An Oral History Of ’Queer As Folk’s Unapologetic, Gay & Totally Original Superhero
Premiering on Showtime in December of 2000, Queer as Folk was a big swing, even for a premium channel. The ensemble dramedy about a group of gay and lesbian friends living, loving, and having sex in Pittsburgh adapted the British series, which had aired in the U.K. just a year prior. But while the original show wraps in a tight 10 episodes, the American-Canadian Queer as Folk (QAF) ran for five seasons and 83 episodes, busting TV taboos, cultivating a passionate fanbase of all genders and orientations, and generating a lot — a lot — of conversation.
When the show hit the small screen, the comic book movie industry was still in its infancy. The first X-Men movie had debuted the previous summer, and the creation of the MCU was still eight years away. Meanwhile, one of QAF's main characters, Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks) was partially defined by his lifelong love of comics and comic book heroes. In the show's second season, he teams up with his frenemy Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison), an artist, to create their own gay vigilante comic book character, Rage, who they modeled after Brian Kinney (Gale Harold), the object of their mutual admiration and show's own unapologetic antihero.
As fans still wait for a leading and canonically queer character to show up in one of the major onscreen superhero universes, members of the Queer as Folk cast and creative team, including Sparks, Harrison, co-creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, co-executive producer and writer Michael MacLennan, writer Karen Walton, writer Brad Fraser, director David Wellington, and production designer Ingrid Jurek, look back on the creation of their own righteously angry gay hero.
How Comics Got Into The Mix
The British version of the Michael character was written as a Doctor Who fan (that show's creator Russell T. Davies would go on to launch the modern version of that series, still running today). But this version of Queer as Folk needed a fandom that would translate for American audiences and also illuminate Michael's character.
Hal Sparks ("Michael Novotny"): "They were going to make [Michael] a Trekkie ... The problem was, getting the rights to Star Trek, [with] Paramount and parent companies and Showtime... apparently that was a difficult situation. So I got a phone call, it was about three episodes in, and they go, 'You know anything about comic books?' And I went, 'I know everything about comic books.'"
Ron Cowen (co-creator): "Michael had a childlike quality to him, and his love of comic books seemed to fit psychologically with the profile we were developing for him."
Sparks: "It made sense for him, in the shadow of Brian, to have some sort of other attention point to his life that interested him... an escape really. And Michael’s always been about escape, to some degree, because you look at the fact that he has the most LGBT-friendly mom on earth and the gayest best friend in existence, yet he was still in the closet at the beginning of the series."
The Representation Factor
In Season 2, Michael opens his own comic book store, and meets Ben Bruckner (Robert Gant), a gay studies professor. Ben invites Michael to come speak to his class about gay semiotics in the genre, and Michael finds out that he knows a lot more about the subject than he'd assumed.
Brad Fraser (writer): "There was an episode in the second season where [Michael] talked about what comics meant to him as a gay person and an outsider, and I could have written that word for word as my own experience."
Cowen: "He was saying that young gay kids are often timid and meek and bullied and unappreciated, and then he said something very interesting: they can’t let anyone get too close out of fear that someone will discover their secret identity."
Dan Lipman (co-creator): "It’s living this duality. It wasn’t just a, 'Well let’s make him like comic books.' There’s a whole emotional and psychological reason for it."
Yet, with all the villains and the monsters and the evil forces that are trying to destroy them, somehow they survive ... I believe the same about us. That's what the comics have shown me. That despite everything, we'll survive. And we'll win. But...uh, back to the guys in tights." - Michael, Season 2, Episode 6
Michael MacLennan (co-executive producer/writer): "There was a reference from time to time to this gay show, Gay as Blazes, and it was a wink to the fact that we were that show in the real world, and also how that show was almost endlessly critiqued by the gay community for being too much or spilling tea. It was a similar conversation that we thought we could have of the portrayal, or lack thereof, of queer people in the comic book world."
Dealing With Restrictions
While Showtime put very few restrictions on the show, other companies were hesitant to have their properties associated with a series as graphic and boundary-pushing as Queer as Folk. So partly due to necessity, the show invented its own long-running comics hero for Michael to be obsessed with: Captain Astro.
