Episode 67: E. Lockhart's New Jewish Superhero (Transcript)
Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.
There’s a new superhero on the scene, and her name is Willow Zimmerman. She’s a social-justice minded Jewish teenager and her sidekick is a dog named Leibowitz... after Fran Leibowitz. The novelist E. Lockhart created Willow for DC Comics, and set her story in Gotham City, which is already home to a colorful cast of heroes and villains.
E. Lockhart: So I thought, what can I bring to it? And I thought, what if I made a friendly neighborhood superhero? What if she's just local, right? Batman can take care of the rest of Gotham. And she can be a hero whose concern is her immediate community and her immediate neighborhood and trying to make things better there.
Nahanni: There are other female Jewish superheroes in the comic universe. But Willow Zimmerman is steeped in her Jewishness… She loves a hot, salty reuben, she bakes her own rugelach, and although she’s not religious, when she needs to think, she goes and sits in an empty old synagogue.
Willow’s stomping ground is a rundown neighborhood of Gotham City called Down River. E. modeled Down River on the historically Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan, a place she is deeply connected to herself.
E.: When I was growing up, my dad, he lived on East 15th street. And then you go down one more neighborhood and you're on the Lower East Side. And so we were down there quite a lot, right? Bummin’ around, going to the pickle store, going to Katz's delicatessen, going to Russ & Daughters… so I thought, okay, what if the neighborhood that I'm making up in Gotham City is, you know, a historically Jewish neighborhood.
Nahanni: And to really ground her new superhero in her Jewish identity, E. made her mother a professor of Jewish history and culture.
E.: And so that would give my kid not just a, like, “this is my neighborhood because I grew up here” connection, but also, uh, this is my neighborhood because my people came over and founded this neighborhood and my own family identity is embedded in this neighborhood.
Nahanni: Producer Jen Richler recently talked with E. Lockhart about Willow, whose secret identity is Whistle. During the interview, you’ll hear some scenes that we’ve recorded from E.’s comic book Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero.
[Theme music fades]
Jen: You know, when we first encounter her, she is already protesting about some things going on in her neighborhood. Uh, can you just say a little bit about the things that she's kind of riled up about and trying to change.
E.: Well, at the beginning of the story, she is, you first meet her when she's trying to get signatures on a petition to get more funding for education from City Hall.
Willow: Be the change you want to see in Down River! Uch. Who am I kidding? Even if I get enough signatures, no one in City Hall will even pay attention.
E.: And she meets this new kid, Garfield, who has recently arrived in Gotham city from Lagos.
Garfield: Is that a petition?
Garfield: What’s it about? Also, Hi, I’m Garfield.
Willow: Willow. Hi. You know the crime rate is rising, right? In Down River and in Gotham City generally.
Garfield: I didn’t know that, actually. I just moved here.
Willow: Well, City Hall thinks more police are the answer. But education funding is at an all time low. We need to put money into education. Better schools, better neighborhood.
Garfield: Give it here, I’ll sign.
E.: They have an ongoing conversation. You know, he’s often saying like you know, this is a weird place, right? Where there's crocodile men lurking in the sewers committing serial murders, right? Like that's not, that's not normal.
Garfield: I mean, this place is weird. And corrupt. More education funding may not be enough to fix things.
Willow: It’s still worth trying.
Garfield: That’s why I signed your petition.
E.: She of course falls into working in the criminal underworld herself, um, and ends up, you know, betraying some of her principles in order to feed her family. That's where I get really excited about superhero projects. Like I'm interested always when it's, when it's a little messy, when it's like, you know, it's, it's not easy to be a superhero and you don't always know whether you are using your powers in the best way.
Jen: Right...I’d like you to talk about the relationship between Willow and her mom, um, because it's such a, it's such a central part of the story.
E.: Well, you know, one thing that you see, not a hundred percent of the time, but often in superhero, uh, mythologies is the importance of the father. The father is very important, you know, it's in star wars, it's in Superman, dah dah, dah.
I grew up with a single mother. I was interested in the hero's relationship to the mother figure. And I was interested in it being a, you know, a give and take like, you know, Willow takes care of her mom, but her mom also takes care of her.
The mom is kind of a moral compass for her, so when she has gotten sucked into, you know, working in the criminal underworld, and she's running this poker game for the Riddler and it's, you know, it's kind of terrible, but it's also pretty fun. It's super lucrative. It's glamorous. It's, you know, she's good at it. So, um, so the mother is an actual moral compass and she provides that anchor, I think, for Willow.
