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July 16, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Three years ago, on a fateful Boston morning, Griffin McElroy met with his brothers, Justin and Travis; his father, Clint; and cartoonist Carey Pietsch in a Panera Bread. There was a lot on his mind. It was the day before he and his family were set to perform their second-ever live show for their Dungeons & Dragons podcast, The Adventure Zone, for which he was the Game Master. His and Travis’ wives were expecting. Pokémon GO had just been released. And they were about to embark on a thrilling new journey.

“We were distracted from the meeting with all of our new virtual pets!” Griffin admits. “I was probably not in the greatest headspace to initiate a huge project, because I was very nervous about the live show we were doing that night.”

That “huge project” was the reason for the meeting: They were going to adapt the first arc of The Adventure Zone’s first season, Balance, into a graphic novel.

Of course, The Adventure Zone had already been wildly popular — as a podcast, wherein the McElroy brothers and their father play the high-fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. (Justin, Travis, and Clint roleplay as Taako, the elf wizard; Magnus, the human fighter; and Merle, the dwarven cleric, respectively, while Griffin runs the game and its non-player inhabitants as Dungeon Master.) Since its debut episode in late 2014, the podcast has been downloaded over 180 million times, and the McElroys have regularly played sold-out shows to enthusiastic, cosplay-saturated audiences across the country.

Fans of the podcast range from Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda to hip-hop artist Jean Grae; the popular pseudonymous film blogger Film Crit Hulk described the podcast as something that, over the course of its first season, “blossomed into one of the most ambitious, strangest, funniest, endearing, and epic stories I have ever experienced in my life.”

The internationally renowned fantasy author of The Kingkiller Chronicle, Pat Rothfuss, wrote the introduction to the first graphic novel adaptation, saying that “learning about The Adventure Zone was like falling in love,” and giving credit to the show as “some of the finest storytelling I have ever experienced. In any genre. Ever.”

So it’s no surprise that the podcast’s first graphic novel adaptation, Here There Be Gerblins, instantly flew to the No. 1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list after it was released in July 2018. Following the success of the first comic, the McElroys, Pietsch, and their publisher First Second Books are primed for the second installment of The Adventure Zone’s literary journey, Murder on the Rockport Limited! (now available).

EW caught up with Griffin, Travis, Justin, Clint, and Pietsch about the process of adapting The Adventure Zone for an entirely visual format and how they took that next step in building a cultural phenomenon.

Carey Pietsch / First Second

LAUNCHING IN A NEW MEDIUM

The McElroys had previously worked with Pietsch, the artist behind the Mages of Mystralia webcomic. She did the artwork for their live show in Boston and had worked on a successful project called “The Adventure Zine,” which raised money for Facing Hunger Foodbank, a nonprofit founded in the McElroys’ hometown of Huntington, W.V.

So when they sat down to get the ball rolling on the adaptation, there was a magical synergy to it. “I think we all knew really quickly,” says Griffin, “that this was a good relationship and team to make the adaptation.”

“When Carey got involved in the whole process it was a big turning point,” Clint adds, “because she got it. I’d even say she got it before we got it. One of the great things about her is that I don’t have to explain every weird idea before she goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.’ There was a half-page Scuttle-Buddy ad that, when Carey sent us the art, was exactly as I had envisioned when I wrote the script.” (See the ad below.)

Carey Pietsch / First Second

The same goes with their publisher, First Second. “Luckily, a lot of people who work at publishing companies are nerds, and they already knew about our D&D podcast, so we didn’t have to start from square one, explain to them why people might be excited that it exists,” says Travis. “We had a lot of great conversations with a lot of great potential publishers, but when First Second came in, they got it right off the bat. They came in knowing what was good about it. Instead of someone coming in saying, ‘Here’s what I think it should be,’ First Second came in and said, ‘Here’s what we need to not lose.’ That made it a slam dunk.”

Well, almost.

“Griffin and I were very trepidatious to start on the project because we were about to have kids and were terrified,” Travis continues. “We were worried we wouldn’t have the time to work on it, with our offspring impending.” It wasn’t even a matter of whether they wanted to do the project. It was about time. “I just didn’t know how much I as one person could be involved,” says Griffin. “I think I was a little conservative in my estimate, and a lot of that was out of fear that I would f— this up, because I don’t know much about comics or graphic novels.”

