Doing More "Hard Time" With Steve Gerber

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The big house.

The cooler.

The slammer.

No matter how you say it, jail doesn't bring to mind cheery thoughts. You would expect that one trip to prison would discourage most people from returning. We can all be thankful though that this is not the case with Steve Gerber and the DC book "Hard Time." Last Wednesday, the first issue of "Hard Time: Season Two" hit stands, so CBR News decided to check in with Gerber to find out more about his return to "the stir."

Before we delve into details, however, it may be helpful to share some introductory information about Season One. Thankfully, the writer was happy to help out. "'Hard Time' is the story of Ethan Harrow, a high school student who took part in what he thought was a prank - a fake high school shooting - that turned real, leaving five people dead. Ethan was tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifty years in prison. Now, behind bars, he's discovering that he has a strange power, the ability to release his consciousness from his physical form. His body is imprisoned, but his mind is not. And his roaming psychic force can act directly, often violently, upon the physical world."

"Hard Time" came about as part of DC's Focus imprint. The idea behind the books in this line was to take people from the "real" world, grant them powers, and see what would happen. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the other books under the imprint fared as well as Gerber's creation. The imprint is gone, and Gerber informed us that "'Hard Time' is the only DC Focus survivor. As of Season Two, we'll be published under the regular DC imprint."

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Season One of the book lasted twelve issues. Regarding the decision to go ahead with a second miniseries, Gerber said, "DC made the final decision shortly after we'd finished Season One. Everyone associated with the book - myself, my then-silent writing partner Mary Skrenes, artist Brian Hurtt, editor Joan Hilty, and executive editor Dan DiDio - all hoped we could continue Ethan's story. We just had to convince the marketing people that it would be worth it. Apparently, we did."

Considering that he didn't know if Season Two would occur, the first miniseries wrapped up fairly neatly, which was Gerber's intent. He explained, "The ending of Season One intentionally provided the reader a sense of closure; we were hoping the second six issues would be collected as a trade paperback, and we wanted readers of both the comic book series and the collection to feel they'd read a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end. At the same time, the Season One ending left almost all the storylines and characters wide open for further exploration, and that was intentional, too."

For readers wondering what to expect from Season Two, Gerber said that the book will be delving deeper into the prison and super-power aspects, "as well as exploring the characters more deeply and further unfolding the mystical aspects of Ethan's powers. And yes, the possibility does arise that Ethan may get a new trial."

Going along with the Focus imprint's original concept - super-powers in a "real" world - it would be natural to expect that events in the nightly news could affect Gerber's writing plans. CBR News inquired if he was concerned that another Columbine-type attack in the news would force him to alter or "soften" his story.

"Actually, if anybody wants to avert another Columbine-type shooting, reading 'Hard Time' might provide them with some interesting insights," Gerber responded. "The first issue of Season Two, in particular, deals with the culture of high school and how a series of nasty little events can escalate into a massacre."

When writing a book like "Hard Time," details matter. Knowing what actually occurs in prison can be the difference between "Jailhouse Rock" and "Oz." When asked if he had conducted any kind of prison research for the book, the writer replied, "Not firsthand, but lots of reading, lots of web-surfing, lots of Discovery Channel documentaries, plus talking to a few people who've been incarcerated. In addition, deep immersion in prison movies dating back to the 1930s - stuff like '20,000 Years in Sing-Sing' and 'Riot on Cellblock 11,' as well as the more contemporary stuff like 'The Shawshank Redemption,' 'Short Eyes,' and 'Oz.' There are a million little details you have to know about prison life to make the setting believable. We're trying to keep our portrayal of the legal system as accurate as possible, too."

As you may surmise, a book about a teenager who has to spend the next fifty years in prison is fairly dark subject matter. However, the book still manages to be accessible to teens as well as adults. Gerber indicated this is part of his intent and that he isn't under any "official" mandate to keep the book "PG-13."

