Alliances: A Trick of Light represents Stan Lee's final creative work. The comics legend passed away on November 12, 2018 at the age of 95. All the way until the end, the iconic master of Marvel was stretching his creative muscles and pursuing different avenues to tell provocative new stories. A science fiction universe about the realities we create for ourselves versus the objective reality we're born into, Alliances follows in the proud tradition of Stan Lee's timeless stories about people managing multiple identities while dealing with impossible circumstances.
For Alliances: A Trick of Light, Stan Lee and his bullpen of collaborators created a story as a novel – with particular note to the audiobook version produced with Audible. A veritable supergroup was assembled to create this story: Lee created the universe with Luke Lieberman and Ryan Silbert, and co-wrote the novel with Kat Rosenfield (2014's Inland). Meanwhile, the audiobook is narrated by Yara Shahidi (Grown-ish).
While promoting the release of this debut entry into the Alliances universe, Ryan Silbert and Luke Lieberman spoke with Screen Rant about the book's story and themes, as well as working with Stan Lee, one of the most important writers of the 20th century. They discuss their first memories of Stan, what it was like to collaborate with him as creators, and the secret to his incredible output of iconic heroes and lasting legacy.
First things first, what is Alliances: A Trick of Light?
Luke: I originally met Stan in the year 2000. At that point, he was very optimistic about the potential for the internet as a kind of connective force. There was this idea that you could put something on the internet, and it would appear all over the world, instantaneously. He thought it would be a great way for people to connect with one another. Cut to a decade-and-a-half or so later, and he became more keenly aware of the pitfalls that had arisen of internet culture, and the way it divided us and allowed us to create our own little bubble realities. In true Stan fashion, he saw around the corner and saw where these problems were gonna go. That is a lot of the basis of this story.
Ryan: In the audio introduction, Stan asks the question that he asked us when we started. As you probably know, a lot of Stan's work always starts with the big Marvel Publishing question: "What if?" Stan asks, "What is more real: the world we're born into, or the one we create for ourselves?" When he asks that question, it's the organizing principle, not only for the characters we've created here, but it's the underpinnings of the overall Alliances universe.
This is an audiobook. Was that always the plan? Why this above any other storytelling medium?
Luke: When you find something Stan hasn't really done before, that's kind of a big moment. Stan was really excited about doing something new and different, like the opportunity to innovate by telling an immersive audio experience with Audible. One of the things he was hoping for with Trick of Light was the ability to kind of turn the listener into a collaborator. They're the ones who have to visualize the story. They get to be the Ditko. They get to be the Kirby. I think Stan is at his best when he's excited and enthusiastic about something, and he loved the idea of this new way of engaging with fans in storytelling.
Ryan: I think what's really interesting here is, A Trick of Light features brand new heroes that were created for, specifically, audio. I think rediscovering that mode of storytelling was very interesting for Stan. We're living in the golden age of audio, now. But it's something that harkens back to Stan's earliest interests. When you collaborate with Stan, he draws on everything from pop culture, and that included radio serials, and that's how he developed a lot of his early comic book storytelling. It really informed, not only this specific project, A Trick of Light, but it also harkens back to all of Stan's work.
Luke: Yes, absolutely. It's very full-circle.
There's a supergroup of talent here, between you two, Stan, and Kat Rosenfield, who co-wrote the story with Stan. What brought this particular team together around Stan to develop this idea?
Luke: Initially, Stan and I were kind of talking around how the internet had been maturing. There was also a larger question about the way technology shapes our perception and the interplay between our perceptions and reality. Once a premise was formed, it was time to assemble a bullpen. There was a comics convention going on shortly after we started ideating, and I hang out with Ryan at every convention, and I asked him if he wanted to join the team! And he was very excited to do so. Then, we brought on Kat, and the bullpen was complete.
I guess Stan was the kind of guy whom you didn't have to pitch to get people to work with him. Like, who's gonna turn down that opportunity? So, you mentioned the Alliances "universe." Do you view A Trick of Light as a self-contained story? Or did you create this universe to be the setting of more stories to come?
Ryan: Stan says in the introduction that we're "about to embark on a fantastic new universe." There's definitely a road map here, but we're focused on A Trick of Light. What you said earlier is important: the immersive experience of audio, and how it's married to A Trick of Light, is something we're really exited for fans to listen to. They're going to bring their own imagination to the project. That's something Stan was very enthusiastic about. It's one of the great parts about storytelling in this medium, it's the interaction with the fans, and it's something Stan did with his "soap box" and letter pages in the comics.
