In 1988 DC Comics had just completed the Millennium event and spun a new series from it called The New Guardians. The series ran only twelve issues before being canceled. Not exactly sure what DC was going for here, perhaps they wanted something controversial and they got it. The series remains a bit infamous for the second issue where a villain named Snowflame got her powers after snorting cocaine. But that's not why we are here today.
The team was an odd mix of multi-racial individuals, some of whom were already established in the universe. Harbinger had been an agent of the Monitor in Crisis On Infinite Earths, Thomas Kalmaku a regular in the Green Lantern series (originally called the degrading nickname of 'Pieface') and Jason Woodrue the Floronic Man. Normally a villain, Woodrue spent his time with the New Guardians calling himself Floro, but when they were all killed he went back to his villainous ways. Other members were an Australian named Betty Clawman, a Chinese woman named Gloss, an English girl named Jet, a Japanese man named Ram and a Peruvian sorcerer named Extraño…
Gregorio De La Vega was a minor magician in Trujillo City, South America when he was asked to join an experiment in human evolution by a Guardian of the Universe named Herupa Hando Hu and a Zamaron named Nadia Safir. In the procedure Gregorio's powers were heightened to the point of being a powerful sorcerer. He could fire blasts of energy from his hands, levitate and do other distracting feats. During the run he also acquired a crystal skull that amplified his powers. So where the other experimented on members gained brand new abilities, everything that happened to Extraño was about magic, even finding the skull.
This of course just sounds like a typical comic character from that era. Why include him in the What Were They Thinking? Does it have to do with the fact that he's mainly a Hispanic clone of Doctor Strange down to the point that Extraño in Spanish means strange or odd? He even looks a bit like the doctor and made me wonder if this was specifically a rip or if perhaps the creators Steve Englehart and Joe Staton were borrowing from a failed revamp pitch. Either way, no this is not the reason for the column.
Though the censorship at the time wouldn't allow it (still under the Comic Code Authority back then), Extraño was every stereotype of a gay man you could think of. He wore extremely colorful and flamboyant clothing, had a lively and jovial personality, gave parental-type advice to his teammates and referred to himself as 'Auntie'. In an comic era equivalent to don't ask/don't tell, you didn't need to ask this character and he was definitely telling. Extraño was often the comic relief of the series and his extravagant attitude received a mix reaction from fans ranging from funny to hateful. The addition of the crystal skull came with a more masculine outfit, this may have been in response to the negative reaction from fans.
Extraño might be considered the first openly homosexual superhero as he predates Northstar's coming out. But the Marvel character existed ten years prior and his sexual preference was hinted at in that time.
I can understand that in an era where you couldn't just come out and say a character is gay, stereotypes are the easiest way to get the message across and I applaud the initiative to bring more diversity to the comic book world. But the point of no return came later on when Extraño was attacked by an "AIDS vampire" called Hemo-Goblin. Gregorio was confirmed to be HIV-positive but it was never made clear whether he got it from the attack or if he had been sick prior to the event.
Again, I can appreciate the desire to bring diversity to the DC Universe… I just don't think that an flamboyantly-gay, South America Doctor Strange clone that ends up HIV-positive was quite the right way to do it.