Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Retro look at Hard Time Episode 1 & 2

For this post, I'm going to look at the "Hard Time" comic series that was published by DC from 2004-2005. The first 12 issues are referred to as episode 1, while the final 7 were entitled episode 2. Don't ask me why they went with "episode" as opposed to "series". Not that it really made a difference in the grand scheme of things, it's just one of those weird little things that I'll latch onto.

This series focuses on 15 year old Ethan Harrow, who along with his friend, Brandon Snodd were relentlessly bullied from junior high school to high school. To get back at the bullies after a particularly brutal attack on Brandon and a female friend, the duo hatch up a plan to scare their tormentors by simulating a school shooting. Ethan gets shirts and masks while Brandon gets guns, which Ethan believed were loaded with blanks. In actuality, Brandon loaded the guns with real bullets, and during the prank, Brandon flips out and begins to shoot at the students that were gathered in the school cafeteria. Before Brandon could fire a shot at a girl Ethan had a crush on, a strange, invisible surge of energy shot out of Ethan and blew Brandon away.

From here, we proceed to Ethan's court hearing, in which several facts were withheld from his defense attorney, because the judge was up for election, and wanted to make sure "the school shooter" as the media was referring to Ethan would be convicted, thus ensuring his re-election. Ethan is tried as an adult and is ultimately convicted of 5 counts of murder, even though his gun was never fired, and was given 50 years to life in prison.

The comic then moves onto Ethan's stay in a men's prison. Ethan learns that in a way, prison is kind of like high school(ha!)and that many of the tricks to avoid trouble in high school could be used in prison. Ethan winds up running afoul the Aryan Brotherhood, and manages to avoid getting raped or killed by the Aryan's thanks to the strange powers that have developed inside of him. As time progressed, Ethan began to learn how to control his powers, and shape his psychic manifestation into a crude human form, and have it do his bidding, as well as travel outside the prison walls, allowing Ethan a freedom many of his fellow inmates didn't have. The only problem was that Ethan had to be asleep/unconscious in order to use his power.

While Ethan earned the hatred of the Aryans, he did find some "allies"(and I use that term loosely)while locked up. His cellmate was an elderly guy named Curly, who became relatively close to Ethan, thanks to the Ethan teaching Curly how to use the computers in the prison computer room to contact his long lost granddaughter. Ethan wound up having a quick tryst with Curly's granddaughter in one of the prison bathrooms after bribing a guard, but Curly always warned Ethan not to get involved with a girl outside of prison, since people outside the prison walls had hundreds of different things to think of/do, while Ethan only had Curly's granddaughter to think about. Sure enough, Curly's granddaughter eventually lost interest in Ethan as Curly predicted.

Ethan also counted a convict named Cole, a transgendered guy named Cindy, a somewhat psychotic inmate nicknamed Fruitcake, and a member of the Latino prison gang, Turo as allies. Each one of these men helped Ethan during his time in prison. Cole taught Ethan about prison etiquette(at the cost of Ethan's dessert at dinner time)as well as helping him develop his body with a rigorous exercise program. Ethan helped Cindy get away from the Aryan's, who Cindy was using for protection, as well as escaping from under the influence of a convict named Cutter, who wielded a Charles Manson like influence over people. Fruitcake helped Ethan develop his psychic manifestations, and was one of the few people who could see Ethan's manifestations. Fruitcake helped Ethan develop his psychic manifestations to the point where Ethan was able to use the manifestation to fight off the truly evil Cutter. Ethan also helped Turo twice, once when he was confronted by the Aryans, and later on when Turo was attacked by the head of the Latino gang, who felt that Turo had amassed a little too much influence among his fellow Latino inmates.

Besides these people, Ethan interacted with several other inmates, as well as his mother, who would visit with Ethan, often accompanied by Ethan's lawyer, Jack, who started a romantic relationship with Ethan's mother. Jack actually proposed to Ethan's mother, but she turned down the proposal. Even though Jack and Ethan's mother wind up breaking off the romantic relationship, Jack always fought hard to free Ethan.

In prison, Ethan's main adversaries wound up being the Aryan Brotherhood, who blamed him for the assault and death of one of their members, the Italians, who wanted to kill Ethan due to his interference when two of their members were trying to kill an enemy of the Italians, and Cutter, who was a sick, evil murderer, who reveled in torturing and killing his victims. Cutter was a very charismatic figure, and wound up taking some of the inmates under his sphere of influence. Cutter was so evil that Ethan would often feel physically ill, due to his psychic abilities, whenever Cutter was near him. Cutter wound up dying at the hands of Cindy, after Cutter had killed a friend of Cindy's and was about to do the same to Ethan.

The final issue took place 49 years in the future, where we discover that Ethan had survived his prison experience and was up for his first parole hearing. This issue tells us what happened to many of the other characters in this comic, sometimes good, while most of the time not so good. Ethan gets hooked up to weird futuristic machines, where the parole board is privy to his thoughts, so they could see if he deserved to be set free. The questions the parole board asks Ethan helps shed some light on the events that we didn't see during Ethan's 50 years in prison. After some deliberation, the parole board grants Ethan's parole, and for the first time in 50 years, he walks out of the gates of the prison that had been his home for so long. The series closes with a futuristic limousine pulling up to Ethan and him getting in. We the readers, never see who exactly was in the limo, but that is actually fine, since each individual reader can leave it up to themselves as to which person in Ethan's life stopped by to pick him up.

This series was mainly written by the late Steve Gerber, with Mary Skrenes co-writing issues from from the second episode(the final 7 issues). The artwork was handled nicely by Brian Hurtt throughout the series. This comic series was interesting in that I can't really think of any other comic books to compare it to. It was a strange series, but strange in a good way. There were times I loved this series, while at other times I was somewhat cool to what I was reading. But, like I said, I can't think of any other comic book with a similar premise.

Steve really did a great job giving all of the secondary characters substance. By the end of the series, the reader knew what each important character had done to get sent to the big house, as well as revealing what happened to the ones who were eventually released. My only real bone of contention with this series was actually the main character himself. There were times when I couldn't stand Ethan. For a kid who was living among a bunch of much older convicts, Ethan could be a real smart-ass. That's not to say that I didn't like Ethan, because I did, I'm just saying that sometimes I could understand why the other convicts wanted to kill him.

The series as a whole was obviously written for a more mature audience, and the actions and language used within it reflected that. The subject matter was much more adult than the usual fare from DC or Marvel, and DC should be commended for pushing the envelope a little, as well as presenting a story that I can honestly say was way different than any other comic book I've read recently. "Hard Time" probably won't be for everyone, and that's perfectly understandable. There is no reference to any DC comic hero, and to be honest, the only way you could even tell this was a DC comic was by the fact that it carried the DC logo on the cover. Personally, I loved this series. For an overall score for the entire series, I'd give it a 9 1/2 out of 10. There were times when the story dragged a little, but all in all, I really did enjoy this unusual series.


  1. Yeah, this was a great little series. It was part of DC's short-lived Focus imprint, which I think was meant to bridge the gap between DC stuff and Vertigo stuff. It's a shame that they've only collected the first 6 issues as I think this book had a chance of getting a much larger audience elsewhere.

  2. The first thought I had after finishing off this series was, "Why didn't DC just put this comic under the Vertigo banner?". I'd think this series could have continued for quite some time under the Vertigo family of books.

    It really had no ties to the main DC Universe, so it would have fit perfectly in the Vertigo world. It's a shame this series never really caught on, because it had such a unique concept. Oh well...