Yeah, I know Hard Time is cancelled (again), but I’ll keep praising this comic right up till its final issue. I’ve really enjoyed Hard Time since its first issue came out, due to writers Gerber and Skrenes’s ability to produce moral complexity in unique and compelling ways. Ethan Harrow and his world are a compelling place, an intriguingly unique world for comics, where the traditional aspects of good and evil don’t really apply. It’s not just that Ethan’s in a prison and has to deal with racists and jerks of all ethnic and personal backgrounds. It’s also because what happens around Ethan is also unique. What is the role of his mother in this? How does the odd being who lives inside Ethan affect his life? Was Ethan in some way destined to go to prison in order to confront his dark side (embodied in the evil Cutter) and become a wiser man in the process?
Issue #5 is another intriguing chapter that delves deeper into the Cutter/Ethan dichotomy while also spending time exploring the world of Ethan’s family, friends and acquaintences. In fact, Ethan spends the whole issue comatose from his bizarre connection with Cutter. The issue starts by showing the affects of Cindy’s rape on his life and the life of the rest of his family. Gerber and Skrenes are effective at keeping these scenes from feeling like Lifetime movies while still showing the drama and intensity of the young man’s life. For the first time, we see what exactly caused Cindy to go to prison, and though it feels a bit sanitized (no drug use is involved?); the scene is still quite dramatic.
We also see stress of a different sort when the issue drops in on a party held by Julius and Truth Rosenberg, two very wealthy lawyers who are working to get Ethan a new trial. Readers see the awkwardness of the relationship of Ethan’s parents, seeing how their relationship has suffered since Ethan has been in jail, and get a ray of hope when Julius and Truth come up with a scheme to get Ethan freed. The scene at the Rosenbergs’ house is quite curious: we see the awkward class relationship between Ethan’s middle class family and the affluent Rosenbergs, see the manipulative and inaccurate way that the Rosenbergs will campaign to free Ethan, and generally somehow have the feeling that the Rosenbergs are just using Ethan for their own particular ends.
Manipulating Ethan. That’s a theme that’s run throughout the series. First his friend manipulated Ethan into committing his crime in the first place. Then the media and a judge up for election manipulated Ethan into getting life in prison. Now the Rosenbergs are manipulating Ethan’s imprisonment for their own ends. Nobody seems to care about Ethan as an individual throughout the series. Even his mother only has a moment of hesitation before signing off on the half-truths and misrepresentations that the Rosenbergs are advocating, lies that Ethan would despise.
As readers, we start to wonder if the ends justify the means: in this case, if Ethan’s freedom is worth all the lies that are necessary to make it happen. And if Ethan’s case is full of lies, what does that say about other cases that are up in the real media? We all see every day how stories like the Natalie Holloway disappearance and the Terri Schiavo coma are used for gain by media members. It’s a terrible trend, one that removes privacy and truth from our system and replacing them with manipulation and publicity.
The issue of how to balance privacy and the drive to find truth is a complex question, one difficult to wrestle with. And, not surprisingly, the most provocative comic on the market brings it up. I will miss this comic terribly when it’s gone.