5 out of 5
While I was hyped to be actively buying a Steve Gerber book as it came out, I admittedly found Hard Time to be a little try-hard at the time. The school shooting kick-off was headline bait, and Steve’s attempts at prison grit (and flashbacks to high-school grit) seemed showy, but not particularly shocking; an older writer trying to grasp at the bleeding edge.
Returning to the series way after the fact, though some degree of my criticisms remained, I found the initial run incredibly immersive, especially as Steve was able to step further away from the ‘DC Focus’ banner under which the title appeared. The back half of ‘season one’ was thus especially rich and effective.
Now coming around to Season Two, there is a big ol’ elephant in the room: that the series was canned, either due to sales or the impending “one year later” event or both, and so that does put a rather hard stop on things come issue 6 and 7. But: taking that into account, Steve gives us an incredibly well-handled glimpse of where the series might’ve ended up going, and that, in combination with the remainder of the issues in the season, result in something that was actually way, way ahead of the curve. This was cutting edge, and still rather reads like it, and, more impressively, provides a legitimate voice for its many varied characters, all spinning from this classic comic writer only a couple of years before his passing at 60.
The main narrative thrust for this arc seemingly would have been the arrival of ‘Cutter,’ a killer addicted to scarification, both on himself and his victims. While Brian Hurtt and colorist Lee Loughridge struggle with properly depicting Cutter’s many healed self-inflicted wounds, the character’s general swagger and calm is spot-on, mapped to Gerber’s creepy portrayal of the man’s cultish speeches on progress through pain; speeches which end up wooing some of the more manipulable cast members. This gives cause to explore Cindy’s background for an issue or so, which is honestly rather a landmark take for 2007 (I did a light search to see if this showed up as a transgender touchpoint later on, but it seems to have slipped ‘neath the radar. I do wonder what the current reception would be…), and Steve dips deeper into the effect prison life has on Ethan from the perspective of his prospects, using his spirit self to see what’s going on in the outside world and then reflecting on what that means… Although there’s a sort of forced summing-up to this in issue 6, Steve wraps it in a genius and entertaining meta-review of Ethan’s life.
And then issue 7, the ‘one year later’ tie-in that was turned into ’49 years later…’ the end of Ethan’s prison term. It could be seen as a text dump, but man, Steve poured his heart and imagination into this, with spot-on “it’s the future” touches and cycling through all that could’ve happened had the series continued at its own pace… Seeing how dark some of that could have gotten, it made me wonder why we didn’t get more Vertigo series (or Vertigo-esque) from Steve over the years; perhaps he made pitches that weren’t accepted, or perhaps he was more comfortable in the superhero world. Who knows.
Back in 2006, when I was half-sold on Hard Time, I felt it ended too soon; that it was starting to shape up into something with a lot of promise. Now, I feel like it achieved that promise, which makes it even more of a shame that it didn’t get the chance to push forward. One of Steve’s best.