As Pride Month winds down, what better way to start a blog taking a deeper dive into geekdom than by looking at LGBTQ representation in comic books?
And what better place to start than with the first out gay superhero? At least, it would be, if we could definitively find him or her…
The problem is, for most of the history of comic books, LGBTQ themes and characters have been relegated to a scattered underground press. When mainstream comics were too afraid to touch them, LGBTQ folks themselves picked up the mantle, publishing the comics that they wanted to read. But sadly, these publications just weren’t as numerous, didn’t survive as well and have been less well documented than, say, pretty much everything the far less adventurous “Big Two,” Marvel and DC, have done.
Not that you can really blame them for their skittishness, especially DC Comics.
When psychologist Fredric Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent in 1954, he nearly destroyed the comic book industry. And he specifically went after Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman for fascism, homosexuality and sadomasochism, respectively. He was full of it, of course, with (partially) the exception of Wonder Woman. (Creator William Moulton Marston definitely liked bondage and submission, but as a way, believe it or not, to teach love, not S&M.)
In response to Wertham’s blathering and subsequent congressional hearings, mainstream comic book companies promised to self-police in order to survive. They created the Comics Code Authority, which banned any topics that might be even remotely taboo.
With the creation of the CCA, there was really nowhere for gay people to go but underground. And mainstream comics went out of their way to prove they were just good, wholesome entertainers. (Not that they had been clamoring for LGBTQ representation back in those days to begin with.)
After the code, most superheroes died off completely. The few who did survive had to change. Comics veered away from violence and became sillier and more fantastic. And DC practically tripped over themselves to disavow any hints of homoeroticism. First, they gave Bruce Wayne an aunt to live with him, Dick and Alfred, so they’d have a woman’s presence in the Batcave. Next came the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl, in order to create a Batfamily that more closely approximated a “wholesome” nuclear family.
And that’s how the comic book industry survived for decades.
But the world moves on, whether people like it or not, and by the ’80s, the CCA was losing some sway, and restrictions had grown lax. Violence was on the uptick, drugs were discussed once more, sex was acknowledged as existing and there was a nascent desire for more diversity.
So it was the perfect time for DC to introduce their first openly gay superhero. (Well, it was a time for DC to do so.)
No, Seriously, He Was Gay
At the end of 1987, a little over a year after their groundbreaking maxi-series, Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC tried their hand at capturing that lightning in a bottle again with another (smaller-scale) company-wide crossover: Millennium.
It’s not one of the best remembered crossover series, but by the end of the tale, writer Steve Englehart and artist Joe Stanton had created a brand new superhero team. They even pinched a character introduced in Crisis, Harbinger, to join this team and piggy-back off the original series’ success.
Post-Crisis DC was a brave new world, and this almost ridiculously diverse team was meant to reflect that. Their purpose was, ostensibly, to replace the now missing Guardians of the Galaxy (yes of the Green Lantern Guardians of the Galaxy). So, naturally, the new team and their new book were called… The New Guardians. It wasn’t subtle, but nothing about this book was.
There was a Japanese member, a Chinese member, an Aboriginal Australian member, a black member (from England, mind you), an Inuit member and a Peruvian member, Gregorio De La Vega. There was also an otherdimensionly plant member. It was the ’80s.
They all had their code names, of course, and when Gregorio was saving the world he went by… Extraño!
For those who don’t speak Spanish, it means “strange.” Cute, huh? Maybe it was meant as a Doctor Strange rip-off. Maybe it was just offensive. Because honestly, our first time meeting Gregorio in Millennium #2, it’s hard not to be offended by the character.
In any case, Extraño was a magician, a real magician, though his powers were never really defined. But also, he was a gay magician.
Now, DC readily admitted even in their letter columns back in the ’80s that Extraño was not the first out gay superhero. He was, they explained, and as we mentioned above, just the first from Marvel or DC.
Still, being a first from the Big Two, is a Big Deal, especially for someone who was as unabashedly gay as this.
You see, this magician wasn’t just gay, he was really gay. And the writers made sure we all knew he was really gay — without ever actually, you know, saying it. The CCA had lost some sway, but they didn’t drop their ban on LGBT content until 1989.
Within the first few panels of The New Guardians, he made clear he would not be fathering children. After all, he was gay. He referred to himself as “Auntie,” called his teammates things like “my darling ones,” wore over-sized earrings, packed on the jewelry, dressed in long, flowing, flamboyantly gay clothes, heck even the way they drew him just screamed “GAY!”
If you’re thinking we worked the word “gay” into that paragraph a bit too much, you’re right. Again, subtlety — not a strong suit here. Google Extraño and all you’ll find is the image on the side of this page.
