Gail Simone has built her fanbase primarily by telling epic stories starring the superhero set, but this fall, Simone is checking her capes and tights at the door to unleash a new psychological thriller for Vertigo.
In “Clean Room,” her first project for the DC Comics‘ imprint, Simone — along with artist Jon Davis-Hunt and cover artist Jenny Frison — explores the deepest, darkest corners of the multi-billion dollar self-help industry. The story follows journalist Chloe Pierce as she investigates Astrid Mueller, a devastatingly powerful figure in the self-help industry. Pierce’s journey is triggered when her fiance kills himself three months after reading one of the enigmatic guru’s books.
Simone shared her personal thoughts on the self-help industry with CBR News, explaining how those views became the basis of “Clean Room.” Basically, she believes in the purest credo of skepticism: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof — and extraordinary proof is what she and Chloe are chasing in this story.
Simone also teased details about the titular clean room, including what it represents, what its capable of doing, and most eerily, the secrets it will not hide.
CBR News: I found a stat online that suggests “self-help” represents a $10 billion per year industry in the United States alone. That’s a lot of copies of “The Secret.” When tackling such a behemoth in “Clean Room,” were you inspired at all by a specific doctrine or evangelist that forced you to raise a brow about self-help organizations?
Gail Simone: 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.
So what happens when the best, most powerful such charismatic leader decides to use her power and influence to fight a war against an army no one else believes exists? That’s our main character, a force of nature called Astrid Mueller. She’s no one you want knowing your secrets.
â€‹â€‹Full disclosure: I watched “The Secret” and have read some books by James Redfield and Deepak Chopra. While hardly a non-believer in one’s ability to improve one’s self, I would consider myself a skeptic. Have you looked to mass media for finding ways to improve yourself economically, intellectually, or emotionally?
I’m a skeptic too, but even the skeptical community has its cults of personality and blind spots. I believe in the purest credo of skepticism, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That’s the step that most of these faith healers don’t want to discuss. I’m not aiming at any one real person; this is a condition that’s existed forever.
I believe people can find motivation and change their lives, even if the source of the inspiration isn’t in it for anyone’s good but their own. But some of these people are rapacious users. We see it time and again, people preying on the people they were supposed to help. The question is, is Astrid for real? Is there really some terrible secret unleashed on the world?
â€‹The solicitation copy for “Clean Room” #1 certainly implies that not all is right with Astrid, but the cover image paints a darker — even fantastic image — of what we can expect from “Clean Room.” Is Ms. Mueller and her potentially demonic intentions a sensationalized version of someone we might recognize from couches of “The View” or “Good Morning America?”
That’s very astute, because those are the tools of the manipulator, as much as the Hollywood star. Astrid uses celebrity. It’s a tool for her. Her admirers are legion. They’d do anything for her — and someday, she’s going to call that marker due.
What about your hero, Chloe Pierce? In my mind, based purely on “House of Cards,” when I read about her I picture Kate Mara. What can you tell us about her?
Chloe is engaged to a complicated, much-loved photographer, the guy who is everyone’s best friend, always smiling. One day, she comes home and finds that he has killed himself, and Astrid’s book is open, lying next to him on the counter.
Chloe is a small-time journalist. She’s never handled a story bigger than a traffic accident. But now she is going to take on a multi-billion dollar company known for suing its detractors into oblivion.
Is her fiance’s death part of an epidemic, or is his death an isolated case?
Lots of stories, not much proof.
What can you tell us about the actual “Clean Room” where your deepest fear and worst moments are revealed? Is it actual room? A state of mind?
The Clean Room shows you everything. There are no secrets inside it. And it travels.
It’s the attic where your family locked up something awful, it’s the door where you hear screams in many languages you can’t recognize. It’s just nowhere you want to be.
I wasn’t previously familiar with his work but I have googled Jon Davis-Hunt and he draws a killer Judge Dredd. What does he — and the rest of the “Clean Room” team — bring to the project?
Jon is our shining star. I ask for the most impossible stuff and he draws it. He loves drawing the impossible. I ask for something horrific, he gives me something that is difficult to even look at. I have always been lucky with artists, but there are those few that are special, that know just what to do with my scripts. People like Nicola Scott, Walter Geovani, Jim Calafiore — and Jon is one of those. Bless his evil, sick heart. [Laughs]
Shelly Bond and our other editor, Rowena Yow, are inexpressibly wonderful. When you go into battle these are the people you want at your side. I can’t even explain it. They are my heroes.
Your runs on “Wonder Woman,” Secret Six,” “Birds of Prey” and “Batgirl” were well received. Do you think your rabid fan base will follow you from superheroes to a creator-owned series that’s missing the capes and tights? And do you have a message for your fans about what to expect when they visit “Clean Room?”
I hope so. I wanted to write some things that felt deeply personal. There are things that concern me in the world. I am hoping the readers follow me on this creepy gondola ride. I think it’s one of the best things I have been a part of. I will always love the superhero stuff, but horror, psychological thrillers and dark fantasy, those are deep in my DNA as well.
And to the readers, check out the first issue, everyone. It’s beautifully drawn, and it poses some powerful questions, I think!
“Clean Room,” written by Gail Simone, illustrated by Jon Davis-Hunt and featuring covers by Jenny Frison, launches on October 21.