Doing Time original graphic novel
Writer: Brad Sullivan
Artist: Amilton Santos
Colors: Tiago Fernandes & Oracle
Letters: Fred C. Stresing & Adam Wollet
Publisher: Back Row Comics
Doing Time is the sort of genre story that clearly has its origins in the title itself. The writer has taken a phrase about a prison term and imposed a new, dual meaning on it, making the “time” part refer to time travel. At its heart, it’s a simple and even fun concept, and the good news is that writer Brady Sullivan’s plot and characters never take themselves or the premise too seriously. For an independent project, the production values here are pretty solid — professional-level lettering, fairly clear though standard comic-art art style — and there’s a sense of diversity in the cast of characters. There’s just one problem: those characters are pretty much all loathsome. I get that when the central plot is about a prison break (even one through time), the protagonists aren’t all going to be palatable, but even the one non-criminal in the bunch is unlikeable. Sullivan seems to have as his foundation here the punny premise and a clear ending he had in mind, and on that foundation, he piled hate, misogyny, stupidity, sex and as much gratuitous violence as he could fit in a graphic novella (which was clearly originally crafted as a three-issue limited series). There’s potential in the storytelling here, but the writer and artist could definitely have used some guidance and input to refine their efforts.
A man named Tiller — illegally imprisoned in the most secure and remote prison ever conceived — hatches a plan to break out, but it requires the participation of his two cellmates and three women from another wing of the facility because they’re all linked by high-tech bracelets tuned to the same mysterious frequency. They soon discover those bracelets are their anchor to the prehistoric setting of the prison, which ensures the isolation of the most dangerous men and women alive. Their escape leads them to jump around through time, with two agents tasked with their executions hot on their tails.
Visually, the book opens on a strong note. Artist Amilton Santos (the only one credited in the book, anyway) does an excellent job of bringing a high-tech prison to life while keeping things grounded enough so that it doesn’t look too alien or futuristic. The Jurassic action was fun as well, and I was pleased with what I was finding in terms of art for this small-press project. But as I made my way through the review copy, the art became more and more weak, unclear and inconsistent. I had to double check the credits, as it struck me there must have been other artists who worked on the second and third chapters of the three-part novella. It’s as though one can see Santos’s enthusiasm earlier in the book and can witness it wane as the project wore him down.
The biggest problem with Doing Time, though, is that there really isn’t a hero to cheer for. Just about every character is completely objectionable. Sure, I get that we’re dealing with prisoners here, but there’s little effort to humanize them beyond their crimes. The one escapee who’s not a wholly corrupt and deplorable individual is Tiller, the genius who made it all happen, but even he’s unlikeable. Basically, he’s not really all that brilliant, at least if one goes by his behaviour. And despite Tiller’s much-vaunted beliefs in acting in the best interest of mankind, he seems to have no issue with freeing unremorseful killers, loosing them not only on the world but on history as well. Even the two guards tasked with executing the escapees — the only real ethical characters in the book — are just along for the ride. They only react and ultimately don’t make much of a difference.
Particularly distracting throughout the book is the highly sexualized behaviour of the female characters. I understand one of them is a classic black-widow murderer who uses sex as a weapon, but the black prisoner seems all too eager to bed a white supremacist and hypocrite whose core beliefs paint her as less than human. And the female prisoners’ encounter with the Roman emperor is particularly disconcerting, as the scene depicts their vaginas as weapons. The violence wrought upon a female guard early in the story (preceded by her use as a sex object) is unnecessary and wholly gratuitous. Furthermore, the tone of the dialogue and the ham-fisted characterization demonstrate the writer’s poor approximation of prison culture and attitudes. It’s all about the extremism while ignoring the reasons for the violence and harsh dynamics. Moreover, it seems to treat the brutality and hate that arises in such circumstances as fun. The sci-fi premise is fun; murder and racism, not so much. To describe it as off-putting is a gross understatement.
The high-concept of Quantum Leap meets Prison Break boasts a lot of potential, but why the prison has been displaced in time and how the prisoner bracelets link them to one another and a specific time period aren’t at all clear. Furthermore, there’s no clear explanation as to why the time-jumping characters are headed to specific moments in history. Sure, it’s not real, but there ought to be a logic to the fictional premise. Ultimately, the foundational plot device is completely overwhelmed by the lack of rules in the story and the misguided approach to the characterization. 3/10
Note: Doing Time, though available digitally, is also available from the creators at various comics conventions.
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