Cov­er of Whis­tle by E. Lock­hart, illus­trat­ed by Manuel Pre­i­tano, cropped. Design by Simona Zaretsky.

When I was a girl, my dad’s broth­er Richie used to take my cousins and me to this used-and-new com­ic book shop in Seat­tle. We were giv­en a few bucks to spend; used comics were most­ly ten cents each. I bought Archie and Richie Rich, and when I’d fin­ished my own stash — and my cousin Sarah’s — I would move on to Richie’s super­hero comics. He read Bat­man, Super­man, The Fan­tas­tic Four, Spi­der-man, and Hulk.

Forty-some years lat­er, I find myself the inven­tor of DC Comics’ first Jew­ish super­hero (orig­i­nat­ing as Jew­ish) since 1977’s Ser­aph. Writ­ing Whis­tle: A New Gotham City Hero (illus­trat­ed by Manuel Pre­i­tano) gave me a chance to real­ly think about what all those com­ic book sto­ries meant to me when I was young, and why I want­ed to cre­ate a Jew­ish hero in particular.

I was raised on the works of num­ber of great Jew­ish children’s book cre­ators: Judith Viorst, Judy Blume, Ezra Jack Keats, Nor­ma Klein, Mau­rice Sendak, Char­lotte Zolo­tow. How­ev­er, most impor­tant was Syd­ney Tay­lor. Her All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly sto­ries, set on the Low­er East Side in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, were in many ways my intro­duc­tion to Jew­ish tra­di­tions. My dad and pater­nal grand­par­ents loose­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in these rit­u­als and had a fierce pride in their her­itage and cul­ture. I read Taylor’s books over and over; lat­er in life, I was lucky enough to be grant­ed the right to use her char­ac­ters in a pic­ture book, All-of-a-Kind-Fam­i­ly Hanukkah (illus­trat­ed by Paul O. Zelin­sky, pub­lished under my legal name, Emi­ly Jenkins).

Ini­tial­ly I didn’t under­stand that the super­hero comics I was read­ing were part of that tra­di­tion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. But of course they were. The his­to­ry of Jew­ish cre­ators in comics is long and rich, but let’s focus on two icons: Super­man and Bat­man. Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Schus­ter cre­at­ed Super­man in 1938. Those two Jew­ish cre­ators imag­ined a refugee (alien) child who assumes a name (Clark Kent) that allows him to hide his secret iden­ti­ty. Mean­while he wields super­pow­ers that allow him to fight the Nazis (as he did in ear­ly comics).

Bill Fin­ger and Bob Kane, also Jew­ish cre­ators, invent­ed Bat­man in 1939. Here is a hero whose unique life mis­sion comes from the trau­ma of see­ing his par­ents mur­dered, often read as an ana­log to Jew­ish expe­ri­ences in Nazi Ger­many. Bat­man has no super­pow­ers: his wealth and brains give him the edge over crim­i­nals. Schol­ars and essay­ists have under­stood those traits as cod­ed Jew­ish, along with the con­cept of secret iden­ti­ties generally.

Ini­tial­ly I didn’t under­stand that the super­hero comics I was read­ing were part of that tra­di­tion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. But of course they were.

I’m sim­pli­fy­ing here. A lot. There has been much writ­ten about these heroes through Jew­ish lens­es, and the analy­sis is nuanced. But my point is that I was con­sum­ing com­ic book char­ac­ters who were in sev­er­al ways deeply Jew­ish. The idea of tikkun olam, or world repair, is the cen­tral mis­sion of the superhero.

Whis­tle is about a girl named Wil­low Zim­mer­man who lives in Batman’s Gotham City, but in a neigh­bor­hood of my own inven­tion. Down Riv­er is based on New York City’s Low­er East Side, espe­cial­ly the LES of my own child­hood in the 1970s. The area described in the Syd­ney Tay­lor books I grew up on (dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed with Jew­ish peo­ple from all over East­ern Europe and the Ottoman Empire) had become a more mixed neigh­bor­hood, still sol­id in its Jew­ish roots.

In Whis­tle, the pick­le stores, del­i­catessens, and appe­tiz­ing shops still stand, along with a num­ber of syn­a­gogues; Wil­low sees her neigh­bor­hood dete­ri­o­rat­ing as supervil­lains attack its com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, and real estate devel­op­ers push peo­ple out of their homes. When she devel­ops pow­ers, togeth­er with her Great Dane com­pan­ion Lebowitz, they become Whis­tle and the Hound. They are heroes who will pro­tect Down River.

Arguably, the two most pop­u­lar overt­ly Jew­ish comics char­ac­ters are vil­lains. Harley Quinn (played in recent movies by Mar­got Rob­bie) is the Joker’s adorably deranged life-part­ner and co-con­spir­a­tor. She is based on Jew­ish come­di­an Arleen Sorkin, who voiced her in the TV series in which she first appeared. Mag­ne­to (played in recent X‑men movies by Ian McK­ellen and Michael Fass­ben­der) is a Holo­caust sur­vivor with the mutant pow­er to gen­er­ate and con­trol mag­net­ic fields.

That’s not to say there aren’t heroes in whose path Whis­tle fol­lows. I’m glad to say there are, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to: Gertrude/​Arsenic of Run­aways, Thing of The Fan­tas­tic Four, and Kit­ty Pryde of X‑Men. New iter­a­tions of Kate Kane/​Batwoman, Zatan­na, and Green Lantern all iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish as well.

Still, Whis­tle is writ­ten for the kid I once was, a kid who loved comics but didn’t real­ize any of those heroes were writ­ten to reflect her own expe­ri­ence. It’s writ­ten for a kid who felt a kin­ship with those sto­ries, but didn’t know where that feel­ing came from. A kid who maybe would have felt stronger and braver if she had been told: Here’s a girl like you. A sec­u­lar Jew­ish per­son, proud of her her­itage, liv­ing with a sin­gle mom on a tight bud­get, try­ing to fig­ure out how to make a dif­fer­ence. And you know what? She’s a hero.

E. Lock­hart is the author of the #1 New York Times best­seller We Were Liars and a bunch of oth­er nov­els, includ­ing Again Again and Gen­uine Fraud. She writes books for young read­ers under the name Emi­ly Jenk­ins and her pic­ture book All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Hanukkah won the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award. Whis­tle is her first graph­ic novel.