SPINE | In Focus
Welcome special guest blogger Chris Thorn to the stage:
DC recently launched the Focus line of comics, which consists of four monthly titles published under one banner. The comics share similarities in their coloring, stylized interior art and cover design (which is some of the best in the industry right now). And by using the term Focus, readers would expect the books to have a visible statement of purpose aimed at one common goal.
Instead, DC has crafted a line filled with ambiguity and smears of grey. Three of the four titlesí lead characters are morally questionable individuals whose actions have placed them in difficult situations. Line editors Joan Hilty and Matt Idelson explain the Focus titles as an examination of how real people would use superpowers.
ďWe're not looking to transport readers to a super-powered fantasy here, rather a super-powered reality,Ē Idelson says in a Pulse interview
. Judging by the tone of the books, that is an ugly indictment of reality. And also a fair one.
The four books are all firmly based in a world similar to ours. Fraction
follows four long time friends who are choking on the responsibility of adulthood. Touch
takes a shot at the idea of celebrity with a story built on a sturdy foundation of greed. Kinetic
has the lineís most sympathetic character by traditional comic standards, but in reality, he is the type of person that most people would avoid. And in Hard Time
, the narrative centers around a character born from one of the most disturbing acts of violence America has ever watched on live television.
These characters are not easy people to like and the stories are not easy to read because they are asking tough questions. This tone sets the comics apart from the others on the racks vying for a disappearing dollar. Focus, as a line-wide banner, seems inappropriate at first when compared with the titlesí varying themes and distinct universes. But when the reader turns those real world themes and difficult questions inward, they are forced to examine, even for second, what that situation means to them personally. And by doing that, the comics are bringing some focus into the readersí lives.
This is the first of a series of articles looking at the individual titles in the line. Today, we look at Hard Time
because it has the most issues, in terms of numbers and on the pages.
What were you doing April 20th, 1999? I remember I was cooking macaroni and cheese when learned about Columbine. The shooting is my JFK. And on some levels ó probably because I was only 2 years removed from high school when the shooting happened ó I think it affected me more than 9/11.
As the TV cameras hung on the exterior of Columbine, with the broken windows, scattered homework littering the ground and the absence of human movement, I imagined what it was on the locker-lined inside. How kids were lying gutshot in the hallways. How others were hiding in closets as they called their parents, the cops and the news media with voices cracking of fear. Except I used the interior of my high school as the setting and the people I knew as the participants. Because of roleplay, Columbine is the most personal disaster Iíve ever experienced.
As time has passed, Columbine slips further and further out of the national conscious. Sure Michael Moore made a film that used Columbine in the title but he was more interested in pointing fingers (and deservedly so) at the media and Chuck Heston. Five years after the incident, psychologists and investigators have put together a very likely scenario of who the killers were as people and why they did it. The experts pin Eric Harris as a psychopath who was destined to wreak an unimaginable level of havoc and mayhem in his lifetime. He could never be stopped nor would he ever stop until he had reached his goal. Dylan Klebold, on the other hand, was a depressed and angry kid who hated himself. He also blamed himself for his own problems. He, most likely, could have received minor psychological counseling and lived his life without further incident. (This info comes from this Slate article
. For a more in depth look at Columbine, go here
Ethan Harrow, the protagonist of Hard Time
, could be modeled after Klebold. I picked up the first issue of Hard Time
based on the published premise of the book: a kid with super powers goes to prison for 50 years. I expected a story involving a liquor store robbery gone wrong or some other easily acceptable reason for that amount of jail time. Instead, I got the first fictional story based on Columbine that I had ever come across. I have not seen Zero Day
yet, but that is not for a lack of interest.
Ethan is a 15-year-old kid who cornered some fellow high school students in a cafeteria at gun point. Brandon Snodd, his partner in crime and best friend, plays the part of Harris. Gerber incorporates other elements of Columbine with Ethan and Brandonís T-shirts (ďJocks Rot in Hell!Ē) and the sadistic taunting before shooting the victims. The situation, which was originally was supposed to be a joke, escalates until Brandon kills five people.
