I want to start this project off on a positive note, so — Luca Esposito from Astra: Lost in Space is one of the best depictions of queerness I’ve ever seen in Japanese pop media, if not the best. He is excellent representation, and also he is my son, and I love him.
Astra is a sci-fi manga about a group of nine teenagers on a school trip to a nearby planet who find themselves warped into space thousands of light years away by a strange orb of light. While they’re lucky enough to be near an abandoned spaceship, which they dub the Astra, they still need to figure out how to make the months-long trip back home without running out of food or water. It’s an odd mix of survival-action and comedy, and I can’t say it always works, but it’s short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome. And most importantly, it has Luca.
Luca is introduced along with the rest of the cast and his personality and role in the group are quickly established — he’s cheerful and teasing, skilled with his hands, and wants to be an artist. It’s only in Volume 3 that we find out his backstory in detail, when some rather complicated circumstances force him to reveal that he’s intersex.
“Reveals” are always a bit tricky, and it’s undeniable that there’s a certain amount of shock value at play with the way it’s presented. Aside from that, though, it’s handled about as well as it possibly could be. Luca has always looked very androgynous/feminine compared to the rest of the boys, and he’s the shortest of all of them¹. His chest even seems to bulge sometimes in his space suit. The fact that he’s intersex is foreshadowed by his design, so it’s not as though it comes as a complete surprise.
As Luca explains, it’s not that he was hiding his sex so much as it simply wasn’t relevant. He identifies as a boy and prefers to be treated and referred to as such. There is a certain amount of equating biological sex to gender, and gender to sexuality, in how he describes himself — he’s genderfluid and bisexual², and it’s vaguely implied that this is a result of him being intersex, which risks readers who aren’t very familiar with queerness assuming this means they’re intrinsically linked. But it is only vaguely, and it’s true that there’s a lot of overlap between different kinds of queerness — the way he describes his gender feels very real, especially for a young person still figuring his identity out.
The only person seen to be disapproving or disgusted by the fact that Luca is intersex is his father — but this is portrayed as old-fashioned and deeply unacceptable, and almost no one in the cast has positive relationships with their parents anyways. The rest of the crew accepts him without question, continuing to treat him as a boy³ at his request, but it doesn’t get ignored either. Luca is clearly relieved to have it out in the open, and uses it to tease people the same way he would anything else. It’s just another aspect of his character.
There is another aspect of Astra’s representation that’s very much worth mentioning, but it’s impossible to talk about without spoiling a fairly major plot point. If you’re okay with that, read on; if you’d like the surprise, Astra is available to read on the Shonen Jump app.
[MAJOR SPOILERS START]
In Volume 4, we find out that everyone aboard the Astra is a clone created so that one day their originals could transfer their minds into fresh new bodies. I’ll be honest — when I first learned this, I assumed that Luca being intersex was going to be a mistake in the cloning process. Not only was it not, his original — a famous artist — specifically requested an intersex body. And yes, he is portrayed as a bit of a weirdo for wanting this, which I really don’t care for, but it still frames Luca’s body as ideal rather than defective. Nothing about him was a mistake. He is exactly what he was supposed to be.
Luca himself is one of the first crew members to accept that he’s a clone, stating confidently that it doesn’t matter. He’s his own person; he likes his body. In a narrative that winds up being largely about overcoming biological determinism and choosing one’s own identity and path, it’s nice to see a character who explicitly reflects how queer — and specifically genderqueer — that narrative is.
[MAJOR SPOILERS END]
There are only a few ways I can think of to improve on Luca’s representation. I’m honestly not sure if there’s a way to establish him as intersex with less shock value without it completely changing the course of events, and without having a long aside about how queerness is defined, there’s no way to make it more clear that being intersex does not necessarily make one genderfluid or bisexual. More of the Astra’s crew members could be familiar with the concept of intersex, rather than just the girl with a medical background, which would imply that it’s more generally accepted in society. For the sake of a readership that might not be familiar, an explanation could still be given to the 10-year-old girl who’s part of the group. There’s also the matter discussed above in the spoiler section. That’s about it though, really.
Astra doesn’t handle Luca perfectly, but it does a very good job — good enough that I’m happy to hold the series up as the highest tier of representation. It’s all downhill from here, folks. Buckle up.
¹ – This height is later contradicted in his character profile, but based on how Luca is drawn relative to the rest of the cast, he is not 5’9″. I suspect it was an error.
² – Astra is pleasantly blasé about queerness — it’s implied that there’s a third gender option in records, no one bats an eye at Luca calling another boy hot, and when one of the boys mistakenly thinks another is going to confess to him, he politely and nonchalantly declines. It’s nice to see.
³ – The series does this as well, including him in an insert illustration of all the boys in suits.