ASH: Academy Commentary File
Dave Van Domelen
dvandom at eyrie.org
Thu May 7 15:42:44 PDT 2020
Commentary on The Academy #0-8
Original stories and commentary by Dave Van Domelen
copyright 2011, 2020
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
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
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 throgh 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
Tony Pi was a bit later, hopefully you'll stick around for that.
I was sorting through some old files and found this...I'm not sure I
ever posted it anywhere, or if it was forgotten in the turmoil of 2011 (not a
great year for me, I lost a long-term position and went into a series of 1-2
year gigs). I decided to not change any of the text I wrote above, and just
update things here in a postscript.
Marc, Matt, and Tony were definitely the main writers in the setting for
quite a while, and all three have gone on to be published professionally.
Another significant later member of the writing corps was Andrew Burton, who
brought a version of his existing OCs Doctor Developer and Lady Lawful into
the ASH Universe. A few other writers contributed a story here, a character
there, particularly in the handful of "open call" anthologies. They can be
found at http://ash.wikidot.com/author-list except for one, who created a
series, posted one story, and then asked to withdraw his creations from ASH
because a studio had expressed interest.
I'll admit, things have been nearly dead from 2011 to 2020. I spent a
few years hopping from job to job, with the need to create new curriculum
every time I got a new job tending to eat up my writing drive. Matt and Marc
had largely stopped years before that, and Tony found his time taken up more
by paid writing gigs. A shared universe does tend to need a certain critical
mass to keep going, with writers bouncing ideas off each other and finding
inspiration. But the whole thing started small, and it could restart if one
of the established writers starts turning out more material, or a new writer
asks to give it a try....
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