to those who profess to have them, and many of the people who make that claim are fairly terrible individuals. Many are using the same flim-flam techniques used by faith healers since time began. It’s a canard to think only unsophisticated people fall for this, almost everyone has fallen for some form of self-help quackery at some point, and we have seen many that were also predatory.
Clean Room‘s villain, Astrid Mueller, has no direct real-life analogue, but her words and actions are clearly drawn from actual villains like the Church of Scientology. Outsiders are labeled “frells” instead of “suppressive persons,” and it’s “open season” on them rather than detractors being “fair game,” but the parallels are clear.
Scientologists and their ilk aren’t quite the hard targets they once were, now that the exposure of their outright nuttiness has weakened their member base, but Clean Room is still an important book for taking on these sorts of “social consumer protection” issues. Many comics in the 21st century rightly invite readers to open their minds, but precious few remind us that without the concurrent use of critical thinking, the nastiest of people can use that openness to their advantage. And to our detriment.
Clean Room #3 continues the tale of small town journalist Chloe Pierce, whose husband committed suicide after reading Astrid Mueller’s Dianetics-like book. She’s confronted Mueller and felt the charismatic leader’s razzle dazzle herself, falling (through no fault of her own) for Mueller’s banal platitudes and cold-reading leading questions. Now Pierce is on her way home, finding herself victimized by the same kind of life-damaging tactics that Scientology-watchers will be familiar with. Who will come to her rescue? Is it good?
Clean Room #3 (Vertigo Comics)
In the beginning of Clean Room #3, we’re introduced to what could be called Mueller’s technical support staff, a group that pumps up her image and apparent power to her followers. Imagine the sci-fi version of faith healer Peter Popoff and his earpiece. She appears to be tormenting a schizophrenic for her own gain, but could his sky demons really exist? Maybe L. Ron Hubbard was right about those dirty thetans!
Elsewhere, Pierce gets an unexpected save while interacting with America’s heartland, but the honeymoon doesn’t last. There’s bad news about Mueller’s most famous celebrity follower. Damage control engage!
Is It Good?
Even if the subject matter isn’t something you feel strongly about, this is a truly terrifying book. Simone knows how to use the fewest words to the greatest effect, especially when we’re introduced to the freaky mimic sent to spy on Pierce. As in the previous issues, the creepiness and violence is offset with plenty of skin-crawling sexual threats, too. Artist Jon Davis-Hunt does a great job of bringing the gruesome to life, both in motion and in static panels, and colorist Quinton Winter knows when to back off and let the sterile glare of the clean room speak for itself.
Clean Room #3 is an emotional turning point in the story, in that we unexpectedly (and uncomfortably) find ourselves feeling a little differently about Astrid Mueller. Maybe she’s on to something, or maybe she’s on something. Or maybe she’s just as predatory as we’ve thought all along. Time will tell, and with the script so flipped, how can you not come back for #4?