Chronicling Stan Lee’s legacy in comics would take up its own dictionary-sized tome. But as much as he’s known for co-creating everyone from the Fantastic Four to Egghead, he also did a lot of great work at the end of his career.
Case in point: alongside co-creators Ryan Silbert and Luke Lieberman, Lee created several stories in the Alliances universe prior to his death in November 2018. That includes 2019’s A Trick of Light — where teens Nia and Cameron gain powers and work to “create a more righteous online universe, but wind up crossing a shadowy outfit called OPTIC” — and 2021’s A New Reality, where a biohacker named Olivia becomes obsessed with cracking the mystery around an “online portal created by alien technology.” Though different in format from Lee’s classic comics work, both tales saw him exploring large, socially relevant ideas in big sci-fi universes populated by deeply human characters.
But the tale of Alliances isn’t over. Silbert and Lieberman are continuing the story and the legacy with Alliances: Orphans. Here, the duo, joined by artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Szymon Kudranski, bring this grand universe to the comics page for the very first time. The 184-page graphic novel follows William Ackerson as he’s lost in space — until he meets a group of super-powered aliens called the Orphans. The group then “find themselves in over their heads when their space-heist is hijacked” and they become entangled in a story of intergalactic politics that potentially threatens “the very fabric of reality.”
The OGN is in comic shops everywhere right now; it hits bookstores and other retailers on November 15. In the lead up, both Silbert and Lieberman were kind enough to join us for a recent Zoom call. There, we talked about working with Lee, the story’s ongoing evolution, their creative and writing process, and what makes this sci-fi epic unique, among other topics.
AIPT: What’s the big bullet points that everyone should know coming into this?
Ryan Silbert: One of the wonderful things about working in this space, within Alliances particularly, is that we’ve been able to really focus on the quality. We spent a tremendous amount of time developing characters and storylines with Stan over many, many years, and we’ve been sort of unveiling those very judiciously. First as an Audible Original, A Trick of Light with [narrator] Yara Shahidi. Then following that up with A New Reality.
But coming into, it’s really for fresh readers. We are slowly welcoming new fans into this space, and I think it’s a really exciting world. It’s something that was born out of a question that Stan asked, like many of the kinds of stories that he would start with: what is more real, the world we were born into or the one we create for ourselves? That’s the kind of cornerstone of what Alliances is about. What kind of impact can we have on the world? And how can reality change us?
So for Orphans, which is the original graphic novel, this is an onboarding point for new readers. It begins with “Traitor’s Revenge” which is a prologue that Stan, Luke, and I wrote — it’s the beginning of the story, really, and it’s something we’ve held back for many years. Plus, it’s beautifully painted by Bill Sienkiewicz, who we were just so fortunate to have on board on this team. And then it continues on from there, and this really cool cosmic space adventure surrounding a black hole. And a misfit team of orphans.
Luke Lieberman: We designed this to be a jumping on point, particularly because we’re launching into a new medium, comics. We’re sort of conscious when you’re launching into a new platform that it can be a place that people don’t need to have some Ph.D. in your prior work in order to jump on and enjoy it. So that was kind of the point. And the prologue that he was talking about was actually kind of the first thing that we ever created with Stan in this universe. So it’s, it’s the jumping off point for the entire universe, this 13 pages.
AIPT: What was that process like, going from audiobooks to comics? Did it afford any opportunities for storytelling from other stories in this universe?
LL: There were some format changes; the formats are different. But we were mentored by Stan, and he told stories across all kinds of mediums. Stories were liquid to him, and they could fit. A good story is a good story is a good story.
There’s a little difference in the sense that in an audio book, you’re describing something for people to envision themselves. In a comic book, you have an artist that’s rendering it for you, and so certain stories, I think, lend themselves better. The audiobooks dealt a lot of virtual reality and the cyber world. So letting people envision it for themselves really benefited those projects. This is more of an intergalactic struggle, and so it worked really well to have Bill Sienkiewicz and Szymon Kudranski drawing it because they really brought something to it and really added to the story. I suppose there’ll be a difference if these were a series of five-minute short animations or like even individual comics that you have to break up every 22 pages, because then there’s some structural difference and whatnot.
But the difference between going from a novel in audio form to writing an original graphic novel, aside from the fact that your description is sort of different. Because in one case, you’re doing things in shorthand for an artist’s understanding, and in another, you’re describing them for a reader and an audience. So the description becomes part of the storytelling itself. Aside from that, there’s really not a huge difference for me.