Lipman: "When we first started the show, Warner Brothers was one of the studios that was producing this, and initially, we wanted to use their DC characters like a Batman, Superman. And I remember they said, if you have Batman or Superman, as an example, in a scene, no characters could touch each other, kiss each other, be close to each other."
Bustle has reached out to DC for comment.
Sparks: "Indie comics were all fine, we could show whatever. But we got strict letters [from DC] about no kissing in front of the posters of these characters, and Marvel had none of those limitations. I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan, it’s nice to see that reaffirmed."
Balancing The Triangle
In the Season 2 episode, "Priorities, Please! (Beat the Time)," Michael is devastated to learn that Captain Astro, who he'd determined to be coded as a gay character, had been killed off. But the disappointment prompts him to team up with Justin to create their own — explicitly gay — hero. It takes them no time to fix on an avatar: Brian, Michael's best friend since childhood, with whom Justin is in a non-monogamous sexual relationship. Rage's powers included superhuman strength and sexual stamina, plus the ability to heal others through sex.
Lipman: "The seed to Rage was a practical one for us, which is that the show was built on a triangle, in a way: Brian, Justin, and Michael. How do we keep these two characters active and connected to each other?"
MacLennan: "We wanted to be rooting for [Michael and Justin] as a team — not a romantic team, but a team with a shared goal. And we were interested in the ways that that could refract the triangle. We were always thinking about the triangulation of the three leads."
Randy Harrison ("Justin Taylor"): "When you’re on a long-running show that has a group of characters, you're always looking for storylines that are going to connect you to the characters you haven’t been connected to, so you can develop a new relationship ... There was only so long they could go with just Justin and Michael being catty to each other over the attention of Brian. So it was exciting to stop playing that and to find this whole other connection that [they] could have, and the way it moved Justin forward as an artist and an adult."
Sparks: "As things existed, there was no real reason why [Michael] would have to even see Justin any more than he saw half of the dudes that Brian slept with, and there was no reason why Justin would hang out with Michael, considering how they felt about each other for a while. So the idea of having this bond outside of each of their relationships with Brian was necessary to the storyline ... And the natural bridge of him as a visual artist and Michael knowing everything about comics and this [idea] of, 'Why isn’t there a gay character, why don’t we just make one?' was a great bonding point for the two of them."
Developing The Look Of Rage
A comic book storyline involved the creation of original comic art, with characters visually based on Brian (Rage), Justin (J.T.), and Michael (Zephyr). Viewers saw various stages, from sketches strewn around Brian's loft to blown-up posters at Babylon, the gang's favorite club and site of the launch party.
Ingrid Jurek (production designer): "From what I remember, we had one or two comic book artists, but there was one who was also an extras casting guy, which was weird, but that was his history. We brought in three or four people [to do the art], and then the writers wrote the comic."
Sparks: "Initially, there were two pages of Rage drawings in a comic book ... It was essentially fake, we’ve got six panels to work with, and all the other pages are other comics. It built that tension around, 'When are we going to see a final project?' And I just remember us being stuck on the fact that Rage was named after a gay club in West Hollywood."
Harrison: "I worked with the art department a lot, and I worked with the people who actually created the drawings to figure out how they did it. And the props department would create all the art in various stages of completion, so I could see the steps and use different parts of it during shooting."
Jurek: "There’s more optimism to [Captain Astro]. Not that Rage was in any way pessimistic, but it’s a darker reality, like a lot of the graphic novels of today."
Harrison: "I remember posing with Gale for the set photographer, [who] would take photos so [the artists] could create the art."
The Aftermath Of Anti-Gay Violence
In the Season 1 finale, Justin is gay bashed by a classmate and ends up in a coma for several weeks. Brian is by his side throughout that time, though he keeps the degree to which the event affected him to himself. The first Rage issue Justin and Michael write is about Rage saving J.T. from homophobic attackers.
Karen Walton (writer): "What you’re watching with the creation of Rage is, as Justin points out and Michael tentatively brings up, is really about reconciling what happened instead of not giving Justin’s character an opportunity to work through his feelings both about Brian and about what happened to him."
Cowen: "I think the real psychological impetus for creating this character was going back to how gay people were treated and how Justin specifically was treated. He was bullied, he was gay bashed. And Brian basically helped him recover."
Harrison: "It ended up being a way for [Justin] to talk about the violence that he experienced in a way — to externalize it."
