In the years since brothers Griffin, Justin, and Travis McElroy, with their dad, Clint, first started The Adventure Zone, at the time a one-off episode of their flagship My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast while Justin was on paternity leave, it has amassed a passionate and devoted following. When it was announced that the McElroys would be adapting the first arc of the podcast, Here There Be Gerblins, into a graphic novel for First Second Books (set for release July 17), fans were intrigued, excited and maybe a little confused. How could this purely audio medium, save for some bottle-story live shows, translate to the page?
SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to Griffin, Justin, and animator Carey Pietsch, who had previously worked with the McElroys on posters for an Adventure Zone live show in Boston, on how they took this "goof troop podcast" from pod to page.
What was the collaboration process like, Carey? How involved were you in shaping the look and feel of the story?
Carey: I talk a lot about how lucky I feel to be working on this project, not just because I'm such a huge fan of The Adventure Zone but also because the collaboration itself is a true collaboration, which I think is really rare in comics. It's rare to have a group of people not just to whom the story belongs, in this case, the McElroys, but also who have really the time and energy and ability and skill to devote as much time to really shaping the story and stepping in to say, hey no, this character would say this a little differently or I've always thought of this looking just slightly different, how can we treat that. So because they're able to put in that time and devotion, it really has been a book that the entire team has gotten to shape in a really special way.
Griffin: I think Carey has done a phenomenal job because I think this is kind of a daunting task, this book, because we're fairly explicit that there's no canonical visual encyclopedia for anything in the podcast. We have kept it that way. So in adapting this for this graphic novel, Carey had virtually nothing to go off. So what turned out of that process is something that is so cool and something that we're all really proud of, I think.
And you still maintain that now right? That there's no canonical look, even after the book?
Griffin: Yeah, that is sort of our position on it, that the podcast is the canon of The Adventure Zone universe. This is just sort of one interpretation of it, but it's a very good interpretation.
Justin: It's sort of like how the Star Wars movies sort of overwrite all other canon, you know what I mean? And there's layers of canon or whatever. The Adventure Zone is a podcast, and that'll always be the source material for it, and it's an audio medium. So, you just can't have a canonical visual representation when there's no visual element.
Carey: I do think it's doing the podcast a little bit of a disservice to say that there's nothing to go on there though, cause not only does Griffin take the time to — not just describe settings but specifically call out to the players, "tell me what that looks like, when you're murdering a crab or jumping through a window, how do you do that," not just "tell me that you did it."
And on top of that, there's so much flavor in tone and nuance of conversational flow that comes through in the way that a setting feels, and added to that the music that Griffin puts together, and you can really get a strong sense of emotional color and flavor, which I think goes a long way to setting a scene, and hopefully the visuals in the book are, I was trying to translate that onto the page.
But with the lack of canonical understanding of necessarily how the character looks, what went into those decisions of what they would look like on the page?
Griffin: A lot of it was fan feedback to early designs, which was kind of instrumental in helping us have the conversations we needed to have to come up with the designs that we ended up with. To be frank, there was a lot of stuff that went into figuring out what those designs were gonna look like. A lot of listening to a lot of the helpful and very patient, I would say, feedback from the fans, and some sort of trying to figure out what they would look like based on sort of the kind of bare bones story reasons that we had sort of built into the podcast itself. A lot of I think looking at the fan art universe that existed out there a bit. There were any number of things, it was, I would say, sort of the month between when we first sort of revealed the character designs, where they were just — we kind of fool heartedly defaulted to just three white dudes, to the sort of later reveal of what the characters were actually going to look like in the books. That was a period of just sort of constant conversation between us and between, you know, listening to the fans to sort of get them to where they are in the final version of the book.
Carey, did you try to insulate yourself from looking at the fan headcanons of what the characters look like? Or did you kind of lean in and consider those?
Carey: Yeah, I have kind of taken a step back from being as involved in fan communities as I was when I first jumped headfirst into listening to The Adventure Zone, and I feel really luck to have gotten to know a bunch of wonderful people through making a bunch of fan art when I first started listening back in 2015, and through co-running The Adventure Zine with Megan Raley, which was just such a wonderful example of how generous and passionate fans of The Adventure Zone really are. But since we started working on the book, I have taken a step back from that, mostly because I've been busy working on the book. But also because I do wanna respect the fact that there isn't one visual canon for The Adventure Zone podcast, so we really wanted these book designs to be a result of us as a team sitting down and talking through those things. And through the work of my very patient friends and colleagues who have had conversations with me about what I can do to make these better and be more thoughtful about really fleshing out a cast of characters in a thoughtful way in the future. So I would say kind of the opposite is I've kind of tried to take a step back from fan interpretations of the characters.
