There's more to minority comic book characters than mutants, but their struggle for acceptance is something very real and hard-fought both on the page and behind the scenes.
After comments made at 2016's New York Comic Con by Peter David about Romani people (which he later referred to as "rash actions" that he now regrets and apologizes for), a new light has been shed on Romani characters in comic books. Scarlet Witch, Nightwing, Magneto, Doctor Doom, and Quicksilver are all firmly-established as Romani, but over the decades the representation of their culture and heritage has been blighted with stereotypes and miscast assumptions.
At the forefront of this is Vicente Rodriguez. Rodriguez is co-founder of RomaPop, a Romani rights group aiming for social justice in pop culture narratives. The activist was named by Forbes as a changemaker in their 2016 "30 under 30" series, and is an instructor at the University of Washington.
Newsarama spoke with Rodriguez about the various issues surrounding Romani culture in comic books, both in terms of characters and their stories as well as those working on the comic books.
Newsarama: Vicente, can you tell us about yourself and how RomaPop was formed?
Vicente Rodriguez: Sure, my name is Vicente Rodriguez, I'm 29 years old and I was born and raised in a Spanish Romani family. I am a human rights activist, educator and artist, I work for the University of Washington, I´m OSF fellow and I was in Forbes’ 30 under 30 as a policy maker.
I grow up reading lots of comics, I mean tons of comics. One of the main reasons is that I was often very sick and I spent a lot of my childhood in the sofa. When I started to work as an educator I used all kinds of pop culture and sci-fi to communicate and call to reflection.
For example, I screened X-Men: First Class over 200 times for different audiences! Mainly to talk about human rights, trauma and resistance. I talked so much for the last seven years about comics, power, and diversity, that people ended up calling me Magneto. Over the years many people joined, and suddenly one day pop culture and comics became a topic of relevance within Roma civil society, it was about the power of narratives.
Founded by Jewish, African American and Romani advocates, scholars, and artists, RomaPop was born in 2016 to challenge the pop culture narratives on Romani people and other minorities, we gathered some money and managed to flight an international team to the 2016 New York Comic Con to simply start an honest conversation with authors and artists.
The original team was formed by an incredible bunch of people: civil rights veteran Michael Simmons, Benny Fischer (president of the European Union of Jewish Students), journalist and psychologist Bekah Ward, Romani feminist advocate Patricia Caro, Montreal-based Romani activist Dafina Savic, and last but not least my brother Antonio Eduardo, our camera man!
Nrama: In fiction Romani people have frequently been stereotyped as witches and criminals - and that's something comic books - superhero comics and otherwise - have perpetuated, from X-Men to Tintin. How do you feel modern comic books are handling it?
Rodriguez: Well American and European comics are two completely different realities, but If I go back in time, let´s say till the 1960s, thinking for example in Fantastic Four Annual #2, in Doctor Doom´s classical origin, Romani people were presented in a stereotypical way, but their humanity was always present. For me those comics were even advanced in the 60s having in mind the time and circumstances in which they were written.
It is beyond my logic why modern comics have such a serious problem when comes to depicting Romani people, when these same editors take a lot of care in the depiction of other minorities and communities. In a post-Ta-Nehisi Coates Marvel you will think that there is some guy making some research at least, but no, apparently 21st century stereotypes are alive and well when it comes to Romani people.
Nrama: You’ve told me previously that you have have been attempting to have a conversation with Marvel about this since 2015. What would you say to them if you had a chance to meet with an official representative?
Rodriguez: Yes, me and some colleagues wrote hundreds of mails and messages to Marvel authors, writers, artist, editors and staff.
Of course, we tried by all means with the usual channels, official mails etc. there was no answer after few months of solid work, so I prepared my backpack and traveled to NYCC 2015. The results were not great, but I´m sure some people started to think about Romani representation after the Peter David episode.