The scene is shocking and makes no attempt to hide what it is, but Gerber does make some changes to push Ethan more into the role of a victim than victimizer. His gun is never fired, he thought the guns werenít loaded, he pleads for the lives of their victims and, with unconsciously powered telekinetic energy, he tears the heart out of Brandonís chest to stop the shooting.
When the bullets stop flying on page 8, I realized that I had bought a lot more with my $2.50 than expected. This is a book that asks the reader to walk in, or at least watch from a not-so-safe distance, the atonement of a school shooter. Gerber points to this idea of rehabilitation as the inspiration for the story.
ďMore than the attacks themselves, it was a news report about a participant in one shooting, a fifteen-year-old who had been sentenced to a prison term of 50 years to life. I know, of course, that we've been trying progressively younger defendants as adults in the U.S. and that it's no longer uncommon for American juries to hand down verdicts rooted in vengeance rather than justice, but this struck me as beyond the pale. How could a fifteen-year-old offender even begin to comprehend the reality of half-a-century behind bars? How could a prosecutor, a judge, and twelve citizens convince themselves that a fifteen-year-old was incapable of rehabilitation? Few people seem willing to say it, but the inhumanity of such a sentence begins to approach the barbarity of the crime itself. I thought it was time to raise this issue, too, in a dramatic, compelling way,Ē Gerber says in a Pulse interview
Gerber must make Ethan a character that people want to revisit on a regular basis. Someone that they either care about or empathize with in a prison setting (which is more like The Shawshank Redemption
His appearance is crucial to capturing the readerís emotion. He is drawn with a Leave It to Beaver
neutrality that is disarming. Contrasted with the rest of the inmates, Ethan is so small that it is obvious he will never reach a comparable size. But this works to his favor because he stands out from the other stereotypical inmates such as the over-sized blacks, tattooed white supremacists, dirty old men, effeminate queens and gang banging latinos.
The reader is given clues to Ethanís interests and hobbies. He reveals his love for science fiction by requesting a William Gibson book in the library and attacks his job in the repair shop with childlike enthusiasm.
Gerber also uses Ethanís personality in his favor. Instead of defining Ethan by declarative statements and large emotional outbursts, Gerber uses smartass one liners as his main form of communication. Ethan interacts with the other inmates through sarcasm drawn more from the inevitability of death than a general scorn. Ethanís lack of characterization forces the reader to imprint their own interpretation of who Ethan is, making him that much more sympathetic.
But Gerber isnít entirely non-committal as to how Ethan reacts to the prison setting. At the end of the third issue, Ethan stops the beating of a child rapist in the showers at the risk of his own safety. This is an indicative moment of why Hard Time
digs so deep under the skin. In his attempt to stop the beating of the rapist, Ethan alienates his only ďallyĒ and is knocked unconscious. As he lays slumped against the wall, his power emerges as a bright red energy conflagration. The blast clears the shower area of all the occupants and leaves Ethan on his hands and knees begging for help. The issues ends and I was left wondering whether or not I would have saved that child killerís life. While the more prominent question relates to the origin of the red energy, I wasnít concerned about that. I thought about if I was disappointed that Ethan had intervened and decided that I would have let the rapist meet his end on that water-covered floor. What does that say about me? I donít know.
Gerber seems to include a scene in every issue that stays on the tip of your brain after you close the last page. In issue four, Ethan receives a letter from Alyssa, the girl whose life he spared during the school shooting. Alyssa is looking for an understanding of what happened that only Ethan can provide. Gerber uses another element from Columbine by having Alyssa admit she is Christian and is trying to forgive Ethan. Although it has been proven to be a myth, the story of the killers asking Cassie Bernall if she believed in God before they shot her is a powerful one. Almost as strong as the stories of heroism on Flight 93. I know that Ethan cannot provide Alyssa or myself with an answer that is satisfactory. I suspect that Gerber will not even try to. Instead, Gerber is reminding of us what can be great about the human spirit. And how that spirit can help us pick up the pieces after a tragedy.
While reading Hard Time
, I donít know if the amount of thought Iíve put into the book is because of how deep Columbine affected me. Or if the conclusions Iíve drawn from the book are more about my own inflections on the work than by the authorís intention. Again, I donít know. Does it matter?
Because I have not read a comic that asked for more than my money in a long time.