Fortunately, their father, Clint, had a background in comics; in the 1990s, he wrote Green Hornet: Dark Fate, the adaptations of Freejack and Universal Soldier, and more. He took on the task of transcribing all of the podcast for Here There Be Gerblins to start the adaptation — a task Travis now calls “a real beast.” He continues: “[I’d say] dad did most of the work, and then Griffin, Justin, and I swept in for all the fun parts and made an actual comic book script out of the transcripts.”

Clint agrees he did “the grunt work,” but there was plenty of collaboration, too. The TAZ graphic novel team hopped on weekly conference calls for the better part of 18 months, where they’d have conversations ranging from whether they should include D&D mechanics in the comic to how hairy Magnus’ knuckles should be. (“That was a 45-minute conversation,” cracks Clint.)

After all, it’s a family business. “It’s always been the five of us collaborating on this together,” explains Clint. “That material was created by all of us.”

NEW CREATIVE AVENUES

Pietsch and the McElroys wrestled with how to translate the particular humor of the podcast into a comic. Dungeons & Dragons is by nature a game of improvisation and collaboration, so a lot of the comedy in The Adventure Zone podcast consisted of off-the-cuff riffing and spontaneous idea generation. Not to mention that jokes were made both in and out of character.

“The ‘table talk’ — the jokes that Justin, Travis, dad, and I [would make] out of character, or even jokes we’d tell in character — often don’t make any sense for an in-character person to say,” Griffin explains. “Like Merle talking about Kenny Chesney: That doesn’t make any sense unless it’s through the lens that it was actually my dad who worked at a country radio station for 30 years. But is that a joke we wanted to keep?”

Carey Pietsch / First Second

Griffin dragged his heels during those early conversations; he admits, now, that he could be too precious about those kinds of jokes. But Justin explains why it was best to kill those darlings: “There’s a lot less charity toward jokes that you can do in an improvised comedy podcast than there is in a graphic novel, [where] you can’t say it in a funny voice or a loud voice. They have to land as jokes, and not just be something that struck you as funny in that exact moment.”

The joke about Kenny Chesney, for instance, made it into both books. Over time, Pietsch and the McElroys have found the right balance of which jokes work on the page and why. Says Pietsch: “A big advantage coming into the second book was that we were all able to read through book 1 and figure out what we couldn’t do through audio tone of voice, but could show through a character’s facial expression or the way they’re acting on the page.”

“One of my favorite things in both books are the moments shared between two characters about something the third character has said,” Travis adds. “There are moments when Merle says something and Magnus and Taako make eye contact or roll their eyes. That’s just something we couldn’t do with the podcast.”

In Rockport, the visual introduction of Jenkins, the wizard clad in a rainbow bow tie, is a highlight. “Oh my god, every face [he] makes!” Griffin enthuses. “We provided little in terms of look when we were doing the podcast since it’s an audio medium, but that was like a wild synesthetic experience. Jenkins looks so perfectly like the s—t-eating voice I did for him. I don’t know how to describe it, but maybe that’s the face I was making to produce his awful, s—t-eating voice. Especially his bigger reactions to things — I just think they’re absolutely hysterical.”

Carey Pietsch/First Second

As to how Pietsch nailed it? “It really is a matter of, ‘Okay, this is what it sounds like — what horrible face can I make into a mirror that looks the same way this voice sounds?’ and then translating that onto the page,” she explains, laughing. “There’s a lot in tone and feeling that comes through in the acting on the Adventure Zone show. One of the things I love about it is how well it balances humor and drama and paces them, so there’s room for the full spectrum of emotion. And if you prioritize expressiveness over being beholden to a model sheet, you get a lot of leeway for art that’s good for action as well as humor, drama, and emotional conversations.”

This also, naturally, leads to unique character development. One of the main TAZ players to benefit from the additional dramatic expressiveness of visual representation is Lucretia, the Director of the Bureau of Balance, the organization that Magnus, Taako, and Merle are recruited to work for at the end of the first graphic novel. “She went from being a very robotic quest-giver in the early parts of the podcast to a much more emotional-core level character,” says Griffin, speaking about how her character was tweaked for the adaptation.

