The DC metropolis of Gotham City has its share of corrupt residents, and their malicious aspirations leave no community untouched. Sixteen-year-old Willow Zimmerman carries a lot on her shoulders. Her mother, Naomi, is a college teacher of Jewish studies, but her current appointment does not include health insurance and she needs chemotherapy. Willow’s high school in their Down River Neighborhood has been starved of funding. Just as her life is falling apart, an old boyfriend of Naomi’s turns up, seemingly eager to help. How far will a devoted and desperate daughter go to help her family? E. Lockhart (the pen name of adult and children’s book author Emily Jenkins) and Manuel Preitano’s new graphic novel, the first in a series, examines the perils of this moral dilemma in an exciting and challenging narrative.
In some ways, Willow represents the most hopeful aspects of young adulthood. She feels a romantic connection to Garfield, a new student who just arrived from Nigeria. She has loyal friends, and she is deeply committed to social activism. At the same time, the pressures of her mother’s illness and financial problems make her vulnerable to scheming adults. Soon, her “super-demanding job” for Eddie Nachtberger, a.k.a. E. Nigma, involves her in a criminal enterprise. Hypocrisy is rampant and Willow, like most teens, gets a harsh lesson in how powerful people rationalize their selfish choices. Lockhart wryly comments on the transparency of morally pious people who are more concerned with using plastic straws than with actually helping humanity. The villainous plans to destroy Gotham City include “greening,” distorting the environmental concept into poisonous attacks on essential places. Willow’s honesty and confusion in confronting these realities, as well as her courage, make her an appealing hero.
Jewish values and institutions play a prominent role in the story. Naomi is an archetypal strong and loving Jewish mother, as well as an intellectual dedicated to studying the Jewish past and present. Influenced by her mother, Willow explains the Jewish past of their neighborhood to Garfield, emphasizing the synagogues and restaurants that used to be at the community’s core. Some still exist and, in one scene, Willow enters the Remson Street Synagogue to contemplate the tensions in her life. The Jewish details threaded throughout the book never seem forced; they are expressions of how deeply rooted Jewish tradition remains in Willow’s consciousness.
Each section of the book is preceded by a subtitle on a background of the city skyline. Lockhart’s relatively terse text allows characters to develop gradually, alongside Preitano’s dramatic images. Willow is a student clutching a book to her chest, while wondering “…if I should be doing this.” Later, she is a powerful symbol of resistance to evil, contemplating what to wear in her new role. Lockhart and Preitano have created an artfully balanced coming-of-age story and comic book face-off between good and evil. This latest addition of a strong young Jewish woman to the DC universe will resonate with readers.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.