Are there flamboyant, campy gay men out there in the world? Absolutely, and God bless them for being who they are and who they want to be. That was, in fact, something that DC used in defense back in Extraño’s heyday. (As much as he had one.)
But it seems like DC just grabbed every stereotype they could think of, dumped it in a pot, stirred it around, and came back to us with the heady brew that was Extraño .
Oof, it was a rough birth. But when your first obvious forays into LGBTQ representation are created by straight white men, you’re gonna run into problems.
And in the beginning, there were so, so many problems with Extraño.
A Learning Process
Was it all bad?
No. DC deserves credit for trying, in their own way, to be inclusive.
If they misused Extraño by hitting us over the head with his homosexuality, it wasn’t much different with the rest of the team. The New Guardians, as a whole, was as blunt an attempt as possible to build a diverse superhero team. And those well-meaning intentions could veer dangerously into racist territory with stereotyping.
To this day, DC is deservedly criticized for the walking cliche they created. And they also rightfully own up to the mistakes they made with Extraño and the New Guardians as a whole.
But they also defend him as the first mainstream, openly gay superhero. Because he was. And he did pave the way for others.
And for their part, DC went to bat for him. They went to bat for him at time when it was simply unheard of, not just in the comic book mainstream, but in the American mainstream.
And on top of that, DC listened to people’s concerns and they kept trying to tweak Gregorio to get him just right. Those who are especially harsh towards Extraño don’t seem to have read much past the first couple issues of The New Guardians. A new writer took over — Cary Bates — and the editorial team toned down Gregorio’s more egregious stereotypes.
And fairly quickly, Extraño stopped being a character who seemed to exist solely for his gayness, and became a character who simply was gay. He was a compassionate teammate, a powerful user of magick and an understanding human being. Halfway through the series, they even gave him more (vaguely-defined) power and a makeover.
A Teachable Moment
One other thing to note about Extraño is that he was, most definitely, one of the first HIV-positive superheroes. This happened after being attacked by a white supremacist vampire with AIDS, dubbed Hemo-Goblin. In the first issue. Because why not? In the second issue they fought a drug kingpin who got his superpowers by snorting cocaine. *shrug*
(It sounds silly, and it kind of was. But then you start thinking of the ramifications of a white supremacist intentionally creating a vampire to spread not just HIV but AIDS to minorities at a time when it was, more often than not, a painful, stigmatizing death sentence, and it suddenly seems much, much darker.)
Extraño’s often wrongly attributed as the world’s first HIV-positive superhero, but he was actually one of the first three heroes infected by the Hemo-Goblin at the same time. Harbinger, like Extraño, became positive, while Jet contracted AIDS. (Though Harbinger ended up being cured, as it was more of a psychically-linked infection. Don’t ask.)
All of this was simply unheard of, and taking a closer look at how the book dealt with the topic is worth getting into in greater detail another time. Because, damn, they did try to educate, even in as little space as they had. And through it all, Extraño held on to his compassion, his positive attitude and his humanity.
It took only a year for DC to cancel The New Guardians due to poor sales. Four years later the poor team was wiped out of the DC universe completely by a rampaging Green Lantern villain. Still, if anyone can get their hands on the old series, give it a shot.
It’s earnestly silly (sometimes just plain silly) and it does sometimes have a hard time differentiating between characterizing diversity and writing stereotypes. But in dealing with issues of racism and prejudice, it can, at times also be surprisingly chilling. And surprisingly endearing.
Take the final issue of the comic, for instance, during the big hero speech. Amidst a litany of names of those who fought for peace, love and equality, alongside the likes of Lennon, King, Gandhi, Jesus, Moses, they included a name that most people probably wouldn’t have even known: Milk. As in Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, assassinated a decade before The New Guardians.
In the end, how should we look at the Extraño of old? It’s easy to make fun of him. It’s easy to look back and say, “Wow, you guys dropped the ball and leaned way into the stereotypes there.”
Should we give DC a pass, saying they didn’t know any better? No, it’s important to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short. Even as DC told his story, both readers and the editorial staff grappled with these issues.
Maybe all we can do is look at this past with a critical eye, but an understanding one. The geeks were trying to reach out to their geeky brethren from all walks of life. As our “high strung” fan pointed out above, it would have been better if they’d reached out by employing these folks to tell the stories and create the characters.
It’s something they got right eventually, when bi writer Steve Orlando brought Gregorio back from the dead nearly 30 years later in 2016’s Midnighter And Apollo. (Though the DC Universe had been rebooted a number of times by then, so it isn’t really a matter of him returning from the dead. Just… comic book limbo.)
Still, it had to start somewhere, and we could do a lot worse than Gregorio.