A Close Queer Read of Extraño (Part Two)

In part one, we met Gregorio de la Vega, better knows as Extraño, as he became the first gay superhero from DC or Marvel in the pages of 1988’s miniseries Millennium. Later that year, Extraño and his teammates spun off into their own title, The New Guardians. The first issue finds our heroes somewhat at loose ends. After an entire miniseries of being told they’re meant to usher in the next stage of humanity’s evolution, they realize their ancient alien mentors shuffled off this immortal coil without leaving them any instructions as to how one might actually go about doing that. Extraño thinks he’s figured it out.

He dishes the straight T, and ends it with a dick joke. This is the Extraño I love. Although he’s being a bit short-sighted – I mean, even in 1988, there was such a thing as artificial insemination. He could always go that route. (Extraño, I mean. Not the plant.) And wouldn’t he make the best dad?

His teammate Harbinger, who spent her entire life on a satellite isolated from humanity (long story), is a little anxious about the whole sex thing. Extraño offers her some wise words.

He’s cast in the role of the wise old nonthreatening queer offering advice to his straight girlfriend, which I don’t love. But it’s still a gay man talking about sex in a DC Comic in the eighties, so I’ll take it. Also, he calls himself Auntie, which is hilarious. I wish that had been his superhero code name instead of Extraño. As for sex being highly overrated, on that we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

The nature of Extraño’s superpowers remains somewhat nebulous. He gets vague warnings of danger, which they could never have called his sissy-sense tingling, but you and I can. And he can see auras, sort of. He doesn’t do much, honestly. In this issue he waves his hand and unlocks a door and it’s the most practical thing he’s done so far.

Unfortunately, on the other side of that door is an artificial vampire called the Hemogoblin. Whoops!

“Don’t make me use my poorly defined power! I will see the hell out of your aura!” The Hemogoblin scratches Extraño and bites his teammate Jet. That will be important later. Why?

Oh.

Okay.

Tough time, indeed. For reasons of comic book science, Harbinger is also at risk, despite not being anywhere near the fight. Because of a mysterious psychic link she and Jet share (which is never once explained over the course of the entire series, but that’s another story), Harbinger manifests a bite wound in the exact same place as Jet’s. So all three go off to the local clinic to get tested.

They all test negative, but the doctor points out that there’s a window of time before HIV antibodies will show up on a test. So points scored for good science, but there are some major points off coming up. Note that Harbinger said they all tested negative. Extraño included. So Gregorio was conclusively, canonically HIV- before the start of this series. (Sssh, bear with me. I’m building a case here.)

Oh, by the way, all this is happening in a flashback while they’re in Colombia fighting a drug lord named Snowflame who gains superpowers from snorting cocaine.

This doesn’t add much to Extraño’s story, but I can’t possibly let it go by without mentioning it. He is shoveling fistfuls of coke up his nose. Snurff. Snorkk. God, I miss the eighties. Anyway. Snowflame dies in a chemical explosion. Hooray!

Oh, Gregorio! You’re so nonthreatening! (Everyone laughs.) (Cue closing credits.)

Back in America, our three at-risk heroes return to the clinic to get their most recent test results.

Everyone at the clinic is gossiping about their celebrity patient’s test results, which makes me seriously question their commitment to confidentiality. But the important part here is that only one of the three tested positive.

Our heroes go to a counseling group session, where the doctors are just as free with patients’ info as the orderlies are.

“And that’s Larry, he got it from a blood transfusion, and Todd got it at an orgy. Emily is a black-out drunk so she doesn’t know where she got it. Now you newbies don’t be afraid to share. This is a safe environment.” The counseling session does include an actual gay guy (besides Gregorio)…well, maybe…

“Care-partner” is a conveniently wishy-washy term. It could be his lover, it could be a friend, it could be his home health care provider. For you youngin’s, it may seem bizarre that DC is trying to present a frank, truthful depiction of the AIDS crisis while jumping through hoops to avoid actually using the words “gay” or “homosexual.” But that was pretty much par for the course for mainstream media in the late eighties. Of course, the straight woman has to go and make it all about her.

