20 May 2016

"Clean Room" #5-6 by Gail Simone

I've fallen behind in blogging about Clean Room, but I've remained an active reader until last month. I bought issue #7 on time, but only today got around to reading it. Issue #8 came out yesterday. I've simply been too physically run down to do much of anything, including reading comics, for most of the last month. And, let's be honest: Clean Room isn't comfort food. So here's the first of two catch-up posts, this one devoted to issues #5 and #6, which conclude the book's opening arc, which will be collected next month as Clean Room Vol. 1: Immaculate Conception.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Clean Room #5
"All the Wrong Places"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 17 February 2016

Issue #5 picks up exactly where issue #4 left off, with Astrid in the Clean Room, where her assistant Terry had just shot in the head Jonas Kemf, the man who drove the truck that ran over Astrid as a child. Jonas was hosting an Entity, and Terry shot him out of fear. Astrid reacted not with gratitude, but with anger and despair; having the Entity trapped in her Clean Room was her objective. Losing the advantage of having him contained for questioning would be disastrous.

So...time for disaster!

News of actor and Astrid follower Rand Tanner's suicide is setting off a public relations nightmare for the organization. Killian Reed's solution was to dispatch underling Capone to blackmail movie star Chrissy Delecorte into throwing Reed under the bus by making a public statement that he'd rejected Astrid's efforts to help him. This takes place on story pages 5-7, primarily in Delecorte's hot tub. If we were to look at Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork without any captions, it might appear to be some kind of seduction. Capone strips completely nude and wades into the hot tub, even managing to get Chrissy to use a massager on her back by the end of the sequence.

But there are captions on those pages, and they're outright sinister. Capone quickly outlines that the organization already knows Chrissy is pregnant, and how that will be incorporated into the lies Chrissy will tell about Rand Tanner. If she cooperates, the organization will get her movie career back on track. Otherwise, they'll destroy her. Capone outlines all of this in a mere eight panels. This is something straight out of Dallas, y'all, and I love me some Dallas.

I also want to praise Jon Davis-Hunt for his work on this sequence. The body language and facial expressions are perfect. Chrissy is clearly defensive; Capone, predatory. Look at the last two panels of story page 6. The change in Capone's expression, from narrowed eyes and clenched jaw to wide toothed grin is outright creepy. The entire power dynamics between the two women shifted in the few centimeters between those two panels. It takes Chrissy the next page to realize it, but we know from Capone's smile that she's already won.

Credit also to Quinton Winter's colors throughout the book, but especially that sequence. The blue hues make it an inviting setting, but the lighting on the characters' faces is just eerie enough that at a glance, we can tell that even if we might want to be in that hot tub, we wouldn't want to be there now.

Why did I just devote four paragraphs to a three-page minor plot point, other than that it occasioned me to mention my love for Dallas? Because it's a great example of how Simone has kept this world rooted in our own. It would be easy to just focus at this point on the Entities; they're either supernatural or extraterrestrial or whatever they are, but whatever it is, it's inherently more exciting than extortion for the sake of good publicity.

In the long run, it's easy to guess that how the public views Astrid will become increasingly important to the plot, and this is an early, small move whose consequences may or may not become important as we go. Even if it doesn't, though; even if Chrissy Delecorte and Rand Tanner are never mentioned again, we'll have spent three full pages watching how Astrid's people conduct business and being reminded that there are still other things transpiring in this storytelling universe aside from the Entities. In short, by focusing on something so small, it expands the scope of the story.

Most of the rest of issue 5 is devoted to Astrid confronting the Entity, who has taken over Terry, and Chloe confronting another Entity named Spark. Not much happens there, but I do want to make mention of one thing. Spark explains to Chloe that one of the things he did to a previous victim whom he possessed: "I made her say the most AWFUL things. Sex things."

When I was in inpatient treatment last year for my own mental health issues, there was a patient there suffering from decades of PTSD related to abuse. She tried to talk about her experiences, but kept covering her mouth and crying, saying she didn't want to be a bad girl and say those things, but that a demon insisted she would, or else he would do heinous things to her. It was possibly the most heartbreaking thing I've ever experienced. I'm not qualified to say just what that "demon" was that tormented this other patient, but I want to believe that maybe it might find some semblance of Spark's remorse and that she's able to begin finding some of the peace that she's been cheated out of her whole life.

These life experiences of mine aren't on Gail Simone's mind when she writes, of course, but they're things that are part of my relationship with her work. She brushes against them, sometimes throttling them. Sometimes I see something in a single panel that provokes a visceral flashback. Sometimes I reflexively fill in the blanks of what she's written, even if she didn't intend there to be blanks to be filled in at all.

Anyway, back to the actual story. Astrid uses the Clean Room to exploit what she knows of Terry's carried guilt to break the Entity's hold on him. The more I think about the Clean Room and what Astrid accomplishes there, the more I think of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Except, where Sybok used his ability to tap into peoples' most traumatizing life experiences to help them find release so he can recruit them into his cult, Astrid uses it to gain leverage.
"I'll let you in on a little secret, Terry. I don't choose my rooks for their invulnerability. It's important that I have a fail-safe, do you understand? I need to be able to break them. So I leave a crack in the tea cup." - Astrid, story page 20, panels 4 and 5.
Again, I have to praise Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork. This is a cold thing to do and admit, but there's obvious tenderness from Astrid at this moment. She knows she's just severely hurt Terry, and she knows his time as her assistant has come to an end. And she'll go to bed at night knowing it was necessary, because otherwise the Entity was going to kill her and do God knows what else with Terry. But in this moment, she's surprisingly soft. Notice also that she keeps her hands on her own knees, rather than make any physical contact with Terry. It's a striking visual reminder of the distance Astrid maintains between herself and others.