Mom: Ask me.
Willow: If you have to tell lies in order to do good in the world, are you still a decent person?
Mom:I think you can lie and be a good person. You know the phrase tikkun olam?
Willow: Hebrew for world repair, kind of like social activism.
Mom: So the key thing isn’t truth or lies. It’s that a person feels some responsibility for fixing what’s wrong in the world.
Jen: Part of what’s wrong in Willow’s world is that her mom has cancer. And the reason Willow gets sucked into this lucrative criminal underworld is primarily that she wants to be able to pay the family’s bills.
Mom: Hey there, I was starting to worry.
Willow: I brought you leftover reuben.
Mom: Aw, bubbeleh, I don’t think I can eat.
Willow: You still nauseated?
Mom: The chemo is such a bear.
Willow: Were you grading essays?
Mom: I’ve still got to do the papers for my Immigrant Communities in America class. I made it through Rereading the Holocaust. Hey, I want to tell you something. I’m stopping the chemo. The treatment is putting us in debt like you wouldn’t believe. Plus, it’s not even working. And I won’t be teaching next term. This damn brain tumor’s making it too hard. Stupid job didn’t have tenure or health insurance anyway… It’s going to be ok, Willow.
Willow: I know it will... [Aside: But it won’t.]
Jen: And the decision to have the mom having these struggles with her health and, and specifically, you know, cancer.. treatment for cancer. What, what was the thought there of introducing that element?
E.: Well, I mean, honestly, if your kid's going to go to work for the criminal underworld, they better have a darn good reason, right? It's also to me a story about, uh, people's bodies, right? The superhero origin story is a story always of the transformation of the body. You get super powers and things about your body change, it can do other stuff that it couldn't do before. Sometimes it looks totally different. Um, sometimes that is awesome. Sometimes that is terrifying and weird. Um, it has different abilities and some of those might be embarrassing or strange or hard to get used to or unwieldy.
And I'm sure you can figure out without me telling you that this is all about puberty, right? It's like, you know, your body changes and it's a big deal and it's complicated and it's messy and it has new powers and new interests and abilities. And some of those are cool and some of those are terrifying.
And so it's a very interesting set of stuff to get to write about and to give the mom a body that was failing at the same time as Willow's body is superpowered.
Jen: I guess I was also interested… I mean, the illustrations are beautiful and I'm interested in the way Willow and her mom are illustrated. Uh, and I was wondering about any discussions you had with the illustrator about how to portray them, especially because they are Jewish female characters.
E.: Well, I did specify that Willow had curly hair and a beautiful profile, like a distinctive profile and that she was short and that she was you know, like an average weight and figure of a like reasonably athletic person, but not, uh, um, idealized, super heroic, sexualized body type, fun as those are to look at sometimes.
Um, and I think I wanted her to have the curly hair and the beautiful profile… I mean, of course there's Jewish people who look a million different ways. There's Jewish people of all kinds of different racial backgrounds. There's, you know, I mean, there's, there's no such thing as looking Jewish, really. And yet I borrowed her name from an activist, uh, daughter of a friend of mine, um, whose name is Willow. And that's what that Willow looks like.
Jen: OK, so Willow is not the first Jewish superhero, of course, by any stretch.
E.: Oh no, there’s a long history.
Jen: What's interesting and I think maybe lesser known is there's actually quite a few female Jewish superheroes. Um, maybe some of whom are coded as Jewish and some who are explicitly identified that way. Um, so even Bat Woman, um, is a Jewish lesbian?
E.: Now she is. That's a retrofit.
E.: Or a rewriting of a character.
Jen: Got it.
E.: Um, because you know, this is one of the things that's really cool about superhero characters, right? Is that they are often reinvented by a new writer or, um, or given a new backstory, you know, that they, they do reboot. And so they can have multiple meanings that coexist and multiple identities that can coexist.
Jen: Right. So then I guess, I mean, thinking about those various Jewish female characters, how do you see Willow or in what ways do you see Willow as kind of a continuation of that tradition or as a departure or kind of your own take on that tradition?
E.: Well, Harley is definitely the most famous, right. And she's a, she's a villain. Um, and the other two female characters that usually come up when people are talking about this, are Kitty Pride in the Marvel universe—she's one of the X-Men—and Arsenic in Runaways. Um, and those characters, like Whistle are, you know, Jewish and it comes up as part of their identity and it might affect, you know, the way they might think about morality or the way they might think about their identity, or they think about their family's heritage or even their super heroics.
