By Julian Voloj
It turns out that Batman’s hometown of Gotham City has a historically Jewish neighborhood, complete with a synagogue. And for this year’s High Holidays, at least one masked superhero will be worshipping there.
Her name is Whistle, a.k.a. Willow Zimmerman. She’s an activist-turned-masked-crusader who draws inspiration from Jewish teachings; she develops the ability to talk to dogs; and she’s making her debut this month in “Whistle: A New Gotham City Superhero.”
“There’s a long and fascinating history of Jewish creators in comics,” the book’s author and character creator, E. Lockhart, said. “Superman, Batman and Spider-Man were all invented by Jewish men, and scholars have interpreted them through a variety of lenses that take that into account. But while there have certainly been Jewish superheroes before, Whistle is the first Jewish hero to originate as Jewish from DC Comics since 1977.”
Lockhart was referring to Seraph, a superhero from Israel who helped Superman in “Super Friends #7” before immediately falling out of the public eye.
Yet the roots of superheroes are distinctly Jewish.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the sons of Jewish immigrants, effectively kicked off the lucrative genre in 1938 with the debut of Superman in “Action Comics #1.” Superman was a new kind of hero, a noble, all-powerful defender of American ideals who harbored a secret identity and origin story that made him distinctly an outsider. If his origins weren’t specifically Jewish, they were certainly informed by the Jewish experience.
Superman became an unexpected bestseller and, consequently, the blueprint for a whole genre, as the market soon flooded with new superheroes. The vast majority of these comic book pioneers were Jewish, including Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. However, their characters were a generic form of “all American” without any religious or ethnic affiliation. So while Captain America was allowed to punch Hitler on the cover of the hero’s debut, it took decades for superheroes to have a Jewish identity.
There have been exceptions over the decades, most notably Marvel’s “X-Men” villain Magneto, retconned as a Holocaust survivor following his debut, and popular DC antihero Harley Quinn, a Brooklynite who sprinkles in Yiddish phrases and was voiced in her original 1990s animated TV debut by the Jewish comedienne Arleen Sorkin. (Harley’s current film incarnation drops the Jewish signifiers.)
But what makes Whistle unique is that her story is centered around her identity. Willow Zimmerman is a social justice activist who volunteers at a local pet shelter and lives with her single mother, an adjunct Jewish studies professor, in Down River, a Gotham City neighborhood modeled after the Lower East Side. The setting was informed by Lockhart’s own upbringing. Growing up, she often visited the real Lower East Side with her father, the playwright Len Jenkis, who wrote for “The Incredible Hulk” TV show in the 1970s.
For Whistle herself, Lockhart drew inspiration from a different trailblazer at DC’s rival: Kamala Khan, the Muslim Ms. Marvel introduced in 2013.
“I love Ms. Marvel and was definitely inspired by the way [author] G. Willow Wilson engaged with questions of heroism and the superheroic body through the lens of Kamala’s Muslim identity,” Lockhart said.
“Whistle,” which is illustrated by Manuel Preitano, is Lockart’s debut as a graphic novelist.
Those familiar with the Batman universe will recognize many side characters, such as the Riddler and Poison Ivy, in the narrative.
Another Batman supervillain, Killer Croc, plays a central role in Willow’s transformation into a superhero. Outside her local synagogue, she and her sidekick, a loyal stray Great Dane named Lebowitz (named after Fran, Lockhart confirms), collide with Killer Croc and wake up being able to understand each other.
“When she gets superpowers, she becomes Whistle — and no longer feels helpless,” Lockhart explains. “It’s a fantasy of empowerment, but her position is also morally complicated. I didn’t want to shy away from asking questions about what it means to be a hero, emotionally and ethically.”