Gail Simone On The Unsettling Possibilities Of ‘Clean Room’ [Interview]
Imagine you had the perfect life with everything you ever wanted and a partner to share it with. Now imagine that your partner read a self-help book that drove them insane to the point of suicide. Wouldn't you want answers? That's the kick-off to Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt's Vertigo series Clean Room.
Within six issues, we've followed Chloe Pierce as she tries to understand the inner-workings of a Scientolgy-like cult headed by the enigmatic Astrid Mueller, and things keep getting stranger and more unsettling the further down the rabbit hole we go. ComicsAlliance chatted to Gail Simone about building the world of Clean Room, plus Vertigo provided us with pages from this week's Clean Room #7!
ComicsAlliance: I’m interested in the real world research you did for Clean Room. The first thing that strikes me is that there seems to be some influence from the Scientology expose Going Clear, but what nonfiction did you read that helped establish the world of the series?
Gail Simone: I did indeed see Going Clear, but well after I'd been writing issues of the book for some time. Clean Room was never about Scientology, but that documentary did nail a lot of the things our book is about, which is the human reaction to people who claim to have the answers.
We as a people tend to listen to those who say they know what's going on, contrary to every piece of evidence that says otherwise. Many of these charismatic leaders are just endlessly horrible people, and they take advantage of those in need. There's something very wrong in our response to them... I don't know if there's an evolutionary function for it, something that works for a small society to believe in these people, but it's fascinating to explore.
I've been reading on the topic since I was a child. I'm a skeptic by nature, but I do want to be an informed skeptic, so I've read a lot of the self-help stuff, I've been reading books on charlatanism and cultism for years, it's a surprisingly broad field. But a lot of it was personal interviews, and I will never run out of material, seemingly, because now creators and readers approach me at cons and tell me they were raised in cults and compounds, and how lucky they feel to have escaped. When your very environment as a child leaves you with PTSD, the system has really derailed. It's easy to make jokes about these factions, but what happens to the people stuck in them is no joke at all.
And also of course, we ask the question, what if every ridiculous thing they claimed had a grain of truth in it? That's a very creepy idea to me, that the worst fraud and charlatan and flim flam man might actually be right.
CA: The first time we see our hero Chloe, she tries to commit suicide following a run of awful events that all began with her husband reading the book, and now she says that the investigation is what’s keeping her going. How carefully do you have to tread when approaching topics like that as character motivation?
GS: I feel like Vertigo is a place to have an adult discussion for adult readers. Almost every family has been touched by suicide and so much of the conversation is stilted and cautious. I want people to survive. We lose so many to suicide, and sometimes, it could have been prevented. I just like to write stories about people who survive, even very difficult, impossible things.
I have had dozens, many dozens, of people tell me that one comic story or another saved their life. I don't want to sugar coat anything. But I do want to provide the message that you can survive, you can live another day. That's important to me. This is an emotional topic, but I want my stories to be on the side that says bad things, even terrible things, happen. But you can survive. You have worth. You have meaning.
I've said this many times, I don't care which hero punches which hero to get the Infinity Jockstrap or whatever. I do care that people find humanity in these stories and maybe something connects, makes the world a little better for having read it. A story can be dark as f--- and still have a message of survival.
CA: One thing that definitely struck me as I got deeper into Clean Room is that while she isn’t very sympathetic, Astrid isn’t necessarily the villain of the piece. You’re also known as well for books like Secret Six, so is writing these good intentioned but morally reprehensible characters something that comes easy to you?
GS: I wouldn't say she comes easy to me, but I do believe in flawed characters. I feel humanity is often displayed in how we react to our mistakes, and the misdeeds committed against us.
Astrid is emotionally distant, and she's got that feature that many charismatic leaders have, that people follow her almost as disciples, right from the start of her journey. And like many a much-lauded leader, she can remove her emotions when dealing with people, she can see them as pawns, she can manipulate them to get what she needs from them.
