Hard Time: 50 To Life (2004)

Ethan Harrow is a geek. An introspective smart-ass electronics freak, Ethan and his friend Brandon Snodd decide to play a prank on the jocks who have made their lives a living hell. The pair get guns and bring them to school, never intending to use the guns. Then Snodd gets scared, the bullets start flying, and people start dying. And in the crisis of the moment, an indescribable supernatural force flies out of Ethan’s body, bringing the incident to an explosive conclusion.

That’s the scene in the first chapter of this amazing new series by the legendary Steve Gerber and artist Brian Hurtt. Hard Time is filled with incidents like that one, moments that are striking in their emotional intensity, all filtered through the eyes of young Ethan Harrow. Harrow is a fascinating character – filled with bravado and surprising toughness and a slight streak of compassion. He emerges from the story as a complex and troubled character, one who is surprisingly tough when exiled to a virtual hell on Earth. The fact that his body seems to be the home of some sort of suprenatural creature just adds an extra mystery to Ethan’s character.

After the shooting, Ethan is sent to a maximum security prison where the Nazis and Latinos seem at constant war with each other. Ethan is part of a loosely grouped third group of prisoners, those too old, too young or too strange to fit in with either of the other groups. Among them are Preacher, a religious fanatic who commits an act of shocking cruelty in this collection. He’s a shockingly evil man, but seems to be following his own sense of morality and correctness. In his own mind, Preacher is a hero, on his way to Heaven, an sending sinners to Hell.

And there is the reason Hard Time is so special. In a world of comics where morality is still usually a black and white issue, where villains are generally evil and heroes generally just, Hard Time is a portrait in greys. Ethan is the protagonist, but he’s not a likeable character. Preacher commits evil acts, but a reader can see why he’s made the choices he has. And Gerber doesn’t judge other characters, either, such as Cindy, a boy who wants to be a girl, and Miller, who has a religious conversion when he’s confronted with Harrow’s ethereal supernatural force.

Gerber also doesn’t give readers a lot of clues about the force that lives within Ethan. We have no idea what the force is, or why it lives within Ethan. It seems to have a spirit of its own, and emerges from Harrow in times of great stress, but we still don’t have much of a clue what the force is all about.

Brian Hurtt is a great choice for artist on the strip. He draws unique and interesting people, and does a great job of showing the claustrophobia of Ethan’s life in jail.

Hard Time is a comic that asks a lot of questions and provides few answers.

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