Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt’s “Clean Room” #1 kicks off a horror story about the perils of faith combined with a cult of personality, beginning the story in a deceptively clean and pleasant-looking small town in Germany right before a series of horrific events.
In this opening sequence, the curious and unexplained sociopathic behavior of the driver, Jonas Kemf, is chilling. The mob vengeance that immediately follows, with no pause in between, is satisfying but also ugly and out of control. The silent action is clever, since the lack of speech amplifies the feeling of panic. The hospital scene seems like a quiet aftermath and oasis, with the TV news helping the reader make sense of what has occurred. The little girl is alive and her parents are relieved — but that’s when Simone and Davis-Hunt deliver the third shock. The reader is in a heightened state of emotion but lulled into being off-guard. The all-black title page and Astrid’s question are perfectly timed. The efficient, expert pacing and tight structure combine to devastating effect. It’s a killer hook and it’s also an origin story, although the reader doesn’t understand its true meaning yet.
The rest of “Clean Room” #1 isn’t as polished. The first shot of Chloe Pierce looks and feels staged. It’s gratuitous to show her in her underwear as she attempts suicide. The peaceful setting and the nakedness grab the reader’s attention, suggesting innocence and sexuality at the same moment, linking sex and death, but both the symbolism and the attention grab are heavy-handed. Chloe is sympathetic, but it’s her new mission that makes her interesting. She’s not as electrically strange and compelling as Astrid Mueller and her associates, which is kind of the point. Simone successfully builds a cult of personality around Astrid.
Davis-Hunt draws an impressive variety of faces and bodies for different builds and ages. The young Astrid really looks like a kid that could grow up to be the woman on the last page. The panel and page compositions are tense and full of unease throughout “Clean Room” #1, and this suits the tone of the book well. His pacing and transitions have very strong dramatic timing and amplify each of Simone’s plot twists.
The same goes for his thin, flexible and wiry linework. The intensity of detail can be purely pretty, like in some lovely trim on a fireplace, but it’s also a powerful source of symbolism. The chess rooks and bubblegum pink appear as visual motifs, and they leave an impression even though their significance isn’t revealed yet. Davis-Hunt’s color work doesn’t have creative combinations of hues and shading, but his work is thoughtful and vivid. His colors don’t default to the grittiness or muddiness of standard horror color work, and the direction of light is usually clear.
His monsters are Lovecraftian creations of an insectoid or crustacean-inspired variation. Chloe’s hallucination of Philip’s face is suitably gross and has a similar shock effect, but all these scenes are too over-the-top to be truly frightening. The quieter details have subtler effect, like Chloe noticing a bear in the room that looks like the same one from Astrid’s childhood.
Davis-Hunt’s faces and figures look hard like plastic rather than like flesh, but there’s enough energy in them to overcome the stiffness. His facial expressions and body language aren’t subtle, but there’s an impressively wide range of emotion in the issue: embarrassment, sadness, terror, doubt, dislike and determination.
Characterization is thin so far. It’s the creepy atmosphere and the mysteries that drive the story. Once Chloe decides on her new life’s mission to take Astrid down, there are four pages dense with information-dumping in the voiceover captions. Chloe’s conversation with Mikey occurs simultaneously, and what is revealed is interesting enough to offset some of the clunky world-building. There’s also a sense of relief at finally getting some concrete explanations, even if they raise only more questions.
Despite the uneven exposition, the hooks in “Clean Room” #1 are very strong. Simone and Davis-Hunt have created a huge amount of suspense, and much will depend on whether the eventual answers can live up to those expectations.