Relationships are defined and redefined throughout our lifetimes. We learn how to reach to others, we learn how to share ideas, we learn how to describe the feelings we develop and we learn how to label the kind of relationships that come and go. Good or bad, each experience influences, teaches and ultimately changes us from our past selves into our future self.
Alliances: A Trick of the Light was a project worked on by Stan Lee and released earlier this year exclusively to Audible, narrated by Yara Shahidi. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in a fun photoshoot with the co-creators, co writer, narrator, and guests Gill Champion (president, director & CEO of POW) and youtube celebrity Andre Meadows (Andre “Black Nerd Comedy”. After the photo opportunity, I also had a chance to attend a small roundtable with Ryan Silbert (co-creator), Luke Lieberman (co-creator) and Kat Rosenfield (co-author) to talk about the book.
Question: What attracted you guys to this project?
- Luke Liberman: Well this really started when I met Stan in 2000. At that point he was just really excited about the potential of the internet as a communication tool. He saw it as a way for ideas to be shared, and for people to come together. You cut to a decade and a half later when we start ideating around this story, and he was much more keenly aware of how this tool was being used. The way that it was dividing us, and creating bubble realities. Just how the anonymity of the internet was dehumanizing us. How we weren’t connecting as people. So ultimately we wanted to tell a story about finding human connection.
Kat Rosenfield: What I love about this project is that, it’s really a classic Stan Lee story. It’s so imbued with his sensibility, his kind of sense of humor, that sort of positive outlook on things. But it really reflects our contemporary anxieties. What you experience living in a digital age, and inhabiting a digital world, where issues of identity and issues of human connections. What does it do to our relationships when we are spending so much time connecting through screens rather then connecting fact to face. It was really cool bringing Stan’s sensibility into that.
Ryan Silbert: What drew me to the project was Stan. I was a massive fan as we all were growing up, you don’t think you are going to sit across the table from the guy in a professional capacity. No matter what led you to the table, you turn right back into a fanboy or fangirl right away. Then you realize that he’s a fan of this stuff too, not just comic books and mythology, but things like Sherlock Holmes, Errol Flynn, music and poetry. He drew from all kinds sorts of inspirations. When you start to see that, it gives you permission to start creating with him. Because you all are sort of vibing off of different influences. I feel like I waited my whole life to hear him ask those Marvel publishing questions, like “What if” and “What is more real, a world we are born into, or a world we create ourselves,” in the case of Alliances. And that sort of is the foundation to building the whole universe for stories.
Luke: To add onto that, the concept of “A Trick Of Light” is that it’s just with the new digital technology, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality, what we are getting from our phone, it’s not real, that’s a trick of light. In some ways we have this ability, as Kat was talking about, we are creating these virtual identities, that aren’t necessarily who we are. Our avatars are interacting with other peoples virtual identities, and they are having this virtual relationship with each other. Does that come at the expense of a real relationship.
Question: Has this project then affected how you use technology, or how you use your phone, or is it just over your shoulders?
- Luke: I did not touch that face-app thing that made you old.
Kat: I wasn’t even thinking about that, but I too did not participate in the face-app meme. It wasn’t even a conscious decision.
Luke: It was just nope.
Kat: I think this has imbued me with a little more suspicious of the digital realm, and things collecting your data.
Ryan: It’s an interesting question. What it brought me back to, was what it must have been like to have been in the 60’s and what it must have been like to experience going to the moon for the first time, through the Fantastic Four, and not doing it through an Apollo landing. Because we hadn’t reached the moon, or stars yet. It was really up to Kirby and Stan to figure that out. And then there was cosmic rays that changed everyone, so it was a little fantastical. But yeah I do think about that. Okay, that’s what we are doing now, like we are just on the precipice of learning how to Augment our realities. How will that change us. I’m just hoping that my super powers are going to be cool.
Kat: Just to add on to that, this project was a way of exploring, not necessarily in the way to be fearful of technology, but a way of digging into the way it impacts human beings. The internet is still in its infancy, it’s already changed the way, and social media, has changed the way we interact with each other, and engage with each other. I don’t think we’ve fully begun to recon with it. We’ve just begun to recon with it, and we are going to be thinking for a while, what did this do to us.
Luke: Yeah, probably in turns of communications, probably as big as the printing press. and that definitely changed the world. Just a greater ability that we have now to manipulate our own perception, and manipulate other peoples perception. It’s a tool, so it’s not in and of itself a danger. It’s really about how it’s being used.
Question: will you be able to talk a little about Cameron’s power, and what Cyberkinetic, and having cyber kinesis means?
- Luke: You mean the dorkiest power?
Kat: Yeah, the nerdiest super power you’ve ever heard of. At base it’s about being able to interface with software with using your mind.
