Last week, Warner Brothers announced the addition of a solo Nightwing film with LEGO Batman director Chris Mckay to their DC film slate. The news sent fans into an excited tizzy and resulted in a slew of potential fan-chosen actors who could play the title role.
It’s been almost 20 years since Dick Grayson last appeared on the big screen in Batman and Robin as portrayed by Chris O’Donnell. Previous actors who have played Dick Grayson — or the Robin character — have been Douglas Croft, Johnny Duncan, and Burt Ward. There have also been two television shows, The Graysons and Titans, that were meant to feature Dick Grayson as the central character. Both, unfortunately, were scraped by their respective networks.
So there’s been a lot of fan interest in a Nightwing/Dick Grayson-centric media property for a long while. Now with Warner Bros. making it official, fans are eagerly awaiting to see who will put on the black and blue suit as our hero. All the talk about who can, and should, play Dick Grayson on the big screen has also brought up the truth behind Dick’s heritage in comics canon.
That truth being Dick Grayson is part Rromani.
First, here’s a bit of history to explain this relatively unknown aspect of Dick’s identity. Dick Grayson was originally created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson and introduced in the pages of Detective Comics #38 in 1940. Dick was the original Robin, and created in part to provide younger readers with an identifiable figure within the stories of Batman’s larger fictional space.
Dick was the child of John and Mary Grayson, who were circus performers known as The Flying Graysons at Haly’s Circus. Dick was a child when his parents were killed in front of him in an orchestrated accident by Gotham thugs for not paying protection money. He was then adopted — or taken on as a legal ward depending on the canon — by Bruce Wayne. He eventually becomes Robin, the Caped Crusader’s trusted partner and was the first in a legacy of future Robins. If you’ve seen Batman Forever, this story will sound familiar enough to you — with the exception of Dick being an adult in the film compared to being a child in the comics. In the decades that followed Dick’s development, he retired from the Robin mantle and adopted the identity of Nightwing in Tales of Teen Titans #64 in 1984.
For a majority of his canonical history, Dick was presented and assumed to be another white male character within the DC Universe. This was something that was challenged and changed when Devin Grayson began writing the character in the late 90s and early 2000s. Her most notable story that featured Dick’s Rromani identity — and solidified his canon status as a Rromani character — was in Gotham Knights #20 in 2001.
In Gotham Knights, Dick meets a Roma man named Yoska Graesinka who claims to be Dick’s grandfather. As the story progressed, readers learned more about Dick’s Rromani identity that stemmed from his father’s side. Eventually it was discovered that Yoska was not Dick’s actual grandfather; however, it was still canonized that Dick Grayson was part Rromani.
When asked about what some were calling a “retcon” to Dick’s previously established history in the book Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing and Batman, Grayson stated:
And I don’t know that I’d say having a Romani superhero is important as much as I’d say that not assuming that all superheroes are white Europeans is important […] I didn’t change his ethnicity from one thing to another, he had no ethnicity. The truth is, we never talk about that stuff, we just make assumptions, and in this case those assumptions are based on a really boring, banal, and in many ways harmful representation of America.
Since the introduction of his Rromani identity in Gotham Knights, other writers have also incorporated this new canon into their own depictions of Dick Grayson. Such instances can be found in Nightwing Annual #1 released in 1997, the novelization of No Man’s Land by Greg Rucka, a short scene in Titans #16, a small scene in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin, in Secret Origins #8, in Nightwing Rebirth, and in a handful of other scattered comic moments here and there throughout the last 15 years.
In 2015, the Grayson team, including writer Tom King, confirmed Dick Grayson’s Rromani identity during a Twitter Q&A. Even more recent was current Nightwing Rebirth writer Tim Seeley’s comments on Twitter. Seeley confirmed — in a now deleted tweet — that Dick’s mother is a Rromani immigrant, and further explores his Rromani identity in the series itself.