She might be one of my favorite characters ever. She can destroy you before her cup of tea gets cold without even moving from her chair.
CA: Astrid and her followers often speak in a private but not indecipherable form of doublespeak; did you sit down and write out a list of their lingo before starting the book?
GS: I did, and the inspiration, again, was not Scientology at all, it was the droog-speak in A Clockwork Orange and newspeak in 1984, two books I read as a child that scared the living sh-- out of me, and still do. He who controls the language wields tremendous power over how people express themselves even to themselves, and that's part of why these cults create this sort of doggerel, as well as for the obvious purposes of subterfuge.
Mind control is a dirty, mean science, and the people who are masters of it tend not to be nice.
CA: Six issues in and Clean Room has gone to some dark and disturbed spaces. Does that stuff come fairly easy, or do have to stop and think, “What’s the most messed up situation I can create today?”
GS: I don't have any interest in jump cuts or torture porn. The more you read about torture, the less inclined you are to make light entertainment out of it, consequence-free. But you can't write about the horrors in the world without, you know, writing about the horrors in the world. My goal is never to just throw some entrails in there because the scene is getting too chatty.
What I want is for people to feel unease. We are doing a book here about how normal, intelligent people can be sucked in to something they would swear they would never be part of, and we see this happening all the time, around us.
Our fears are not an end product, they're not a dead end. If we get scared enough, we do terrible things ourselves. That's what I'm trying to write about. Those terrible things.
It helps to have Jon Davis-Hunt involved, because the nightmares that live in his head, I swear to god...it's frightening to contemplate.
CA: One of the things I think Clean Room does best is that for every one answer you think you have, it’ll give you four new questions. What’s it like plotting a mystery this big, and how far planned out are you with the series?
GS: I have stories for quite some time, but we're not following the Lost model, I don't want people to wait four years to find out something unsatisfying five minutes into the last episode. Our story is not built on ambiguity. There are monsters in the world, and only some of them come from somewhere else. That's gospel.
CA: Clean Room is, at times, one of the most visually upsetting books on the stands, and trust me when I assure you that is a compliment. How much direction do you give in your scripts for the book’s more violent and monstrous moments?
GS: This is a very rewarding thing. The book would never be what it is without the artist, Jon Davis-Hunt. I've spoken about this often, but we (editor Shelly Bond and I) went through dozens and dozens of artists, she really believed in the book and wanted someone perfect. Top names, people I was dying to work with. She sent me stacks of books and copies and PDFs, it was just an endless process. Then, weirdly, we both looked at some art from a video game artist, on the same day. And we both immediately felt he was the guy. That was Jon Davis-Hunt, and he quit his high paying video games job just to do this.
I'm forever grateful. He can draw a woman sitting and make it tense as hell, and then he draws these... these visions that are far more than monsters. They look like they exist, like they're bio-terrors from some alternate place. I adore him. He's my sick, sick right hand in every way.
CA: You’ve got Todd Klein, possibly the greatest letterer of all time, working on Clean Room. What’s the collaboration process like there, or is it a case of, “You’re Todd Klein, you’ve got this”?
GS: I give no notes to Todd Klein, really. Nothing I can say to him is going to improve his art one iota, so you just have to let the mustang run. The guy is a genius. It's an honor to watch him work.
CA: Every issue seems to turn what we know right on its ear. What can we expect from Clean Room going forward?
I think people are going to be surprised. As I said, scary is fine. But we're going for unsettled. Horror that makes you look at your life is my favorite.
We are going to see why Astrid is the way she is, we're going to see her first Rook, and how she formed her organization. Chloe is going to find someone, maybe, to help her move forward, while tracing down what Astrid is really up to, and what the Entities truly are. We're going to have cheese soup with pickles, and we're going to have sloppy sex in a broom closet, and we're going to have a horrendous betrayal.
And we're going to go inside the invisible city.
I can't wait to show you what's inside.
Clean Room #7 is on sale online and in stores this Wednesday, April 20 2016.