This is part 2 of my weekly series on Dave Van Domelen’s Academy of Super-Heroes universe, a collection of musings, interviews, writerly insights and historical notes about the free super-hero serials (which started on the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.creative back in ’94 and recently released as Omnibus editions.)
Guest post by Dave Van Domelen
Commentary on The Academy #0-8
Original stories and commentary by Dave Van Domelen
Looking back at 17 years of writing in the Academy of Super-Heroes setting, Tony Pi’s asked me and some of the other writers to provide commentary on the stories as he goes back through the archives and rereads everything. So, who better to lead off than me?
In 1992, I got involved in the Legion of Net.Heroes collaborative writing universe on Usenet (originally rec.arts.comics, then rec.arts.comics.misc and rec.arts.comics.creative). While writing silly superhero parody was fun, I also wanted to write somewhat more serious superhero fiction, and in late summer of 1993 I found my setting.
The Patrol was launched with a single story by an author who ended up effectively abandoning it. An homage to both Green Lanterns and their literary predecessor the Lensmen, I thought it would be a fun “serious” world to play in. I raided my first Champions campaign for characters, lifted some ideas from Mighty Orbots, and set out to build a world. I was pretty successful, attracting several other writers even after the original creator had clearly drifted off.
Unfortunately, since there was no controlling authority, it ended up becoming a sort of majority rules environment. The other writers wanted to introduce elements that I’d been careful to avoid, and when I couldn’t convince them to back off, I left. (Patrol sort of petered out a few months later.)
That left me without any serious superhero fiction to work on. There were a few other settings around by that point that I could have joined, but I decided that I didn’t want to do that. The LNH was loose enough that I could easily ignore any writers I didn’t care for (in fact, sometimes deliberate contradictions were used as a running gag), but for a serious universe I wanted to make sure it was run the way I preferred. And that meant making my own setting.
I didn’t start completely from scratch, of course. After all, I’d done a lot of worldbuilding in other places before, why not raid more old gaming stuff? I decided to pick up the Academy of Super-Heroes setting again and jump it a generation into the future (keeping up with the calendar had been a minor problem for me in Patrol, this would solve that problem).
The Academy of Super-Heroes had started as my Champions campaign in college, and spawned several franchise campaigns run by friends of mine and set in other cities (like Los Angeles-based “LA-ASH” or “KCASH” in Kansas City). I’d raided the setting for my Modern Knights RPG in graduate school, stripping out Other People’s Trademarks and finding replacements, so a lot of the work of keeping to rec.arts.comics.creative’s “no trademark infringement” rule was already done. Plus, I’d even had the Modern Knights RPG campaign cross over into the LNH, so most of my regular readers had seen bits and pieces of the “present day” version of the universe, enhancing the contrast with the 2022 start date I’d picked.
My plan was never to write it ALL myself, of course, but I didn’t want to make the mistake I had in Patrol. I wanted to lay out the basics of the world before letting anyone else play in it, and I wanted to maintain editorial control over the results. For the first part of the plan, I worked up the Academy miniseries.
Step one, brainstorm new characters. I’d decided that on July 6, 1998, the old ASH setting would have had an “end of the world” event, so there would be almost no survivors from the old rosters to work with. I got out a yellow pad and started writing names and powersets until I had fourteen
potential heroes. I came up with the rough idea for the plot: a murder mystery at a school for young superheroes, solved by the first generation of new heroes to arise since all the supers died in 1998. One of the fourteen would have to be the killer, and another would have to die or at least be taken out of things completely along the way, to show that no matter how well you train superheroes you’re going to have casualties. Given how many lines of text this setting has generated, I spent shockingly little time thinking about this.
Of course, at the time I wasn’t really expecting it to run more than a year or so. And my plotting style had always been “take core idea, run with it.” Let the characters and situations inform the plot, don’t be afraid to change directions radically if it looks like the characters wouldn’t really go the way you’d been planning. That sort of thing. It’s only fairly recently that I’ve started planning out arcs more carefully before diving into an installment, in fact.
I had my premise, and my intended format: half the issue would be the ongoing story of the Grads, the other half would be some sort of “sourcebook” material. Some sourcebook sections are blatant infodumps, a few actually took the shape of short stories on their own. Since I knew even the “story” part of the first installment would be more of an infodump, I jumped on the comics trend at the time of “zero issues”, a sort of prologue before the real #1. By the end, I’d established a good roster of character and outlined enough of their world that I felt it was safe to ask other writers to come on board. I’d also told what I hoped was an interesting mystery, and set up the first Serious Threat the nascent superheroes would face…someone who made the murderer look harmless by comparison.
As you read through the Academy, you’ll see I’ve crafted the team I wanted to write myself (ASH), two secondary teams I was deliberately farming out (STRAFE and LNH 2022) and a number of potential antagonists and settings that other writers could play with. Interestingly, perhaps even ironically, the first writer to pick up on this was Marc Singer, who’d been part of the Patrol writing corps and one of the people bringing in elements I didn’t care for. He took over STRAFE, introducing one of the more enduring villains of ASH. Matt Rossi III, another Patroller, joined soon after, creating his own character and fleshing out a part of the world I hadn’t really even thought about.
Tony Pi was a bit later, hopefully you’ll stick around for that.
Next week: S.T.R.A.F.E.: City of Lions