The Life Lessons of Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Brian Hurtt's Hard Time

In Hard Time, it’s difficult to tell just what kind of kid Ethan Harrow is.  Sentenced to 50 years in prison for a joke on some jocks that ended up being a deadly school shooting, the fifteen-year-old is just at the stage of life where most kids are really figuring out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.  But school can be cruel and it pushes people like Ethan and his best friend Brandon to a breaking point all too early in their lives.  It was supposed to be a joke that scared the jocks into understanding what it was like for Brandon and Ethan to be bullied every day. It turned into a school shooting that left students and teachers injured, traumatized and killed including Brandon dead by some unseen force that violently ripped his heart out of his body.  Left alone, Ethan has to take responsibility for this “joke,” and is judged to essentially spend the rest of his life in prison.

Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes, and Brian Hurtt know the building blocks of prison stories.  They’ve seen the same movies and read the same books as we have.  As Ethan has to learn the ways of prison life, Gerber, Skrenes, and Hurtt start out with the usual story beats of Ethan getting the hard lessons and trying to adjust to where he’s going to be spending all of his days and nights for the next five decades.  They show the different factions that exist in a prison; the white supremacists, the Mexicans, the Blacks, even the guards and prison administration.  These things feel cliche but with a child now facing these things, the danger becomes even more perilous.  Will Ethan survive or be killed?  What will he do to try and survive?  How long can he survive in prison?  Those are the questions that we usually ask ourselves in stories like this.

But make no mistake, Ethan is not innocent.  He willingly participated in the school prank even if he didn’t know how far Brandon was going to push it.  But Gerber and Skrenes also twist the story a bit by having that act be a catalyst for the things that ultimately save Ethan. While Brandon was threatening and shooting their classmates, something happened to Ethan and a force was unleashed that killed Brandon and probably saved several other lives.  But the damage was done and Ethan was found guilty on multiple charges.  So Ethan lost his life in high school and everything that was a part of it and had to discover a new life in prison.  

Hard Time, in its weird own way, is a high school book.  Or more exactly, it’s a coming of age story.  Ethan exchanges one kind of school for another.  The types of lessons may be different but they are each there to provide life lessons.  It’s just unfortunate that Ethan has to give up one for the other but in prison, he actually finds many things that he didn’t have in high school, mostly more friends and mentors that protect and nurture him.  Gerber and Skrenes take their high concept pitch- “a 15-year-old boy gets 50 to life for being involved in a Columbine-style shooting”— and turn it into a coming of age story where Ethan has to learn how to grow up.

On top of that, there is the whole supernatural element at play in this story.  This isn’t just about a boy trapped in prison but a boy trapped in prison who has to learn about his KHE-CHARA, his “ether-goes” as one of his more spiritually inclined mentors calls it.  In comics parlance, think of this as his astral self, the ability to untether his soul from his body.  At first, it’s a violent, self-defense mechanism that he doesn’t have control over, such as during the inciting events at the school.  As the story progresses, this is another of the things that Ethan has to learn about.  With this KHE-CHARA, he eventually finds freedom and the ability for it to leave the prison and explore the world that exists outside of the prison.  He finds a freedom even if he doesn’t find an escape.

That’s a lot going on in this book that collects the nineteen issues that Gerber, Skrenes, and Hurtt were able to produce between 2004 and 2006 before ultimately being canceled.  Gerber and Skrenes built this life for Ethan where we are always aware of his prison environment but the story isn’t confined by it.  A prison story may be one way to define this.  A supernatural story is another way.  Even calling it a new age spiritual story could apply to their work.  But it all comes down to a boy trying to navigate life, making some of the wrong decisions, and also making some right ones.  In that way, it’s a lot like a John Hughes teenager movie but just moving the kid out of the protective suburbs into the hard reality of a prison yard.  