Luke: He wanted to inspire imaginations, and he thought this medium would allow listeners to do that.
You mentioned you first met Stan in 2000. For both of you, what was your first meeting with Stan?
Luke: My first meeting with Stan, I was an NYU film student. I sat him down for my student documentary, and I asked him questions for about 45 minutes. That was the day we met.
What was it like to have the opportunity to pick the brain of a legend?
Luke: You're a young creator, and you have the man who created the Marvel Universe sitting in the chair in front of you... And you just ask him everything you can think of. Every possible question that comes to your head. I was really excited to have the opportunity to talk to him. I asked him about the business of creation, about his own work in the 60s. I asked him about what makes collaboration work and what goes wrong when it doesn't work. I asked him ridiculously esoteric questions about the meaning of life. I asked him everything that popped into my head.
Ryan: I was a fan first, just like Luke was, and when I came onto A Trick of Light, to see the bullpen come together, to see Stan's project and having been a student of his from afar... I had a Secrets Behind the Comics pamphlet in my desk since I was eight years old. It was a pamphlet he created in 1947 that I got for fifty cents in a comics section in New York. For most collectors at that point, it seemed worthless, but to me it meant everything. It gave me the outline of how you go about creating. I think one of the gifts Stan really presented to the world is, not only the idea that you could be worthy or you could swing from a building with a spider-web, but also, as a fan sitting at home, he empowered you to create. He did that all throughout his career. That's really one of the most powerful things he brought to this world. He inspired creative people to get out there and put their stuff out.
I never had the opportunity to meet Stan, but I always got the impression that he had a very jolly open disposition towards people who wanted to say hello and ask him things, when one would imagine someone might get tired of being asked the same questions literally a million times over fifty years. How do you think he was able to foster such a jovial relationship with his fandom?
Luke: He cared. That's the easiest answer. He cared. His letter pages and soapbox pages were an innovation in terms of creating a rapport with his fans. He's not someone who wrote something and put it out there. It was as important to the process for him to interact with his fans and understand who they are. I think that's what allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist as well as he did.
Ryan: If you look back on Stan's work, and A Trick of Light fits into that pantheon, if you look at the Fantastic Four, which is him signaling the Marvel age in comics, it's really an innovative story about a family imbued with cosmic rays. It really is told within the context of the times, which is the Space Race and what was going on there. Similarly, I think Stan had a sensational curiosity about the world. He was able to distill that into the characters who have become so beloved and formed our modern mythology. With A Trick of Light, while it's no longer about the Space Race, it's still about technology; social media, augmented reality, and it asks questions about where that technology is going, and the questions about identity that we face today on the internet and with digital avatars.
Luke: Stan had a mantra when it came to storytelling. "It's all about the characters." We had our bullpen, but Stan was the most creative person I've ever met. We all had a lot of ideas, but Stan would focus in. The core of the story, to him, was always the characters and their relationships to one another. His attitude was, if the audience cares about the characters and is invested in them, then you can take them anywhere, and if they don't care about the characters, then it doesn't matter what happens to them. I think that's part of how he managed to keep such a good rapport with his audience; he focused on the humanism of his characters. That's what allowed the audience to identify with his creations. I think you'll see that shine through on A Trick of Light.
Ryan: As an Audible original, what you have is really the elemental side of storytelling, which is a direct connection between the listener and the storyteller.
Luke: Stan is the storyteller, but the reader is a talent, as well. Yara Shahidi, I think, echoes a lot of what Stan was good at, in terms of engagement with fans. She has a great and thoughtful social engagement with her fandom. She's very into technology and where it's going. She's a very unique talent. We were lucky to be able to work with her, and I know Stan was excited that she was going to be the reader on this project.
Was Stan someone you could bounce ideas off, or did he have a singular vision that you would set out to accomplish for him?
Luke: It was a very free and open exchange of ideas, but he kept you focused. He kept the group focused. He wouldn't let us jump down too many rabbit holes. Stan was not only this spontaneously creative person, but he was extraordinarily experienced. He wouldn't let you get away with anything but the best. One of the other driving forces for him was that he wanted to show audiences something they hadn't heard before. He always said that was the hardest part of storytelling; to do something people haven't already heard, you know?