Oh, and the Entity named Spark flakes out on murdering Chloe, so The Surgeon arrives at the end of the issue to deal with her himself.

Clean Room #6
"The Surgeon Walks"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 16 March 2016

The first arc of the book reaches its crescendo, as Chloe is confronted by the Entity known as "The Surgeon", who appears as an elderly white guy who looks about as threatening as former President Jimmy Carter. He speaks with the measured, elaborate mannerisms of a southern gentleman. When Chloe first opens her door to him, he introduces himself on story page 9: "Well, hello, Chloe. You're looking just fine, little missy. But you have put us in a real pickle. May I come in?"

No, Gail Simone isn't reinventing the wheel here to make her villain well-mannered and polite. It's an old juxtaposition. But, like dedicating three pages to Capone's hot tub extortion in issue #5, it's something that fleshes out the scope and flavor of this universe. Credit her for deciding he isn't "just" polite, but elaborately so. Within that four sentence introduction, we've already deduced that he's soft-spoken. But we can also hear the Southern accent without any of the exaggerated phonetic spellings that comic book writers often inject to make sure readers get that. Creating a distinctive voice is difficult in the first place (or, at least, it has been for me in my writing efforts to date), but to make it so clear from the outset is truly impressive. Don't believe me? Try it. Make up the first few sentences an imaginary character all of your own invention would say.

It certainly helps, of course, to have Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter creating the visuals. An entire page is dedicated to The Surgeon being revealed at Chloe's door on story page 9. It's nighttime, so the exterior world is appropriately dark, but there's surprising restraint regarding the lighting. There isn't anything overtly ominous about the image. Even with the dialog captions, it looks entirely benign...at least, taken out of context and viewed all by itself.

There are two revelations in this issue. Firstly, Spark shows Chloe what actually happened to her fiance Philip: a recording from Astrid explaining the Entities and shows him some of their handiwork, all of which overwhelms him. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was originally shaken by the book's suicide content when I read issue #1 to the point that I thought maybe I shouldn't even keep going. Perhaps there's no handier illustration just how much work I've done over the previous several months on my mental health than to say that I'm stable enough now that seeing Philip hold the gun under his chin on story page 7, with "BLAMM" sound effect in red and panels of his blood splashing on the observing cat didn't trigger an anxiety attack.

When I read issue #2, I wrote the following:
The top panel of story page 18 has Astrid coldly dismiss Chloe's insistence that she couldn't just let Fennister go: "I am not law enforcement, Chloe. I was looking for something else." Chloe believes that Astrid has shrugged off Fennister's confession, having deemed him "clean", but I expect we're going to see Detective Markos find his mangled corpse at some point, tormented into killing himself by the hallucinations that appear to be developed in the Clean Room. That, in turn, begs the question what it is that Chloe will eventually find out about her deceased fiance, Philip, that preyed on him so much that he killed himself. We know now that Astrid doesn't directly make someone suicidal; rather, they are killed by the manifestation of what is "cleaned" from them. This is rich ground for storytelling, because it gets at themes of morality and the shades of gray where monsters can become sympathetic and heroes become soiled.
So I was partly right; Astrid does use the Clean Room to break through whatever checks a person has in place against their torment, but it isn't because she's playing Judge, Jury & Executioner, and what happened to Philip wasn't his own darkness being used against him. It was him being completely overwhelmed by what she shared with him about the Entities. I suspect we're meant to infer that may have also been what prompted Rand Tanner to take his life. It's a bit like Navy SEAL training, which notoriously breaks many candidates, except instead of being a grueling challenge of the human body's ability to survive inhospitable environs, she loses potential recruits to the fragility of their minds to process what she's exposing.

I'm getting ahead of myself, but in issue #7, Chloe notes that "...people use that word ["suicidal"] as if it's a hat you decide to put on one day. It isn't." Philip surely already had suicidal tendencies, probably part of what led him to seek out Astrid in the first place. Firstly, I thank Gail Simone for addressing the issue that suicidal ideation is rarely (if ever) spontaneous. It's something that can lay dormant and then become overwhelming so quickly it may appear to be spontaneous, but it isn't. That's an important point that we collectively need to start addressing more clearly in our conversations about mental health.

Secondly, though, it helps us to recognize that Philip wasn't merely a happy-go-lucky ordinary dude who got freaked out one time and overreacted. Astrid misjudged how stable he was and whether he was ready for what she had to show him. It's as simple as that. (Unless she knew how unstable he was and tipped the scales against him deliberately for some reason. Hard to guess along with Astrid and Simone alike!)

The other big revelation of this issue is that the Entities have some kind of aerial abode, which Astrid's recruit Dr. Hagen (introduced in issue #4 and not referenced since) has spent fifteen years trying to locate and find a way to attack. Their solution is a "cloudbuster" battleship allegedly capable of "blow[ing] [their] invisible city out of Heaven." After acquiescing to Astrid's threat, The Surgeon answers Chloe's question of just what he and his ilk are.
"Are we aliens, or demons, is that what you mean, Chloe Pierce? Overlords or angels? We are none of those things. We are inmates."
So, thanks for clearing up that little mystery...!

The issue, and hence the arc, concludes with Chloe and Astrid appearing to make some form of amends and begin to shift toward a more collaborative relationship, but there's certainly still a lot of suspicion.

Astrid isn't the villain of the story, at least not at this point, though her methods are indefensibly shady and violent. She's evolving into a truly complex character, and I think the part that makes her the most commanding is that she's the one who has the most answers...and yet, she clearly doesn't have enough of them, either.

Credits, both issues
Gail Simone - writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - artist
Quinton Winter - colorist
Todd Klein - letterer
Jenny Frison - cover
Rowena Yow - associate editor
Shelly Bond - editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone

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