RS: Luke and I — and I know you are too, Chris — are such huge fans of all the mediums we work in. The audio storytelling or radio or serialized storytelling was the format in which Stan learned serialized storytelling, which he brought over to Marvel. It was those interconnected stories that came out of radio plays, like Robin Hood. He would sit around on Sunday night listening to radio with his family. Those two formats — audio storytelling and comic books — are so interlinked from their history. It’s fun to be able to play with those as creators, and to go back and forth, because now everything’s so ubiquitous.
AIPT: I really feel like you, Ryan, made a solid point. If you’re of a certain age, you’re just kind of a pop culture devotee — there’s no transitioning between formats. It’s all, like Luke said, just a great story.
RS: We don’t really talk about it often times, but the fan community around both the comic book world and the audio world, they’re both so engaged…so it’s fun to engage in these spaces.
AIPT: I do want to touch on some stuff with Stan a little more. What were some lessons or insights about writing or storytelling in general you gleaned from him?
LL: I was a film student at NYU. And I was doing my documentary project on him, and he sat down and let me pepper him with questions for about an hour. A lot of the things he told me was a constant mantra throughout.
For a lot of young creators, they love the big set pieces. They love the big, sort of spectacular aspects of the story. And Stan would always bring things down to the character as the sort of beating heart of the story. And his philosophy was that if the audience is invested in the character, if they identify and relate to the character, if they care about what happens to the character, then they’ll follow you on the journey into the fantastical and through six dimensions and all the rest of it.
[Stan] had this ability to distill story elements. You get these very complicated plots, and your notes have notes, and he would bring it down to his essence for each story element. It allowed him to take the story elements and move them around and reconstruct them quite easily. It was keeping things simple, and focused on just telling a compelling story. He had a sort of recognition that the hardest thing to do is be original. And we all have our influences, and he had his influences. But he said people have been strained to tell something original since they were drawing it on cave walls. It’s the hardest thing to do to make your heroes unique, or make your villains unique. To open them in a way where an audience is going to identify with their struggle and care about and root for them. Part of that is not making things too easy for them, and making it a real struggle.
I could go on forever about this now, but in terms of why Alliances made sense as a kind of a final project, it deals with identity. A lot of Stan’s work deals with identity — the whole idea of a secret identity or an alter ego. In A Trick of Light, we were dealing with things like how we all kind of have our online alter ego and then we have who we really are. We have who we present to the world and who we are behind the screen. And then we started thinking about things, like how it creates a kind of dehumanizing aspect when people’s alter egos are interacting, and there’s sort of a loss of humanity there. That’s just part of the internet.
But now, Orphans is a little different, because Orphans is about creators. Sort of recklessly breaking boundaries, and how that’s necessary. Because without that, nothing changes. But at the same time, there’s a certain sort of irresponsibility about great creators, where they make things without thinking about the collateral damage or the unintended consequences of what they’re creating, and how these things might be misused. Generally, conversations we had with Stan was this sort of idea that when things are created, the creator sees the benefits of them, but he or she doesn’t necessarily see the way that they can be weaponized and misused.
RS: Legacy wise, this is just a small piece for Stan.
What I think I learned from Stan — with him and Luke together — it’s the creation of myth. Myth is not about the story on the page. It’s about how does it live on. I think what makes Stan’s creations so powerful is that they’re dealing with fundamental human issues, like Luke mentioned, identity and things of this nature. But when it comes to Alliances this was, very matter of factly, this was just a story he was telling.
He was always just about the work that was in front of him. It wasn’t about how is this going to fit into my greater plan. He always knew it was another story to come right after this one. What was so fun about working with him is that he was very specific, like Luke said, with his ideas, and very, very hard on us. But all that said, he knew how to get the story out. There’s going be another one.
LL: That’s another thing he taught us: you have a tendency to get very precious about your work. You’ve thought up some idea about a character or something, and without batting an eye, just throw it out. You can’t get so wedded to your ideas because you have another idea. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for something if you think it’s right for the story. He’d entertain your fight for all of five minutes.
RS: But we’re proud of this work. And what’s part of that is we do understand that this is a limited resource at this point — Stan’s fresh ideas. We’re very proud of this being part of a legacy.
AIPT: I think that’s another solid point. Talking to creators over the years, there’s a tendency that this is going to be their big story or their swansong or whatever. That feels like a big revelation: just tell the dang story.
LL: Yeah, and focus on what good storytelling is. It’s not about you, it’s about the story. Stan was at a point when we were dealing with him where he didn’t need the story for his legacy; he was telling the story because he wanted to — in a very kind of pure way. Part of the reason he got to do so many different stories, and he’s so prolific, is because he didn’t try to make any particular story more than it should be; he was just trying to tell good stories. He wasn’t trying to have some grand unified theory of storytelling — each story was just what makes sense for this Daredevil story.