Harbinger freaks the hell out and busts through a…a…a solid concrete wall painted to look like glass windows? That’s…quite a bold design choice. But why is she freaking out?

It turns out that all three in fact tested positive, while Jet alone was diagnosed with “full-blown AIDS.” Except…the orderly said that only one was seropositive, which makes me wonder if the writer, Cary Bates, knew what seropositive actually meant. In some panels he seems to understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, in others they’re treated like the same thing. For a comic that’s trying to provide information about a pretty serious subject, it gets some important points really, really wrong.

But if you think I’m calling DC out, you should read the letter column. Hoo boy. The most common complaint is about Extraño contracting the virus from a scratch, which, as we all know, is impossible. The editors backtrack and backtrack, first saying that the Hemogoblin still had blood under his nails from a recent victim, then claiming that they never said Gregorio contracted HIV from the Hemogoblin, and finally going so far as to retcon his suicide attempt in Millennium (Remember that? It was awful.) to be partially motivated by his suspicion about his positive status.

Ooh, girl. Hold my purse. Hold my earrings. I’m going in.

Scroll up a bit and you’ll see that Extraño tested negative after his encounter with the Hemogoblin, and then positive the next time around. The writer’s intention was obviously that he contracted the virus from the Hemogoblin’s scratch, which is grossly irresponsible storytelling, especially in 1988 when information and treatment was so much harder to come by than today, and fear was so much easier. And if you want to try and fix that, do it in the damn story, not in the letter columns. Or at least acknowledge your error and apologize. Don’t pretend it never happened.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m not afraid to take on the DC comics editorial team from thirty years ago.

Ahem. Let’s leave that there. For the rest of the series, Extraño’s diagnosis pretty much fades into the background. Jet dies in an alien invasion, and Harbinger is subsequently cured through comic book logic. During the invasion, a peculiar change start to happen to Extraño…

Extraño straight up kills an alien, either by strangling him or snapping his neck, while calling him an “alien dog.” I mean, it’s not that I expect him to call him “sweetie” while slaughtering him, but it does seem awfully butch for our delightfully fey hero. But let’s put a pin in that for now.

After the fighting, Gregorio takes a trip home to Peru, where he runs into Paco, an old flame. A very hot flame.

Damn, Paco, you can get it! We only get one page of Extraño’s ex, but compared to what we’ve seen of Gregorio’s love life so far, it’s practically porn. They hold hands and everything!

Fine, a kiss would have been nice, but confirmation that Extraño is actually a sexual being is pretty great. He hasn’t always been the sexless wonder! Paco suggests they rekindle their romance, but alas, Gregorio’s duties lie with the New Guardians now, leaving no time for love.

He goes to a graveyard to pay his respects to friends lost to AIDS, where he’s struck by lightning. The lightning passes through him and blasts open a small cave, where he finds a crystal skull. The skull shoots beams of light into his eyes, which gives him a new awareness of his powers. Why any of this happened, or where the skull came from, are never explained. Coherent storytelling, schmoherent storytelling. Time for a new costume!

Well, that’s quite a makeover. Who knew Gregorio was so cut, right? But it’s not only a physical change that’s undertaken Gregorio. He starts talking a lot more like any generic super-magician, i.e. Doctors Fate or Strange, and a lot less like that guy at the piano bar who knows all the words to every song from Pal Joey.

He calls everyone “amigo” instead of “darling,” and there’s a lot more macho posturing, a la that “alien dog” bit from before. At least he’s still wearing those awesome earrings. Maybe he hasn’t completely lost sight of his true self.

Or maybe he has. Good lord, that is terrifying. And there’s so much more.

Kicking and punching at the same time without dropping the crystal! That half-hour tai chi lesson he took back in the last series is really paying off!

Oh, come on! Extraño exhibited a lot of gay male stereotypes, but “gym bunny” was never one of them. He’s buff as hell!