He clarified, "There's no 'mature readers' advisory on the cover, so the cursing is a bit restrained, and we have to suggest certain aspects of the violence that, say, a Vertigo book might be able to depict in graphic detail. Oddly though, I think our having to exercise a modicum of restraint has been good for the book. It redirects part of the imaginative process back to the readers and allows them to fill in what isn't specifically said or shown, which can be much more involving."

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Writers who have to work on dark subjects often find themselves in dark moods. When asked if he fell into this category, Gerber said, "Sometimes, yes. (Somewhere, Mary is now muttering under her breath, 'Right. Like he needs help.') You can get too deeply into a character's head or into the tragedy that's playing itself out on the computer screen. The trick is to utilize that mood the way a method actor uses emotional memories - to make the scene that much more real without strangling your collaborator."

The "Mary" which Gerber mentions in the previous statement is his co-writer on Season Two, Mary Skrenes. The two had partnered before this miniseries, and, as a matter of fact, wrote the first season of "Hard Time" together despite the listed credits on those issues of the book. Gerber explained their process and clarified the credits issue for Season One.

"It's a true collaboration on every facet of the story. Usually, we work at her home, and mostly on weekends, because she has a real-world business to run during the week. (She and her husband own a company that rents lighting equipment for film and television production.) We sit across a table from one another and basically toss ideas and insults at each other until we have a general outline of the story. Then we script or plot the story page by page, panel by panel, line by line of dialogue. We take turns at the keyboard. It's the same way we wrote 'Omega the Unknown' thirty years ago. When we're really cooking, it's almost like two hemispheres of the same brain working. (On the other hand, when we're just microwaving, it's more like two oxen debating the merits of conventional versus holistic medicine.)

"I should mention, by the way, that Mary also co-wrote the first twelve issues of the book. Her name couldn't be listed in the credits because of a contractual problem. That's been resolved, obviously, and from now on she'll be receiving the credit she's deserved all along."

In addition to the writing team's return to the book, Season One's artist, Brian Hurtt, has returned as well. Gerber is pleased to have Hurtt returning to the book, and talked about some of the artistic choices made in Season One, as well as a few changes coming up in Season Two.

"When we were just gearing up for Season One, editor Joan Hilty sent me samples of a dozen or so artists' work and asked me which I liked. Mary and I looked over the stuff together, and Brian Hurtt's leaped out at us immediately. He has a very strong grasp of storytelling, an understanding of mood and atmospherics, and he's particularly adept at portraying characters' facial expressions and body language, a necessity for this book. Brian, Joan, and I certainly exchanged a lot of emails and phone calls early on about the look of the series. I think Brian's art captures it almost perfectly.

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"I'm not sure how much communication went on between Brian and the colorists during Season One. I'll admit that the coloring was a source of controversy. Some liked the bleak, almost monochromatic approach of the first six issues. Others liked adding a bit more color, as we did in the later issues. I myself was never quite satisfied with either approach. The monochromatic look did capture some of the hopelessness and tedium of prison, but it didn't emphasize the strongest aspects of Brian's artwork.

"Our colorist on Season Two is Lee Loughridge, who specifically asked for this assignment and who's bringing a very different look to the book. The mood and atmosphere are certainly still there, but the color choices are more striking and dramatic, and Lee's expertise with lighting and modeling effects adds a new vibrancy to Brian's work."

While the first "Hard Time" miniseries didn't sell a particularly large number of copies, the book was critically loved both inside and outside of the comic book industry, including landing the number four spot on Entertainment Weekly's "The Must List" in April 2004. In light of this exposure, CBR News asked Gerber if there has been interest from the film or television community. The writer only offered the following intriguing statement: "Ask again after we wrap up Season Two."

As for future projects, Gerber decided to leave readers with a tease and said, "I'm talking with DC about a revival of one of their oldest characters. I can't make any announcements yet, but I'm sure I'll have more to say early in '06."

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