From winning an Oscar to working with Spike Lee to creating his universe alongside Stan Lee, former arts staff writer Ryan Silbert ’02 has led an accomplished career since his time at Cornell. Assistant arts editor Dan Moran ’21 and staff writer Nick Boozang ’21 sat down with Silbert to discuss co-creating Alliances: A Trick of Light, working with Stan Lee, how Cornell impacted the creation of their universe and the difficulty and isolation of pursuing creative career paths at Cornell.
Arts: How did this project come about?
Ryan: This started because Stan had this idea that he was working on with Luke Lieberman and I had met Luke at ComicCon. Stan was interested in the hopefulness and how the internet could help us and link us all together. Then he saw the progression from 2001 to now and he started to see it divide us and create these versions of reality — both technologically and in our own minds. That was the genesis of this. When there’s an opportunity to go work with Stan Lee, you aren’t going to say no.
It was such a cool thing. It took me a while because you go from being a fan of his but then you’re sitting across from him and it’s time to get to work. I think one of the things that’s great about Stan is that he gives you permission to create in a way that nobody else ever did. He was a fan himself, which was awesome because you could talk about the things he loved … the same way you love Spiderman, or Black Panther, he loved Errol Flynn or Sherlock Holmes. When you went to hang out with Stan, you had to be prepared. He was a carnivorous person of culture in every fashion, and it’s cool because that gave me permission to say “I like Silver Surfer, so we should talk about that and how it’s going to fit into the journey of the stories that we tell in Alliances or whatever it might be.”
Arts: So you were a Marvel fan before this project?
Ryan: He had been teaching me from afar as a student of Stan’s, he’s been a mentor to all of us in so many different ways. He had a direct connection to fans before he was doing cameos. You guys know him from the cameo generation, but prior to that he wrote the soapboxes in the back of his comic books so he could directly talk to fans and that was something nobody else was doing at the time. He would go to college campuses and talk about Marvel in the 60s. He really cared about nurturing creatives. Geore RR Martin wrote one of the early soapbox letters to him and it was his first published work [in Fantastic Four #17]. If you go through the early letter pages, you’ll see a lot of the later Marvel writers come out of this.
Arts: What was the process of working with Stan Lee?
Ryan: At the time I was working with him, there was no greater master storyteller on this Earth. What was great about his working method is that he believed in the bullpen method of storytelling, which he invented at Marvel. It was really about bringing in a team of people who have collaborative ideas. Best idea wins, although usually it was Stan’s ideas that won. It was an incredible experience in that sense.
With him it was also about making fearless choices. We had been working on the story for three years, and he threw out the story on year three. We were ready to introduce Alliances but we had to start over because he had this kernel of an idea about a character and then we reshaped the whole story that moment.
Arts: So he was a perfectionist?
Ryan: He was just willing to take the shot. He wasn’t a perfectionist in the sense that it would take him years to finish something. The reason it took us so many years to work on it was because we were building the universe. We didn’t know where it was going to live. It was only later when we started working with Audible that he decided to introduce the characters that way.
Arts: I read that Stan Lee always wanted to make an audiobook because he used to always listen to radio shows as a child. What was it like bringing it full circle for Stan?
Ryan: Serialized storytelling as we know it today and TV shows comes from comic books in a lot of ways and the serialized stories on comic books directly comes from radio, and mostly because of Stan. So in terms of coming full circle, I think his interest was finally allowing a listener or reader really to experience these characters and render the images in their head and bring to life how they see the world. Cause since this book and this universe is built off of how we perceive reality, one of the elemental ideas of this is the experience introducing it is literally building a new reality in your head. That’s what I think is one of the great aspects of this. And I think he’s so smart because he’d been working with talented artists this whole time and I think the most talented people in the world are his fans. So now they can actually render Cameron and Nia as they see it. Not to say that we won’t do other versions of this project, but like it’s in terms of giving it some runway to live in somebody’s imagination, I think is such a cool gift.
Arts: I think it’s interesting how Cameron is set in the internet generation — that’s so modern. Were you and Luke at the forefront of bringing that modern aspect here?
Ryan: Us and Kat, we’re of a younger generation, although not of that generation. I’m super curious about technology myself. What we’d do is I would go out and do a lot of research, actually at Cornell and at Stanford’s human interaction lab, which is where the Oculus was created. The reason I got to Stanford was because of a former Cornell professor who was a leading expert in online deception. The core of the ideas are built off of reality and then we take the tech and then Stan makes them science fiction. You know, you would come back with all these ideas and say, Oh, like, you know, this is how online deception works. He cared about humanity, he didn’t care as much about the mumbo jumbo on the side. He always said that he was curious about science, but he didn’t know anything about it. You know what I mean? You see it in the Fantastic Four, like we hadn’t been to the moon. You don’t appreciate now we hadn’t been to the moon yet. So he sends the team up to the moon, renders what he thinks the earth looks like from the moon inside. So he’s drawing that for the first time, and as a reader you’re experiencing it for the first time. And that’s real science, right? Like we were a couple of years away from going to the moon, but then he adds in cosmic rays. Even gamma radiation, that’s an invented idea that feels real because Bruce Banner is real. You care about the family dynamics so you buy into the science.