What the heck brought on such a drastic change in Extraño’s character? Was it the crystal skull? Nope – it was the letters column. Or that’s my theory, at least. There were an awful lot of letters decrying Extraño’s effeminacy, and an editorial response in issue 9, while defending his portrayal, says they’ve changed the “mood” of the character some. And that’s a damn shame. Because I sure did prefer old Auntie to whoever the heck this muscle queen is.

The series wrapped up not long after this. A group of genetically modified people became the Chosen, the true next step in humanity’s evolution, apparently fulfilling the New Guardians’ mission, and everyone decides to stay on an island together to figure out what the hell it all meant. (Don’t ask me. I read every issue twice and I still can’t figure it out.)

The New Guardians made a few cameo appearances in the 90s, Extraño along with them. Former Green Lantern Guy Gardner visited the island, looking for a new team to join, but he and Gregorio didn’t really hit it off.

At least Gregorio’s mellowed out a bit. Island living agrees with him.

The New Guardians appear together one last time, in the pages of Green Lantern. The team gets swallowed up by this entropy creature, then rescued. Extraño only appears in one panel, at the end.

And that’s it. This panel is, as best I could find, Extraño’s final appearance. The rest of the team would pop up individually here and there over the years, but no Gregorio. Then came Flashpoint, another line-wide crossover like Millennium, which rewrote DC’s continuity and presumably wiped the New Guardians from existence. Sorry, Extraño. We hardly knew ye.

The arguments against Extraño were not entirely without merit, I’ll acknowledge. He was the only gay superhero from either major company, and that’s a pretty big burden to place on one character. Representing the entire LGBT community is a lot to ask, and the complaints about stereotypes resulted in that watered-down, serial-number-filed-off, gay-in-name-only Ultra Macho Extreme Extraño Variant with Crystal Skull Accessory action figure/cardboard cutout from the latter half of the series.

But the DC Universe is a much queerer place today. Far from perfect, of course, but a rebooted Extraño wouldn’t have to represent everyone anymore. Let Midnighter be the big tough guy, and Gregorio can go back to being his gorgeous, loving, witty, femme, fabulous self.

What do you think? Time for the first mainstream gay superhero to return, or let him stay a footnote in comics history? Let me know in the comments, or find me on Twitter at @brianolsenbooks, or at www.brianolsenbooks.com.

The New Guardians Issues 1 - 12 (September 1988 - September 1989). Writer and Artist (1): Steve Englehart and Joe Staton; Plot (2): Steve Englehart; Dialogue (2): Cary Bates; Writer (3-10): Cary Bates; Plot (11-12): Cary Bates; Script (11-12): Kevin Dooley; Pencils (2-9): Joe Staton; Pencils (10-12): Pat Broderick; Inks (1-4, 6-7): Mark Farmer; Inks (5, 9): Pablo Marcos; Inks (8): Mark Farmer and Pablo Marcos; Inks (10-12): Ralph Cabrera; Letters (1-10): John Costanza; Letters (11-12): Johnnie Mac; Colors (1-2, 5): Tony Tollin; Colors (3-4): Carl Gafford; Colors (6): Gene D’Angelo; Colors (7-12): Nansi Hoolahan; Asst. Editor (5-10): Kevin Dooley; Editor (1-12): Andy Helfer.
Guy Gardner Reborn Issue 1 (1992). Writer: Gerard Jones; Penciller: Joe Staton; Inker: Josef Rubenstein; Letterer: Albert DeGusman; Colorist: Digital Chameleon.
Green Lantern Issue 35 (January 1993). Writer: Gerard Jones; Penciller: M.D. Bright; Inker: Romeo Tanghal; Letterer: Albert DeGuzman; Colorist: Anthony Tollin; Asst. Editor: Eddie Berganza; Editor: Kevin Dooley.
Brian Olsen's picture
on September 27, 2016

Brian Olsen is a NYC-based writer of sci-fi novels and is trying to convert his apartment into a Zero Room. Find his books at www.brianolsenbooks.com, and find him on Twitter @brianolsenbooks.