Never Traded: Hard Time

As previously discussed, comic shops have tons of comics just begging to be collected together and sold as a set, clearing out inventory and exposing fans to great comics they probably missed. Never Traded Introduction

Title: Hard Time Genre: Crime Drama Issues: Hard Time #1-12; Hard Time: Season Two #1-7

Hard Time was launched as part of the DC Focus line of titles which touted the fairly unoriginal concept of “what if people in the real world gained super powers?” Hard Time certainly had its gimmick—teenager with strange power goes to jail—but writer Steve Gerber and artist Brian Hurtt developed a tale that went well beyond that simplistic hook.

Ethan Harrow, 15, is sentenced to 50 years in prison for participating in a Columbine-like incident at his high school in which several students are killed or maimed and his friend (and co-conspirator) is killed. While this beginning seems like no more than a convenient plot device for getting Ethan into jail, over the course of the series, Gerber takes great pains to show both the factors that led up to the event and its numerous repercussions.

On entering prison, Ethan must quickly learn how to survive as he is immediately immersed in a dangerous environment and tagged as easy prey by the nastier prison elements. He gets advice and occasional help from some of the other inmates—but never their friendship—and he is aided by a mysterious energy being that seems to live inside him.

Frankly, Ethan’s “power” is the least interesting aspect of Hard Time. Whether the power is his soul force or some supernatural being is kept somewhat questionable. And it too often serves as a deus ex machina for sticky situations (although one could argue that it allows for more interesting dilemmas that a normal person could never survive). The power probably most closely reveals Ethan’s subconscious anger and remorse for what has become of his life. And over the course of the series, Ethan gains more control over the energy, and his feelings, allowing him to move beyond the prison walls (figuratively and literally) to see the effect his actions have on the outside world.

But people, not powers, make Hard Time a success. Gerber populates his prison with a wide array of characters; and while many of them start out as stereotypes, they gain depth over time as they interact (or butt heads) with Ethan and their own personal demons.

Ethan, of course, is the most fully developed. Although he comes off as the know-it-all defiant teenager, his concern for his mother and his intense regret for his actions give him complexity beneath his wise ass façade. Ethan is quick witted, and his intellectual potential makes his incarceration all the more tragic. Seen through his eyes, the retributive aspect of prison seems not only absurd, but ultimately unjust.

The other prisoners gain nuance as their personal histories and current predicaments are revealed. Curly, Ethan’s cellmate, seems but a crotchety old man until he learns of a long-lost granddaughter who takes a shine to Ethan. Cole, an inmate admitted at the same time as Ethan, appears to be a true friend as he dispenses advice, but he has no problem hurting Ethan in order to survive. Outside the prison, Ethan’s mother is willing to take any action, regardless how demeaning, in order to save her son. And a former victim of Ethan’s seems unable to overcome her trauma unless she speaks with Ethan himself. Had Hard Time survived as a series, I have no doubt that Gerber would have developed his dozens of characters quite fully.

Although the DC Focus books were short-lived, Hard Time had enough critical acclaim for another shot, and so it was brought back as Hard Time: Season Two. In the second season Gerber, along with co-writer Mary Skrenes, explores in more detail the events that led up to Ethan’s crime. And in a deft move, the authors show how the cliques, the gangs, and the tortures of prison are only different in kind from those Ethan found in high school.

While Gerber steers clear of pontificating, Hard Time clearly exposes the appalling state of our penal system. And although offering few alternatives, Ethan’s and the other prisoners’ experiences show that prisons—especially as they are currently structured—are, at best, a poor solution to crime; and they may even exacerbate it. And perhaps most chilling, the system is but a microcosm of the world outside the prison walls.

Brian Hurtt is a fine choice to illustrate Ethan's plight. While never overtly dark, Hurtt manages to capture both the psychology of diverse characters as well as the underlying sorrow of prison life (for the incarcerators as well). The first six issues maintain a minimal palette of colors which are unfortunately later discarded in favor of a fuller range, but they wonderfully set the tone for the drab imprisonment and the hopelessness of the inmates (and those outside who love them).

Despite a strong second showing, Hard Time couldn’t pull the numbers to continue as a series. The final issue closes upon Ethan’s release from prison 50 years later. It’s a depressing conclusion only because Gerber and Skrenes had to cram so much into that final chapter (49 years!), and the reader can see what might have been had the series been able to continue.

Technically, Hard Time did receive one TPB that collected the first six issues; but given that DC is unlikely to collect the remainder, Hard Time merits a place in the Never Traded series. For retailers, I’d recommend breaking this into three sets and selling them for $6 a piece, or all three for $15.

Do some time with Ethan and the gang.