A Close Queer Read of Extraño (Part One)

When asked who the first gay superhero from a mainstream publisher was, most people would say Northstar, who came out in the pages of Marvel’s X-Men spin-off Alpha Flight in 1992. But another hero beat the Canadian speedster to the punch by almost five years. Extraño is almost forgotten by all but die-hard old-school comics fans, so let’s dig deep and take an excruciatingly close look at this milestone of LGBT comics history.

Millennium was DC Comics’ line-wide crossover event for 1987, following the trend begun two years earlier by their massively successful Crisis on Infinite Earths. In it, two immortal aliens choose a small number of Earthlings to shepherd humanity to the next stage of its evolution, and the world’s superheroes gather to protect the Chosen from an evil cult of alien androids out to do them in. The Chosen were an international assemblage, and like many other well-intentioned 80s multi-culti teams, each embodied some particular national stereotype – there’s a wealthy Japanese businessman, an Australian aborigine who muses about the Dreamtime, an old white South African who’s basically the villain from Lethal Weapon 2. That sort of thing. And then there’s Gregorio de la Vega.

Oh, my lord, how can you not love him immediately? Gregorio is from Peru, but the population he’s meant to represent sure ain’t Peruvians. This is his very first appearance, in the second issue of the series, and he’s in a gay bar, drinking an enormous cocktail, wearing that magnificent ensemble, and cracking jokes about two aliens who just materialized in a blaze of green light. He should be made an honorary Green Lantern just for calling one of the Guardians of the Universe “bite-sized.”

Gregorio is a very unusual character for a mainstream comic book – in 1987, depictions of homosexuality were actually forbidden by the Comics Code Authority, the industry regulatory body. Not having the CCA’s seal would have made it harder for Millennium to get distribution on newsstands, so while Gregorio’s sexuality is obvious, the words “gay” or “homosexual” never actually appear in the comic. Writer Steve Englehart does use both words in a text piece at the end of issue 6, talking about how important he felt it was to have a gay character be a member of the Chosen. I guess the CCA didn’t read the letter columns?

When told that he’s been picked to help advance the human race, Gregorio replies…

If any readers were really so thick that they hadn’t clued in yet, Gregorio referring to himself as a fruit probably opened their eyes. He insists that the aliens are drunken hallucinations and dismisses them. And I need to visit some Peruvian gay bars if that’s the quality of hallucination the drinks bring on.

Extraño inspired mixed reactions in LGBT comics fans. On the one hand, any representation was better than nothing and, outside of indie comics, Extraño was it. While some people were happy to have even this slight sign of progress, others weren’t so thrilled with the first gay superhero embodying so many popular stereotypes of a homosexual man. I didn’t much agree with that point of view then, and I agree even less now. However, while I adore Gregorio’s glorious flamboyance, there are one or two clichés I could have done without.

Yup, Gregorio is a Self-Loathing Gay (TM). This doesn’t quite jibe with the lively spirit we’ll get to know across the rest of the series. But he’s gay, so he must want to die, right?

Although suicide is clearly the writer’s intention, I’m choosing a redemptive reading based on the art. I mean, look at the height. It’s not exactly the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s not even going to be hurt by that fall, let alone drown. I think he’s mad at himself for getting too drunk and thinks a cold dousing will fix him up. That’s my story and you can’t convince me otherwise.

Whatever his reasoning, this is what prompted the icy plunge…

Little boy? That the best you got, stevedore? Come on, Gregorio, that’s weak. He’s obviously a closet case cruising for some late night cargo-loading. Tell him to whip out his longshoreman and in two minutes you’ll have him crying in your arms about how he could have been a contender.

The Flash zooms by and saves Gregorio from a night of rough trade followed by a damp walk home…sorry, I mean death, he saves him from death. Flash gives him a rather weak pep talk about not letting other people’s opinions matter, which I guess works? Gregorio barely talks in this scene, just his straight savior, but it must cheer him up because the next time we see our hero, he’s signed on the dotted line and is all ready for that sweet, sweet, alien enlightenment. He and the other Chosen sit through a lecture about some pseudo-scientific New Age codswallop and then I think take LSD?

I mean, they say it’s a transcendental state, but they sure do seem to be tripping balls. Gregorio hallucinates himself unraveling into rainbow-colored fabric. There's some symbolism for ya. Don't need to go ask Alice about that one.

The preparation also involves physical training, including a little tai chi, which Gregorio really takes to.