Cowen: "If were were going to make a superhero, what would be our first story? And I think the cover of that [first comic], was Rage carrying the lifeless body of this young blond kid, which was obviously Justin."
Brian As A Hero — Their Hero
Soon after Brian first meets Justin, he warns him: "I don't believe in love, I believe in f*cking." He takes pride in his lifestyle and has no interesting in assimilating into "straight culture." While he can be outwardly cold, Brian shows himself through his actions to be devoted to Michael, Justin, and the rest of their friends. Still, the name of the character they created spoke to the anger harbored by the community in their marginalization.
Walton: "The boys make jokes about [Brian’s insecurities] in creating Rage. They’re saying, 'Yeah, he says he doesn’t believe in love. Let him think that. What we have in common is that we both know differently.'"
Harrison: "Both Michael and Justin hero-worshipped Brian, so mythologizing him was not particularly a huge jump from away the characters feel and talk about him the entire series."
Sparks: "In many ways, [Michael and Justin] were filling in a gap based on what they wanted from him, which was [for him to be] blazing with life and love about them."
Fraser: "Brian, on one hand, was meant to be a selfish, self-absorbed asshole, but on the other hand, he was also somebody who helped out his friends and was very resourceful and went to great lengths to ensure other people weren’t hurt. One side of him was Clark Kent — only the asshole Clark Kent — the other side was a nicer, Superman kind of character who could almost literally get anything he wanted to get or be anything he wanted to be."
Lipman: "He didn’t need a secret identity, he didn’t need a cape."
Fraser: "That’s what I always loved about him. He was called Rage and he was a very angry homosexual, trying to make the world right. [When] you do start exploring gay rage or queer anger, the straight audience becomes very uncomfortable with it, and I’d argue the gay audience does as well. I don’t know if that’s because we have so much rage inside of us already that we’re afraid to tap it, or, as I’m told by some people, we can’t let the straight world see that because if they do, they’ll become scared of us again."
MacLennan: "It helped that Gale was such a charismatic performer. I think the term 'the camera loves you' was basically invented for him. There was something about his basic facial structure. You throw a light on it, and you roll some film, and you just can’t take your eyes off of him."
The character of Brian was polarizing to viewers, who either hated or loved him. In the very first episode, Brian, who's in his late 20s, embarks on a sexual relationship with Justin, who's 17 at the time. The relationship is a cornerstone of the series, shown to be loving and, in its own way, committed.
MacLennan: "When I would tell people I worked on the show, I can tell you exactly what would happen: The person would ask which actors were gay. And then the person would tell me how much they hated Brian as a character."
Lipman: "In our minds, Brian had his own moral code. In many ways, he was the most moral person on the show."
Cowen: "I think they were threatened by him being so unapologetic in his sexual behavior. People have so many names to call Brian, it’s unending. Back then he was called promiscuous, and he was a slut, he was a sociopath... "
MacLennan: "If you want to speak in Jungian terms, [Brian] was a shadow figure for gay men. He was something that you both desired and you also resented ... It was less about what they felt, and more about how they were uncomfortable with the way other people would be seeing a gay man portrayed in the wider cultural landscape."
Cowen: "I said to people, 'If you don’t like the reflection you’re seeing in the mirror, don’t blame it on the mirror.'"
Lipman: "Sunday nights were The Sopranos on HBO, followed by Queer as Folk on Showtime, and these two shows had these antiheroes that people had never seen before. And we always used to say that if Brian were straight, he would be [considered] a real stud."
MacLennan: "I never got those kind of responses from women. Women seemed to really like Brian and frankly, see qualities worth emulating, in terms of his strength, his self-realization, and his frank sexuality."
Cowen: "People were calling him a pedophile. Did you ever bother to look up the definition of what a pedophile is? It’s hardly having sex with a high school senior, an 18-year-old who can join the army and kill people and get killed, he can get married..."
MacLennan: "I think that certainly that first year’s writers were very uncomfortable with that relationship dynamic, and I think it was a very big part of why they weren’t asked back. People were very squeamish about it and very judgmental of it. And it’s a testament to the courage of Ron and Dan that they did not back down from that."