— DC (@DCComics) June 19, 2015
So it’s canon — however recent canon — that Dick Grayson is a Rromani character. Denying this aspect of Dick Grayson only serves to contribute to the dismal representation of the Rromani community as a whole.
Currently, there is only a handful of Rromani comic characters — Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, Viktor Von Doom, and Dick Grayson — and they’ve all either been treated as white, read as white, or fallen into harmful stereotypes of Rromani people.
Furthermore, in every live action depiction of these characters, they’ve been played by white actors. Victor Von Doom was played by white actor Julian McMahon in FOX’s Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Wanda Maximoff was portrayed by white actress Elizabeth Olsen in Avengers: Age of Ultron and in Captain America: Civil War. Pietro Maximoff was portrayed by white-Jewish actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and white actor Evan Peters in FOX’s X-Men: Days of Future’s Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. Dick Grayson was originally portrayed by white actor Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.
Though the source material for all four characters is riddled with various problems and stereotypes, their existence still matters as does the discussion they bring with them towards what good representation for Rromani people should and can be.
Comics aren’t the only perpetrator of harmful stereotypes against the Rromani community. Television, novels, and film all have a hand in creating, influencing, and upholding the exotic dancers, untrustworthy thieves, or mystical/magical nomads imagery that is often associated with Rromani people.
The most famous Rromani character in western fiction is more than likely Esmeralda from Victor Hugo’s famous novel Hunchback of Notre Dame. A character who, ironically enough, isn’t Rromani in the original story, but rather was stolen by a Rromani couple and raised within the community. Throughout the years the character has been depicted as a stereotypical exotic sexual fantasy.
Media presentations of marginalized groups directly affect how larger society views them. This misrepresentation creates and breeds: ignorance, hate, and strengthens oppression. All of which the Rromani people are overly familiar with, especially in various parts of Europe.
To first clear up possible misconceptions, Rromani people are not Romanians. A common mistake made often due to the similar pronunciation and overall ignorance on the subject.
Rromani people are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group that derive mainly from India. Romania is a European country that has contributed to the enslavement of the Rromani people. So the distinction between the two groups is very important.
The Rromani were also one of the main groups targeted during the Nazi Holocaust. According to scholars, somewhere between 220,000 to 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were systematically exterminated in Nazi Holocaust camps.
Amnesty International has reported that the Roma are currently, “one of Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged minorities” in Europe. In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the deportation of all “illegal Roma immigrants” and claimed the illegal Roma camps were breeding grounds for criminality, and even child prostitution. The debate on whether Roma are “primitive or just poor” still continues today.
In the U.S., Rromani people have faced struggles with cultural assimilation like most non-European immigrants. Cristiana Grigore, a graduate of Valderbilt University who is part Rromani said in an interview in 2011, “Most of the Americans I have met don’t know much about the Rromani people,” she says. “They know about G*psy, but not as a real ethnic group, real people. They see it more like a Halloween costume, a role that you play once a year.”
University professor Ian Hancock, who has served as the Rromani representative at the UN, stated that “the media can get away with saying things about Roma that they wouldn’t dare say about other minority populations,” which has contributed to a distorted image of Rromani people and their culture.
While Faye Williams, a third-generation Rromani-American stated, “Most people don’t even have a clue about our culture. They think, you know, it’s just people running around stealing little kids and chickens.”
Williams’ statement comes eerily close to the situation that occurred in Greece in 2011 when a Roma couple was accused of kidnapping a white child. According to CNN, the police grew suspicious because “she [the child] has fair skin and blonde hair while her parents have darker complexions typical of Roma.”
Sani Rifati, president of the California based non-profit organization Voice of Roma stated in an interview in 2011, “Everybody can be a Gpsy expert in America,” he continues, “because they feel it’s their freedom to speak on my behalf.” He went on to say, “We fight very tirelessly to have Gpsy art recognised, and not just as a circus.”
