Roma in American comics

Overview from the Silver Age to the present

The Roma should be grateful to US comics: they have been portrayed in them with greater respect and charm than in European comic strips. Even Batman, the greatest superhero of all, has Romani heritage in his current embodiment. This is the story of a fascinating cultural relationship.

The art of the comic strip was decisively redefined in the early 1960s which heralded what is known as the Silver Age of Comic Books, preceded by the Golden Age from the 1930s to the 1950s during which the foundations of superhero comics were laid. The Silver Age would extend into the 1970s and involved a lot of changes in the hero genre. During it science fiction was introduced into the world of these characters along with more localised and controversial approaches that made them more realistic.

It was at this time that the “troubled superhero” first appeared. Characters who were persecuted instead of being praised, heroes who cannot make ends meet, who lose loved ones, who have conflicts. Previously Superman and Batman had been the big heroes, both created by the publishing house DC Comics, new gods for an America which had no ancestral mythology. But now the power of rival Marvel Comics brought characters like Spiderman, the Fantastic 4, the X-Men and other humans with skills which were sometimes more a curse than a blessing. We should thus not be surprised that the complicated characters of this style should include original characters of Romani origin. They certainly fitted in with two stereotypes: firstly Roma as rebels, sorcerers and twinned with legend are idealised. Then secondly there is the marginal and clumsy stereotype, but this one is surprisingly softer and less negative than in European comics which were much more prejudiced against and brutal towards Roma. In fact, there is a tendency to dignify the Roma, which fills some crucial characters.

Richard Grayson: a Romani Batman in Gotham

One of the best known comic strip symbols of all time is Batman, created by Bob Kane in 1939. His adventures, like all those of DC Comics heroes, are published in Spain by Planeta DeAgostini. Although popular culture references to Batman are endless, many do not know that the classic Batman companion, the young Robin, a former circus trapeze artist, has Romani origins. As happens in long-running comic strips, over the years Robin has had several incarnations. The one that interests us is the one built around the character Richard John “Dick” Grayson. In the mid-1980s an attempt was made to give emotional depth to the character. This is when the reader discovers that he is a Rom from a family of circus performers, and after his parents were killed in a fake accident circus the young Richard was taken in by Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) and trained to fight crime as his masked assistant.

Richard Grayson talking in Romani with Yoska Groesinka in Batman: Gotham Knights 20 (October 2001). ↵

To learn more about Richard Grayson’s Romani identity it is useful to read issues 20 and 21 in the Gotham Knights series. They tell how in order to prepare for his possible death, Batman leaves as his sole heir Richard Grayson and so intends to legally adopt him. Suddenly Richard’s supposedly dead grandfather turns up and talks about the Roma and non-Roma (as can be seen in the comic in its original edition). This character, Yoska Groesinka, speaks in Romani and despite the stereotype provides a significant overview of Roma. Finally, we discover that Yoska is not Richard’s grandfather and it was all a plan concocted by one of Batman’s worst enemies to create confusion and drama. But Richard Grayson’s Romani identity is claimed. This deserves special attention because in the Spanish edition of the regular Batman series Richard Grayson is the current Batman (Bruce Wayne has disappeared from the map, even though he has already returned to the American edition).

Likewise, since he learnt about his Romani background Dick Grayson has been made more and less Romani in the comic strips in line with the interests of the publishers and writers. As happens to most Romani characters in graphic novels, in some comics it is claimed that only one of his parents was Roma, and in others that it is his whole family.

This text is an excerpt from an article published in issue 6 of the journal Cuadernos Gitanos.
Written by Vicente Rodríguez and Juan Oleaque.