26 May 2016

"Clean Room" #7-8 by Gail Simone

Because of physical health issues, I was too miserable to read issue #7 until well after it was published, and it took me almost a full week to even buy issue #8 after it was published, but I'm finally caught up! At the conclusion of the first arc, The Surgeon declined to clarify for Chloe Pierce (or us) whether the Entities are aliens or demons, instead characterizing them as "inmates". Astrid Mueller and Chloe reached something of an accord, the latter beginning to better understand the former's actual work and coming to see that Astrid has been playing a long game to combat the Entities.

Clean Room #7
"High Way to Hell"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 20 April 2016

This story functions as a sort of interlude between the book's opening arc and the one that begins with the next issue. We open seventeen years ago with Astrid, age 17, hitchhiking her way through New Mexico to meet a hospitalized woman named Anika Wells. Anika, we learn, is a survivor of an attack by the Entities who staged the attempted murder of Astrid in her childhood. Their shared traumatic contact with their tormentors becomes the basis for a relationship that's genuinely touching to observe.

Story page 6, panels 4 and 5, alone offers us a glimpse at something we've not seen in Astrid to date: vulnerability. She sighs with heaviness in panel 4, then recomposes herself and moves forward with her characteristic outward resolve as she personally delivers Anika's meal. It's not until story page 7 that we see the extent of what the Entities did to Anika, a body ravaged down the middle, her left side shriveled and feeble. Astrid wants to talk about Chloe and what finding her could mean, but Anika is too far gone in depression. "You have to let me go," she repeats. And then we see something extraordinary: Astrid takes Anika's hand and kisses it, beginning to break down. She leans down to hug Anika, declaring, "I'm sorry. I can't do this without you."

This is an intriguing line of dialogue to interpret as a reader. Read only in text, it could be taken rather coldly, as though Astrid was denying Anika the release she's begging for because she still serves a purpose to Astrid. But with Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork, we are able to find a far softer meaning to the words. This isn't just about whatever function Anika performs for Astrid. It's about Astrid unable to bring herself to let go of the one person we've seen that matters to her. She's human after all.

On story page 11, we learn that after surviving the attempt on her life, Astrid became able to see the Entities..."starting with [her] own father." The matter isn't explored further here, but it recalls a moment in issue #1, when Astrid, recovering in her hospital room, asks her mother, "Why is Papa's face made of snakes?" We later see Astrid having a Clean Room session all to herself, observing her family at church just before the attack. She's interrupted by The Surgeon, who explains that the Entities tried to kill her because they knew she could see them, and unintentionally "unlocked" that ability that had been dormant before the attack. Ironic, no?

Way back in issue #2, we saw the Clean Room session of Dwight Fennister, for whom we initially were made to feel compassion before finding out that he had been sexually abusing children. Chloe was incensed that Astrid dismissed him without contacting the authorities. I surmised at the time that "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."

As it happens, The Surgeon presents Astrid with Fennister's severed genitals. He even seems put off by the matter, more disturbed by Astrid turning him loose instead of working with him, knowing that some gruesome fate awaited him. In legal terms, Astrid is clearly guilty of depraved indifference. But we also are left to weigh for ourselves how much we agree with her decision, something that will vary from reader to reader. I've contemplated this ever since that second issue back in November, and I still don't know how I feel about it. The fairest thing I know to say is that I don't think I could really know without being in that situation. If there's one thing Gail Simone does well as a storyteller, it's to take something complex and make it accessible without making it simplistic.

Elsewhere, Chloe and Detective Demakos compare notes on Astrid and how she fits into the rash of horrific suicides that the latter has been investigating. On story pages 15 and 16, he's the one who first tells us of Dwight Fennister. I had my "Aha!" moment then, but it wasn't until The Surgeon confronted Astrid about him that it really had weight. Chloe floats a theory that perhaps the Entities don't even care about humanity, that whatever effect they have on us isn't even malicious but more incidental. "What if we were just in the road when they drove through? What if we're jaywalkers in a never-ending hit-and-run? What if we're just..just...road-kill?"

We've learned more than Chloe has, and I don't believe the Entities are quite as detached as that. Their interactions, especially the ones that end in mangled corpses and tormented survivors, aren't passive happenstances. They're deliberate acts. But it does speak to the potential scale of just what is going on and how insignificant humanity may well be. We'll see.

Clean Room #8
"A Critical Event"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 18 May 2016

I'd already seen tweets shared by Gail Simone of reactions to this issue, though thankfully ambiguous enough that I went in only knowing that it was shocking and intense without knowing what actually happens in it.

WELP.

We open with Astrid giving a lecture and then being shot on a double splash page (4-5) by what turns out to be her brother Peter. And the rest of the issue is dedicated solely to the aftermath of the shooting, with Astrid's team scrambling to apprehend her shooter and get her into surgery. Killian Reed, Astrid's "right hand", is given orders of what to do in this scenario. They include finding Chloe Pierce, whom Astrid is designating as her successor.