Rromani activist Morgan Ahern told The Daily Beast in 2013 after the child kidnapping case in Greece had been settled, “Every Roma was outraged by [the Marie story], that’s why we try to be invisible in this [the United States] country.” Ahern also stated that the Maria case was especially personal for her because of her own experiences as a child. When she was seven years old she and other Rromani children were taken from their Brooklyn community by New York state authorities and put in institutions or foster homes.
Last year at NYCC, X-Men writer Peter David made a series of Antiziganism statements at a panel when asked about the lack of Rromani representation from a member of the audience. David described a disturbing incident where he witnessed child walking on two broken legs. When asked, his Romanian tour guide explained that “g**sies” (a slur for Rromani people) often cripple their children to garner sympathy and money. David has since apologized for his remarks but the incident brought attention to RomaPop, an activist group for better representation of Rromani characters in comics.
RomaPop isn’t the only group advocating for better representation of the Rromani community, fans have taken up a campaign with the #KeepNightwingRomani hashtag. Tevin Murphy of Geeks of Color wrote an article detailing the importance of keeping Dick Grayson Rromani and the hashtag itself.
While other Rromani fans have spoken up about the issue personally, one fan had this to say when discussing Dick’s Rromani identity:
Knowing Dick’s Roma has always been really special for me. A character like me — from such a distinct background, but so, so thoroughly Americanized, and the weird-ass challenges that come with it — is rare to see, and even the slightest representation can make you feel a lot less alone.
As is always the case, representation is important.
There has, of course, been some backlash and push back against both the hashtag and the “retcon” of Dick being Rromani. Some fans have noted that for a majority of Dick’s history he’s been portrayed as a white character, while others have pointed out the problematic nature of his Rromani identity reveal. Both arguments are correct in a way.
For most of his history, Dick has been viewed and presented as a white character. However, we have to examine why this is and when we do, the answer is simple.
Whiteness is the default in our viewings of fictional characters. Even in cases where characters are described as non-white — as was the case with Rue from The Hunger Games — readers and audiences will still view them as white first and foremost.
The idea that literary characters, even when they are left open for a bit of interpretation, are white by default contributes to this lack of representation for readers that are People of Color. I realized that “white unless described otherwise” had become an internalized idea I had despite the fact that I was a little black girl growing up within African American and Afro-Caribbean cultures.
This calls back to what Devin Grayson spoke about in the aforementioned interview. Though there’s little doubt that Kane, Finger, and Robinson created Dick Grayson with the thought that he was anything but white, the reason for why that is, is rooted in white supremacy.
This is why a majority of comic characters are white. Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, being white isn’t a necessary part of his identity nor his story at hand — funnily enough Asian Americans can also be considered outsiders — but rather a product of whiteness being the default in western fictional media. Iron Fist is white because his creator — a white man — loved kung-fu movies and wanted to create a character based off that interest. The concept of cultural appropriation, most likely, wasn’t even a thought in his nor Marvel Editorial’s minds at the time of Danny Rand’s creation.
With this in mind, we can begin to understand why Dick was presented to readers as a white character. When whiteness is our societal default, any character that isn’t specifically established as non-white — or undeniably non-white in design — is seen as white.
Even in some cases where a character is established as specifically non-white — Kyle Rayner or Damian Wayne, for example — fans and creators will still view, present, and read them as white. Which can lead to attempts to profit off their status as characters of color when convenient, or ignore it as a seemingly unimportant aspect of their character.
It is true that comics have a complicated history when it comes to decades-old characters; with reboots, relaunches, and retcons galore. This makes things difficult for fans to keep up with, let alone accept. However, representation isn’t the same as the infamous “One More Day/Brand New Day” storyline — that fans seem to have accepted however bitterly but more readily than Dick being Rromani. There have been lots of terrible retcons — the Xorn is Magneto but, psych, isn’t really Magneto was a particularly confusing and convoluted one. But is revealing a character originally thought to be white as actually not white truly one of them?
