As we approach Pride month, it's a good time to look back at the history of queer geekdom. Author Alan Kistler at The Mary Sue has done just that, putting together a pretty exhaustive overview of queer characters and representations in mainstream comics (Part 1; Part 2).
Over the course of comics history, we've seen a lot of representations of gay characters – from desexualized pansies to would-be rapists. That tide would begin to decisively change over the course of the 1980s, as increased LGBT activism and the liberalization of the once ultra-prudish comics code could allow for new portrayals of gay and lesbian characters. Of course, that such a transition occurred didn't mean that such portrayals were necessarily what we'd deem enlightened.
In DC's mostly forgotten 1988 crossover storyline, Millennium, the heroes of the DC Universe are tasked with finding a set of chosen ones who will become the new Guardians of the Universe. This new team received their own book, The New Guardians, later that year. (Both Millennium and the initial issues of The New Guardians were written by longtime comics writer Steve Englehart.)
Today, The New Guardians is largely remembered for two achievements:
Introducing the truly bizarre villain Snowflame, who was powered by cocaine (no, really):
Years later, Snowflame would also inspire an appropriately weird webcomic, which is worth checking out.
The team's diversity – it included Inuit, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese members, among other ethnicities. But it's a certain Peruvian magician, one Gregorio de la Vega, who I'm here to discuss:
The Guardians attempt to recruit Gregorio, in Millennium #2
With his fey mannerisms and appearance – even calling himself a “fruit,” it's hard to imagine a more stereotypically gay character. But then he actually gets his powers:
Yes, his new superhero name is the Spanish word for “strange”... or “queer.” And he's donning a cape that makes him look even more stereotypically gay.
In The New Guardians itself, Extraño continued to make himself a caricature, insisting that other characters call him “Auntie”:
This being the Reagan years, Extraño was reduced to the level of campy comic relief. He could only talk about his own sex life in vague terms; it's no surprise that he was never given a boyfriend or any sort of love interest.
In another storyline, the team is attacked by a vampiric villain called the Hemo-Goblin (get it?):
The team subdues him, but he ultimately dies – not from his injuries, but from AIDS:
Sadly, I couldn't find a higher-quality version of this scene
Consequently, the the team must get tested for HIV – but not Extraño!
Yes, Gregorio here is already HIV-positive, just to check another notch on the stereotype list.
Perhaps recognizing the issues with the character, the authors of The New Guardians would later give Extraño new powers, which also came with a more muscular figure and a butcher costume:
Such changes apparently failed to grab sufficient readers, as The New Guardians ended after only twelve issues.
It's clear that the New Guardians, as a team, were conceived with the best of intentions – to provide a sort of diversity that mainstream superhero books simply weren't offering at the time. Still, good intentions don't make good characters, and it's little wonder that Extraño was abandoned by DC after The New Guardians ended in 1989. There aren't many comics readers out there who have been shedding tears for Auntie.