If I would have the opportunity to talk to a Marvel representative I would kindly offer evidence of the mistreatment of Romani people in their editorial policies, historically and today. I would offer my help and RomaPop´s support to any initiative that would have as a goal to end this nonsense. We have very specific proposals and tips, between them we would lobby for the need of Romani consultancy, guidelines and tools that the editorial could use to not repeat the "Gypsy thief/witch in caravan trope."
Given the post-NYCC 2016 Marvel silence, I would make sure in a personal meeting that they understand the full implications of their negligence and bad practice. They need to understand we are ready for mass mobilization, demonstrations and boycott to both Marvel comics and their specific representatives. We really don´t want to end up on Fox News, but for us it's a matter of life and death that our children receive the respectful superhero narratives they deserve, cause they are our superheroes.
Nrama: What are the "Specific proposals and tips" you have in mind for Marvel?
Rodriguez: During the NYCC 2016 we printed cards, posters and lots of booklets. Those materials arrived to the Marvel staff - I gave them personally to Axel Alonso, Greg Pak, and Dave Walker, and the RomaPop team made them arrive physically to dozens of artists and authors in the artist alley. Within those materials we included different proposals:
First: Marvel needs to start a process of consultancy with Romani people themselves. This includes Romani authors, fans, scholars and researchers, to ensure that the portrayal of Romani people in their fictional universe is accurate and is not based on previous prejudiced views. A consultative process will end the exotization, objectification, whitewashing and humiliation that Romani characters suffer constantly.
Second: Marvel needs to establish clear guidelines for artist and authors after the consultancy process. This means in no way censorship. In RomaPop we defend free expression and the freedom of authors and artist always; however when Marvel allows the publication of products that harm the image of Romani people and spread stereotypes systematically, without any kind of filter or standard, the editorial policies can become easily nothing less than hate speech - the kind that has targeted specifically a community of vulnerable people for over 50 years.
Third: To ensure the fair representation of Romani people, mechanisms of responsibility need to be placed, Marvel needs a much higher efficiency in their hierarchy as the system is set for no one to claim responsibility for any disaster, with nobody holding any responsibility! Comments such as the ones Peter David made don´t have any repercussions, and all forms of denouncement fall in an empty space.
We need to have a set of people that we can hold accountable, not for author´s personal opinions but for author´s racist opinions reflected on the company products.
Nrama: Have you made similar approaches to other publishers, such as DC and Image?
Rodriguez: We decided that we wanted to focus on Marvel Comics firstly, as the number of Romani characters is larger than in DC and Image, and given the fact that the importance of Romani characters in the Marvel universe is huge.
After NYCC 2016 we were approached by people and staff from other publishers, some authors wrote in solidarity to us and asked for advice before to approach Romani characters, we really appreciated that, and we hope that other publishers may learn from the Peter David incident and set better standards for Romani narratives.
Nrama: Have any other authors who approached you for advice work for DC, Marvel, or Image?
Rodriguez: Yes, specifically we were approached by a DC famous author on the Cynthia Reynolds character and the name issue.
Nrama: DC’s Gyspy.
Rodriguez: We will not reveal the DC author as we don´t know if he wants to publicly appear supporting RomaPop yet.
Within Marvel, Dave Walker spent some time with us after one of the panels and talked for a while with some of us. Later on he shared about our struggle in social media and recognized he did not know about the topic. That was definitely the nicest of our experiences so far within Marvel.
At NYCC 2016 many authors offered a more hopeful view of Romani people and offered both advice and moral support, between them most of the Asian American Panel, the comments of the "Indian Captain America" and Larry Hama were also very encouraging and inspired us to keep the fight.
In the artist alley, one of the artists witnessed Peter David's conversation with me and later on wrote us to apologize in the name of the whole industry of comics.
Those mails of support and those words of all those people who dedicated time to listen us mean the world to us.
We honor them for standing with the weak and for showing their humanity to our people.