This early Brian Hurtt artwork captures a sense of the darkness and the madness that prison inflicts on Ethan as well as all of the other inmates and characters.  In Ethan, Hurtt captures his expressiveness with each new encounter and event.  Every moment, every threat, and every action.  But Hurtt is also able to portray a sense of dignity and worth in these characters so that the whole book doesn’t become about that darkness and madness.  Dignity is a good word for the way that Hurtt depicts this prison life. These characters are rarely reduced to being defined only by their crimes.  Gerber, Skrenes, and Hurtt allow them to struggle with their choices, allow them to have responsibility for their decisions and actions.

Thanks to Hurtt’s artwork, the book never gives in to the darker tendencies of these types of stories.  For everything that you’re read and seen about prison life, this story is fairly PG-rated, suggesting a lot more evil and danger in these characters’ lives than it ever shows.  It’s not that it shies away from that explicit danger as much as Hard Time just isn’t that kind of story.  Working with Gerber and Skrenes, Hurtt is able to create a sense of suspenseful danger behind every corner more through the somewhat reserved nature of how it shows prison life. This isn’t just a prison story.  While it takes place largely in prison, Hurtt has to create the suspense of those decisions and choices, giving these characters stakes that we understand through the art.

So there’s the prison story and then the story of life and living that exists within the pages of Hard Time.  Gerber and Skrenes use the former to go deep into the latter.  With Ethan, they get to explore the development of the soul from being a child into being an adult and then into something more than just a man.  As the story reveals itself and Ethan starts to learn about aliens, ancient warrior queens, and his connection to them, his world expands beyond his cell and the prison yard.  That’s usually something most of us go through with school, jobs, and families.  For Ethan, it’s the same journey just through a different path.  

It reads like spiritual mumbo jumbo at first.  What does this stuff about souls, possessions, and ancient queens have to do with prison life?  How do these fantasy elements relate to a story about a convicted school shooter?  The key to these questions is actually found on the author page at the end of the book.

“Halfway through the series, Steve was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and needed a lung transplant, so Mary wrote all the issues but chose not to have her name credited on the book until it became necessary.”

Gerber’s illness is the link to Ethan’s imprisonment.  Think about getting sick and being trapped inside of your own body.  That must have been what Gerber was feeling after his diagnosis and as he got sicker.  Now those spiritual elements are all present right from the beginning but it takes a while for Gerber and Skrenes to really develop them.  They’re the mystery of the book for the first half until the writers introduce another convict who acts as Ethan’s spiritual guide.  You could draw connections between what was happening in Gerber’s life and the story that they were telling, with the underlying hope of searching for a way to escape the horrible times of life.  The story explores the separation of the spiritual from the physical, even suggesting that the soul could exist outside of or even without the body.

You could also end up reading Hard Time as a bit of wish fulfillment, hoping that Gerber could have found a way to exist outside of his diseased body.  But maybe, more importantly, Hard Time needs to be read as a guide to life where Gerber, Skrenes, and Hurtt are reminding us to live and do our best to overcome adversity.  Even without the personal knowledge of what Gerber was going through during this time, any digging into the meaning of Hard Time suggests a development of self, a coming to terms with who and what we are, leading to us trying to live with those terms.  For all of the killing at the start of this story, a violent birth for this tale, Ethan is the hero of that event, saving what lives he can.  Gerber and Skrenes don’t allow him to be absolved for any sins; they allow us to question the justice that Ethan received but question the crimes that he participated in.  He made decisions just like nearly everyone else in that prison did.

Honestly, this is a weird book to read in 2020.  While stay-at-home orders and quarantining are nowhere near what a 50-year prison sentence would truly be, there is a sense that we’re all kind of imprisoned right now.  We’re even more isolated than Ethan is and we are all probably going a bit stir crazy as this year approaches its end.  We want to experience the world again like we used to; we all want to escape the confines of our house.  So in many ways, sixteen years ago Gerber, Skrenes, and Hurtt were trying to prepare us for this eventuality.  In all good stories, there should be nuggets s of truth we can find if we’re reading them as they come out or reading them years later.