Review – Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero

Comic Books DC This Week Featured
Whistle back cover via DC Comics.

Check below the review for an interview with writer E. Lockhart!

Whistle – E. Lockhart, Writer; Manuel Preitano, Artist; Gabby Metzler, Colorist

Ray – 9.5/10

Ray: What’s it like to actually live in Gotham? That’s something that often gets overlooked with Bat-stories. We learn all about the vigilantes, the villains, the law enforcement—but how often do we check in with the ordinary people caught in the middle of this complete chaos of a city? That’s at the core of this new graphic novel by E. Lockhart and Manuel Preitano, taking place in an often overlooked area of Gotham known as Down River.

The story focuses on Willow Zimmerman, a young activist trying to get more funding for her school and keep her neighborhood from being gentrified out of existence. She has a group of friends, a potential new boyfriend in a recent Nigerian immigrant named Garfield (whose full name seems more like a fun Easter egg than anything else), and a sharp and educated mother who is battling both cancer and crushing medical bills. Oh, and a big friendly dog that she doesn’t actually own named Lebowitz.

The activist. Via DC Comics.

If those names don’t give it away, this is a VERY Jewish book and that’s a big part of why I love it so much. I don’t know enough about E. Lockhart to speak about her connection to the community, but it’s clear this is either something she knows a lot about or has done all the work in learning about. All the little details are accurate and portrayed with love, from the concepts like Tikkun Olam, to the occasional Yiddish slang, to the hustle and bustle of a traditional Jewish deli. The old neighborhood, originally Jewish and now much more diverse, feels genuinely lived-in.

Reflection. Via DC Comics.

But this is Gotham, and nothing is what it appears to be. While Batman and his team don’t appear in this book, the villains certainly do. Killer Croc is lurking around the fringes, reportedly terrorizing and even killing people who encounter him. Mysterious “Greenings,” where buildings are taken over by strange and dangerous overgrowths of plants, happen spontaneously and it’s not hard to figure out who’s behind them. And then, of course, there’s the mysterious puzzlebox Willow receives as a gift…

That would be a gift from Eddie Nachtberger, aka E. Nygma, a childhood friend of Willow’s mom and her honorary uncle, who has been down some dark paths. While I’m usually not a fan of retconning villains as Jewish (looking at you, Marvel’s MODOK), it’s hard to really hate any of the villains in this book. They’re corrupt and dangerous, sure, but both Riddler and Poison Ivy exist here as fleshed-out characters with well-thought-out motivations. They’re villains, but it’s easy to see how Willow gets pulled into their world—and with a book this chock-full of positive Jewish representation, it’s okay if one of the bad guys is part of the tribe too.

And really, isn’t the real villain in this plot the medical system? Willow finds herself pulled into Nygma’s world to help her mother (who has stopped treatment due to the bills), and it’s all too easy to become a high-stakes poker operator instead of a part-time worker at an animal shelter. This is a great look at the world of Gotham henchmen in a unique way. How often does Batman ask about the backstory about that random goon in a Riddler-themed costume? How often do we? By putting this bright, well-intentioned girl in that position, Whistle forces us to start asking some harder questions.

And that’s even without giving away the big surprise at the core of this book. After Willow and Lebowitz have an encounter with Killer Croc, Willow finds herself with a new scar and a surprising new set of powers. In lesser hands, these powers could have been played for laughs, but the creative team makes them both fascinating and surprisingly useful when the stakes are raised later in the book. Honestly, I would have been satisfied just watching Willow make her way around Down River for the whole book, but this OGN also manages to give us a fantastic new Gotham vigilante.

Much like many of the DC OGNs, Whistle does feel like a first chapter at times rather than a done in one. There’s so much more to explore with these characters, but what we get in this volume is a fun, intense joyride of a comic that takes us into Gotham in a way we rarely see. Long live Willow Zimmerman and Lebowitz, and let’s hope the DC OGN line keeps giving us bold content like this.

Interview With E. Lockhart

Ray: This is your first graphic novel after a pretty big catalog of prose. What was it like transitioning to this new storytelling format?

EL: I love writing dialogue. When I can’t think what should happen next in a book I’m working on, I just start the characters talking about NOTHING, making jokes, eating muffins or whatever, and see what happens. Writing a graphic novel script is pretty much all dialogue, so I enjoyed myself no end.

Down River is a pretty fleshed out Gotham community that we haven’t seen before. What were the influences that went into creating this neighborhood?

EL: I grew up on Batman comics and Gotham’s awesome rogues gallery. I was looking for a way to bring something fresh, something that would be unique to me — a way to add to that world. I grew up spending time in New York’s Lower East Side, and had recently done a bunch of reading about its history for another project, so I made up a neighborhood in Gotham that is basically like the LES in the 1980s — run down and awesome, historically Jewish but inhabited by all kinds of people.

Ray: It was particularly enjoyable for me to see a new Jewish heroine make her Gotham debut. Which other Jewish heroes – either at DC or at any other companies – are favorites of yours?

EL: Whistle is the first Jewish superhero to launch from DC Comics (originating as Jewish) since 1977. But she’s far from the only awesome Jewish character in comics. A quick (noncomprehensive) list includes Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), Kate Kane (Batwoman), Kitty Pryde, Legion, Ragman, and Magneto, some of whom were reinvented as Jewish in new continuities and some of whom originated that way. Harley Quinn (a DC villain) has always been Jewish, and I love Harley for her messed-up heart, her terribleness and bravery, her lunacy and her massive education, her fierce feminism in complete conflict with some of her other choices. I hadn’t read Marvel’s Runaways until after I wrote Whistle, but I fell hard for Arsenic (who also has an animal side-kick, Old Lace). As a kid, the Jewish hero I liked best was Thing (in the Fantastic Four). I love how his character struggles with his hero body and all the limitations that come with his power. In case you can’t tell, I’m here for all the complications of superhero stories. Simple good versus simple evil is not so interesting.

Ray: This is one of the only Gotham books I’ve read that tackles concepts like medical debt and the path from poverty to crime. What are some of the core points you hope young activists like Willow take from this story?

EL: Once I chose to write Gotham as a realistic city, it was only natural to show the struggles kids I know experience — lack of health insurance, minimal school funding, gentrification projects that push people out of their homes. The story is a fantasy of empowerment — but I hope it also acknowledges the many ethical tangles and conflicting loyalties that come with having that power. I want it to give people hope and make them think.

Ray: Willow met some of Gotham’s most notorious villains in this book, but which of Gotham’s heroes do you think she’d get along with best?

EL: She’d love to hang out with the Teen Titans, of course.

To find reviews of all the DC issues, visit DC This Week.

GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.

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