Canonically, Dick has been Rromani for the last 15 years. True, that’s a short amount of time compared to his overall near 75 years of history. However short though it may be, it still counts. It still matters. Then there’s the undeniable fact that Dick looks white. He is every bit the standard classic white male comic character design: black hair, blue eyes, pale skin.
Comic publishers have a continuing history of prioritizing whiteness and Euro-centric looks even for their characters of color. Mixed raced characters and characters of certain races and ethnicities are often drawn and colored as white passing as possible.
Take Wanda Maximoff for example: she went from being drawn with notably dark features and a style of clothing that took cues from traditional Roma dress, to looking like white, curly haired Jessica Jones. Even black characters aren’t exempt. Storm and Vixen can go from being beautiful dark skinned black women, to much, much lighter black women. Latinx characters often change skin tones depending on the book they appear in; a criticism U.S.Avengers has come under fire for their depiction of Afro-Latino character Sunspot. Even Dick Grayson’s younger adopted brother, Damian Wayne, goes from brown skin and green eyes, to beige skin and blue eyes from book to book.
It’s not simply colorism, but also irresponsibility of the editorial staff in charge of these series whose job is to keep these characters as consistent as possible. Especially when you have the added responsibility of showcasing mixed race characters and characters of specific ethnic groups in a positive manner.
Dick Grayson certainly looks white, but that does not make him a white character. White passing people of color do exist, and stories of mixed race characters are worthy of exploring and telling. Furthermore, if comics can lighten a character up, why can’t they do a reverse and make them darker as well? This is, of course, a naive long-shot, but it is a possibility we should push towards not against.
For others, the problem lies with the stereotypical portrayal of Dick’s Rromani origins in Gotham Knights. This is a very fair and true point to make and must be acknowledged. Grayson’s story is riddled with stereotypes and even uses of the g*psy slur. While her intentions may have been admirable, the story still reeked of ignorance and racism regarding the Rromani community.
Something that Rromani fans have pointed out themselves and openly acknowledged, but have also explained their representation is still important. Erasing the existence of Dick’s Rromani identity doesn’t fix the racist aspects of Grayson’s Gotham Knights take, it only contributes to the continued erasure of the Rromani community within fictional media.
Whether we as readers consider Dick’s Rromani identity a retcon or not, the fact of the matter is it is canon. We can — and should — critique the origin, discuss it further, learn what we can, and make space for Rromani fans to feel comfortable speaking out. There’s also the potential one day for a Rromani creator to step in and write a Nightwing book in the future, however far away that may be. It can now, at the very least, be a possibility. A step in the right direction.
Remember, this is comics. Grayson’s story isn’t the only story that can be told in regards to Dick’s Rromani roots. Something current Nightwing writer Tim Seeley has taken advantage of by making Dick’s mother Mary a Rromani immigrant where previously it was Dick’s father who was of Rromani descent and often described as “exotic” in Grayson’s writing.
This makes a case for the potential of Dick’s Rromani identity being further explored in a more positive manner under other writers. If not Seeley, then perhaps other writers as Nightwing’s canon continues to grow and develop as the years pass by. We should see that future as a chance for the betterment and further exploration of Dick’s Rromani identity, instead of proposing the erasure of it.
If anything, Dick being Rromani opens up the discussion of Rromani representation in comics and in the wider span of our media. Dick being Rromani brings to light the dismal representation the Rromani community currently has, the pre-existing problems with their current representation, and how our media can do better.
Another potential step forward can be taken by actively searching for a Rromani actor to play Dick Grayson in his upcoming film. Some have pointed out there are no Rromani actors in Hollywood, which inadvertently proves that Hollywood has a problem in regards to Rromani representation.
However, there are Rromani actors out there who could play Dick Grayson. One recent popular pick has been Jesús Castro who is of Spanish and Rromani descent. Is it likely an actor of Rromani descent will be cast? Probably not. Is it possible? Yes.