Yeah, those tweeters weren't exaggerating. Issue #1 was pretty rough on me chiefly because I was unprepared for the conversations and depictions of suicides. I also still hadn't quite finished stabilizing my own mental health at that point. I've found subsequent issues compelling and intriguing, certainly, but my reactions have been more cerebral than emotional...until now.

We're used to comic books shooting or even completely killing characters. But we're also used to the aftermath being more about revenge, with moments of sadness and reflection pushed back to the end of the story. It's sufficient to affect some readers, but I can't recall it ever really happening for me. The very first comic book I ever bought was The Transformers #24, which concluded with the death of Optimus Prime. Talk about a doozy to walk into..! That set the tone for me as a reader.

Despite the fantastic/supernatural Entities, Clean Room has so far been grounded in recognizable reality. Dedicating this entire issue just to Astrid's team reacting to her being shot is the finest example so far, because there's a realness to their reactions. Capone is furious and explosive. Killian is forced to restrain herself to only seething, with too many things to attend to to take time to process anything. The issue is frenetic, and Jon Davis-Hunt deserves special recognition for how visceral the whole thing is visually. Facial reactions are always important for conveying emotion and mood, and this whole issue is wall to wall emotion and mood. He brought his A game, though, and elevates this issue to about as high a level as I think I've ever experienced in a comic.

Story page 15, in which Killian extorts a surgeon into abandoning one patient to rush to Astrid, reveals to us some new insight into what the organization knows (or, at least, what it's been telling the suckers lining up to fill its coffers; hard to tell). In panel 4 of this page, Killian threatens: "When they come...when they take Earth and only the blue card allows entry into sanctuary...your family will burn with the rest of humanity." Armageddon is quite an escalation from the Entities coercing people into committing suicide or attacking them themselves, but the other key thing to glean from this is that the characterization of it sounds more like Killian is describing an alien invasion than a demonic uprising. Again, though, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone and this may be a misread on my part.

One last thing. I haven't really mentioned Jenny Frison's covers for the series so far, save for sharing in my review of issue #4 a sketch that a friend of mine did based on her cover for issue #2 that he had me brush over with water to demonstrate the wash feature of my sketching pencils. The cover to issue #8 is the least immediately engaging cover of the series to date, but as the story progressed I came to appreciate its significance. This is not at all the kind of cover we're used to seeing for such an issue; on the contrary, we're used to seeing covers that are far more exciting than the stories that take place on the inside. There's something about the muted grays and soft pink highlights in particular that make the stoic, static image of Duncan, Killian, and Capone standing together with pistols held up feel eerier than I initially gave it credit. This isn't a poster-friendly piece, but it may be the most daring of the book's run so far.

Clean Room #1 Complete Script
Written by Gail Simone | Limited Edition of 30
Issue One (Second Revision)
Sold by Gail Simone at Emerald City Comicon, 27-29 March 2016

By happenstance, one of my friends attended Emerald City Comicon this year and I was able to arrange to have him pick up for me one of the thirty copies of this script that Gail Simone had printed for sale. I've long been fascinated by things like screenplays and scripts, and when the opportunity arose to get hold of this, I leaped at it. In particular, I wanted to see what this twisted book looked like in its infancy. This is what Clean Room looked like before Jon Davis-Hunt created the series's visual aesthetics.

I've read in other scripts of Simone's that she often describes specifically what she does -- and does not -- want in a given shot. There are explicit directions, for instance, that in the scene where Chloe wades topless into the water to drown that it not be at all sexualized. She also provided Davis-Hunt with links to online images for references of some of the things that she wanted, including the German town of Unna, where the Entity attack on Astrid took place.

Perhaps the most interesting line of direction that I read was about story page eight:
If you have ever conveyed despair, and giving up, in an image, this is the one to heap that feeling on, please. It's tragic, how perfect her resolve is. But sad, because everything she is and all the gifts she has are not enough, they bring her no comfort.
That's a hell of a thing to task an artist with imagining and realizing. (Of course, Jon Davis-Hunt deftly created the imagery that was asked of him in the published issue.)

I also learned a few little details that I don't think I consciously processed from the issue, including the fact that "The truck has a ROOK design on the door, like a rook in chess". I also got a kick for some reason out of the specificity that there "are two mostly empty bottles of cheap RED wine." I know that Simone doesn't drink, so I found it all the more curious that it be important to her that the wines be red. (For whatever it's worth, I'm almost exclusively into reds, so I approve of Simone's and Chloe's taste.)

After reading this script and the last two issues, Astrid has been solidified as one of my favorite comic characters. It did not escape my notice that the back cover of this script is a solid pink page.

Credits, Issues #7 & #8
Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Rowena Yow - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #7)
Molly Mahan - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #8)
Shelly Bond - Editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone

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