Do you remember Dondi? Most people do not. Dondi was a comic strip that ran from September 1955 to June 1986. It was about an Italian orphan befriended by American soldiers who found him in a village destroyed by the war. When the soldiers were shipped back home, Dondi stowed away on the troopship. At first, when immigration authorities planned to send the stowaway back to Europe, public outcry moved the politicians to pass a law that allowed him to stay. From there, the comic strip takes us through his various adventures in discovering America.
The funny thing about Dondi is that I always remembered him as Italian. When my wife and I first married, I had often said that I imagined if we were to have any sons, I expected them to look a lot like Dondi, a little Italian kid. If we had had two sons, I would have wanted to name the second one Dondi, but my wife would not even consider it. Then recently, when I started reading a compilation of all the old comic strips, I found that there was no mention of Dondi’s Italian heritage. What the heck happened? It turns out that they thought his origin story was a problem, including his Italian heritage. Since Dondi remained a little kid for all 31 years of the comic strip, it was kind of difficult in the early 1980s for a six-year-old to be an orphan from WWII. While that makes sense, they could have at least kept his Italian heritage.
As I was thinking of the de-Italianization of Dondi, I happened to see an interview with an African American woman astronaut. During the interview, she discussed how she felt it is important that girls of color have someone that looks like them doing things like going to space, making scientific discoveries, and being leaders in society. I think she is right. Kids should see people like them succeeding in various fields. As Italian Americans, we have had quite a few. Supreme Court Justices. Senators. Governors. Mayors of major cities. Do not even get me started on the arts and sciences. So, Italian kids have a lot of heroes to look up to in almost all fields. But with the loss of Dondi, we do not have a lot of Italians in the comic strips. That makes me wonder why do not we have Italian superheroes in the comics.
Most superheroes are like Superman, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. After all, many superheroes come from America’s heartland or a major American city. Although most are uniquely American, there are some exceptions. From the Blank Panther, who is African, to Thor, who is a nod to all our Scandinavian friends, we see superheroes who are not all apple pie and baseball. Even rich guys get Bruce Wayne. I once worked at a corporation where I swear the CEO thought he was the real-life version of Tony Stark. We also have a good share of women, such as Wonder Woman and the Black Widow. Even Captain Marvel went through a sex change at some point. When I was a kid Captain Marvel was a man. But what the heck, I like the new version. With all this diversity, though, why not one Italian?
I even came up with a character, Pasta-man. I considered pizzaman, but that would be too obvious. Pasta-man’s alter ego is Joey Camarada, who works in a deli on Mulberry Street in NYC. Whenever he sees trouble, he holds a length of salmi and soprasetta over his head like an X, calling out “Pasta Fazoooool!!!” After much lightning, he steps out of a cloud dressed in green and red leotards with a white cape. Instead of an “S” on his chest like Superman, it is a slice of pizza. What do you think? Too much of a stereotype? Too comical?
I started thinking about creating a serious Italian American superhero, something that would celebrate Italian culture. I started thinking we could start with an average Italian American. You know the kind; loves our country, treats people with respect. Their superpowers would be working hard, doing the right thing, being kind. The trouble is, I don’t think it would work, not enough flash and pizzaz. I think that is why we do not have comic strips about Italian superheroes.
I realized something else. Italian superheroes surround us; they are not unusual. This Thanksgiving, take a look around the dinner table. See your grandparents that came here not knowing what to expect? See your mom and dad that busted their backs to provide for you, to make sure you had a good home? See the ones that worked their way through school and built a career once they graduated. Those are your Italian superheroes. Italian American kids do not need to see their heroes in the comics. They just need to look around the dinner table.