Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘Hard Time’

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today I’m taking a look at one of Steve Gerber’s final works, and it doesn’t involve Man-Thing or Howard the Duck! This post was originally published on 20 April 2008. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!

Hard Time by Steve Gerber (writer), Mary Skrenes (writer, issues #13-19), Brian Hurtt (artist), Rick Burchett (inker, issue #11), Steve Bird (inker, issues #12-16), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer, issues #1-3), Pat Brosseau (letterer, issues #4-19), Brian Haberlin (colorist, issues #1-4), Avalon Studios (colorist, issues #5-6), Wildstorm FX (colorist, issues #7-12), and Lee Loughridge (colorist, issues #13-19).

Published by DC, 19 issues (volume 1, #1-12; volume 2, #1-7), cover dated April 2004 – March 2005; February 2006 – August 2006.

The tragedy of Hard Time, if calling it a “tragedy” is not too inappropriate in the light of what happened to its author, is that Gerber wasn’t allowed to even try to finish it. Knowing what we know now about his health, I wonder if that played into the abruptness with which this ended, but even though I doubt that he could have done much more with it if DC had given him two or three more issues to finish the story, it still would have been better than the final issue, which, as I note below, fits better than it has any right to into the rest of the series but was still a very weird way to finish. Again, I don’t know if Gerber was already sick, although he did work after this, so he could obviously still write. The sales on this book were absolutely terrible, but I still get upset when DC or Marvel doesn’t even allow the writer to at least try to come up with a coherent ending. Would they really have taken that much of a bath on this if they had allowed Gerber to write “normal” issues #7-9 to wrap things up? I guess they would have.

Final issue notwithstanding, Hard Time is one of those comics that, despite some problems, is a wonderful book to check out. As I was reading it, I was taken by Gerber’s very-good characterization and Hurtt’s superb art, but I couldn’t quite figure out if they were great comics. Then I realized what Hard Time really is: a satire. It is not, however, a satire of the United States’ overcrowded prison system. I have no idea about Gerber’s political leanings, but that’s not really important here, because Hard Time is not about prisons. Ethan Harrow (an oddly appropriate name, given what Ethan can do), our main character, tells us what it’s about at the end of the first issue of Volume Two. He narrates: “I once tried to tell a guidance counselor what was happening to me and Brandon. She said I should suck it up and deal with it, that not all the lessons you get from school are taught in the classroom. She said that the totality of the high school experience was meant to prepare you for life. Damned if she wasn’t right.” That’s right – Hard Time is a satire of high school. Its genius is that it takes the high school experience and transplants it to prison, and that’s why Gerber has created a great comic.

Isn’t this a prison drama, you might ask? Well, sure, but it’s not a terribly good one. Let’s look at the crime, for instance. Ethan and his friend Brandon Snodd shoot up their school, but Ethan thinks it’s just a joke and finds out too late that Brandon actually loaded the guns they used. Something happens to Ethan, and suddenly Brandon’s heart explodes out of his chest. Then the silliness begins. Ethan is tried as an adult and denied bail. Gerber takes some time to lampoon the celebrity news cycle shows, with conservatives and liberals ranting about gun control while Oprah and Dr. Phil stand-ins blather on. Ethan’s gun was never fired, yet the jury finds him guilty on all counts. The judge sentences him to 50 years in a maximum security prison, even though he’s 15 years old. The entire first issue, in fact, is a bit tough to swallow. Gerber’s strong sense of voice keeps it interesting, but the actual plot makes no sense whatsoever. Then, in prison, Ethan meets all sorts of people, and while it’s a credit to Gerber that he didn’t indulge in a rape of our hero (most likely because Ethan is only 15 and DC wouldn’t like that, which again shows how silly the decision to send him to prison is, because if he had really been sent to prison, he likely would have been raped), all the prison stereotypes are there: the Aryan brotherhood, the gang-bangers, the Hispanic mafia, the she-male, the old-timers, the bastard guards, and the uncaring warden and doctor. There’s also the fact that the walls do not a prison make, it seems, as there’s a steady traffic of information and goods going in and out. Gerber doesn’t really care about telling us the intricacies of the prison system and how the convicts always seem to get what they want, but that’s because, as I mentioned, he’s not writing a prison drama.

