Stan Lee had a knack for capturing the zeitgeist. X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto paralleled civil rights tensions between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; the Fantastic Four drew inspiration from the space race; and The Incredible Hulk, debuting the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, mirrored the nuclear panic of the early ‘60s.
Even in one of his last projects, Lee exhibited that of-the-moment awareness that helped build Marvel into a pop culture powerhouse. Before he passed away in November 2018, Lee completed work on one of his final fictional worlds, one that drew on his interest in modern technology and how it’s shaping the world we live in today.
Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light, available as an audiobook on Audible now, sees a young woman called Nia come into contact with teen Cameron Ackerson, an aspiring YouTube star who’s granted the power to craft a new reality. Nia and Cameron begin to use this power to reshape the online world, only to face opposition from a sinister group called OPTIC and a humanity-threatening galactic power.
Lee created the Alliances universe with Luke Lieberman and Ryan Silbert, and penned the first instalment, Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light, with Kat Rosenfield. Prior to his death last year, Lee had read a completed a manuscript and recorded an introduction to pose the story’s key question: “What’s more real? A world we are born into, or one we create ourselves?”
Lieberman, who started his career at Lee’s POW! Entertainment, tells Den Of Geek that the genesis of the story stretches back nearly 20 years. “Stan was always mentoring me and we were always talking ideas back and forth; obviously I always wanted to figure out how to do something with him,” he explains. “One thing that he kept coming back to was the way that technology manipulates our perception of reality, how digital technology creates kind of an illusion.
“He was always very enthusiastic and optimistic about the internet, at least when I first met him in 2000. Cut to late 2015, when we started this, he was aware of how, instead of connecting us, the internet was dividing us. It just wasn’t living up to its potential.”
As the story began to percolate, Lieberman teamed up with Silbert and Rosenfield to work with Lee and craft the finished product. “We had a very collaborative process thanks to the magic of digital virtual working spaces. We were able to create this bi-coastal team of nerds working together to bring the story to life,” Rosenfield says.
For Lieberman, Silbert and Rosenfield, working with Lee meant they were able to get a glimpse into the Marvel mastermind’s creative process. Lieberman, in fact, describes him as “the most spontaneously creative person I’ve ever met”, a man who was constantly churning out ideas.
“By the time we were working with him he was in his 90s and the most experienced storyteller in the world,” Lieberman adds. “He knew how to keep us focused, how to focus a story and cut through the noise. It was always about characters, you could have the most elaborate set pieces or plot devices, but from Stan’s point of view if you cared about the characters you could take them anywhere.
“In this case it was about the connection between Cameron and Nia – that played right into the basic core of the story, it’s about human connection and how we feel isolated through our internet connections.”
Silbert fondly recalled time spent in Lee’s office reminiscing about Errol Flynn in The Adventures Of Robin, the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty, and the poetry of Edgar Alan Poe.
“Stan has worked in nearly every medium and he draws from every medium as his inspiration,” says Silbert. “What was amazing when we started working with Audible for A Trick Of Light, we found an area that he had never explored before. It harkened back to the radio serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which were a large inspiration for him in creating the serialised storytelling of the Marvel era.”
Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light’s creative team Luke Liberman, Ryan Silbert and Kat Rosenfield
Underpinning Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of Light, says Rosenfield, is a universal story in-keeping with Lee’s classic Marvel tales. “We really found something that people could connect to, something commonly human that is reflective of a lot of our contemporary anxieties about living in a digital world,” she says. “We shape our identities online, we inhabit these digital spaces and we decide who we are on this case by case basis. This exploration of who is the real you and what is reality… that’s at the heart of this story.
“It is so imbued with Stan’s sensibility, with his voice, with the way he saw the world. Whatever else it is, it’s first and foremost a classic Stan Lee story and I think fans are going to enjoy digging into it.”
Of course, any Stan Lee story wouldn’t be complete without a few Marvel Easter eggs sprinkled in. Listen out in early chapters for narrator Yara Shahidi (Grown-ish) dropping in a mention of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. “Stan is the OG of Easter eggs. He loved throwing things in for audiences to discover,” Silbert enthuses.
Lieberman adds that working on the audiobook led Lee to think about the relationship between storyteller and audience, and how listeners can conjure up images of the story in their minds. “Stan liked the idea that the audience was going to be the Steve Ditko or the Jack Kirby, the artist working with him to craft their own personal version of the story,” he explains.
As for the future of the universe? Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light is just the beginning. Lee, according to Lieberman, left behind “a bit of a road map” detailing where to take the story next. The creative trio are also refusing to rule out a potential film adaptation of the audiobook.
“This was a multi-year, world-building exercise before we zeroed in on the initial story that Stan wanted to launch the universe with,” Lieberman says. “There are a lot of ideas and a lot of characters… I know how special it was for Stan. I’m just excited for the world to hear it.”