Hard Time #1

Written by Steve Gerber
Art by Brian Hurtt
48 pages, color
Published by DC Comics

The conceit of DC’s new “DC Focus” line is simple enough. Stand-alone books where there are no superheroes, no villains, just average people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Hard Time is the first of the four titles out of the gate, but as I read it I found myself wondering: is Hard Time really the title they should use to kick off this line of books?

Ethan and his friend Brandon have a plan: show up to school with masks, “Jocks Rot in Hell” shirts, and guns. Take everyone hostage and let them freak out. Then, let them go. Except Brandon’s not willing to let it stop there, and when the dust settles, Brandon is dead, people are wounded and dead, and Ethan is looking at jail time. Definitely not what Ethan saw coming.

It’s easy to take topical events and turn them into pieces of fiction. Five years after the high school shootings at Columbine, it and similar incidents are still sparking stories like Hard Time. The problem is that so often these inspirations are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, until you get nothing more than stereotypes and a gross misunderstanding of the sorts of people in such a situation, and that’s exactly what you find in Steve Gerber’s story for Hard Time #1. It’s really cringeworthy material here, with nothing but stereotypes and what author James Blish called the “idiot plot” (where all characters have to behave like idiots in order for anything to happen). Take, for instance, our lead character of Ethan. He’s supposed to a smart kid, on the debate team and part of the electronics club. Yet he sees nothing wrong with the idea of taking his school hostage with guns supposedly loaded with blanks, as if everyone would laugh it off and life would go on unabated. (And remember, he’s on the debate team, yet is one of the most inarticulate speakers.) On the other hand, Ethan is hardly the only one lacking brain cells in Hard Time #1. The reactions of his classmates and the townspeople is so over-the-top that you start wondering if this is supposed to be a parody. Press conferences about a high school football player progress, generally idiotic soundbites from people when asked what they think, and a complete misunderstanding of legal proceedings and you’ve got Hard Time.

To make matters worse, this is an incredibly slow-moving first issue. By the end of this installment Ethan isn’t even in jail yet, he’s only just been sentenced. Surprised? You should be. In the current market where collected comics from Asia are doing incredibly well in bookstores, it’s certainly tempting to take their “decompressed” storytelling where events are stretched out a bit more as a model and write your comics with an eye towards an eventual collection of material. The problem is, most people forget that a lot of these comics are being published more than once a month. If an installment of a comic hits readers’s hands on a much more frequent basis (and generally speaking, a lot less expensive too), it’s not as frustrating to have a slower progression of story. Gerber doesn’t even seem to care about keeping people reading Hard Time on a monthly basis, because he’s giving people so little to want to come back for at the end of the first issue.

The one saving grace in all of this is the art. Brian Hurtt’s work on Queen & Country was a strong draw, and it’s even more true here. Hurtt does a great job with drawing every day people, from Hard Time‘s hapless protagonist to the jocks and teachers that populate the high school. Where Gerber’s script veers into melodramatics, Hurtt succeeds by showing genuine fear and a sense of being lost on Ethan’s face. If it wasn’t for Hurtt, it would be hard to believe that any of these characters were real people (which is after all one of the conceits of the Focus line), but thankfully he’s able to ground the book and give it a sense of humanity. Hurtt is aided and abetted by colorist Brian Haberlin, who casts the book in gentle blues and greens. It’s a really nice overall look for the book, with Haberlin saving the usage of colors like bright red for special moments, to make them really stand out and catch the reader’s eye.

The frustrating thing is that this should have been so much better. The basic premise is a good one, with a generally good kid going to prison and discovering a paranormal ability just beforehand. The art is certainly strong. But the writing… well, maybe things will improve and hopefully Ethan’s time in prison will show a little more research and realism than this first issue. But if I had to make a prediction based entirely on Hard Time #1, well, I’d say that people should just stick to their Oz DVDs. It’s a shame, because both Hurtt and the Focus line in general deserve better than this.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com

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