…in which life in prison gets even more horrifying for all involved. Ethan Harrow seems to be joined to a supernatural spirit that fulfills his subconscious vengeance. That’s a good thing for him, because in the previous issue Ethan has saved the life of a man who raped and killed a child. That man, Lewis Gatherwood, was threatened by several parties who wanted him dead, among them a demented religious fanatic and a group of black supremacists. Gatherwood sees the supernatural spirit and thinks it to be the angelic form of the girl he killed. Thinking himself forgiven, he approaches the preacher, who then brings his own spirit of vengeance to bear on Gatherwood.
Each issue of Hard Time seems to draw the reader more and more into an abyss. Prison is hellish, and the events of this issue – the fate of Gatherwood, Harrow’s heartbreaking phone conversation with his mother, and a religious ritual conducted by the preacher – all add up to make the situation even more hellish than it seemed in previous issues. Even without the “bizarre manifestation of force” (as Gerber calls it), this would be a real journey into despair. With the “manifestation,” this story gets a unique supernatural touch, one that serves to emphasize and deepen the plotlines.
In other words, if you’re looking for a bright and fun comic, stay way the hell away from Hard Time. The world that writer Steve Gerber creates is one where danger is always lurking, where friends are nothing but short-term allies, and where the protagonist is only marginally more likeable than the rest of the characters – partially due to his circumstances and partially because of the ways he deals with the world. Brian Hurtt’s evocative art and especially Brian Haberlin’s muted color palette emphasize the darkness of this world, and the comic is an enormously creative and meditative downer. It’s also a really amazing and unique comic book.
My one quibble with the issue is that by the end of the issue, the spectre seems to be taking a human form. I’ve always kind of hoped that the spirit wouldn’t be explained at all, that it would remain some sort of a mystery to be explored throughout the book. Perhaps psychiatrists or prison guards could try to explain it, but I’d hate for it to be explained in much the same way as spirits are in mainstream DC comics. This is supposed to be a non-mainstream comic, and I hope Gerber will take a non-mainstream approach to this concept.
But so far, so good. In the 30 years Gerber has been writing comics, he’s rarely disappointed. The first four issues of Hard Time are among his very best work. Hard Time isn’t fun, but it is unique and interesting and very thoughtful. It’s also one hell of a ride.