It wouldn’t really work if he set it in high school, either, even though it’s about high school. High school is a difficult period to write about, especially if you are far removed from it, which Gerber was at the time. Teenagers, despite their similarities to teens in the past, change their allegiances so quickly that it’s very hard to keep up. It’s also too easy to fall into stereotypes, which is evident in this book for the brief period that it’s actually in high school. And it’s also too easy to focus strictly on high school, which easily becomes navel-gazing. What Gerber wants to do in this book is use the high school model to illuminate life itself. Using high school to show how life works isn’t terribly revolutionary (how many times have you, talking about the office in which you work, said, “Why does everyone act like they’re in high school?”), but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to do so. What Gerber needed to do was find a way to take the silliness of high school cliques and make them serious so that he can examine them seriously. Putting them in prison is a bit of a masterstroke. We get analogs of high schoolers, but in a setting that allows some serious consideration of what high schoolers go through. This extends to the outside world, too, as people begin to take up Ethan’s cause, but for their own ends. One of the most humorous scenes in the book takes place on the outside, as Ethan’s mother and lawyer meet with a filmmaker who’s making a documentary about Ethan in order to help him. The filmmaker, who has already managed to get a guilty man freed, calls his movie White Ni**er: Whipping Boy of the System (when a man holds up the movie poster, his fingers are over the two middle letters, and I have no idea whatsoever what they could be), a title that disgusts Ethan’s mother. But she doesn’t care, because if it gets Ethan freed, she’ll let them engage in their shock tactics. It’s a funny scene because of the way Gerber shows that these people don’t even see Ethan as a human being, much less someone they care about. It’s black humor, of course, but Gerber is good at this sort of thing: letting his characters reveal themselves without beating us over the head with it.

Most of the time, Hard Time does this: turns its characters loose and lets them show us who they are. Gerber creates believable characters who become more real with each issue, and that overtakes the relatively mundane plots. Ethan, for instance, is kind of a jerk, despite his situation. He constantly provokes his fellow inmates, and it’s not always for a good cause. Occasionally he tries to help others, but at other times, he just likes stirring the pot. It’s a wonder he isn’t killed (a situation that has a lot to do with his “super-power”), but what Gerber does with Ethan is rather clever: he makes us wonder if maybe Ethan deserved what he got in high school. That’s a horrible thing to contemplate, because most of us (I believe) are probably opposed to bullying, but here’s the thing: we don’t know that Ethan was bullied. But, you might say, we see it! Well, no, we see Ethan telling others about the bullying. Sure, we get a little bit of outside corroboration that it occurred, but it’s not much – most of what we hear about the bullying Ethan endures comes from Ethan himself. Plus, he even admits that he was a jerk to Inez Mellancamp – he says “Geeks can be dickheads too.” So we’re not really sure whether or not Ethan deserved to be ostracized. I’m not saying he should have been, but throughout the series, it’s in the back of our mind. Ethan certainly doesn’t make himself a sympathetic character until much later in the series. The way Gerber writes Ethan makes the series more complex. In prison, Ethan often takes chances that should get him killed, and not always for the “right” reasons. Yes, he tries to protect people, but does Lewis, the “baby-raper” whom Ethan helps in issue #3, deserve it? Again, Gerber twists our emotional responses. We want to cheer for Ethan for being a hero, but is Lewis the kind of person he should save? Shouldn’t Ethan let the convicts beat him to death? And why is Ethan trying to save Lewis? Is it just a visceral response to the situation, or something else? In only the third issue of the series, Gerber showed how cleverly he has set up the characters so that the relative drabness of the plot – the convict saves his cohort who is about to be killed – becomes something much more interesting. It gets back to the point that this is about high school and, by extension, real life. Gerber is pointing out how difficult it is to know how to do the right thing – Ethan is standing up to the bullies of the prison, like he should have done in high school. Lewis becomes a stand-in for Brandon Snodd, the boy he couldn’t save. This guilt is partly what drives him and makes him more sympathetic. Ethan could not help Brandon except by ending his pain (he kills Brandon, although he doesn’t know how), but he isn’t going to allow Lewis to be hurt, even if Lewis deserves it.

