How 'The Adventure Zone' Went From 'D&D' Podcast to Graphic Novel

The Adventure Zone_Cover - Publicity - P 2018
Carey Pietsch/First Second Books
Griffin and Justin McElroy are bringing their 'Dungeons and Dragons' audio phenomenon to the page.

Since 2014, brothers Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy have been playing Dungeons & Dragons with their father, Clint, not merely for the fun of the game; they’ve been sharing their exploits with the internet via fan-favorite podcast The Adventure Zone.

As of July 17, however, The Adventure Zone won’t merely be a bi-weekly audio adventure; the McElroys have teamed up with artist Carey Pietsch and First Second Books for The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, a graphic novel based on the first story arc from the podcast. Heat Vision spoke to Justin and Griffin McElroy, as well as Pietsch, about translating the story between media, and how the podcast became a comic book in the first place.

Justin and Griffin, you’ve been doing The Adventure Zone as a podcast for almost four years by this point. What’s behind the decision to turn it into a graphic novel?

Griffin: That’s a good question. I think part of it is, is that we really grew up on comics. Our dad was not just a huge fan of comics, he actually wrote comics as a freelancer when we were kids. He ghostwrote the adaptation of Universal Soldier and Freejack.

Justin: That’s a trade secret! Don’t go sharing that our dad ghostwrote the adaptation of Freejack

Griffin: He wrote a lot of comic books, so we grew up on comics. I think when we started having the conversation about the graphic novel, we also hit a point very late in the first campaign that we did [on the podcast] that we played over the course of about two-and-a-half years, that we were all very in love with the story and how the story had turned out. We jumped at the opportunity to do a version of it that would be pretty different from just listening to it in an audio medium; a version of it that is, I think, objectively more accessible for somebody to enjoy. The idea of a graphic novel made a lot of sense in that regard.

Justin: Also, the movie people didn’t ask. [Laughs]

Comparing the podcast to the graphic novel, it’s interesting to see what you kept, what you changed, what you compressed. How did you even start the process of adapting the story into a comic book script?

Justin: Dad started with transcripts. He took the lead, he did the brunt of the work. There’s a lot of stuff in the first arc that could go pretty quickly. There’s a lot that just isn’t germane to telling the story. It started out as an improvisational comedy podcast, and there were a lot of times that we’d compromise the story because we didn’t care about moving the story forward, and we didn’t have any idea about what the podcast would become. There was a lot of stuff that was funny in the moment, and off the top of our heads, but it didn’t really serve the characters, and that’s the stuff that he just removed to make it jibe with where the characters had to go.

Griffin: I would say that we did a few passes. There was a pass where we figured out the mechanical stuff, what happened where and tried to find our feet. There was a pass where we figured out which jokes worked because it was the four of us saying them — there were a lot of jokes that relied on actually hearing them, because it was us as the players saying something through our character voice, which is impossible to translate into the book, so we had to try and work out how to maintain the tone of the show.

A pass we did later on was to reconcile what we knew about the story of the whole campaign and the emotional beats that became a focus of the show later on, but were almost entirely absent from the show when we first recorded it, and work out how to add some emotional weight to Here There Be Gerblins, and get more character development pointing towards what they turn into later in the campaign. That’s the stuff that makes me most proud of this first book: How we included a lot of those beats that became really important to jumpstart the Adventure Zone fanbase that, if you go back and listen to that first arc, it’s mostly just nonstop cursing and just cutting gerblins in half.

Carey: I just want to say, there are still gerblins cut in half. I know, I had to draw them being fully bisected. What Griffin and Justin said about preserving the balance of the arc as a unit, as a whole story, was really important to the whole team, even just adapting this first arc. How we could bring about those emotional beats, that intensity, that balance so well with the charm and humor of the podcast.

Carey, you’ve worked on Lumberjanes and Adventure Time before this; how did you get involved with this project?

Carey: I started listening to [the podcast] a couple of years ago and was immediately taken by how strong the visuals were even in podcast format — maybe that’s because I work in comics so I’m used to thinking in terms of visuals when I’m reading textbooks or listening to audio books, it’s just the way I process things. There’s such a strong sense of that in the podcast through the combination of cadence and tone and how the characters talk to each other, which gives you a lot of information about how the characters behave. And then, even more extensively, I think Griffin does a really good job of getting Justin and Travis to say, not just "Okay, you killed a monster," but tell me what that looks like, tell me how you did that. The music adds a whole separate layer of emotion. So even when I was listening in, like, 2016, I was drawing a lot of fan art and joking/not joking, "Hey, this would be a really good comic, this would be a dream project if that ever happened."

So, I drew fan art for awhile, I co-organized The Adventure Zine with Megan Raley, and did a live show poster design for one of the live shows and got to talk to the McElroys a little bit that way. The literary agent Charlie Olsen brought us all together a little over two years ago at this point to say, if we were to work together to develop The Adventure Zone Podcast: The Graphic Novel, what would that look like, and how could we make it actually happen?

I’m curious. Was there ever a discussion about creating an all-new story for the comic? Why did you decide to adapt the campaign as played on the podcast, and not come up with something new?

Griffin: I don’t think we ever really talked about doing something original. To go back to what I said earlier, we were just really enamored about the way the story turned out. Which, I know, it sounds really egotistical, but it wasn’t just one of us sitting down and writing stuff out. The fact that it turned out like it did was the result of the stuff that I as the DM had prepared and the decisions that Justin and Travis and Dad had made, mixed in with, you know, the random element of how the dice got rolled. All of that coming together made a story that we were really, really proud of. It made something that we wanted to have a lifespan beyond when we wrapped up the campaign, which we did last August. We wanted it to take on new forms and reach out to new audiences. I think it was always going to be an adaptation instead of taking on something new.

Carey, as someone who listened to the podcast, are there things that you wanted to be in the book that didn’t end up making the cut?

Carey: I think where there aren’t things in the book that were in the podcast, I think it’s like Justin and Griffin said; we want to preserve the flavor and tone of the podcast, but that sometimes means that you have to lose something that worked on the podcast that doesn’t work in a visual medium because they are different mediums, you do lose things like tone of voice; like Griffin has talked about before, you can’t a celebrity impression across as easily on the page.

I do miss the scene where Magnus goes off on his own into the wolf cavern for the first time, but I think the scene that we ended up using instead is really funny and good, and a good example of bringing in stuff about a character we didn’t learn until later in the podcast and seeded it earlier on in the book.

Justin or Griffin, what about either of you? Is there anything you found that you missed, for whatever reason…?

Justin: No!  The tone of the show was a lot more… puerile when we started. Like, there’s a whole scene where we’re fighting a jelly monster in the cave which, in the podcast, was about ten straight minutes of jerk off goof. I was happy to see that one go. [Laughs] Ten minutes was just a lot. The original script had a lot of that still in, and reading that was very sobering. I was like, ‘Okay. We don’t need ten minutes of jerk off goofs.’ We can settle for one or two lines. We’ve been working on this for so long that we feel pretty confident about what ended up on the cutting room, and what stayed. For me, what’s important about the first arc is the core world lore that builds itself up towards the bigger narrative of the campaign. We added in a lot more than what we cut out.