Oh, dear, there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, and the baggage is heavy indeed. Englehart’s intentions were good but the self-loathing written into Gregorio is really making me struggle with my redemptive reading. The idea that gay men are “used” is such a straight point of view, and having Gregorio vocalize (think-alize?) it is ugly. There are so many things wrong with this, not the least of which is the idea that a feminine gay man is necessarily passive, that sex is something that is “done” to him. He’s saying that once he knows how to get in touch with his own softer nature, he won’t need that icky gay sex anymore to make him feel feminine. Which, you know, screw that. I can’t redeem this panel, even as a joke, so let’s just move on.

Millennium was too big a story for just eight issues, so it spilled out into many of DC’s other titles. In The Green Lantern Corps #221, the Chosen are given a day pass to go experience the humanity they’re about to give up. Gregorio says he want to learn more about the Green Lantern Corps, so Lanterns Kilowog and Arisia decide to take him to the moon, where their arch-enemy Sinestro is held prisoner. And that makes perfect sense to everyone, I guess.

“I’d like to learn more about your history.”
“How about we go to the moon and meet a super-powered mass murderer instead?”
“Okay!”

I’m glad they went, because it resulted in hands-down the greatest single line of dialogue in all of comicdom.

Sinestro hits on Extraño. He camps it up and flirts like Paul Lynde at a piano bar. That’s canon, and it’s beautiful.

I’m taking Gregorio’s comment about how nice it is to hear even an insincere come-on to be a backhanded barb at the relentless heterosexual hegemony at the Green Lantern Citadel. Seriously, the two aliens who are running the show go on and on about male and female being perfect and complementary opposites to each other. I imagine Gregorio rolling his eyes through most of it. Guardians of the Universe, you’re billions of years old, you can spare a second to check your privilege.

They go watch some Peruvian baseball. It gets interrupted by a rain of fire, blah blah blah, standard superhero stuff that doesn’t have much to do with our topic. But before all that Gregorio slips a joke right past the censors…

So to speak. I’m guessing nobody got how truly dirty this joke is. Also, Gregorio’s a top. That’s canon as well.

Holiday over, the time comes for the epic transformation. After eight issues of build-up, the next step in humanity’s evolution is revealed to be…a team of B-list superheroes. All righty. Gregorio takes a dose of alien energy to the noggin and becomes Extraño!

That is a whole lot of look. All the other Chosen get fairly radical physical transformations, but Gregorio gets some volumizer and an outfit that was probably already hanging in his wardrobe. “Extraño” sounds evocative but it’s just the Spanish word for “strange.” They literally named their gay superhero a synonym for “queer.” But the Japanese guy got turned into a living computer named “Ram,” so I guess it could have been worse.

Extraño’s powers are left a little vague – he shoots off a colored light show and declares himself a witch, and that’s about it. But it’s enough to gain him an admirer. In another dimension, the mysterious hero known only as the Phantom Stranger is watching…

Oh, really? Like to get to know him better, would you? What are your hands up to under that billowing cloak? This is just a cameo by the Stranger, and as far as I know he never got up the nerve to introduce himself. Oh, what might have been. Post your best Phantom Stranger/Extraño slash-fic in the comments!

Betty, the Australian Dreamtime-enthusiast, loses her physical form and becomes one with the Earth, because of course she does. But she’s not lost to them – she and Extraño are linked.

Because what’s a gay guy without a needy girl BFF? Gotta cram that last stereotype in before the series wraps up.

And wrap up it did, with more of a whimper than a bang. Extraño was controversial, and with good reason. His problems weren’t his effeminacy or his flamboyance, but rather his heavy-handed movie-of-the-week brand of self-loathing. Take that away, and you’ve got a superhero who’s witty, confident, and loving, all great traits for a representative of the LGBT community. And I adore him for it.

But we’re not done yet! Extraño and the Chosen spun-off into their own ongoing series, The New Guardians. And if you thought Millennium was jam-packed with topical issues from the 80s, well, just you wait. But that’s for part two. For now, let me know what you think about Extraño! Superheroic groundbreaker or embarassing footnote? Respond in the comments, or find me on Twitter at @brianolsenbooks, or at brianolsenbooks.com.

Millennium Issues 1 through 8 (January 1988 – February 1988). Story: Steve Englehart; Layouts: Joe Staton; Finishes: Ian Gibson; Letters: Bob Lappan; Colors: Carl Gafford; Editor: Andy Helfer.
The Green Lantern Corps Issue 221 (February 1988). Story: Steve Englehart; Pencils: Joe Staton; Inks: Mark Farmer; Letters: Agustin Mas; Colors: Tony Tollin; Editor: Andy Helfer.
Brian Olsen's picture
on September 20, 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.