Luke: He’s the Professor X of computers at some level. You all have devices, they are ubiquitous. If I am Cameron, I know every email you’ve wrote. I know when you posting on your social media, and if I wanted to I could take over your Facebook feed and make it nothing but pictures of llamas and tutus.
Ryan: I think it’s like, you look at powers and different power sets. We have different favorite power sets. It really comes down to power plus character, plus blend of the other characters and how they interact. You can look at super strength as something that is ubiquitous in pop culture. But its the way that super power being interacts with that other super power being, or strength or flight. It becomes how great stories are told. That blend and that combination. I think that’s what Stan was so good at, blending multiple characters. That’s part of it.
Luke: One of the things, to add on that, Stan was extremely experienced by the time we were dealing with him. You could get excited about powers, or set pieces, and action scenes, but for him it was just about the characters. He cared about his characters, and they were always his focus. He would say, “If the audience cares about the character, if they identify, if they are invested, they will go on the journey. If they don’t then it doesn’t matter what happens to them.” They could be in outer space, they could be underground, but it doesn’t make any difference if you don’t care about them. So he would always bring us back to that place at some level. The other thin, and Ryan you said this a couple time, he was great at creating abilities that didn’t solve the problem. Their problems were always more personal, they were things you couldn’t punch your way out of. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if your wife is leaving you. You can lift a building, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Peter Parker, I think in particular, dealt with that a lot, and that was something we dealt with. A lot of what these characters in A Trick of Light, is figuring out who they are. A lot of the issues are with identity, Nia in particular. So is Cameron. Cameron starts the story thinking he wants something, and then he realizes that it is meaningless to him because it doesn’t give him the human connection. Which is what he really needs.
Question: How did you juggle that, the creative process of creating this new digital world, and the overall story, versus the importance of the strong characters tied into this world.
- Kat: For me it always came back to the characters first. They were the beating heart of the story. You can place them in all sorts of situations. You guys should talk more about that because you were all so much more a part of the world building aspect of things.
Ryan: This was a multi-year process, and it did start as world building activity. I think is what helped it be introduced in such an original way as an Audible Original, because it became this thing were we had this framework and a lot of ideation, but like anything, when dealing with Stan, if you rolling it back again into the foundation of the marvel universe or even prior to that. It was about setting real characters in real places. With real problems. Where it feels like it is coming from our reality, and it feels familiar. You can see Spidey swinging down 6th Avenue, which was probably amazing experience in the 60’s and prior to that in the 50’s. For our characters it was great because, now we can imbue it with things that feel very familiar. It was a very specific reason we started with these street level heroes, with Cameron, Juaquo and Nia because it provides a way in for an audience or a listener to experience.
Luke: He always wanted them to have a natural reaction. The real question would be, what would happen to you. If you woke up one day and this happened, what would your reaction be. Cameron’s Initial reaction when he gets his powers is to be apprehensive and is scared and feel burdened by them. Eventually he leans into them a bit, and understands that this is something that could be a blessing, help him elevate his life. If one of Stan’s characters saw an alien crawling down the street, they are going to have the reactions to scream and run away, or call the cops. They are going to have the reaction that any normal person would have.
Ryan: My favorite part of the Fantastic Four, is that once they get their powers, they were unhappy about it.
Kat: Life was already complicated why.
Question: What makes this story so perfect for Audible. Is there something so special for the audio book aspect to it?
- Luke: what Stan really like about the idea about doing it as an audio book, was that he liked the idea of creating a repor with his audience. He felt it was an opportunity for the audience to collaborate, and create their own. They would be the Kirby or the Ditko, visualizing the story as it’s being expressed for them. That’s part of the reason that we didn’t really describe the characters in detail, besides general descriptions. Stan wanted the listener to be able to create their own version of the character in their head. What does Cameron look like to you, what does Nia look like instead of having it fed to you.
Question: I did love that as I was listening.
Mistie Newman: Yes me as well.
- Kat: To add onto that, I think that because this is such a digital age story, it was really amazing to do it in audio, to do it in this elemental way. That’s the oldest form of story telling. It predates the written word. To combine your heroes using widely advanced technology, but the story is being told to you in a human voice. It really transforms the narrative, it’s captivative and immersive, like sitting around a campfire and someone is telling you something spooky.
Luke: We had a really good reader.
Kat: We had the best reader.
Ryan: In the golden age of audio, this is really fun place to explore. It’s immersive, it really is.
Kat: Did you guys get a chance to walk through the activation?
- Kat: I think it’s really something, standing in a dark room and listening to this…
Luke: I’m going to get it set up in my house. I don’t think my garage is quite this big.