Nrama: For many people, the first notice of RomaPop came after Peter David's negative comments about Romani people. Now over a year removed, what do you think of that situation?
Rodriguez: I was there making the question that started everything, yes. I´m the guy with the hat in the video.
I bought my first Peter David comic when I was eight-years-old. I never imagined that 20 years later one of my favorite authors would react this way. The question was not even addressed to him and he could have answered in so many different ways, but for some reason that I can´t imagine he reacted viscerally. He shut me down, he screamed at me and use the G-word after I said it was a racial slur.
In an LGBTIQ+ panel, organized by Time Out, full of progressive and wonderful people, the truth is nobody reacted. The silence of the people and the reaction of the ReedPOP organization after the incident were bizarre; it was a clear violation of the anti-harassment policy but the mechanisms for avoiding this kind of incident failed at all levels: Marvel, RedPOP, the people in the panel, the moderator etc.
Their silence and lack of rejection of such a comment is shocking.
As terrible as it was, as psychologically damaging, as monstrous as it felt, months after the incident is always present in my mind as a constant reminder of what I´m standing for, the right for everybody to be treated as a human being, even in comic cons and even in science fiction.
Nrama: So ReedPOP hasn't had any conversations with you about the incident?
Rodriguez: We had a first meeting the day of the incident. They called a superior, who called a superior, who called a superior...
After three different meetings during Thursday, Friday, and Saturday they stopped the communication and asked us to e-mail them. They brought us to an office, then to a room, then another office, then another room. We mailed them several times and they claimed that they did not received the mails. After that we tweeted like crazy, they wrote us on Twitter asking us for more mails. After a last exchange of mails they said they were sorry and that they took the incident very seriously, however no official statement or apology has been placed.
We continued writing but they never came back to us - no repercussion for Peter David, who plans to write more Romani characters after saying that we all break our children’s legs; neither for Marvel editor Daniel Ketchum who was at the table and did not move a finger to stop the episode; neither no consequences for the moderator who ended my question by saying "all opinions matter and we are all different.” All after one of the most bizarre racist tirades of recent comic history.
One of our key points was for ReedPOP to consider a Romani panel for the convention in the future. For 2016 we pitched 10 panels for them, including Romani speakers and Romani related topics, such as Holocaust education and comics and things like that, all panels with the word “Romani” were rejected...
Nrama: There are currently several prominent Romani superheroes - Scarlet Witch, Nightwing, and Doctor Doom. Do you have an opinion on their portrayal by those publishers and those creators?
Rodriguez: I have read all of Scarlet Witch. I think James Robinson is a great author and I enjoy the series a lot as a fresh take on the character. Unfortunately I can´t relax while reading it because of the Romani references almost in every number are misleading and confused to say the least. It's probably a more positive depiction of Romani people than in the 1990’s and early 2000´s, but we are very far off receiving full consideration.
I have not read yet the Infamous Iron Man or Nightwing ongoing series, but Victor Von Doom´s tendencies as a sociopath and Dick Grayson´s total disconnection from his Romani background don´t make me very happy; if a Romani author could just have a chance with the characters! The richness and new perspectives that Romani authors could bring to these characters would be incredible. Imagine for one second: for Romani people Doctor Doom is a kind of Che Guevara, a revolutionary and a savior!
One day we may read a Romani perspective on these narratives - not erasing them but reappropriating them. That could be amazing.
Nrama:Who are the Romani authors working in comic books who you think are at the forefront?
Rodriguez: Most of Romani authors I know work in small European magazines and fanzines. Some are designers, cartoonist, painters, or graphic artists. There are a lot out there, with just a few being Sead Kazanxhiu, Miguel Fernandez, Kristoff Gil, Gosia Mirga or Delfin Lakatos.
There are also a good number of Romani writers with different backgrounds whose voice should be definitely heard. In the line of powerful writers, we have people such as Ismael Cortes, Patricia Caro, Anna Mirga, Edlira Majko, and Mihaela Dragan between many others.