There are a lot of nice moments like this throughout the series, as Ethan slowly grows up and becomes a man. As a coming-of-age story, this is far more subtle than we’re used to seeing, mainly because of the setting. Ethan is forced to deal with things that he might not confront if not for his sentence, even things on the outside. His mother hooks up with his lawyer, and Ethan doesn’t take it well. He meets his cellmate’s granddaughter and shares a brief liaison with her, but later believes that she’s “cheating” on him, and he doesn’t handle that well either. In a high school setting, these plot points might seem cheap, because Ethan would be just a petulant child. When his spectral self eavesdrops on Red, “his” girl, as she meets another man, it’s almost a sitcom scene, as he’s obviously misunderstanding her. But given the fact that he is trapped in prison, it becomes more poignant. His mother’s affair with his lawyer is more resonant, too, as Ethan feels that the two people who should be focusing on him are focused on each other. Yes, it’s a selfish attitude, and we’d see it like that if Ethan were a normal high-schooler, but we forgive him because of his situation.

Gerber was forced to speed up the process of making Ethan grow up in the penultimate issue, and it shows. He devotes issue #6 of Volume Two to the explanation of Ethan’s Khe-Chara, his spirit force, and how Ethan can control it. His Khe-Chara was what killed Brandon and has been protecting him – whenever Ethan lapses into unconsciousness, it comes out and, although it’s invisible, it can act on the material world, usually by beating those who are about to cause Ethan’s physical body harm. In issue #12 we learn that Ethan’s Khe-Chara has its roots in ancient Sumer, which was helped along the road to civilization by aliens. It has all sorts of powers, but he has to learn how to control it, which he starts to do in that very issue, when his Khe-Chara saves a victim of the school shooting from committing suicide. It’s this issue that really begins Ethan’s journey to adulthood. Although he’s still often a jerk in Volume Two, he is much more focused on figuring out how to live better in this environment. Gerber uses the Khe-Chara very much, but it’s not completely effective, possibly because he didn’t have more time to make it work. The explanation for it is silly, but that’s not the problem with it: it comes in the final issue of Volume One, and although that issue promises a “Season Two,” perhaps Gerber wasn’t completely confident that DC would grant him that (the Focus line, of which Hard Time was a part, went away, and none of the other books got a second chance) and felt he couldn’t leave the mystery of the Khe-Chara open. Similarly, the sixth issue of Volume Two, in which Ethan learns to control the Khe-Chara completely, also feels a bit rushed. Cancellation was breathing down Gerber’s neck, and he needed to wrap things up.

The final issue brings Gerber’s vision to a premature but oddly satisfying close. Gerber simply fast-forwarded 49 years to Ethan’s parole hearing, and allowed us to see what had happened to him in the interim. It’s not a great ending but it does fit into the rest of the book, as Ethan learns what everyone has to eventually: you make the best of your situation. In high school, everyone’s problems are magnified, and Gerber is implying that those people who think that they have the worst life need some perspective. In prison, everyone’s life sucks, but Ethan, by “graduating,” comes to understand that it only sucks if you allow it to suck. Yes, he’s imprisoned. But he can experience far more than most people, through his Khe-Chara. He points out what prison is to most people: “What I had, Mr. Tzu, was a five-decade continuum of oppressive systemized boredom, punctuated by violence; threat of death; and the occasional, mildly diverting engineering project.” Hell, that sounds like real life! What we can do, Gerber implies, is make our situations as good as they can be. That’s it. We all have our sentences to serve, after all. This message again overshadows the silliness of why Ethan can’t get a new hearing, which once again reminds us that it’s rather unlikely he’d be in this situation at all. Gerber simply doesn’t allow us to dwell on it.

