The Webcomic Overlook #144: Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name
The root of “Hanna” is “Hannah.” It is Hebrew for “God has favored me.” The earliest use is in the Bible. She prayed to God for a son, and in exchange she promised that her son, the prophet Samuel (for whom two books of the Bible are named), would be given back to God in the service of the Shiloh priests.
Notable Hannas include Hanna Newcombe, a Canadian peace activist; Hanna Reitsch, a Nazi propaganda icon who was the only woman awarded the German Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II; and Hanna Pakarinen, a pop singer who was the first winner of Finland’s Idols singing competition.
Also, Hanna is not a boy’s name.
That’s the controversial, hetero-normative statement proposed in the title of Tessa Stone’s comic, Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name. With a title like that, you’re probably expecting an introspective webcomic exploring gender stereotypes. Perhaps it will delve into someone’s painful experiences growing up, taunted by bullies because of his name and gaining the strength to carry on like that boy named Sue.
And you’d be wrong. Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name is actually about a zombie. And a werewolf. And a vampire. Actually, vampires. And some sort of supernatural detective agency. But I seriously can’t blame you if the title blindsided you.
As we open Hanna Is Not A Body’s Name, we’re introduced to an unnamed zombie. One of the running gags is that Hanna can’t decided what to hame him. He waffles between several fictional and historical names like “Gallahad,” “Socrates”, and “Ulysses”. By the way, none of those names is “Hanna.” Our zombie is not one in the traditional sense… that is either the George Romero slow-witted, marble-mouthed zombie, or the new hotness where zombies are still marble-mouthed yet tend to be athletically fit. He does not speak precious zombieisms like “Hrrrrrrr” or “grrrrrrrrr” or “hmmmmbbbbrrrrrgggrrrrr.” Instead, he’s lucid, intelligent, and oftentimes contemplative.
The story is presented to us from the zombie’s point of view. The zombie serves as our narrator, and, as a result, we get a glimpse into his mental processes. He projects a confident aura as a strong, silent type, and he’s sometimes mistaken as being the point man in Hanna’s investigative team when he’s really just the sidekick. He so little like a typical zombie that there’s some question if that’s what he is. At one point, one of the characters suggests that he’s a golem. While the zombie denies it, he at least seems to be entertaining the possibility.
The zombie’s quest for identity seems to be the overarching plotline. We need to know who he is and how he died. We get snippets of the zombie’s past, and most every mystery seems, at some point, to tie into his identity. So, while the comic is named after Hanna, it’s really the zombie that’s the main character.
Which is good, because Hanna Cross is a bit of a flighty twit. I think he’s supposed to have a low attention span. Plus he suffers some crazy mood swings… keeping a running tally of how many times his guy pals smile one moment and blustery the next. I guess he’s supposed to come off as quirky, but instead he reminds me of those airhead female anime characters that were oh-so-popular in the 90’s.
For no reason, Hanna seems to be very overprotective over the zombie. Which is … kinda creepy. I mean, the zombie is a grown man, and he’s proven very capable of standing up for himself. Of course, I’m probably reading into this all wrong. After all, the relationship between Hanna and the zombie seems fairly domestic. When you consider scenes where the zombie sweetly accepts one of Hanna’s presents to one where Hanna and the zombie sing the lyrics to a suggestive Queen song to a scene the zombie tenderly cradles Hanna in his arms, you gotta figure something’s up. Without doing any sort of in depth internet search, I’m highly confident that there’s a corner of the internet that’s heavily populated with poo-piles of Hanna/nameless zombie slashfic.
The two form the basis of an ever-growing team of paranormal investigators looking into cases involving mythological creatures. Like selkies, for example, seals who transform into women that were probably made up by drunk and confused ancient mariners. The nameless zombie and Hanna are eventually joined by several allies, like an irascible doctor who seems to know bucketloads of supernatural information and a werewolf girl who turns into a cute puppy. Hanna himself has some secret powers of his own. He seems to be some sort of sorcerer, and he can defeat the undead by going shirtless and covering his body in runes.
Stories are split by different case files. In the first one, Conrad, a friend of Hanna’s, enlists his help to get rid of a vampire named Adelaide who’s taken up residence in his apartment and just won’t leave. The vampire, who is in the form of a somewhat pudgy bat, makes a deal with Hanna: she’ll leave if Hanna performs a spell for her. Hanna complies. After the spell transforms Adelaide into her human form, things go south real fast. Fisticuffs break out, the vampire escapes, gravely injuring Conrad who must complete his transformation into a vampire to survive. Hanna closes the case, deciding that it was a colossal failure.
That, however, is not the last we’ll hear of Adelaide. Later, two heavies track down Hanna to warn him how he’s unleashed a great evil onto the world. It’s standard practice in Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name: no case is truly ever closed. The second case, for example, starts out as a ghost-hunting case, but ends on an open-ended note with the crew still trying to figure out who was responsible for the guy’s death.
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I admire how economic it is. That stuff about Hanna being stinky to vampires? Oh, that’s gonna be pretty important… you’ll see! Every case is simply the piece of a bigger puzzle, and you’re confident that Ms. Stone has a very good idea of what the endgame is going to be.
On the other hand, by the time I reached the most recent page I felt that there were way too many loose threads. Keeping track of all the mysteries is starting to get confusing. Every time we get a new mystery, there’s at least one scene spent to remind us that the previous mystery hasn’t wrapped up yet … and that makes for some choppy storytelling. And every time we meet a new character, well, wouldn’t you know it, they’ve got a mysterious past that needs to be unraveled.
The character design of the nameless zombie is almost immediately iconic. His features — glowing red eyes, two white wing-like tufts of hair — are very distinctive. His face is both permanently weary and emotionless. All in all, Ms. Stone’s character designs resemble the cartoony Rankin/Bass house-style in the early strips, yet evolve into something quite elegant and lithe in the most recent entries.
Ms. Stone displays another bold, stylistic choice when she rearranges dialogue and thought balloons into bold title cards with big, solid fonts. Most of them are thoughts from out unnamed zombie, which delightfully contrast the guy’s stoic exterior… like the impressive panel that declares the comic’s title. Unfortunately, these little touches disappear in the latest strips. Instead, we’re more likely to be treated to a jagged, horror-themed font. I guess I can understand the change; the story has been progressing toward more serious fare. However, I very much miss the lighthearted, open-ended format that made these playful and effortless font changes possible.
Despite the faults, though, I found Hanna In Not A Boy’s Name quite endearing. Perhaps even because of the faults. As I mentioned, I didn’t find Hanna’s ultra-twee personality to be likable at all. However, he was at least a unique character, consistent in his seeming inconsistency. The unresolved plot elements simultaneously impart both a sense of frustration and a sense that Hanna’s world runs pretty deep.
It’s like that movie The Fifth Element. If you’re even just a little nit-picky, you can pick out the flaws, the missteps, the painfully groan-worthy lines, and Chris Tucker. But put everything together, did I enjoy myself? Hell yes I did. In no way is Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name some sort of unflawed masterpiece, but chances are good you will have fun reading it.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)