While reading fiction can take you places you might never imagine, the same can also be true of writing it, professionally-speaking. Take author E. Lockhart, whose work as a novelist led her to write Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero (paperback, Kindle), in which she not only introduces a new superhero, but — in a case of turnabout being fair play — also introduces a super sidekick with literary roots of her own.
To begin, what is Whistle about?
Teenage Willow Zimmerman is taking care of her sick mother and trying to make ends meet by working nights when she finds herself tempted by a high-paying new job working in Gotham’s criminal underworld. She runs a regular poker night for the Riddler, and the players are a rogue’s gallery of corrupt power brokers. But when Willow finds herself with superpowers, she’s got to figure out who she really wants to be, and what matters most to her.
And how does Whistle connect to the larger DC Comics universe? Because it seems like Willow might run in the same circles as Barbara Gordon. Or at least go to the same coffee places.
My artist on Whistle, Manuel Preitano, did a great Barbara Gordon in The Oracle Code — and you can see Barbara on the street in one drawing in Whistle. So yeah! They’ll probably meet some day.
And Whistle’s boyfriend, well — his name is Garfield Logan. So although you don’t see him reveal his powers in this book, he’s hiding some pretty awesome secrets.
Prior to writing Whistle, you wrote a bunch of prose novels. Did you come up with the story for Whistle and then realized it needed to be a comic book or did you want to write a comic book and this is the story you came up with?
DC invited me to invent a superhero [because of] my novel Genuine Fraud.
Basically, DC invited me to create my own versions of their characters — outside DC continuity. That gave me terrific freedom to create a Gotham City that was full of teenagers, just growing up and figuring stuff out — and full of supervillains as well.
And is there a reason Willow’s dog is named Lebowitz as opposed to Fido or Rover or Paul?
Lebowitz is named after Fran Lebowitz, a writer I admire. The dog looks nothing like Fran, but has a similarly strong sense of self.
Fun fact: she is the first-ever female dog superhero or superhero pet.
With her dog named Lebowitz, and her last name being Zimmerman, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Willow might possibly be Jewish. Or is she Jew-ish?
Whistle is the first Jewish superhero (originating as Jewish) to launch from DC since 1977. She is a secular Jewish person invested in her heritage and culture, and in the Jewish history of the city she lives in. I saw a way I could write a hero who reflected my own identity and that of many teenagers I know — and at the same time add something to the conversations about world repair, justice, good deeds.
Antisemitism is on the rise of late. How much of that kind of stuff is in Whistle?
The book isn’t about antisemitism, though there certainly could be interesting future storylines with that focus. As an origin story, it’s centered on figuring out how to be a good person in the world, and what a struggle that is for all of us, and how a Jewish identity (among other things) might contribute to how a person might think about superpowers.
As I mentioned, you wrote nearly a dozen novels before writing Whistle. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Whistle but not on anything else you’ve written?
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Do you think any of those things had a particularly big influence on Whistle?
Oh sure. I love the Deadpool movies, all that chatter, all that cheek. I tried to get a little Deadpool spark into the dialogue between Whistle and the Hound (Lebowitz), to create pops of pleasure in the way people say things, the stuff that happens while they’re waiting to kick some ass, etc. I also enjoy the reinventions of iconic DC characters in Pennyworth and Gotham on TV and felt inspired to try my hand at the Riddler and Poison Ivy.
Of course, the text is only half the story when it comes to a graphic novel. Whistle is, as you said, illustrated by Manuel Preitano. How did you come to work with him?
I had read The Oracle Code, which Manuel illustrated, so I was psyched when DC said he was available. He brings so much heart and emotion and realism to superhero stories.
A big part of any superhero story is how they look, their outfit. How closely did you work with Manuel to make sure Willow’s costume was just right?
He did approximately 8 million drawings. So much back and forth! You can see some of the images we traded on pinterest.com/elockhartbooks: Rhianna, Gigi Hadid, Simone Biles, speed skaters, and more. I think there might be Taylor Swift in there, even. We wanted Whistle to look powerful and chic, but also practical and teenagery, super fit but also realistic, and fun for cosplay.
And were you just as hands on when it came to how Lebowitz looks?
Nah. Lebowitz is described as a harlequin Great Dane (they are black and white) with uncut tail and ears. Manuel had free reign after that.
As for other characters, I had opinions about what they wore, since vintage shopping is a big part of the story, but the interpretations of Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and The Riddler came from Manuel.
So did Manuel do anything in his art that made you change something in your story?
He layered in a lot of Gotham City “Easter eggs” — little nods to other heroes and villains can be found throughout. I loved that touch.
Whistle is clearly an origin story. Does that mean you’re going to send Willow and Lebowitz on more adventures?
For now, keep your eye on the comic Teen Titans Academy.
As you are well aware, people love superhero movies, and studios love making them. Has there been any talk of turning Whistle into a movie or maybe a TV show, or of maybe bringing Willow and Lebowitz to the screen in a different adventure?
Whistle is at heart a local superhero. Rather than trying to save the planet from immolation, she’s invested in her neighborhood and the people who live in it. My dream would be a movie with a director known for intimate, funny, touching human stories — think Marielle Heller [Diary Of A Teenage Girl], Chloe Zhao [the upcoming Eternals], Nicole Holofcener [Lovely And Amazing], or Miranda July [Kajillionaire].
Finally, if someone enjoys Whistle, which of your novels would you suggest they read?