The comic opens with a scene reminiscent of the Columbine High School massacre. Two boys are holding a lunchroom full of fellow students hostage. They are geeks, outsiders at the school, and are looking just to humiliate the star quarterback of the football team. However, as the tension builds, the situation explodes out of hand. One of the boys, Brandon Snodd, suddenly begins shooting his fellow students. His friend, Ethan Harrow, tries to stop the shooter, which then causes Ethan’s destructive powers to start to manifest themselves. Ethan kills Brandon as an explosion of energy floods from Ethan’s body. Ethan is then railroaded through the justice system, and, by the end of the issue, is facing a life in prison.
Trust a maverick creator like Steve Gerber to present one of the most intriguing and iconoclastic first issues in recent years. It takes real guts by a comic company to have the lead character of a new line of comics be a boy who was involved in a deadly school shooting. It takes tremendous confidence in the comic’s writer to make such a comic the first of a whole line of new comics. Gerber, who’s written some of the most interesting comics of the last thirty years, rises to the occasion. In Ethan Harrow, Gerber creates one of the most morally ambiguous comic characters of recent memory. Harrow’s involvement in the shooting is complex. Harrow was involved in the shooting, but only as the result of a prank gone wrong. He has some complicity in the death of five people at his high school and the injuries to many others, but does he deserve the long sentence imposed on him by an angry court? What is the morality of sending a teenage boy to jail for most of his life, and will the horrors he faces match the crime he committed? In an era when very few comics ask any moral questions of their readers, this comic is full of moral questions.
Gerber provides few easy answers, instead using the media to show how news distorts our modern age. Analogues of Oprah, Dr. Phil and CNN’s pundits comment on the crimes, but none really understand them. Many people try to get at the heart of the crimes and those who commit them, but none show really want to think about the alienation and frustration felt by the boys who commit the crimes. If there is one theme that runs through all of Gerber’s work, from Man-Thing and Morbius, though Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown, to Sludge and Nevada, it’s the alienation that many people feel from modern society. Gerber’s fiction celebrates the outsider, those who don’t quite fit in with the rest of society. Ethan is such a character, and may be the most extreme example so far of Gerber’s characters.
And yes, there are superpowers in this story. Ethan manifests them first during the shooting and then during his sentencing. At the end of the first issue, the powers are undefined and frightening, the angst of an angry child turned loose. It will be interesting to see how these powers erupt when Ethan goes to jail. How will prison affect his latent abilities?
The art by Brian Hurtt is gorgeous. Featuring a wonderfully muted palette of colors by Brian Haberlin, Hurtt’s art has a cartoony but realistic feel that makes the horrors of the book more compelling. The art is loose enough that it has a universal feel, but tight enough that the horrors of the book have real power.
Backing up the main story are excerpts from the other three Focus titles. Each looks to be different takes on super-powered protagonists, and all look to be unique takes on their concepts. It’s nice to see DC give its readers something extra to enjoy and act as a teaser for future releases. The teasers definitely worked for me, as I was intrigued by all three previews.
Hard Time is a challenging comic: intelligent, probing and intense. It’s also intriguing as hell. If Gerber can build on the momentum he creates in this first issue, this could be one of the best comics of 2004. It’s an auspicious beginning of an intriguing line of comics.