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Harsh Sentence

  Hard Time: 50 to Life

 

Steve Gerber, Brian Hurtt

DC Focus, 2004

Rating: 1.8

 

 

Posted: November 24, 2004

By Dave Brennan

Editor's Note: This review originally appeared on the Comic Readers site. Shaking Through is reprinting it as an introduction to our new comics contributor, Dave Brennan.

Hard Time is a prime example of how a strong premise is nothing without a competent execution. Steve (Howard the Duck) Gerber's story of a cynical teenager enduring a lengthy prison sentence could have explored any number of interesting angles. Instead, one overriding weakness holds it back -- for all of the story elements Hard Time attempts to balance, not one of them feels remotely authentic. This fatal flaw permeates every aspect of the story, burying the concept's potential and leaving the reader with a catalog of missed opportunities.

An ill-advised high school has turned deadly, and now fifteen-year old Ethan Harrow faces the next fifty years in a maximum-security penitentiary. Alone and unprotected, the detached adolescent must navigate his new surroundings, make alliances and avoid his enemies, all in a desperate struggle to survive. Fortunately, and unbeknownst to young Ethan, he's got an ace up his sleeve -- a strange power growing inside him that just might be his salvation.

Hard Time's flaws are evident early on, and they're impossible to ignore. Even accepting the idea that the judicial system would send a baby-faced, socially inept kid to a federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison, there's no impact whatsoever to what should have been a groundbreaking (and heartbreaking) decision. In the face of evidence that could have reduced Ethan's sentence, the judge seals his fate without so much as a backward glance. Yet this reaction pales in comparison to the defendant himself -- pouting like an inconvenienced toddler, Ethan simply gets on the bus and goes off to prison. No pleading, no tears, not even an appeal. A fifteen-year-old suburban outcast accepts fifty years in prison as if he's going off to summer camp, and a few pages later he's shooting his mouth off to psychotic skinheads.

Summer camp, as it turns out, is pretty close to the mark. Upon Ethan's arrival at the supposedly maximum-security prison, he walks to his cell unattended, as if he's checking into his assigned cabin. Meanwhile, violent inmates roam the halls all day unsupervised and speak without using profanity. Guards are nowhere to be seen for the most part, yet conveniently appear out of nowhere when they're required to serve the story. Ethan's cellmate even has an alarm clock with a 20-foot extension cord, a potential weapon that no warden in his right mind would allow. There's a complete lack of realism to the setting, and it takes the reader right out of the story. It's as if Gerber watched a bunch of movies and made a PG approximation of what prison might be like. And apparently, prison is a lot like high school, but without the rules and regulations.

Ethan's character brings almost nothing to the table, evoking very little sympathy from the reader. He's an introverted loner with a chip on his shoulder, keeping mainly to himself and treating other people like garbage. Above all, he's guilty as charged. The kid brought a loaded weapon to a high school, and while his sentence is severe (he never actually killed anyone), it's hard to identify with the indignant little prick, especially when he spends half the story smirking. The fact that he's only fifteen is wasted on the reader, thanks to Gerber's amateur portrayal of adolescence. Ethan Harrow could be fifteen or fifty -- his age and inexperience never fully come into play, and he adjusts to his surroundings like a career criminal.

Gerber does his best to establish a diverse supporting cast, but unfortunately they're little more than one-dimensional stereotypes. We've got the big tough black guy with a heart of gold, the wise-assed Hispanic gang member, the remorseful crybaby, the Jesus freak, the Aryan skinheads and the effeminate cross-dresser. Every prison cliché is included, right down to the tired jokes about cavity searches.

With a grittier tone and a mature writer like Garth Ennis, Hard Time's unique premise could have made an impact. After all, if HBO's Oz taught us anything -- other than how to kill someone with powdered glass -- it's that prison makes for good entertainment. Viewed through a high school outcast's eyes, this book should have been a breakthrough project. Instead, hindered by a lack of research and an amateur grasp, the concept is watered down and the book's focus is shifted to Ethan's unnecessary supernatural powers.

It's ironic that in the medium of superpowers and alien invasions, it is authenticity that often makes or breaks a story. Yet no matter how absurd the premise, the minute the reader begins to question a comic book's characters, motivations and settings, the illusion is ruined. Hard Time had the potential to strike a balance between the insecurities of adolescence and the horrors of incarceration. Instead it's an exercise in wasted opportunity, and a showcase for the writer's inability to portray either one.

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