Ryan: It was a new experience being part of an audio journey. With an Audible original you really do get to experience the world in a different way. In a really neat way it augments our own reality. You can listen to it in a car and connecting with the environment you are listening to it in. Or running. People have different experiences, and people will go, “Oh, I remember when I heard ‘A Trick of Light’ when I was on vacation.” That’s very cool you can’t do that with other mediums.
- Kat: It taps into a different type of sense memory, and it’s an interesting think about this.
Mistie: I really like the way it kind of tells you that you really are the sum of your experiences. Especially the question of Nia, what is she. Is she a person, is she not a person. If you take away all of her experiences, is she really Nia. I loved the way that came through in the book. I got to go through it twice because I pre-ordered it. I saw the big Audible ad for it in in a movie theater, while watching a movie I don’t remember.
- Kat: Dark Phoenix maybe?
Mistie: No, not Dark Phoenix, because I think it was earlier then that.
- Kat: I had no idea!
Mistie: Yes I’m getting it, I threw right into my preloads for Audible. The minute it launched I was listening.
- Luke: I actually have Stan’s answer on this. the day I met Stan, I was a film student at NYU. He sat down for my documentary about Stan Lee, so I sat him down and asked him all these questions, and I may butcher it a little bit, but he gave an answer. He said, “We are all the combination of everything we have seen, felt, read and heard through out our lives.”
Ryan: In the case of Nia, in this story in particular. Stan wanted to tell something new. The push was, Oh my gosh, we need to invent something new. He was very funny. He’d say “What do I know,” but then he’d say, “We’ve all seen movies about augmented reality, and AIs,” and he’d know a lot. So then it was about how do you set these characters up in an immediate way, and tell Nia’s story in a different way. I am very connected to the romantic piece of this story. Romance not between her and the other characters, but to her connection to humanity and the world, and there is a super romantic notion to it.
Kat: What’s fun to think of is, is her notion of humanity so romantic because she is not quite human. I don’t have the answer to that question, but I think it’s interesting to think about. One of the kind of interesting dichotomies within the plot, is you have Nia exploring what it’s like to be a human being, and then you have (?)Zal(?) who caries with her the collective history and conscieness of her people who was obliterated. She wants revenge, but there is this question, if she is not just the sum of her own experiences, but also of her people.
Luke: Going back to something that we were bouncing around really early in the process was, “I think therefore I am.”
Mistie: Yes, but how do you define thinking, because we now have computer programs that can kind of…
- Luke: Don’t go there….
Question: What are you hoping people take away from the audio book?
- Luke: I’m hoping that if people are going to spend their days staring at their phones, that they try to find a human connection, and sometimes try to put their phone down and have a real relationship with people, because that’s ultimately what matters. That’s how we are going to solve problems, that’s how we are going to come together. Life is more important.
Kat: He has such a good answer, I was going to say, I hope they think it’s a really good story.
- Kat: Ultimately, that’s your goal, to tell a good story. But also, the thing that Stan say was, “A story without a message is like a man without a stool.” I don’t know if I would say that I enjoyed, but I spent a lot of time looking at and looking into internet culture to make the digital relationships feel authentic. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much easier things would be if people were more charitable with each other online, the way they are when they meet a stranger at a party. You don’t jump down a person’s throat when they say a word wrong. Maybe that’s a good takeaway.
Ryan: I also think it’s a fun yarn. So I think there is still an idea and hope for people have fun with it, because ultimately we can say we have lived in this world for so long, this reality and what we are creating, co-creating and authoring together. It’s fun, and you are going to go on this journey to identify with Cameron, Nia, Juaquo and (?)Zel(?) and come away and have a discussion about it afterward, because that’s where the message will come out. You don’t so much talk about Peter Parker’s “great power comes great responsibility.” You don’t spend so much time talking about that, but what was your favorite run, so that’s what I hope. That’s what Stan was so good at, and what was his great legacies, is not just the characters he left behind, but the community he built. The foundations for the soapboxes allows us to sit at this table now. That way predates the first comic convention in the 70’s. This is awesome, we are that.
Luke: His legacy.
Ryan: Hopefully we’ll keep talking about his work in a way, where it’s great, and hopefully this is a piece of it. That’s what I hope.
Luke: Something that Ryan just touched on, that I think is important. We are all talking about the intellectual underpinning of the story, but at the end of the day you can’t be preachy, it’s got to be just a great story. Stuff like that, if you got the intellectual underpinnings, it should just come out through your story telling. At the end of the day we aren’t hear to preach at people, we are hear to tell them a story that they enjoy.
Question: you are using technology to create it, which is an interesting back and forth.
Luke: That is not lost on us, especially because these two are on the east coast, and Stan and I are on the west coast, so we literally were using technology to create it.
Kat: Bi-coastal team of nerds, thank god for virtual spaces, so we were able to bounce ideas around together.