Well, hello and welcome to a new year of comics and a new year of All Star Recs. If you're looking for things to read in 2017, you could fix your peepers on my 2017 comic book forecast column of three weeks back or, better yet, click on over to Zainab Akhtar's list for The Guardian. Both lists have some crossover (a surprising amount actually, go me) but Zainab always has some deep cuts up her sleeve and, unexpectedly, a focus on the mainstream which I tend to largely neglect. It's a great list.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : CLEAN ROOM VOLS 1 & 2
By Gail Simone & Jon Davis-Hunt
Published By Vertigo
An absolutely demented mash-up of charismatic cults, occultism, Lovecraftianism, mass-market horror paperbacks and the fetish-filled, latex sexiness of Hiroya Oku's Gantz is Gail Simone and Jon Hunt Davis' Clean Room. It's a comic so gloriously over the top in its pulpy thrills and conceptual craziness it's actually something of a miracle that A) It has so far survived and is still being published in 2017 and B) That Vertigo of all places rolled the dice on it in the first place (shout out once *again* to former DC editor Shelly Bond).
Reporter Chloe Pierce is in the midst of her world falling to pieces. Suffering a severe depression after her fiancé Philip's suicide, Chloe decides to follow in his footsteps, only failing thanks to the efforts of her neighbours, the beardy, salt-of-the earth Haverlin brothers. Returned to the land of the living, Chloe is now seemingly haunted by Philip, whose "ghost" shows up with half his face blown off. Driven to uncover just why Philip killed himself, Chloe begins to investigate The Honest World Foundation, an organisation "somewhere between the lines of self-help and religion," and it's leader, former horror novelist turned inspirational guru, Astrid Mueller. The Foundation had its psychological hooks deeply in Philip and what Chloe begins to uncover is a potentially sinister, shadowy movement masquerading as a kind of kooky, celebrity-filled religion.
The obvious surface parallel is Scientology, with its cultishness, its Hollywood devotees. Right off the top the clearest example of this is The Foundation's key text, Mueller's An Honest World is clearly in place of L. Ron's Dianetics. Mueller, also allegedly like the Church of Scientology, has her Mr Fixits ; a tight knit inner circle of followers who do her bidding behind the scenes unquestioningly and with whatever amount of coercion and manipulation may be required. The Foundation is clearly in many ways as much of a money grab as L. Ron Hubbard's baffling melange of SF and psychological exploitation and is filled with just as many techno-meters for readings and as much baffling jargon for psychological/emotive states, however it serves a very different, far more horrifying purpose.
Scientology has its Thetans (effectively "souls") and its Body Thetans (the "alien soul" that causes all "our physical and mental illnesses and discomforts") and it's these Body Thetans that must be "cleared". Clean Room takes this idea one step further - forget Body Thetans, we've got demonic/extraterrestrial/inter-dimensional presences attached to us and the only way to get rid of them is for what passes for Astrid Mueller's "help." The titular Clean Room is the space where these "exorcisms" are performed - an immaculate white space housed within the Foundation’s HQ - where Mueller either "enters" or manifests the subconscious of those who can pay for the privilege and where what so often begins as a counselling session ends up a literal horror show.
Those inside the Clean Room must be thoroughly scrubbed and outfitted in a full body suit before entry. Perhaps it's just me, but the outfit seems inspired more by rubber fetish outfits than superhero suits and, as mentioned earlier, the costumes as much in common, if not more so, with the fetish-filled Gantz than, say, Superman, and the fact that the book is packed to the rafters with sexuality in all its varied glory would back this suggestion up:
Simone, who I mistakenly typecast for many years as a writer solely capable of solid but unremarkable superhero work, absolutely smashes expectation here. The world of Clean Room is ever expanding, rich in character and just bursting at the seams with one crazy idea after another. At times, individual issues can feel a little constricted and I would love the series to have more room in general to breathe, but that's hardly Simone's fault, confined to the 22 monthly pages Vertigo's format allows for. Davis-Huntis an English artist/video game designer whose comics work improves literally by the issue. His slick character work initially recalls Ian Churchill somewhat (of whom I'm personally not a big fan), but his visual world-building is absolutely stellar, his imagination vast, his monsters perfectly designed, and his commitment to packing pages with detail is not only commendable but produces frequently stunning results. His pages are so intricate that at times you'd swear Frank Quitely was drawing backgrounds -- no corners are ever cut and the importance of creating an immersive, real world is paramount to his sequential work. It's a shame the title is losing him to Warren Ellis' The Wild Storm as he seems integral to the sleek, pop sexiness of Clean Room's visual aesthetic.
A quick mention also of colourist Quinton Winter who, colouring alongside Davis-Hunt, turns the traditionally dark palette of the horror comic on its ear by using seriously bright hues. Clean Room's evil entities are largely coloured pink and a bright pink at that. In fact, the title is pretty much drenched in pinks, all of which look particularly striking against the solid white walls of the Clean Room itself or eerily casting a neon glow in darker spaces. It's an inspired, unexpected choice.
With surprise after bonkers surprise, it feels like Clean Room is just getting warmed up at the end of volume two. It's a shame that so much of an individual title's success is dependant on its first issue sales. With ongoing comics -- good ones -- the rewards come later, often much later, as twists and turns happen naturally and plot developments increase exponentially.
Clean Room is sleek but deeply weird, violently horrific but very funny. It features a captivating and utterly ruthless lead in Astrid Mueller and is built on an absolutely rock solid foundational premise. Clean Room is building up perfectly from this premise, hopefully to a conclusion that's yet years away, one that its creators justly earn by continuing to deliver work that's as engrossing as the first two collected volumes of the series prove to be. Aside from its staggering visuals, Clean Room is the cleverest take on the old horror staples of cults, exorcisms and what we conceive of as demons in a long, long time. It's a riot of intricate visuals and loony concepts and paranoid conspiracy. So many stories take a pinch of this and a pinch of that and serve up a thoroughly unpalatable cross-genre soup as a result. Clean Room is tasty, however, oh so tasty - comics genre fusion at its finest.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : TEST OF LOYALTY
By Sam Alden
A great one by Sam Alden to kick off this year's webcomics. "Test of Loyalty" sees Noelle, a production assistant working on a live action webseries set in medieval times, has been unable to renew her visa and faces an uncertain future. In this world, drones fly overhead and check visa statuses via an individual's mobile phone. As a drone check takes place mid-shoot and Noelle's status scans red, a choice must be made, and quickly at that. Beautifully cartooned (as always) by Alden, "Test of Loyalty" feels as though it could and perhaps should be expanded.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : FRANQUIN PRESENTE SON PERSONNAGE PREFERE
I'm not one for many New Year's goals, but on this year's list: Read More Andre Franquin.
Here's the Belgian creator of Gaston, the Marsupilami and the most highly-decorated run of the legendary Spiro and Fantasio BD way back in 1969 belting out a quickie picture of Gaston with little more than a giant permanent marker and a chic bowl cut. Amazing work.
See you next week. Love your comics.