[Below: A sneak peek at Pietsch’s process. “Instead of making expression sheets up front, I wait until pencils to pull together faces that ‘feel’ right, then check against those when inking if something seems off,” she says. “I like doing it this way because it means I can let the acting/ emotion take priority for thumbnails, then figure out exactly how that maps onto specific features later! The tradeoff is that characters don’t really get consistent (relatively speaking) until pretty late in the game.”]

Carey Pietsch / First Second
Carey Pietsch / First Second
Carey Pietsch / First Second

Because the TAZ team had future insight into the story when creating the first graphic novel, they knew how critical Lucretia would become to the story. Griffin especially wanted to put more heart and nuance into her character than they did in the podcast. The same goes for other non-player characters (NPCs), like Barry Bluejeans; the team excised a significant character from Gerblins in order to give him a bigger role in the comic’s climax.

Even larger player characters like Taako benefitted from that hindsight. “There were a few instances in the transcript where I told Dad, ‘Taako would never say this,’ because it seemed so out of step,” says Justin. “But he would show me the transcript of the show where Taako said exactly that. I definitely had a much better sense of Taako and who he was as a person by the end of Balance. One of the coolest things about doing the graphic novel is being able to make characters more consistent.

GRIFFIN, THE DUNGEON MASTER

The biggest challenge in creating the graphic novel was cracking how to include Griffin himself. As Dungeon Master (DM) in the podcast, he wasn’t just responsible for creating the world; he adjudicated the rules of D&D and voiced every NPC. He provided the “bridge to the outside world, a way to literally step outside the panel borders,” as Pietsch puts it. “From the beginning of the process, it’s been important that the graphic novels preserve that element of [TAZ’s] metatextuality.”

“Griffin had to be a character in these books,” Clint adds. “That meta-relationship between the four of us was an intrinsic element, and in my opinion, it had to be done. He brought so much to it — we didn’t transfer all the meta-comments into it, obviously, but who else is going to talk about Carly Rae Jepsen?” (Griffin’s love of CRJ is well established, and some of the original soundtrack he wrote for the podcast was influenced by her album E•MO•TION.)

In the effort of bringing Griffin into this new form, there were some wacky pitches, including Justin’s suggestion that Griffin would be every NPC. As Travis remembers the idea: “It would be everyone we interacted with — in getting directions to down or talking to a bartender, it would just all be Griffin in different costumes. We agreed that would be too weird, but it was my favorite idea that was scrapped.”

Including Griffin was also a matter of including D&D mechanics. After all, Taako, Magnus, and Merle need to be able to talk to someone to maintain the game element. As Travis explains it: “Dice rolls? Dexterity checks? Ability score modifiers? We decided that would make it about the game and not the story, but we still wanted people to recognize that it’s a game — so Griffin ended up being essential.”

Carey Pietsch / First Second

The same reasoning applied to why Justin, Travis, and Clint were not included as characters in the adaptation. Explains Travis: “We talked about cutting away from The Adventure Zone to the ‘real world,’ but realized it would undercut the stakes and the story we were telling. The story is Merle, Magnus, Taako, and the world.”

PUTTING IT OUT INTO THE WORLD

After the story for the first book was written, there was a huge gap in time before anyone saw it sketched out. “I remember when I [first] saw the whole story through just the rough thumbnails,” says Griffin, “and all of my fears that it wasn’t going to work or that we changed too much instantly dissolved.”

But then came time for the Gerblins book to actually reach the public — an equally nerve-wracking moment. “I was terrified,” Pietsch admits. “When we finished the book, there was this void of a couple of months, which was a lot of time to be in my own head about it. Ultimately, though, we had to trust that even if nobody responded to it, we put all our time into this project, and I [was] really proud of what we did.”

Griffin and Travis share that same sentiment. Going into the next adaptation, Griffin is more confident. “Now we’ve done it two times and are really happy with the results,” he says. “It’s funny, because when we started out with the adaptation I was so scared about failing, but now my fears have been completely abated because of how inspiring it is to work as one big team with the family and Carey and our editors.”

Reflecting on those fears, Travis recalls an important lesson he learned from one of his acting professors in college. “If you only put 70 percent into something, then it’s not scary, because if people don’t like it and it’s bad, you can always say you weren’t trying your hardest,” he says. “But if you give 100 percent to something, it’s terrifying. Because if people don’t like it, you were giving your best and they still didn’t like it. All of us, every person that worked on the graphic novel, put 100 percent into it. So it was pretty terrifying.”

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