Cowen & Lipman (via e-mail): "It wasn't just about Brian and Justin's relationship. [The Season 1 writers] didn't share our vision of the show. Fortunately, in later seasons, we found writers who did, and were eager to write the bold and daring story lines we felt needed to be told."
Harrison: "I feel like the sexual dynamics between a 30-year-old and a 17-year-old are not explored in the complexity that they would be thought of now. So it’s hard for me to look at that [relationship] without thinking of the extreme power disparity between those two characters and what that would have meant for the less empowered character at certain times."
Rage Is Debuted To The World
The Season 2 finale was the show's most ambitious yet, involving a launch party for Rage at Babylon, including a full stage show, with actors in skin-tight costumes by costume designer Patrick Antosh, portraying Rage, J.T., and Zephyr.
Sparks: "That’s one of those kind of dream come true moments for Michael ... And that’s gonna shift you internally a little bit. He gets a little mouthier after that. The couple of times he tells Brian to 'shut the f*ck up' are after that."
Jurek: I’m on a show right now, a show called Titans, and the supersuits take months [to make], and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I look back and go, 'Wow.' This is a different version — it doesn’t have arms, it doesn’t have a lot of mass, but it’s kind of amazing that [this costume] was done in the time it was."
David Wellington (director): "Shooting the party scene was challenging because you’ve got all these little dramatic moments, but [you're also] trying to negotiate all those crazy background guys who are really rowdy, and a lot of glitter cannons. [Laughs] Just trying to keep the glitter in the air."
Jurek: "I think we must’ve printed a 30-foot Rage that was lit for people to walk through his legs. That was a note given from the writers room."
Wellington: [Carnals] were special performers who would do the more raunchy stuff in the background. I did some scenes on some other episodes with like 15, 20 guys, and that was always an adventure. But mostly it was just trying to get them to occasionally tone it down a little bit."
The Hollywood Factor
In the last two seasons of the series, a young, gay, hotshot director named Brett Keller (Mike Shara) courts Michael and Justin for the movie rights to Rage. Justin travels to Los Angeles to explore the idea, being invited to extravagant poolside parties where men are hooking up in broad daylight.
Due to the similarity of their names and the comic book movie aspect (the X-Men franchise was in full swing by then), Keller has been compared to Bryan Singer, the director who's been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by several men over the past 22 years. (Singer has denied all wrongdoing, and some lawsuits have been withdrawn or dismissed.)
Fraser: "Particularly someone like Bryan Singer, with whom there’s been a lot of talk recently and over the years, [it's] always dangerous to me. Because on one hand, yes it kind of seemed to be going on, but on the other hand, straight people have a way of demonizing queer desire and sometimes making it look much more evil than it actually is. And I don’t know what the case is with Bryan Singer. But with all of the characters, we always had at least one or two archetypes that we would say, 'Oh, this is a Bryan Singer, or a Fellini kind of character.' We’d play around with that."
Cowen & Lipman (via e-mail): "The storyline we were writing dictated that we needed a successful, gay movie director who would be interested in making a film about a gay comic book superhero. There was no conscious intention on our part to base the character specifically on any director."
Harrison: "[The party scenes were] based on, if nothing else, hearing stories. It was based on experiences. We’d all peripherally witnessed things and been in LA." [In an e-mail, Cowen and Lipman said that they "do not recall hearing any stories based on someone's personal experiences."]
The Rage movie eventually dies, because Justin is given the opportunity to either stay true to their creation or let the edges be sanded off to make it palatable to a broader audience. In other words, Rage would have to be straight.
Cowen: "There was no way that this movie was going to get made, even though the director wanted to do it. They’re not going to do Rage the gay superhero. Maybe today they would. I don’t know."
MacLennan: "We were all in Hollywood. It was the one thing we were knowledgable about, how everything we were putting out was being straight-washed. There was no meaningful queer representation in the history of comics, and something that was really special and the essential quality is Rage’s gayness. But then you try and take it away. You turn heads of people in power, and then they shave off what’s interesting, creatively. It’s a tale as old as time basically."
Fraser: "We all looked at [Justin] staying with Rage and not giving up completely as a gay triumph in the story."
Though almost 20 years have passed since Queer as Folk landed on TV, it still stands alone in many ways. In the case of Rage and what he represented, QAF once again went places that other media hadn't dared to go before — or have since.