Hard Time is a somewhat strange comic, and that’s perhaps why it never found an audience. It’s not hardcore enough to be a prison drama (it does feature several somewhat gruesome deaths but, as noted, no rape and very little drug use), it’s not superheroic enough for the superhero crowd, and it doesn’t appeal to teens. It appears to be a genre book even though Gerber manages to transcend the genre (like many good genre writers do). Hurtt is a very good artist, but he’s not flashy enough to make the book dazzle someone who just flips through it (he can certainly handle the “superhero” parts of the book, but it’s still less in-your-face than most true superhero artists). Ultimately, this is a character study, and that’s a tough sell sometimes. Hard Time is Gerber’s last great work, and it’s a shame it remains truncated. The first six issues were collected in a trade, but it’s unlikely the rest will be. At only 19 issues of recent vintage, however, finding the singles shouldn’t be that difficult. Reading Hard Time is certainly a rewarding experience.

As always, feel free to wander through the archives. I’ll get them sorted soon enough!

[Obviously, I don’t write nearly enough about Brian Hurtt’s art – as in, not at all! – or Brian Haberlin’s eerie, dour coloring on the first several issues, which set an interesting tone for the book and gradually turned into “realistic” colors. I don’t know if Haberlin was showing us the sad state of the prison slowly becoming Ethan’s entire world and so the coloring changed – which I hope – or if sales weren’t great so he changed the coloring so people wouldn’t be scared off if they opened an issue – which I fear. Anyway, Hurtt is very good on the book – this was still early in his career, but he has a strong sense of character, and he makes every member of the cast – and there are a lot of them – unique and interesting. He’s gotten better – his work on The Sixth Gun, for instance, is exquisite – but he’s still very good here. I apologize for not writing more about his art!

DC finally did get around to releasing a giant collection of the entire series, which you can find at the link below for a pretty excellent price. It’s cool that they did, because while Hard Time isn’t all that well known, it’s a really good comic, and while Gerber deservedly gets kudos for his Marvel 1970s work, he didn’t forget how to write when he got older! This is a good comic to read to remind yourself of that!]


  1. jccalhoun

    I haven’t read Hard Time since it came out but I remember not liking the second series nearly as much as the first. I also remember thinking the DC Focus line sounded like it had some interesting premises but I never tried the others. I think the coloring in the first series was part of that overall Focus branding? I don’t know for sure.
    It was definitely a shame that the ending was rushed.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’m sure it was a function of getting canceled, because the second series does feel rushed from the beginning. I imagine, as it only reached 7 issues, DC gave it the chop fairly quickly, so it feels like Gerber wanted to get to as much as he could. They’re still good issues, but I agree that they’re a bit of a step down from the first series.

      I imagine the coloring was part of the branding, because of what little I saw of the Focus line, they were all colored similarly.

  2. Chris Schillig

    Gerber still doesn’t get enough credit for paving the way for Vertigo and some of the more interesting creator-owned titles from various independent publishers. His work really is sublime, from the 1970s right through the end.

    HARD TIME was a series that deserved a longer run. I have all the monthlies, but damn if I’m not tempted to grab that collection, anyway.

  3. Brent A


    Wish the second series had lasted longer- hate when they bring something back for a second volume and it only last five issues. All the plot lines were left hanging. I did kind of like the ending, where Ethan regrets his actions like Freeman at the end of Shawshank. But they needed to make his crime more clear cut, such as he *was* a school shooter instead of Gerber making a statement on how flawed the justice system is as well. It was too many things at once and ended up neither fish nor fowl.

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