But I would say that those characters are a departure from the Jewish superheroes that we saw earlier in the 70s, when you start to first see Jewish characters emerging. And that is because those characters, villains or heroes, tended to have the roots of their superpowers in either religious artifacts, right? The Staff of Moses, for example, for Seraph, um, or, the trauma of the Holocaust. Um, so Magneto, for example, in the Marvel universe, his superpowers come from being experimented on as a youth during the Holocaust.
But nowadays the more contemporary characters that people are responding to, um, tend to be maybe a little more secular and less defined by that trauma or that religious belief.
Jen: So this is a theme of a lot of graphic novels and comic books, that someone who maybe feels, at the start, relatively powerless, and then finds themselves in a position where they acquire power and that power can be quite alluring.
You know, for Willow, that happens in a few ways, she gets this job, as you say, running these illegal poker nights for, uh, the Riddler. And so she's doing this thing that is both illegal and also, you know, morally questionable, but it allows her to pay for her mother's cancer treatments and pay off some bills, Um, she also trains to fight the villains in the story.
Jen: So I guess I'm curious, is this something that you see as like, um, a distinctly Jewish theme? Um, you know, there's this idea that, you know, there's, this theme is in a lot of comic book stories and a lot of those books were written by Jews, right? Um, and, and that that's not a coincidence, right. That people who maybe already feel powerful in the world in which they live don't necessarily write these fantasies about acquiring power. Um, and it's also, perhaps not a coincidence that, uh, you know, some stories became extremely popular during World War II. And you already talked about the connection with the Holocaust.
E.: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think the basic superhero project, right, is inextricable from the, you know, the Jewish greater narratives of, you know, 1938 to, you know, to post-war. Um, you know, Superman was created by Jewish creators. Batman was created by Jewish creators. Spiderman was created by Stan Lee, who was Jewish. In all of those narratives, the superhero identity is concealed beneath a kind of mask of, you know, absolute integration, um, and assimilation with the dominant culture. And so that mirrors the project of Jewish assimilation, um, that was going on in those years.
But I think it's changed in a lot of ways, right? I mean, we have now many, many superheroes from other kinds of, uh, religious and ethnic and heritage spaces, right? People of all different kinds of identities, um, creating superheroes or reinventing superheroes.
And to me, for me writing the story of somebody who basically goes from feeling disempowered to feeling... to new power, um, I was writing more from, I think, uh, a feminist standpoint. You know, who will save Gotham city, who will save it? Oh, it's me. Right? The journey from “Who will save me?” to “I am going to do the saving.”
Jen: Really a story of female empowerment.
E.: Yeah. I think for me in a lot of ways, that's like the fantasy element there, right. Is that, yeah. What if your body was big and strong? What if you could just go and fight people? And what if you could call all that muscle with a single whistle and all the dogs would come and you know, what, if you, what if you could land a punch?
What if you could, you know….what, if you could?
Nahanni: In one of the final scenes in the book, Willow appears as Whistle, her superhero incarnation. She stops Poison Ivy from destroying her favorite delicatessen, but then, the Riddler ambushes her and he and Poison Ivy tie her up in vines.
Riddler: I feel like crap about it…
Whistle: My whistle is the only thing I have left to try.
Nahanni: Whistle summons Leibowitz and the other dogs to help her.
Nahanni: She uses her own well-trained fists to knock the Riddler and Poison Ivy to the ground just before the police arrive at the scene.
[Sounds of dog barking, punches being thrown]
Riddler: Who are you?
Whistle: Call me Whistle. And this here’s The Hound.
Whistle: Leave Down River alone or you’ll answer to us. Me and my canine army.
Nahanni: E. Lockhart’s new superhero Whistle, aka Willow, has joined the pantheon of heroes in DC Comics’ Teen Titan Academy. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
If you had a superpower, what would it be, and what would you do with it? Get in touch and tell us your superhero fantasies! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Jen Richler and me. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. In this episode you also heard Skyway, Apollo Diedre, Simple Melody, and Zelus from Blue Dot Sessions. Josie Reich played the part of Willow, Simon Reich was Garfield, Amy Eisner was Willow’s mom Naomi, and Danny Reich played the part of the Riddler. Thanks, Eisner-Reichs!
You can listen to Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please make sure to leave us a review and share your favorite episodes with your friends.
I’m your host, Nahanni Rous… until next time!
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 67: E. Lockhart's New Jewish Superhero (Transcript)." (Viewed on December 6, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-67-e-lockharts-new-jewish-superhero>.