When the McElroy brothers started playing Dungeons & Dragons with their dad on their podcast ‘My Brother, My Brother, and Me’ it was meant to be a fun experiment. Since then, their game has gone on to spawn its own podcast, ‘The Adventure Zone’ which in turn has spawned a huge cult following and its very own graphic novel adaptation.
For anyone unfamiliar with the first arc of ‘The Adventure Zone’, titled ‘Balance’: your oldest brother, Justin, plays Taako the elven wizard, your middlest brother, Travis, plays Magnus Burnsides the human fighter, and their dad, Clinton, plays Merle Highchurch the dwarven cleric. Your sweet baby brother, Griffin, is the Dungeon Master and literally everyone else.
Being the DM, Griffin creates the fantasy world that Justin, Travis, and Clinton have to react to and survive. Anyone who has played D&D knows that the game is a lot like collaborative storytelling, with the party working together to decide what happens next. ‘Balance’ may have been started with a ready-to-play D&D guide book, but the McElroys quickly made the world their own, launching into a stunning creative narrative with memorable characters and an intensely satisfying conclusion. However, ‘The Adventure Zone’ is far from over, and, in a way, is actually starting all over again with the graphic novel adaptation.
I had the pleasure of talking with Travis, Clinton, and artist Carey Pietsch–who we’ve spoken to before–about the collaborative process and their personal journeys on the road to the Adventure Zone.
Hero Index: What has the process of adapting a podcast into a graphic novel been like for each of you personally?
Travis: Well, I would say that one of the biggest challenges was that going back through the podcast, it’s surprising to see how many of our jokes only really worked when we were saying them. And so we were trying to figure out how to take an audio medium and make it make sense in a visual medium, and I would say that for that process, Carey [Pietsch, artist] and Calista [Brill, primary editor] were just… indispensable doesn’t even cover it, because I think we would have been more or less lost trying to figure out how to sell our dumb, dumb jokes in comic book form without them.
Clint: I went back to the basics when we first started adapting. Went back and listened to the shows again and transcribed them and just started looking at all of the words. And there were so many words. Tons and tons of words. And the first thing after that, we kinda put together an outline of what we wanted the story to do and it really kinda followed that. That was the basic starting point and it was kinda cool, you know? Carey being part of the process–probably the most important part of the process!–really helped us bring definition to the characters in our minds as we started creating it.
Carey: Speaking to what Clint said about bringing definition to the characters, I feel so, so lucky to have gotten to be a part of this project and one of the really cool things about adapting this particular podcast into a graphic novel is that a lot of the work in translating from audio to visual really is figuring out how a character would act and move in a physical way when normally you would have to describe that or show it through tone. But I think in this particular project, so much of that work was done by Clinton, Griffin, Justin, and Travis because their voice acting and their personality and character and charm is such a huge part of what I love about The Adventure Zone podcast. So that gave it such a strong foundation, and not just a foundation, that’s the essence of, like, when you think about how a character would walk or how they would pick something up or how they would get into a chair even, you’re drawing on this really gorgeous and solid core of what they’ve already established on the show.
HI: Can you talk about some of the specific changes you made to the graphic novel? For example, Klarg being called G’Nash or Phandalin becoming Haverdale?
Travis: So, a lot of the first arc was based off of a pre-rolled starter pack that came from Wizards of the Coast. To be clear, Wizards of the Coast was totally cool, they didn’t have any issues with us using it or anything, but you know, now that we had the chance to start over and make a new version of The Thing, I think we wanted to make it a little bit more specific to our story and make it feel more like a thing we were making rather than just piggybacking off of someone else’s work. So we changed, not only some of the names, but a little bit of, like, who the characters were in the set up and that kind of thing. Mostly just so we could feel a little bit more ownership of it, and less like we were telling someone else’s story.
Clinton: Other than that, there really weren’t any–at least I don’t think–really any huge storytelling changes. Some names. Obviously, when you’re going from an audio medium to a visual medium, like Travis alluded to earlier, You know, some things, well like… the, uh, “splooge” cave, didn’t really work as well in a visual sense. It worked really well in the audio sense, so things like that. But not really anything that really changed the plot or the story or even the characters that much, mostly because Griffin did such a terrific job worldbuilding and creating this whole overall story, you know? That part didn’t really need to be changed. And, it’s like Travis said, yeah, we had to recognize what were our “dumb, dumb jokes”, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily took the dumb, dumb jokes out!
