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A Technical Writer's Alter Ego: Engaging Comic Book Novelist

By Louie Estrada
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Paperback novelist Pierce Askegren was foremost a creative writer: imaginative, at times dark and quirky, but entertaining, even when it came to his own upbringing.

A quick Internet search of his name turns up a Wikipedia entry with a biographical sketch of the Annandale resident that begins on an intriguing note.

"His life began in the circus where his parents performed as high wire walkers," the entry reads. "After a tragic fall at the age of 11, Askegren broke his hip and began a life-long affinity for Tab (soft drink)."

Askegren did seem at times to be hooked on Tab, but he made up the part about growing up in the circus to inject levity into an otherwise pedestrian account of his life's benchmarks, his brother James W. Askegren said.

A friend recently recalled that Pierce Askegren got an idea to produce a free music newsletter, a parody of the type of publication found in record store checkout lines. Askegren wrote tongue-in-cheek reviews of nonexistent bands and fictional letters to the editor praising articles in earlier editions and requesting back issues.

"He was one of the funniest guys to be around," said John Garcia, a commercial illustrator and friend of Askegren's for more than 20 years.

Born John Pierce Askegren in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon, he grew up in Lynchburg, Va., Montgomery, Ala., and North Carolina before his family settled in Northern Virginia in 1970. He graduated from Broad Run High School in Ashburn in 1973 and from James Madison University in 1978 with a degree in communications.

Until a few years ago, he made his living as a technical writer for government contractors in the Tysons Corner area, producing training manuals and educational material.

His friends said that he enjoyed being in the office with colleagues and learning about new technology but that his true passion lay elsewhere, represented by the collection of comic book action figurines peering from his bookcase.

In the mid-1990s, he began writing short stories published in anthologies of comic book characters. His stories appeared in "The Ultimate Silver Surfer" (1995), "The Ultimate Super-Villains" (1996), "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" (1997), "The Ultimate Hulk" (1998) and "The Chick Is in the Mail" (2000).

Around the same time, he wrote or co-wrote novels featuring Marvel Comics characters. He was a ghostwriter for the 1996 "Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk: Rampage"; co-author with Danny Fingeroth of "Spider-Man and Iron Man: Sabotage" (1997) and with Eric Fein of "Spider-Man and Fantastic Four: Wreckage" (1997); and author of "Marc Miller's Traveller: Gateway to the Stars" (1998), "Fantastic Four: Countdown to Chaos" (1998) and "The Avengers and the Thunderbolts" (1999).

Askegren, an aficionado of pop culture, seemed to be full of ideas for plotlines, but it was putting it on paper with prose, structure and stylistic distinction that proved challenging and ultimately rewarding, Garcia said.

Garcia and Askegren, whose literary heroes included John Collier, collaborated on a short story for an anthology of a comic book character. Although the deal ultimately fell through, it nevertheless demonstrated Askegren's talent as a writer and storyteller, Garcia said.

The strength of Askegren's writing, according to his friends, came from an encyclopedic knowledge of comic book heroes, super villains, old story lines, the history of the genre and key figures in the publishing industry.

"One of his skills was giving personality to obscure, oddball characters that hadn't been seen in the comic book world for years and making them into real people," said David Erskine, owner of Aftertime Comics in Alexandria.

Physically, Askegren bore some resemblance to the comic book character and Spider-Man nemesis Kingpin. Askegren stood 6-foot-3, with a large frame.

Working out of his apartment in Annandale, Askegren produced reams of manuscripts. One of his biggest writing projects was the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" novel "After Image," which came out last year. He spun a tale about the teenage heroine and her trusted friends tangling with a werewolf and a mysterious stranger at a newly restored drive-in theater in fictional Sunnydale, Calif.

Perhaps better known is his "Inconstant Moon" science fiction trilogy: "Human Resource" (2005), "Fall Girl" (2005) and "Exit Strategy" (2006). The character-driven series, about power and corruption in corporate colonies on the Moon, received favorable reviews in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine.

Askegren, 51, was found dead in his apartment Nov. 29 after suffering a heart attack. His last short story, "Try and Try Again," will appear posthumously in the anthology "Time Twisters" this month.

"He was a unique person," Erskine said. "Pierce had a great sense of humor. It went over people's heads sometimes, but he always got a kick out of it."

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