Justin and Griffin, what was the writing process like, because this is really unique. Griffin, you write this great through line, but it's mostly improv. And then to actually take that and put it onto the page, what was that process like?
Griffin: It was very tricky for what we ended up in the first book. It took a lot of revisions, and the process Dad's sort of spearheaded the drafts of the script, mostly because he has more comic experience than me and Juice and Trav. And also cause he has you know, free time. A lot of free time. He's you know, an old man. And so all he does is sit around and get to play checkers—
Justin: He has to keep his brain active. [ed. note: They're joking. Clint McElroy is downright spritely.]
Griffin: So what made the process tricky, like you mentioned, it was an improv format in the podcast, and that sometimes lends itself to a lot of out-of-character humor, out-of-character jokes, or jokes that only worked because you could hear them, that just do not translate to graphic novel. It is impossible to do an impression of a real-life celebrity on the page of a graphic novel, and there were sometimes a lot of McElroy universe in-jokes that were in the podcast that somebody just picking this book up on the store of their local comic shop is not going to understand or get. So it was kind of a tough process figuring out what of that stuff could we change and maintain because a lot of that is important to sort of the tone of the show and we definitely wanted to make sure that was still recognizable in the book but also figuring out what has to go.
That was, I think, the most heavy lifting that we had to do, sort of figuring out how to specifically do that, and unfortunately, there's not much of a roadmap for it. The idea of adapting an actual-play D&D session into a more traditional story that you could read off of a page is not something that has been done a lot before, I think it's safe to say? And so, I think that is probably why we had to go through so many drafts of it. But what we ended up with was not just a script for the book, but also I think a formula for what stuff from the podcast makes a good graphic novel and what stuff should probably just stay as a very dumb joke on our goof troop podcast.
Justin: I think at the beginning of the show, getting the laugh was more important than serving the characters. I mean, the characters were much more of a sketch anyway. But by the time we were done with this book, we had finished this multi-year story, so we knew where it was going at this point, and we really had to make a lot of calls of, "Does this serve the characters as we know them to be by the end of the story, or is this just sort of a fun riff that we did that was funny in the moment?" A lot of the things that we say on the show aren't even funny in and of themselves, we say them with a fun voice or something that covers up the fact that it's nothing. But it's just us putting up some real air balls from time to time. But if you help them with a goofy voice — that's a little comedy podcasting secret for everybody. But there were a lot of things that just didn't read. "Well, OK, I guess we leave this in the book?" And we didn't, or we tried not to, at least. 'Cause it didn't serve the overall story that we knew we were telling.
Do you kind of anticipate Here There Be Gerblins being harder or easier than the other arcs? Because you started off with this D&D template and then after that, you kinda went through your own creation of the story.
Justin: God almighty, I hope this is the hardest.
Griffin: No, it was definitely harder for the reasons that I mentioned about us not really having a great idea of what made a good book from the podcast that we made until we took a few passes at it and a few rounds of revisions and started being kind of brutally honest about, well yes, that was a very good joke for the podcast, but that didn't work.
The other thing that Justin kind of alluded to is that that first arc didn't have a ton of stuff in it that I think The Adventure Zone fanbase kinda grew to love about the show. It was mostly just sort of goofy jokes and just so much profanity and a lot of just wanton murder of staple fantasy monster characters. That was another thing that we kind of tried to address is to try to put a little bit more weight behind the things that were happening, a little bit more character development wherever we could fit it in, a little bit more development of the relationship between Merle, Magnus, and Taako.
It wasn't just making stuff up from whole cloth as much as it was sort of emphasizing certain moments and trying to figure out where we could move the characters forward a little bit better than we actually did when we recorded the podcast, because I don't think we really appreciated what we were able to do with that medium until we were a couple of arcs in. I was actually really happy about that. I was happy that we had the opportunity to give certain moments and certain characters a little bit more weight behind their actions and their words then we did when we did the Here There Be Gerblins the first often, who is very much a traditional D&D play session that we were just recording for goofs and giggles.
Carey: As Justin and Griffin have both said, I think the book really benefited from all of McElroys being involved, not just at the start but all the way through the end of the process, so even once we hit pencils or thumbnails we would get to a point where they would have a chance to pipe in and say, "Hey, actually we know where this is going." I guess Balance wasn't quite complete when we first started working on the book, but it sure was by the end, so having the benefit of them being able to talk about their character arcs as they grew over time was just such a huge boon I think to know where a character is going and, as Griffin said, bring forward the parts of this early arc that really kind of foreshadow where they're going to end up being.
