'Critical Role': Inside the Comic Spinoff 'Vox Machina Origins II'

Writer Jody Houser and artist Olivia Samson talk about adapting the popular web series in which a group of actors play Dungeons & Dragons.
Fiona Staples/Dark Horse Comics
Writer Jody Houser and artist Olivia Samson talk about adapting the popular web series in which a group of actors play Dungeons & Dragons.

This week, fans of Critical Role have a whole new way to travel to Stilben, with the launch of Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins II, a new comic book miniseries based on the popular Dungeons & Dragons web series.

Since its 2015 debut as part of Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry network, Critical Role has built a substantial following online. The show centers around a group of actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, initially as a group of mercenaries under the collective name of Vox Machina. (A second campaign started last year, set in the same world as the original but two decades later and featuring new characters.) In addition to the central web series and the comic book series, Critical Role has also expanded to include a crowdfunded animated series, art books based on designs and illustrations inspired by the show, and multiple video and audio spinoffs.

The new comic series, published by Dark Horse Comics, launches this week and sees fan-favorite writer Jody Houser team with artist Olivia Samson. Houser is known for her work on Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor, Mother Panic, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, while Samson illustrated the original Vox Machina Origins comic, which had been serialized digitally before receiving a print collection; that series, written by Matthew Colville and Critical Role Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, told the story of the formation of the Vox Machina group.

Vox Machina Origins II, meanwhile, sees the team search for their missing member, Grog Strongjaw — only to discover more about his hidden history in the process. Heat Vision talked to both creators about the series’ origins and how they translated an online gaming experience into a comic book.

Jody, what is it like, stepping into this series for the second volume? I know that you're familiar with Critical Role as a series, and have played with Matt, but was telling the early incarnation of characters so established elsewhere a daunting task? You have quite the experience on licensed work, after all…

HOUSER: The fact that the characters and events were established, but not necessarily for the audience of Critters, made it a very interesting book to work on. One of the benefits of working with a part of the story that hasn't been told yet is that we get to shape it in a way that works best specifically for the comics medium.

You mentioned that the facts are established, which makes me wonder: What’s the process like, creating these stories? Are you working from an outline provided by the Critical Role team, or having to run plot synopses past them for authenticity and continuity as you write?

HOUSER: Yes, I have an outline from the Critical Role folks. They do give notes on each issue to make sure character voices/details and other elements such as the way spells work are consistent. It’s a collaborative process.

For all the similarities in terms of storytelling between gaming and comics, they're clearly very different media with very different needs. How do you maintain the core appeal of Critical Role when it comes to recreating it as a comic?

HOUSER: It always comes down to character for me. If people can hear the voices of the characters in their heads when they read the dialogue I wrote, then the comic is doing what we want it to.

SAMSON: To me, the core appeal of Critical Role has always been the characters and story, and to some extent, the setting. I think all of these elements are in the comic.

Olivia, what is it like bringing the characters to life on the page? Because of the format of Critical Role as a web series, there's so much material to draw on in terms of performances, but is it easy extracting Grog Strongjaw from Travis Willingham, Vax'ildan from Liam O'Brien, and so on? Do the shows make it easier — or harder— to illustrate Critical Role as a comic?

SAMSON: It doesn't make it harder, but I wouldn't say it makes it easier, either. It helps somewhat, to be able to see how the team act out their characters, but that also puts a bit of pressure on me to get them right, which I hope I do.

You worked on the first series, which was released digitally, with Matthews Mercer and Colville. What — if anything — is different when it comes to working with Jody? Did you feel any additional pressure this time around, as the Critical Role veteran of the creative team (to maintain continuity with what had come before, if nothing else)?

SAMSON: My job is pretty much the same, still. I just do my best and hope that people will like it!

Do either of you think Critical Role, the comic, could act as an entry point to Critical Role, the show, and gaming in general? Or, for that matter, vice versa — that fans of the show might find it a way to get into comics? Is that something that you think about when creating these stories, or is it too distracting from the process of just making a good comic?

SAMSON: I personally really like the show, so if the comics make people want to give the show a go, that's great.

HOUSER: I think the great thing about licensed books is that there is the opportunity there to bring people into comics who might never have picked up an issue before. Hopefully, they discover that they really do enjoy the medium and branch out to try other comics as well. As someone who grew up reading comics, I'm always happy to help give new readers an easy in.

And as for people checking out the comic to learn more about Critical Role, I think it will make a fun entry point for folks who might be daunted by the number of episodes that have been released across both campaigns.

What do you hope Critical Role: Vox Machine Origins II achieves? What will make you think, "Yeah, that was a success — it did exactly what we wanted it to”?

HOUSER: I think if the Critical Role cast feels that we did the characters they've created and spent so much time with justice, then we did our job.

SAMSON: If both fans of the show and newcomers to the series like it, I'll be satisfied.

Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins II No. 1 will be released digitally and in comic book stores Wednesday. Above, Babs Tarr's variant cover for the first issue, which will debut at the Dark Horse Comics booth at this year's San Diego Comic-Con and retail for $10.