Hard Time Season Two #1 (2005)

I’m so glad to see this comic back on the newsstands. Steve Gerber has always been a great writer at exploring moral ambiguity, and Hard Time is all about that moral ambiguity. Protagonist Ethan Harrow was involved in a school shooting, which landed him in a maximum security penitentiary. He also has an ancient spirit living in his body, for reasons yet unexplained. "Season one" of Hard Time, the first dozen issues, explored Harrow’s bizarre and frightening life in prison and his interesting reactions to it. Harrow’s emotions never could be completely pinned down in "season one." At times he seemed motivated by his idea of right and wrong, while at others he seemed willing to leave things alone. He seemed oddly able to get by in prison for a 17-year-old kid, and that fact added an odd sense of edge to Ethan.

Season two begins with a return to the events of the first issue of season one. A legal aid team comes to Ethan’s prison to interview him about the shooting and the events leading up to it. Ethan tells the story of his life as an outsider, of getting beat up by the biggest jock at the school, and at finding fellowship with another outsider, Brandon Snodd. Ethan and Brian create their own secret world – Ethan to escape his small size, Brian to escape his mother, who "slept all day and entertained ‘guests’ all night." Ethan tells of the boys humiliations and the ways they tried to escape them. Even though it was a hell, the boys seemed to be able to learn to get by somehow. At least it seemed that way until the jocks escalated the battle.

The pair’s friend Inez was the victim of an attempted rape, which Brian breaks up, only to find himself the victim of a much more evil stunt. Finally the boys had enough. Without thinking, they decided to go to school, wave around some guns, and scare their bullies. But it was in that moment that everything went wrong.

Much of this information is new to the comic, and adds an extra level of moral ambiguity to everything. When a boy is attacked so cruelly and endlessly, eventually something has to snap. His actions can’t be condoned, but they can be understood and analyzed. Who can say that if they were in Brandon’s position, they wouldn’t do something similar?

Season two seems to be all about exploring the intense ambiguity of this story in greater depth. Ethan and Brandon’s crimes can never be condoned, but they can be understood. To what extent that understanding should mitigate Ethan’s blame for these horrific crimes is a difficult question. On the flip side, however, the bloodthirstiness of the judge in Ethan’s case, out to throw the book at a boy who was vilified in the media to help gain re-election, can’t be ignored either.

These are deep questions. I trust Steve Gerber, along with co-writer Mary Skrenes to not give definitive answers but rather let the reader decide what they think. Moral ambiguity has always been Gerber’s great strength as a writer.


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