Interview: E. Lockhart on 'Whistle'
We chat with the writer about her first comic, and what it's like to have your pick from Batman's Rogues Gallery.
Gotham City might seem overcrowded with vigilantes and villains, but we guarantee you haven't encountered a character like Willow Zimmerman. The new hero at the heart of E. Lockhart's Whistle is a righteous crusader trying to juggle life's harsh realities with a profound call to action. We've all seen the wretched hell Batman battles inside every day, and if we were in Willow's shoes, we'd do our best to ditch that city or duck and cover. Or maybe we wouldn't?
Maybe the only way to survive Gotham City is to fight. Fight for your rights, for your school's funding, for your parks, and your mom's health. In Gotham, you either get busy living, or you get busy dying. Willow Zimmerman wants what all kids want, but she also wants a little bit more. She wants for others. And that's where things get morally sticky.
Whistle presents a teenager dancing on the edge of hero and villainy. She's made some interesting connections with The Riddler and Poison Ivy, and they make a lot of good points regarding their actions. Maybe she can make their morality work for her? As Gotham's unjust system pushes against her and her mom, Willow receives an incredible gift; an array of canine powers, including the ability to communicate with her big pup sidekick, Lebowitz.
It was a treat to chat with author E. Lockhart about Whistle. We discuss her first comics experience, what it was like to collaborate with artist Manuel Preitano, and why Willow must swim in Gotham's morally gray waters. Oh, and yeah, we talk Bat-villains. Killer Croc, that beast ain't so bad either.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brad: I was surprised by the juggling of morality that Willow goes through in Whistle. She lives in the world of E. Nigma, she's committing crimes, but she's also incredibly socially conscious, fighting for her neighborhood. Where did that balancing act come from?
E. Lockhart: Well, I love a superhero origin story, and I love superhero stories generally, but I find I'm always most interested when the hero's relationship to the villain is not a clear and simple situation. I'm interested when there's some kind of mentorship or backstory or something. I don't think vigilantism is a simple project, right?
If you're going to be a vigilante superhero, you're going to run up against some questions about what you're doing and whether you should be doing it. And so I was always interested in having something that was a little messy, a little complicated, right and wrong are not always clear. And to me, that's actually the meat of when I'm most interested in any kind of superhero story.
Brad: A teenager attracted to activism seems like such a natural fit for Gotham City. Was Willow's protest spirit always at the forefront of the story?
E. Lockhart: So, Whistle starts out the story as Willow Zimmerman without superpowers. And she is an activist in her neighborhood specifically. I made up this new neighborhood of Gotham City, which is called Down River. It's a historically Jewish neighborhood, kind of like New York City's lower east side in the '80s. It's filled with all different kinds of people, but with all this Jewish history and a lot of rundown buildings and now challenges neglected by city hall and so forth.
Gotham City Hall is never up to that much good. And this character is really reflective of...not me as a teenager. I mean, emotionally and in terms of having a single mother and in terms of her secular Judaism, she's very much like me as a teenager, but her activism comes from the teenagers that I know, teenagers that I live with and see every week.
But also kids that I see when I'm out on the road promoting my books - ah, before the pandemic, I used to do that all the time, go to book festivals. I would meet all these young people who were really out there, going to marches, making zines, joining activist clubs at high school and in college, engaging in journalistic enterprises. I mean, it is so different from when I was a teenager and all I wanted to do was make out with boys and drink beer.
So I love that that is part of this younger generation's experience. I find that so admirable and so exciting. I wanted to make a heroine who was like those teenagers that I see.
Brad: It feels like such a natural fit though for Gotham City. This town has always been a metaphor for corruption in America. If Gotham was real, you'd think there would be teenagers like Willow taking up the fight against systemic injustice, right?
E. Lockhart: Yes. Right. What is it like to be a teenager in Gotham? What are you doing? What do you wear? Where do you get snacks? What do you do with your boyfriend or your girlfriend, whoever you have? So I was interested in activism, but also just in the textures of, yeah, what's life like if you're just an ordinary kid in Gotham City?
