Note: this article is written from the point of view of the author
As a child, I never really very much got into the whole "Superhero" thing - with the possible exception of Batman, the cartoons of which I very much enjoyed. My youth was pretty much spent watching the History Channel, back when it actually dealt in history. The universes of Marvel & D.C. were simply too clean and too black-and-white to hold my interest. Watching gritty war movies like Saving Private Ryan when you are still a single digit age tends to quickly desensitize a childish mind towards such fantasies. I had much the same problem with Star Trek (a series which I would only really come to enjoy once I became a political Leftist in my late teenage years and could appreciate the utopian, pro-Socialist overtones present in Next Generation [but I still don't like Captain Kirk, sorry]).
Even as a kid, however, I very much enjoyed a good bit of dark fantasy (á la Lord of the Rings), and many of my first attempts with writing were fantasy. In such alien places with no direct basis in reality, you could forget about how unrealistic and silly the good vs evil, altruism or selfishness paradigm is. My first major literary world I created was a blend of Steampunk and Fantasy, inspired by the boardgame Warhammer, the Anime Full Metal Alchemist and my never-abated childhood love of Ancient Rome (not to mention my more recent fascination with old European culture). However, my attitude toward the Superhero mythos changed considerably once I was introduced to two things roughly around the same time. The first was the graphic novel, and later the movie adeptation thereof, known as "Watchmen" - a gritty cold war reinterpritation of the superhero world that explored the real political consequences of the genre. The other was the MMORPG "City of Heroes" and its counterpart "City of Villains". I still lament the cancelation of that franchise to this day, and it essentially consumed a couple years of my life.
From that point on, as my writing skills and the depth of my universes developed during my later teenage years, I very much wanted to recreate something like CoH/CoV in a literary format. However, I just couldn't create a world that was dark and "grounded" enough to suit my tastes. it wasn't until I went off to college and, ironically (out of boredom) started watching more Anime, that the sort of gritty, realistic setting I'd wanted to create (something like Watchmen) came to mind. I combined the urban fantasy vibe of the Dresden Files book series with the dark, gloom-and-doom political world of the Watchmen mythos and my character backgrounds for RPing (Role-Playing) in City of Heroes/Villains to create the Vancil 1418 Universe.
As stated in the caption for the picture above, the idea behind the Vancil 1418 Universe was to create a world where Magic and superpowers actually existed - but one which explored the consequences for history and human society that they would create. Thus, the Vancil 1418 Setting is a blend of Alternate History, Urban Fantasy & Science Fiction. As my friend Blake put it: when asked what he thought the world would be like if Superheroes and Magic were real, his reply was simply "a clusterfuck".
The Nature of the SettingEdit
The Vancil 1418 Universe is inherently different from our own reality in one major way. There is a sort of ephemeral energy, kind of like the Force in Star Wars (minus that whole stupid Midichlorian thing), that underpins the very metaphysical mechanics of existence. This force can be tapped into using something which is called "Thaumaturgy". The term is a real one, and is sort of the "technical name" for working miracles - from previous centuries in our world when that sort of thing was taken seriously.
In the Vancil 1418 Universe, the term Thaumaturgy is used interchangably with Magic: a "Thaumaturge" is a Magician. The people at large, however, are not aware that this sort of thing is possible, and are geneally as skeptical of it as we in our own world are. This energy created a second, much more recent divergence. As science & technology advanced, a few select persons within society learned how to tap these ancient Magical forces through the application of non-mystical, scientific human knowledge. The major breakthrough along this route occurred in the 1930s & 1940s, coinciding with the development of Atomic Weapons. America - known as the Federation of North America, rather than the United States, in this universe - created the first Superhero.
This superhero is very much a conscious parody of Superman & Captain America, both in-universe as well as out of it. He was "made" in 1943, during the height of the Vancil 1418 Mythos's version of World War II, and thus his creators drew principally on those two early comic book protagonists for inspiration. He was given the sobriquet "Marshal Freedom", and runs around in a red, white & blue get-up that bears a number of greco-roman-esque accessories.
The character of Marshal Freedom, in his earliest incarnation, dates back to my City of Heroes/Villains days, when I created him as one of my characters, intended to be the evil twin counterpart to that universe's principle superman-like hero, the Statesman. However, the Marshal, as he appears in the Vancil 1418 Universe, is a hero who fights for "Truth, Justice & Western Civilization" (rather than the "American Way"). He is very much a living deterrent against war with the Soviet Union (which still exists in the Vancil 1418 universe, despite the year being 2019), although the "real" person that he is hardly lives up to the ideal that the government presents to the American people. In that world's reality, he is a cynical, somewhat sadistic, jaded war veteran who chain smokes cigars and fights for the American government as a paid agent (rather like the Watchmen character of "The Comedian"). He also has a rather pronounced aristocratic Southern U.S. accent - i.e. he talks like Confederate officers from Civil War movies, with clear and slow and painfully articulated molasses for speech - rather than the clean, Standard American newscaster accent generally given to Superman.
Marshal Freedom isn't the kind of guy who hears a train about to wreck on the other end of the East Coast and flies at supersonic speeds to stop it in the nick of time. He isn't the kind of guy who hides his superheroic status behind an ordinary, mild-mannered guise and has a crush on some particular co-worker for no good reason. He revels in his uniqueness, lives on a government stipend in a massive mansion like the celebrity he is, sleeps with any girl he wants and his name is unknown only by virtue of being a closely-guarded State secret he's sworn to keep. Moreover, he only does what the American government tells him to do, and he has no "savior's burden" like Superman. He knows he can't save everybody, doesn't try and doesn't care. He's a superpowered G-man; his only real concern is sticking it to the Russians, whom he hates with a burning passion (having fought against them in his world's version of the Second World War). There are other superheroes and persons of Magical talent - such as the primary protagonist & narrator, Anneliese Vancil - who fufill the more expected task of saving the common man's bacon.
But these fantastical characters are only a tiny portion of the human population and for the most part do not effect the day-to-day eb and flow of humanity's existence, which is what makes the universe such a diverse and maleable setting. Because the main character - Anneliese Vancil - is immortal, I can have her be in any time period I choose after her date of birth and retain the same, familiar protagonist. The power of Thaumaturgy / Magic for human technological advancement is only just being explored in its infancy during the current period of the setting (the modern day, 2019 to be exact) and as such there is potential to run a futuristic, science fiction setting, or to take a jump into the past for a bit of dark quasi-historical fantasy. The potential is limitless, as long as I can tie it into the main character's story. Because of the nature of the world, as a blend of alternate history and fantasy elements, there is also a lot of ability to transcend genres. I could diverge from the life of the principle character to write military fiction using the Vancil 1418 universe as a backdrop without having to pay any heed to the Magical & the fantastical (which ordinary people have no knowledge of), for example.
Comparison to Our RealityEdit
The history of the Vancil 1418 Universe is both quite different and quite similar to our own. The primary point of divergence, if you will, is that England won the 100 Years War - creating a single country, the United Kingdom, out of Britain and France which very much still dominates the Western World. Still, someone from our reality's United States would be able to visit this universe's Federation of North America and feel quite at home, apart from the fact that French is proliferated into the English language lexicon to a much higher degree: it is the western world's language of business, trade, science & diplomacy.