Ryan: No matter what professional accomplishments you have, when you sit across the table from Stan, you become an immediate fan right away. I think what was interesting for me to experience was that Stan was a fan of pop culture. You'd just glance around his office and see books of poetry, a poster of The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn... He found joy and inspiration in every medium. I think that's part of what makes his creations so unique and able to stand the test of time. He drew from everywhere. I learned a lot. Not just about his process, but also what he loved.
Luke: I was sort of an apprentice of his for a time, but this was the chance to actually work with him on something. It's one thing to have someone drop some pearls of wisdom and tell you how things should be done. It's another thing for him to really show you and have this dynamic process with him where you really kind of experience and go on a journey with him. That was revelatory.
I can't imagine what it must be like to look up to someone for years and years and then work with this person as a peer.
Luke: I'm not sure I would call him a peer! (laughs) But we were able to create together. I don't think any of us deluded ourselves into thinking we were Stan's peers.
Fair enough! You said he motivated you to bring out your best because he had a BS detector, in so many words. Did you ever feel scared or intimidated to bring out your ideas? Like, "Ooh, I think this is really good, but what if he hates it?"
Luke: He was never mean-spirited about anything. He was always positive and enthusiastic. If he didn't think an idea would work, he would just tell you. You'd just move on to the next one. His attitude about ideas was generally along the lines of, there's more where those came from; let's not be too precious about any one particular thing. I think some of that came from his level of experience as a storyteller.
I feel like a lot of younger fans may know Stan more from his movie cameos than from his profound impact on pop culture. He's one of those people, like Elvis Presley; without them, the world would just be a different place and it would be impossible to recognize this planet. Could you see in him that power, that essence, that was able to literally change the world, when you were working with him?
Ryan: I believe you could see it through his engagement, in, as Luke mentioned, how much he cared for his fans, and bringing people together. The themes in A Trick of Light are similar, in that it's a story about connection. Back in the 60s, he created the Soapbox. He allowed fans in and made them feel, I know myself included, that we weren't alone in our love for these stories, or for looking to escape, or to learn something. You could definitely see that in working with him. I think one of the things that made him so great was how he made the impossible seem very possible. Not only in the great cosmic heroics of his stories, but in his ability to show that, no matter where you are in your work, you could still do it. A lot of fans were introduced to him through his cameos. He's amazing in those. But it could be forgotten, like with Elvis, just how much he created. He created Fantastic Four when he was 39. He created Spider-Man when he was 40. He had a whole 20-year career in comics before that. He worked extremely hard. He was the hardest worker in the room. That's oftentimes forgotten in the mythology, but I think fans everywhere who are trying to get their voice heard, Stan is truly an inspiration for how it doesn't come overnight. It comes with hard work.
Luke: I look back at the documentary I did, that I shot the day I met him, and he answered a question about young fans and people who are trying to get started in the industry. I asked him, as a young creator, how do you get started in the industry? And he said, "You've gotta just keep working at it, and hope that sooner or later, someone will recognize what you've done. You just can't give up." Stan had an amazing energy about him. It wasn't just that he was kindly and affable. It wasn't just that he had a creative mind. He had this natural work ethic that would put you to shame. Everyone else was just trying to keep up!
Stan's work was politically and socially aware. To this day, comics are dismissed by squares as being devoid of artistic merit. I guess, when you're a kid, you don't relate to that part of the story. When you're older, you realize how relevant these stories are to the world around us. The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and The X-Men. The same issues they were addressing back then remain issues today. There's backlash against that from fringe internet people who think comics should just be people punching each other while wearing cool costumes.
Luke: I would say Stan disproves that notion in his work. He didn't infantilize comics in his work. He wrote, "A story without a message is like a man without a soul." One of the things I think allowed it to be something like Spider-Man to be relevant was how he had to deal with issues of identity. He had his alter-ego, and there was interplay between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. How do those two personas impact one another? That was something he was very focused on in Alliances: A Trick of Light. We have sort of the modern day equivalent of that, in these digital personas that we present to the world. The question is, what is the interplay between those digital alter egos and who we really are? How do they change us? Again, it's about technology manipulating perception, because these virtual personas are trying to manipulate other people's perception of us. In A Trick of Light, he took that alter ego idiom that was central to a lot of his stories that wrestled with identity, and he brought it to modern social media culture and the digital age.
Stan Lee's Alliances: A Trick of Light is out now.