AIPT: I also wanted to pick up on that idea of originality we talked about. This being a grand, operatic space drama, it’s going to land comparisons to a million other properties/titles. What, then, is the hook here? What makes this original and what makes the reader care?
LL: Well, I think from a character standpoint, what makes Orphans interesting is that they’re not orphans in the sense just that their parents are gone; they’re orphans in the sense that their people are gone.
The Hive are this dominant species, and they’d invade planets and take them over. And they would wipe out the species that were already there. They’d always just keep one member of it as the “orphan” of that species. So these people are each lone survivors — they have nothing left. Obviously, there’s a sort of found family aspect as each of these individual orphans band together to create a home for themselves and create some family bonds. But that allows each of the characters to come from a really sort of interesting place, and they’re all dealing with trauma and they’re all struggling to figure out who am I when I’m the only one of my kind that exists and that will ever exist. Like, there’s never going to be any more of us.
That’s sort of the way into these characters. That, and these orphans are all new to this graphic novel. There’s the human, William, that was from the other books, and he’s kind of the connective tissue. Then there’s the inventor and Nia and some of the characters in the opening prologue that hail from the other books, but the orphans are new and fresh in the story.
RS: The hook here, and there’s a lot of themes because that’s what sci-fi is so good about — being able to encapsulate themes inside of that operatic storytelling. And so when it comes to William, not to overstate it but with The Inventor and William, we’re dealing with the idea of creation. Like, what is the impact you can have long after you are gone? And how do people use your tools?
Sometimes you can have this utopian viewpoint of the internet, like our main character William has, and they can turn awry because of the science fiction elements, but also because of humans. The Inventor, who is literally called The Inventor, creates what he thinks are tools and not intended to be used as weapons. But these can be turned into weapons, literally, physically in space. So these are the kinds of issues of guilt and responsibility that are echoed throughout all Stan’s work, and Orphans is a continuation of that, for sure.
AIPT: We talked about this book introducing the new Orphans. I don’t think you’d be heavy-handed enough to think we should all get along and sing campfire songs together, but is some element of that, especially nowadays, important? Do we all need to recognize that theme of working together more?
LL: The direct sort of through line and theme to all of Alliances is about connection, and that’s something that we touch on in Orphans. The original sort of concept when we started with A Trick of Light was really more about information technology and the Internet — how we had a million friends online, but no one to eat lunch with. This idea about the way that people are getting dehumanized by being on opposite sides of the screens. And that sort of human connection was being lost. And Orphans continues at the same ideas; how do these lone survivors find connections to one another? And it’s those kinds of real connections that life’s all about.
We get caught up in a lot of other things, but ultimately, your connections to your friends and family to other people is what creates community. And it’s what allows us to solve bigger problems and it’s what allows us to deal with our own problems. Now, I don’t know if we all have to sing “Kumbaya” or get a guitar out or anything like that.
RS: Nothing much to add to that. We’re very clear with our kind of hope in the world of Alliances…which is, connecting and also being connected. And finding balance with the technology around us. We have to find harmony with this universe that we’ve created for ourselves.
AIPT: For the last question, can you talk briefly about the visual elements of the book? I love that sense of balance between this really beautiful, pristine worldbuilding that’s going on, but also the focus on these gritty or slightly bizarre and strange characters happening in this book.
RS: Our influences here are direct to the European graphic novels and Stan’s work with Moebius. And thank you for identifying that because that can get lost in the grandiose world building, but it really comes down to Bill and Szymon both have his way of articulating the spiritual nature of these characters and lifting them outside of the page. We’re very pleased with that, and they’re very different kinds of artists, too, in the way they approach it. So in that way, they really shepherded this thing to the page, and when they were Audible Originals, you’d let fans be their own [Steve] Ditko and [Jack] Kirby — we let them use their imagination. So it was very important for us to have collaborators like Szymon and Bill on this one.
LL: And they both provided something sort of different. Szymon gave us a very grounded story that works the 140-odd pages that he covered, which is the meat of the story. And it’s a little more longform. And Bill gave us this wildly creative, sort of bombastic and beautiful approach to the first 13 pages, which is a little bit more of a short story. They were sort of chosen for that reason. And we’re putting books out at this point, once a year or once every 18 months. And part of that is because we’re very conscious that it’s a legacy project, and we only want to work with quality talent. So we’ve had to wait until we found the right artists to really move forward on the book.
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