Brad: But when you're in Gotham City, you are also going to encounter Batman's rogues. And you had the task of populating your story with certain villains. What was it like to pick from those characters? And then also to modify them a little bit to fit this new young adult realm?
E. Lockhart: Well, DC invited me to invent a superhero for Gotham City, which was such a juicy invitation. I had not written a graphic novel before. I've written lots of Young Adult novels, some of which have superhero content, which is why they thought of me. But it was like being given an enormous box of like big chocolates and what supervillain would you like to use.
I was really excited, but I picked the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and Killer Croc basically because all three of those in one way or another function as a dark mirror for my heroine. Poison Ivy, as you know, is an intellectual high-achieving woman who perceives her criminal activities as activism, as eco-terrorism, as advocacy for plants.
Killer Croc, who was protecting the neighborhood that Willow is protecting also and he's just doing it through a murder spree, and she's doing it in another way, but both of them are loyal to this neighborhood and care about it and both of them have animal-related superpowers.
And then The Riddler who actually has a ... in my version of The Riddler, he has a long backstory with Whistle's family and has known her since she was a kid and becomes a kind of employer and mentor and friend to her. So that's where that complicated relationship comes up.
Brad: You explore all three of those characters with tremendous empathy. Your bad guys are not bad guys.
E. Lockhart: Oh, I love these guys.
Brad: Why go that way? How does that love for them help Whistle's story? What's the impetus there?
E. Lockhart: Well, those are the most interesting kinds of villains, I think, right? I've really loved the past two movies with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, who by the way, is another great Jewish character in the DC pantheon. Because Harley is a villain and does a lot of terrible things, but when you see the world through her eyes, those things are complicated and she is in some positions making a very moral choice or making a choice out of hurt or out of rage or out of somewhere, something, some wound in her psychology.
And Harley's educated and smart enough to understand all of that about herself as well. So yeah, I mean, I think that's why these Gotham City rogues are so enduring. They're not just slavering evil 100% all the time. They are complicated and nuanced characters. And the fact that that turns up in evil deeds is very human and fascinating.
Brad: Willow's superhero persona has a deep connection to animals, to dogs in particular. Why does that make sense for you?
E. Lockhart: I just really love Great Danes, and I love a talking dog. I throw a talking dog into my books whenever possible. And I got the idea of a hero with a Great Dane sidekick, because that is basically what I would like to have should I ever become a superhero.
Then, when I researched it, I thought, "Oh, somebody has done a superhero with canine powers." But if there are superheroes with canine powers, they're pretty buried. There's not a lot going on. Lebowitz, the dog is the first-ever female superhero dog.
Brad: [Stares into the middle distance, rapidly searching his brain for female superhero dogs]
E. Lockhart: So suddenly there ... I can see you running through a list in your head.
Brad: Yep, yep. I'm frantically checking my brain!
E. Lockhart: I have really researched this and there are no other female superhero dogs.
Brad: I believe you. [Laughter]
E. Lockhart: And so I suddenly thought, "Oh, there's room for this, for canine powers and a superhero dog sidekick, exactly how I would want." And so then I just ran with it.
Brad: How was the collaboration process for you? Is it something that you're eager to return to?
E. Lockhart: Oh, I would do it in a heartbeat again. I had so much fun. Dialogue writing is my go-to. It's easy, comes naturally. I think I'm pretty good at it. Writing a script that is almost all dialogue was like taking all the most fun parts of writing a novel and just doing those.
And then working with Manuel Preitano, he's in Italy and he's a wonderful, wonderful artist. He brings a huge amount of heart to everything he draws. So to me, he deepened the relationships in countless small and large ways. He also did a lot of very playful things in terms of like certain kinds of spreads and splash pages. I felt like he brought a lot of playfulness and creativity to that that was really surprising and fun for me to see what he was drawing.