We could argue — much like Ridley Scott did during the Exodus controversy — that as a business WB can’t cast an unknown actor of the correct race because it is to big of a financial risk. An argument that has been repeatedly used to shut out actors of color from film and television.
An argument that has also been repeatedly disproven in the last few years through franchises such as Fast and the Furious, or more recent examples of Hidden Figures, Get Out, and Oscar winner Moonlight. On television Jane the Virgin, Black-Ish, and Fresh Off the Boat are all comedies centering around families of color and have won awards and/or ratings for their respective networks. Shonda Rhimes has created and produced three extremely successful primetime shows, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Grey’s Anatomy, that heavily feature or center around diverse characters.
As for finding a seemingly impossible actor to cast in the role, one needs only to look towards recent practices employed by the creators of The Expanse and The OA.
The creators of The Expanse worked tirelessly to find a Polynesian actress that fit their character description. They found Frankie Adams by searching in New Zealand, and actively looking for a Polynesian actress who fit the role. Similarly on The OA, the creators wanted an Asian American 14-teen-year-old F-to-M transgender actor for the role of Buck. Just going by the description alone, you’d think they wouldn’t be able to find such an actor correct? Wrong. The show did and has in young Ian Alexander, all by engaging with the trans community and putting out casting calls in trans chat rooms and groups.
So it can be done, and it can make money. In the case of Dick Grayson, WB could cast a Rromani actor in the role. While it may be difficult, it is not impossible. The hardest bit, as always seems to be the case, is getting people to care.
Not only do the producers, studio, and director need to care about casting a Rromani actor, comic creators need to care about developing his identity, editors need to care in being mindful of his identity, DC needs to care in not letting his identity be erased, and fans need to care in acknowledging his identity as a Rromani character and what Dick means for Rromani fans.
It is much easier to cast Matt Bomer, or Ian Somerhalder, or even Jared Padalecki as Nightwing. They’re all moderately attractive white guys with blue eyes and dark hair. What’s not easy is changing our very specific outlook on a decades old character and seeing that character as not white.
Again, there is very little chance of Dick Grayson being Rromani in his upcoming film. Though fans have noted McKay liking tweets discussing Dick’s Rromani origins on Twitter, this ultimately means very little in the long run. Fans know this, but at least now there is a discussion happening. A chance for others to learn more about the struggles and oppression of the Roma and why they deserve positive representation in our media.
Whomever WB/DC decides to cast as Dick Grayson — Steven Yuen is the only other popular non-white choice currently — we can not forget Dick Grayson’s Rromani identity in the process. We can not stop pushing for that part of his character to not be brushed aside, ignored, or erased. Neither by creators, fans, or DC itself. It is an important aspect of his character that reaches beyond simple narrative and into the much needed waters of positive representation of the Rromani community. We should keep pushing for better representation in all aspects and the dissolution of harmful racial stereotypes and misrepresentation in our media.
To ignore this aspect of Dick’s character shuts the door on countless possibilities for future stories that could further explore his Rromani identity.
Did Dick’s mother take on a European name to better assimilate into white American culture out of fear? Was her family forced to do so like so many other non-European immigrants were? What did his mother teach him about their Rromani culture? Did she not teach him the language because she was afraid Dick would be taken away from them like Roma children in Europe typically are? Does Dick know any of the Romani language? Does he long to reconnect with his cultural identity? After fighting crime with Tiger and Midnighter does he tell them about his Rromani culture? Do the three of them bond through their shared experiences of being non-traditional superheroes? Do Dick and Damian ever try to teach each other Arabic and/or Romany? If they do, when fighting bad guys do they speak in code that switches between the two languages?
There’s plenty of relevant stories to explore that would be new for Dick Grayson’s character that could tie-in to his status as a superhero, and inclusive to the many Rromani-American’s that are searching for some positive media representation. In the end, the comics nor the films need Dick Grayson to be white, but there is a need for Dick Grayson to be Rromani.