GREATEST OF ALL TIME: Hard Time by Steve Gerber

Since I began this new feature that looks at some of my favorite comic books ever with a pretty standard entry from the most mainstream of all possible comics (Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man), I figured I’d move from the accessible to the obscure.  And out of print.

In 2004, Steve Gerber (best known for his work on Howard the Duck) and Mary Skrenes (who created Omega the Unknown with Gerber for Marvel) put out this new book on the DC Focus imprint (kind of like Vertigo, but with a “focus” on super-powered characters who didn’t wear costumes).  The story was about a kid, Ethan Harrow, who plays a trenchcoat mafia style “joke” on some bullying jocks at his school.  During the course of it, Ethan’s “powers” manifest for the first time, and several boys are killed.  Ethan goes to prison to do, you guessed it, hard time.

While locked up, Ethan begins to develop his strange powers, all the while dealing with the typical prison problems of gangs and violence.  To Gerber’s credit, he writes about all the tropes you’d expect to see: Nazis, Mexican gangbangers, the Black Mafia, homosexual prison “wives”…But none of the characters are simplistic.  All have depth.  Hard Time is an example of character-based writing at its finest.
Unfortunately, it was a hard sell and the book ended after just 12 issues.  You can get the first arc in a trade called “50 to Life.”  For the rest, you’ll have to look at comic shops or e-bay.

Perhaps the best part, though, is the ending.  And it is pretty rare to be able to praise a final act in a series that appears to have been intended to continue longer than Vertigo allowed it.  By the end, Ethan Harrow gains some acceptance of his bizarre “super power” (which really is more like being possessed by a demon), and we get to see how he finishes off his prison sentence.  I won’t spoil it, but the ending has enough closure to be completely satisfying but is also mysterious and thought provoking, which fits with the overall themes of the book.

In all, Hard Time is a great treasure lost to the ages as it has not been reprinted.  But it is worth searching out in comic stores, or wherever you look for back issues.  This is a book that deserves an “absolute” edition.  Fans of the book are rabid—and if there ever was a book deserving of a TV series, this is one.

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