Contrary to the belief of many people we have a very rich literary tradition with outstanding authors such as Rajko Durik or Mateo Maximoff (by the way he was the real Romani person from whom the twins took their surname!).
Nrama: What are the key points that you feel comic publishers and comic creators should be aware of here now in 2017 when writing about Romani people?
Rodriguez: We are people, nothing else.
We are human beings and we should be treated like that.
I can´t even understand how somebody could use logic to learn how wrong is generalizing with other minorities and then not being able to use the same logic to realize how wrong is to generalize when writing about Romani people.
In a comic world that is increasingly aware of race, gender and class inequalities, this whole situation doesn´t belong here in 2017.
About specific advice, consultancy with Romani people and serious research are fundamental things writers should have in mind. Why when writing about Romani people is including stereotypes ok?
Publishers should be aware than we are actually over 15 million people, and that we are both the youngest and largest ethnic minority in Europe; this means that they will deal with a lot of Romani protest as we have more access to pop culture products and realize how badly we are treated.
Why would a publisher like to have a situation like the one in NYCC 2016 in every single comic con?
This is the question they should ask themselves.
There is nothing to gain by enabling racism and stereotypes in their comics and products, and the consequences for millions of Romani children can be psychologically devastating.
On the other hand, the consequences of a truly fair representation of Romani people in comics would be positive for all. In front of a sometimes scary future a sign of hope, proof that we in the comic book community, reject all kinds of prejudices and racism.
Is not a hard decision to make.
Nrama: So what are the positive Romani characterizations and stories you've seen in comic books?
Rodriguez: I don´t think there are negative characters out there, there are negative narratives.
Doctor Doom, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Nightwing, those are amazing characters!
The problem is the writing, mainly lack of knowledge, context and prejudice.
I enjoyed a lot Doctor Doom´s origin stories, and especially John Byrne’s take on the character in the 80´s. Maybe more than specific stories I remember fragments and details that called my attention for good; a lot of the Books of Doom was cool; not the treatment which was quite racist but the narrative. Just that in comic books a Romani person would be considered one of the smartest persons in the world and a scientific genius? A Romani who can take over a country? Between Hungary and Serbia where Romani people are brutalized by authorities? That´s an amazing narrative for a Romani child!
As a child, I was not a critic to comic narratives on Romani people. It was as an adult when I understood the power of histories and the importance of representation.
I liked a lot the Gotham Knights issues when Dick Grayson meet his supposed grandpa.
I remember the time Scarlet witch told Vision how she felt strongly connected to her Romani roots.
I remember when Doctor Doom prepared Romani food for Reed Richards! And later he said it was his favorite one!
As a Romani child who experienced segregation and faced constant racism, those sentences and small narratives changed my life and inspired me beyond imagination.
However, I liked a lot of the Romani references within the Magneto: Testament series - not just accurate and well researched but respectful, yes, good job Greg Pak!
... but let´s talk later about the whitewashing of Magneto! One day I´ll write a book on that case, because it is one of the most bizarre episodes in history of Marvel Comics.
Maybe on my top three histories with Romani characters is X-Men Unlimited #2 - by the way, my first comic.
In that comic I learned for first time about the Romani genocide during World War II - about mutants and discrimination, about the Holocaust, about Romani people in Poland and far beyond Spain, and about the importance of resistance. I was seven-years-old.
I learned also that before Bryan Singer, before Greg Pak, Magneto was once Romani.
I grow up with these characters and I love them, truly, all of them, with devotion.
RomaPop exists to bring back those narratives to our children in the right way, and you know what? Deep inside me there still is the child I once was – someone who still believes in Earth-616 and parallel universes; believes that somewhere out there maybe Doctor Doom and the rest of the team are influencing this dimension of time and space, so finally we, Romani fans and allies, can help them for once and free their histories from prejudices and ignorance.