The Adventure Zone started as a family endeavor: three grown-up brothers and their child-at-heart dad set out to play a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and to share it with the internet. Magnus the human fighter (Travis McElroy), Merle the dwarf cleric (Clint McElroy), and Taako the elf wizard (Justin McElroy)—and of course their brave and longsuffering DM, Griffin McElroy—took on gerblins, evil scientists, and fashionable ghouls, and in the course of it all became heroes and master storytellers. That (the podcast ; The Balance Arc) was chapter one. Then there were the follow-up campaigns, the fanart, the cosplay, the live shows and the Reddit theories, original music, bonus episodes, and crossover events—a lot for one tabletop-game-turned-podcast. This week, the McElroys, under the care and pen of still another player, artist Carey Pietsch, have added a podcast-turned-comic to the mix. And it does not disappoint.
If you’re here for the goofs, you’ll find plenty of ‘em. If you’re here for metacommentary on RPGs, you’ll find that too. Beautiful new art? Check. Fully-realized characters fighting against fate like it’s their baby brother or son? Check. And if you’re looking for adventure, well, needless to say, you’ll find it in The Adventure Zone .
The actual plot of TAZ —like any epic fantasy—unfolds slowly, told over the course of various puzzles, boss battles, and travel montages. It’s a sprawling thing, but more than that, it’s collaborative—driven as much by Taako, Merle, and Magnus as it is by Griffin and his amazing cast of NPCs. The long-and-short of it, though, is this: there are some magical items that the boys need to collect. They aren’t always very good at it. But they are ridiculous, and at times courageous, and at others very good at bluffing, and sometimes that’s enough to get you through one to fifty lifetimes. In Here There Be Gerblins, the first arc of the story and first volume of the comic, we find them on a quest to find Merle’s errant dwarf cousin (and/or to find the gold reward they’ve been promised at the end). Things (as they so often) are, though, more complicated than they first appear. For one, they aren’t the only heroes looking for the lost dwarf. For another, they’re only level one.
If the storytelling of TAZ is collaborative, it’s no surprise then that its first official adaptation would be as well. Carey Pietsch follows a huge legacy of fan interpretations of the series’ characters, but even more impressively has worked with Clint McElroy to adapt a purely audio experience into a raucous, zany, and dynamic visual one.The physicality of her art fits the humor of the series incredibly well, and what the comic loses with the absence of the McElroys’ timing and rhythms, it gains in Pietsch’s panelling and pacing. Equal parts slapstick and metacommentary, the comic’s visual jokes are fresh and abundant.
A floating Griffin McElroy, the campaign’s DM, constantly interrupts the narrative to keep his errant players on course and to remind them of the rules of the game. He interrupts the form of the comic itself too, spilling out of panels and into the gutter, breaking the rules even as he’s enforcing them. Merle, Magnus, and Taako too, often break form, speaking blithely about their dice rolls and abilities while they’re attacking an enemy, or laughing at their own jokes. They’re often the same bits you’ll hear in the original, but seeing them emerge from the mouths of fully-realized, magic-blazing, ax-wielding characters, adds a whole new layer of comedy and charm.
I won’t pretend to know if the comic would read as well for newcomers to the series. Barring any spells of forgetting, it’s impossible for me to approach the comic afresh—that is to say, without the McElroy’s voices and music-making helpfully playing in my head as I read. I can at least say that the plot is lucid (if slow—though this was a problem of the first arc of the podcast as well), and the goofs are, well, funny.
A huge part of my excitement about this project, though, is its very nature as an adaptation and as a collaboration. The volume even includes a collection of fanart at the end, which is wonderful not just because it’s a gracious and loving nod to the fans that have supported the series throughout its lifetime, but also because the different character designs are a reminder that fanart is as important to the “canon” as the contents of the comic. Pietsch’s interpretations aren’t presented as some new official golden standard. Instead, they, like the podcast and the fan productions before them, are labors of imagination, teamwork, and (above all and as always) love.
Podcasts are a relatively new art form, and comics are a much older (some may argue the oldest ) one. Tabletop RPGs, of course, lie somewhere in the middle. The thing the formats often have in common, and which just as often makes them so strong, is their collaborative nature. The ways that they rely on a multitude of perspectives and styles and contributions make them endlessly malleable and adaptable. If you, like me, were hesitant to take on a version of TAZ without the literal voices that make it so unique, keep in mind that Pietsch’s voice is just as vital in building and rebuilding this story. She, like the McElroys, is a character in this messy epic fantasy. And each one of them are pretty fantastic.
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins is available now from First Second.
Listen to Patrick Rothfuss’ introduction to the graphic novel, or preview pages from the story here.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL. They are also a level 4 human paladin named Jeremy.