Travis: Yeah, I mean, that’s something that I’ve tried to communicate to people about it. I’m very proud of the adaptation we did and I think that it ends up being very streamlined. There will be jokes and stuff that maybe didn’t make the cut into the book, but–I can’t stress enough–that wasn’t arbitrary. Like, we didn’t just cut jokes to save time or whatever. This was an almost two year long process where we were having two to three hour conference calls every week just discussing what jokes worked and what didn’t. And so we thought about it a lot, because what we didn’t want to do was force jokes into the book that didn’t work. So like, we really tried to treat the graphic novel as a new creation, rather than just trying to shove what amounts to, like, nine hours worth of podcast into one book. So I’m very proud of how it turned out. And there will be some stuff, like, you know, for example, the Klarg to G’Nash change that I think at first may be a little, you know, surprising to people and a little weird, but I think that… As Shakespeare said, “what’s in a name?” I think it’s going to end up being a stand-alone thing, you know? I want people to be able to read the graphic novel who have never listened to the podcast and still understand what’s going on.
Carey: Yeah, as Clint and Travis have both said, I think where there are differences between the podcast and the graphic novel, those are absolutely changes that the whole team considered really carefully and they’re there to help preserve the tone of the podcast on the page. To make sure that that humor and that kind-hearted treatment of the story really does come through in a visual medium as well.
Clint: Carey brings so much of that to it because the tone is really set by what she does. That’s one of the interesting things. Listening back to the shows and reading the transcripts, a lot of what Griffin did is description and setting the scene, and Carey does that beautifully with her pen. And, you know, wow, nine, ten hours of podcast, how did that fit into a graphic novel? Well, it’s the fact that with one panel, she can show everything and more of what Griffin describes in the role as dungeon master.
HI: Would you say that doing The Adventure Zone and making this graphic novel has made you more or less interested in working on other types of creative fiction in the future?
Travis: I will say it’s given me a lot more respect for people that do it. Because it’s the kind of thing where, I don’t know, I’ve written stuff before in the past, and we made the show which is a weird form of writing, and it’s just really made me think about how the skill set doesn’t necessarily translate to different mediums, right? Because we can sit down and do an episode of The Adventure Zone and in two hours generate a big chunk of story. But when it comes to sitting down and writing… Like, dad has done the lion’s share of the adaptation and it’s amazing to me how quickly and efficiently and expertly he does it, cause to me, sitting down and writing, even based off of something that already exists, is just mind-blowing. So I will say, it’s given me respect and I appreciate it and someday I might be interested in doing a different project, but right now, I’m good at podcasting and I think I’ll keep that as my main focus.
Clint: I’ve always been interested in the comic book medium and other art forms and writing and trying to do creative stuff. To be honest with you, I’m kinda going the other way, it has made me want to do more. I’ve learned so much from Carey and Calista and Allison [Wilgus, editor] in this whole process, it has really excited me and it has really made me hungry to do more. So, yeah, it’s kinda taken me that way. I’m not going to answer for Carey, but she’s probably exhausted and never wants to talk to us again.
Carey: (laughing) I would say exactly the opposite, actually! I think I say a lot how lucky I am to have gotten to work on this project and part of that is obviously how much I love the podcast, but the other major part, even larger, is what a pleasure it’s been to work with all of the McElroys. And Clint, coming from a professional comics background, really made the script shine. And seeing how much care and thought all of the rest of them, Justin and Griffin and Travis, have all put into translating this story has been a huge inspiration. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome but I love comics and I always want to keep making them. The Adventure Zone also got me to try tabletop games for the first time in my adult life again and I’m very glad that it did.
HI: Do you have a favorite moment in the graphic novel? Or anything you’re really excited for the fans to see?
Clint: The well scene. I love the well.
Travis: Yeah, the well. I really love that one. The whole Magic Brian fight, I’m a big fan of.
Carey: Mm, yeah. I really like the Zone of Truth execution, I think that turned out to be really funny.
Travis: At this point, like I said, we’ve been working on it for two years, I’m really excited to get it into people’s hands at this point.
Carey: Oh my god, yes.
Travis: I have a theatre background, I’ve done some form of theatre since I was like seven years old, and when you do theatre you get really used to, like, you have to open because it’s Opening Night, and so I always used to say, in theatre you’re never finished, you’re just done. And so this is the exact opposite. This book is done, I’m really excited that this book is finished, and I’m so eager to get it into people’s hands. I just can’t wait to see what people think of it.
HI: Sure, and you guys have future volumes to look forward to, don’t you?
Carey: Weeee’ll seee…
HI: Well, if so, could we expect Garfield the Deals Warlock to make an appearance in any future volumes? And, if so, any ideas yet on what he’s going to look like?
Travis: … I will say… hypothetically, if we are working on such a project, then I would say–hypothetically–the discussion about the character design–hypothetically–for Garfield, has–hypothetically–been discussed a lot. Very hypothetically.
Carey: I will say only that Garfield the Deals Warlock is inscrutable, no further comment. I think we’re going to have exciting news about a possible future volume around New York Comic Con this fall.
Clint: And theoretically.
Non-hypothetically, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins goes on sale July 17th. You can pre-order your copy of the graphic novel on the First Second website. In the meantime, find out more about the McElroys and listen to their various podcasts on their website, or check out more of Carey’s work on hers.