Whis­tle: A New Gotham City Hero

E. Lock­hart, Manuel Preitano

By – September 20, 2021

The DC metrop­o­lis of Gotham City has its share of cor­rupt res­i­dents, and their mali­cious aspi­ra­tions leave no com­mu­ni­ty untouched. Six­teen-year-old Wil­low Zim­mer­man car­ries a lot on her shoul­ders. Her moth­er, Nao­mi, is a col­lege teacher of Jew­ish stud­ies, but her cur­rent appoint­ment does not include health insur­ance and she needs chemother­a­py. Willow’s high school in their Down Riv­er Neigh­bor­hood has been starved of fund­ing. Just as her life is falling apart, an old boyfriend of Naomi’s turns up, seem­ing­ly eager to help. How far will a devot­ed and des­per­ate daugh­ter go to help her fam­i­ly? E. Lock­hart (the pen name of adult and children’s book author Emi­ly Jenk­ins) and Manuel Preitano’s new graph­ic nov­el, the first in a series, exam­ines the per­ils of this moral dilem­ma in an excit­ing and chal­leng­ing narrative.

In some ways, Wil­low rep­re­sents the most hope­ful aspects of young adult­hood. She feels a roman­tic con­nec­tion to Garfield, a new stu­dent who just arrived from Nige­ria. She has loy­al friends, and she is deeply com­mit­ted to social activism. At the same time, the pres­sures of her mother’s ill­ness and finan­cial prob­lems make her vul­ner­a­ble to schem­ing adults. Soon, her super-demand­ing job” for Eddie Nacht­berg­er, a.k.a. E. Nig­ma, involves her in a crim­i­nal enter­prise. Hypocrisy is ram­pant and Wil­low, like most teens, gets a harsh les­son in how pow­er­ful peo­ple ratio­nal­ize their self­ish choic­es. Lock­hart wry­ly com­ments on the trans­paren­cy of moral­ly pious peo­ple who are more con­cerned with using plas­tic straws than with actu­al­ly help­ing human­i­ty. The vil­lain­ous plans to destroy Gotham City include green­ing,” dis­tort­ing the envi­ron­men­tal con­cept into poi­so­nous attacks on essen­tial places. Willow’s hon­esty and con­fu­sion in con­fronting these real­i­ties, as well as her courage, make her an appeal­ing hero.

Jew­ish val­ues and insti­tu­tions play a promi­nent role in the sto­ry. Nao­mi is an arche­typ­al strong and lov­ing Jew­ish moth­er, as well as an intel­lec­tu­al ded­i­cat­ed to study­ing the Jew­ish past and present. Influ­enced by her moth­er, Wil­low explains the Jew­ish past of their neigh­bor­hood to Garfield, empha­siz­ing the syn­a­gogues and restau­rants that used to be at the community’s core. Some still exist and, in one scene, Wil­low enters the Rem­son Street Syn­a­gogue to con­tem­plate the ten­sions in her life. The Jew­ish details thread­ed through­out the book nev­er seem forced; they are expres­sions of how deeply root­ed Jew­ish tra­di­tion remains in Willow’s consciousness.

Each sec­tion of the book is pre­ced­ed by a sub­ti­tle on a back­ground of the city sky­line. Lockhart’s rel­a­tive­ly terse text allows char­ac­ters to devel­op grad­u­al­ly, along­side Preitano’s dra­mat­ic images. Wil­low is a stu­dent clutch­ing a book to her chest, while won­der­ing “…if I should be doing this.” Lat­er, she is a pow­er­ful sym­bol of resis­tance to evil, con­tem­plat­ing what to wear in her new role. Lock­hart and Pre­i­tano have cre­at­ed an art­ful­ly bal­anced com­ing-of-age sto­ry and com­ic book face-off between good and evil. This lat­est addi­tion of a strong young Jew­ish woman to the DC uni­verse will res­onate with readers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of E. Lockhart

  1. Is Wil­low in a moral posi­tion at the end of the nov­el? Why or why not?

  2. What would you do if you were in Willow’s posi­tion when she first gets her pow­ers? How would you use such powers?

  3. E. Nig­ma is gen­tri­fy­ing Down Riv­er. What do you think about the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of impov­er­ished neighborhoods?

  4. How do Wil­low and her moth­er view their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty dif­fer­ent­ly? You might con­sid­er page 104 – 105.

  5. If you’ve read comics or seen movies set in Gotham City, how does Lockhart’s ver­sion of Gotham dif­fer from oth­ers you have seen?

  6. Wil­low has chal­lenges fig­ur­ing out a super­hero cos­tume, pages 154 – 155. Maybe this is espe­cial­ly an issue for a female-iden­ti­fied hero. What do you think of her cos­tume and how does it relate to the the sto­ry­line about her makeover for Pok­er Night, pages 75 – 78? How do oth­er female heroes dress? Won­der Woman, Cap­tain Mar­vel, Cat­woman, Harley Quinn? Why does sub­ject this matter?

  7. Wil­low goes through sev­er­al phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions in the book. What are they? How do the changes to her exte­ri­or affect her interior?

  8. The neigh­bor­hood of Down Riv­er use to house 500 syn­a­gogues. How does the area’s Jew­ish his­to­ry make its way into Willow’s sto­ry? How does she, as a char­ac­ter, relate to that history?

  9. Com­pare Whis­tle to Ms. Mar­vel by G. Wil­low Wil­son. Kamala Khan is the first Mus­lim super­hero. How do these two char­ac­ters bring their reli­gious iden­ti­ties to the project of heroism?

  10. The vil­lain Kiil­er Croc has some par­al­lels to Whis­tle. What are they? Why do you think Lock­hart includ­ed that char­ac­ter? You might con­sid­er pages 107 – 113.

  11. Wil­low has three men­tor fig­ures: her moth­er, Pam­mie and E. Nig­ma. What does she get from each of them? At the end, how have they changed her?

  12. Do you think Willow’s rela­tion­ship with Garfield can sur­vive the fact that she is keep­ing secrets from him? Why or why not? (Hint: search Garfield Logan on the internet!)

  13. Graph­ic nov­els used to be con­sid­ered not real books.” Now, they have won the Nation­al Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the New­bery Medal. What can graph­ic nov­els do that oth­er lit­er­ary forms can­not? You might con­sid­er page turns, the pas­sage of time and what hap­pens in the space in-between pic­tures. Maybe look at pages 28, 75 – 76, 84 – 87, 158 – 161.