And in terms of things getting easier as we go along, yeah, I think this book really was about kind of building a toolset together and figuring out, as Griffin said, a toolset of which things from a podcast translate well onto the page and what ways can we tweak them to preserve that tone, that comic fantasy tone and flavor of The Adventure Zone podcast in this different medium. So now we know things like, OK, if there is a joke that feels like it was a lot of table talk or meta humor, one way we can make that work is by bringing the DM character forward, to kind of step aside from the action for a minute and give us this framework of a joke literally outside the panel. It's kind of a visual cue that this is not quite happening in the real time, the same way that the rest of the action is, and it's a nice way to preserve a lot of the charm and humor the conversations that kind of happen naturally around a table.
In the podcast, the destruction of Phandalin, it was kind of a joke. It didn't have the emotional weight that it would later on in Balance. Is that part of the example of, whereas in the podcast it was like "oh, oops" but then putting it on the page wanting to hit that harder?
Griffin: Yeah, and that is a perfect example of the kind of stuff that we're talking about. I think that we even recognized that in the podcast there's a flashback to four or five arcs later of the destruction of Phandalin, and there it's played for huge, dramatic effect. I tried to make the players realize that, hey, that was a horrific thing that happened, a lot of people died and the whole town was destroyed. When it happened in the arc, it takes 15 seconds before everybody cracking jokes again, about oops, haha, oh well. And in the graphic novel, that tonal dissonance was super weird. So we had an opportunity to take that late realization we had, oh this is actually a very serious thing that happens. It's very much a catalyst for the rest of the story, and we able to give it a little bit more weight when you actually see it in the book.
Justin: I think when we initially recorded that, we were so new to it, the only way we could contextualize the event was through the eyes of these three characters, and couldn't see the broader ramifications for how this is impacting the world, we could only see it through their eyes because we were so new at it. Which is also another reason why I think Phandalin is the perfect metaphor, because I think as we've grown and done this more, we are able to see outside ourselves a little bit and outside these characters a little bit to get a sense of what impact this has on the rest of the world and seeing it as a coherent world. I think the book does a much better job of conveying that.
Is there a moment in the podcast that you haven't yet animated that you are really excited about the prospect of animating?
Carey: There are some scenes on the top of the train with Magnus kind of doing some extreme wild stunts that I would theoretically be really looking forward to drawing. But also that whole second arc is such a nice example of the balance of real humor and also genuine affection that the characters start feeling for non-player characters, for NPCs, that it's really, again theoretically, gonna be such a treat to get to draw some of those more emotionally nuanced moments and ensemble cast treats of a murder mystery.
Justin: I have found all of it such a delight because, I feel like I'm able to appreciate this book in a way that I can't appreciate the rest of our stuff, because I feel such a distance from it at this point that it's like, "Oh man that was funny, good job guys! Good job, that's actually really funny." There's a couple of parts where, "That's funny, who said that? Oh, I did. OK well, that's kind of embarrassing, I didn't mean to laud myself."
I feel like at this point, I've been doing podcasts for over 10 years now, I feel like it's such a big ask for anybody to look into anything for 75 hours or whatever. It's just very gratifying to me that if we make it all the way through, and who knows, even if it's just this book, that people can ingest this story without the massive backlog and time commitment of many hundreds or even a hundred hours, however many hours it would take to get through the whole thing, that's really exciting to me. I really love the idea that people can ingest this story without necessarily having to put in the hours. So we have the huge ask of trust me, it gets good. Ten hours in or whatever.
Griffin: I don't know, I think there's a couple arcs and they're just way off. Way way way in the future, that I just would just kind of be excited to figure out how to tackle, namely the Eleventh Hour arc with its time loop. That was probably my favorite arc that we ever did, so I think it would be really fun to try to figure out how to get that sort of Groundhog Day-style scenario translated through to the graphic novel. Carey, that might be easier, because I mean it would be a lot of the same art, right? And then things like The Stolen Century was very much a collection of short stories almost, and I think it would be really neat to try to figure out a way to collect all of those into a single book. Again, that stuff is way off in the future, but I don't know, I loved this story so much and I loved the whole process of preparing what I could prepare and seeing what Justin and Travis and Dad did. And seeing that kind of firmed up into a visual medium like this is the whole process has been just so satisfying and I do not anticipate that will ever stop being true.
Here There Be Gerblins is available for pre-order and will be released July 17.