The YouTube culture stuff, we helped him for sure, Kat specifically. We spent a lot of time watching struggling YouTubers. We would watch the view count go up and know it was either me or Kat watching. That’s part of this culture now, you guys are a part of that generation. It’s part of why we had Yara Shahidi read because she’s exactly your generation. And she is also extremely smart when it comes to science and tech. She’s a massive Marvel fan, but she also understood this technology. So when she read it, she’s reading not only as a leader of her generation but also believe her in the science sense. She’s amazing. She’s a really, really cool person.
Arts: What was the research process like at Cornell?
Ryan: Cornell was interesting. Most of the early ideas were around online deception, which eventually informed some of the villains. The social media lab in the Comm department was super helpful because they’re doing a lot of online research about bullying. And again, it’s not necessarily about the augmented reality technology or the artificial intelligence technology, it’s about humanity’s use of it. That’s where research is really important. And you know, I think as a Cornell student, I never really understood that because I was like, Oh, I always wanted what I did here to lead me to a job, and that’s really the inversion of what you’re supposed to do here because nothing here will lead to a job. But if you take with you all that experience and you bring it to like I went to, I worked at WVBR and The Cornell Daily Sun too, but WVBR really informed my experience of radio. I was always open to the radio storytelling because I’ve worked in the radio here. And then the Information Science department with online deception, specifically Jeff Hancock, who left to go to Stanford about four years ago.
You know the Fantastic Four land in Ithaca? Totally random fact, I never asked Stan why. That’s the main passive Cornell connection, but there will be more in book two. We have a greenlit expansion of this universe so it’s not the same characters but different stories. There’s lots of opportunities to talk about other versions of AI and how nanotech plays a role. And bio hacking is a big concern and a big element that we address in this book and we’re going to continue in this universe. Because biology is really the future right now where we are in terms of tech.
Arts: Was it a big jump for you going from film and television producing to then making this book?
Ryan: Not really, because I’m still doing film and TV and this isn’t necessarily the universe that we’ve developed uses similar storytelling devices. You know, your working on character, character, character and that’s it. And then the world building is all kind of like, ornaments on the tree. First thing, most important thing, is that Nia and Cameron resonated like truthful characters. And if you all know what loneliness and disconnection feels like, and that’s kind of for our characters in this story, the most key element, which is like what it feels like to be disconnected. That wasn’t so different. Part of what was nice about it is that we didn’t design it specifically for books. We designed it specifically as just like cool storytelling, cool characters that we liked. So we have a lot of characters that we haven’t introduced that we’re excited to.
Arts: So you just kind of went into developing the story and not even knowing the medium that you’re going to release it in first?
Ryan: Yeah, cause I find personally, and with Stan, it’s like you don’t necessarily need to know where you’re going to put something and if you have an idea you should just explore it and figure it out. Sometimes you figure it out later. There’s certainly rules to each of those elements. But at least in your writing, you can continue to explore characters and not have a limitation of saying “Oh my God this has to be a poem or this has to be a movie or whatever.”
Arts: What was it like coming out of Cornell? What was the sort of your first experiences? Your first jobs?
Ryan: Your first job is never your last job. By the time you get to October of senior year, a lot of people who come to the campus and then they go to the recruiting seminars and they want to go to be a banker or a lawyer, so if you’re not fitting into a certain style framework, it feels very isolated, and that’s not a full picture of the reality of this universe. Like, I think that the experience you have here with people you met here and the things you’ve learned here that aren’t practical necessarily are going to be what informs your creative work in the future, especially if you want to be a creative person. I made my major here as an interactive communications major and that’s now what this book is about. It was just a curiosity of mine. So to explore things you’re passionate about, eventually you can make a living doing that. That’s what I think what Stan demonstrates. Stan didn’t publish Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spiderman until he was 40 years old. He worked 20 years in comic books and then in five straight years he made, it’s like the Beatles, right? He made X-men, Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spiderman, Black Panther, all of that within a four year period, 40 to 44, and it was because he worked every day and he worked really hard. When you’re at Cornell, just experience as much as you can because eventually what’s going to make your voice unique is taking all of it and blending it into, you know, whoever you are and telling that story because the same story’s been told a million times. It’s who you are, what you bring to it that changes it. I think Cornell is a really wonderful place because of the research elements. As an alumni, I see it more and I see what they are doing in Human Ecology, see what they do in Design, I see that they do in Nanotech, it’s wild. Like just to drop in and talk to a professor for one department like each month just to get like a little bit information what’s going on in the world is amazing.
Arts: What was it like working with Stan Lee as opposed to Spike Lee?
Ryan: They’re so different, but they’re so similar in their work ethic and their ability to reinvent themselves. Like, I think what’s really cool about Spike and Stan, you know, like I said, Stan went from working the kind of science fiction, 1940s, fifties early Marvel stuff into making the silver age. Then he turned into a businessman. Then he became a publisher. Then he became the author figure head for the comic industry and then he became an actor in his eighties. And similarly, Spike is also like a man who will never settle for the same, you know, as involvement in his work shows that. BlacKkKlansman is a masterpiece. Also, the two of them similarly share this collaborative effort. And you see it with Spike’s collaborators, he’s working with the same editors and costume designers across films. So that’s what’s nice about it. And I think that it’s nice that as when you’re coming up as a creative, it’s like keep people who you value and their creative opinions.
Signed copies of Alliances: Trick of Light are available now at the Cornell Store.
Daniel Moran is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick Boozang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.