This time last year, an extraordinary alchemy occurred: Through meticulous plotting, a lot of enthusiasm, intense collaboration, and gorgeous artwork, The Adventure Zone DnD podcast became a graphic novel. Itself a spin-off of the McElroy brothers’ podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, The Adventure Zone has taken on a life of its own; their first campaign spans 69 episodes, the first 6 of which were adapted into their very first graphic novel last summer, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins.
After garnering huge acclaim (and hitting the NYT Bestseller’s List), it was only a matter of time before a second graphic novel would arrive. The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited! publishes July 16th, returning to the world of Magnus, Taako, and Merle—this time they’re seeking a Grand Relic hidden somewhere on the eponymous locomotive, where it seems foul play is at hand…
I had the chance to sit down with Clint McElroy (Merle Highchurch, Dwarven Cleric), Travis McElroy (Magnus Burnsides, Human Fighter), and Carey Pietsch (Human Illustrator), to talk about the success of the first graphic novel, how their collaboration translates the podcast to the page, and what they loved most about Murder on the Rockport Limited.
Regarding the success of the first graphic novel and possible fears for number two, Travis took the lead. “While very proud of the first graphic novel,” he said, “Murder on the Rockport Limited is better in every way. Mostly because we’re just better at making it now from the experience of making the first one! Rockport is just a huge leap from Gerblins: by the time we were doing Rockport (in the podcast), we had figured out what the show was, we had a better handle on who the characters were, what the world is, etc.” His biggest hope is that everyone enjoys it even more than the first graphic novel, “and that people want to know what it is their friends are so excited about. What I’m saying,” he added with a laugh,” is that it would be nice to sell more copies!”
As Clint pointed out, “each arc of TAZ: Balance [the first season of the podcast] had a theme to it; Gerblins was more of a dungeon crawl, while Rockport is more of a whodunit parlor room, detective story.” He said that his only concern going in was that Rockport could potentially feel very static. “We’re stuck on the train, and we don’t have a whole lot of places to go. But I should’ve known and trusted Carey, because her visualization and artwork keeps everything so alive, fascinating, and vibrant; she completely makes this books feel energized and fun to look at.”
Carey jumped in to add: “I was scared of the train! I think a bottle episode can be really fun, but I was scared that I have to draw the same interior environment for like, a hundred pages of this book, and it made me ask, ‘What can I do to make this interesting?’” She went on to say that the expressiveness of the podcast, and the voice acting of the McElroy family helped her focus on translating that energy to the page, and to let that empower her work, and not worry as much about train car interiors.
Continuing from Here There Be Gerblins, Murder on the Rockport Limited introduces a larger cast of the TAZ universe, and brings in more threads from the overall Balance Arc, while still maintaining its own unique voice. When asked about some of the challenges and joys in bringing about a more complex story and a ton of new characters, everyone had a different perspective on striking a solid balance.
Travis remarked that from an editorial view, you’re looking at, “between 8-12 hours of content, and we can’t do every single second of those, or the book would be five hundred pages long and Carey’s hands would fall off.” The goal then became to look at what could be removed that didn’t change the story, or the character arcs they were building. “And not just with Magnus, Taako, and Merle,” Travis said, “but with Rockport, we’re getting into characters like Angus, Lucretia, Jess, Jenkins, and so many more.” The goal for them became finding, “the moments and qualities about these characters that make people like them, and what makes them interesting,” without slowing the story down.
“We never wanted to remove the meta-aspect of TAZ or the real-world references and things like that; that sense of anarchy is very important to us, and so we’ve got to balance that out,” Clint added. He went on to say that a lot of the podcast is them goofing and trying to mess with each other, “and some of that is cute, but it’s not going to all translate to the printed word.”
He remarked how fun it was for all of them to rediscover Griffin’s story, too. “Right around the time we were doing Rockport, we knew doing [TAZ] was fun, but Rockport is when we really started seeing these clues and crumbs that Griffin was dropping, and for the first time, it was obvious something bigger was kicking around [Griffin’s] noodle.” He said ultimately, the goal was make the epic scope of the graphic novel feel as fresh to discover for the reader as it had been for them to discover in the podcast.
Carey added that, “Now that we’re adapting a story that’s done, you do know what this story is aiming for. All the things that were cut,” she said, “were cut in service to the tone and feel of the story.” But, “while some things from the podcast were cut, because they worked great there but maybe didn’t work in a graphic novel, there was also an opportunity to add in more elements further down the line in the podcast that we had a chance to integrate into Rockport, which is exciting and cool!”
Travis went on to explain how huge a difference Carey and her work make in striking that balance. “One of the major benefits of the visual element is that you describe just so much in a podcast, but Carey can take that moment, and just do that in one panel. The [REDACTED] fight takes a lot of describing in an auditory medium, but as a visual, Carey can do that in a page and a half.” He added, “There are so many great visual gags, but also a lot more action in this one than in Gerblins, and that’s been so fun to see.”
Rounding out the discussion, Carey said that while much in the way scripting must be done in a way to retain key and favorite parts of the characters, she also added how the visual element is a great way to retain familiarity as well. “Translating [their] voice acting into motion, how Merle, Taako, and Magnus interact with each other, how they move on the page, their facial expressions,” all of it is in service to bringing those characters and the voice acting to life on the page.
Clint, with his background in comic book scripting, took the lead at the beginning of the project. “I usually go back and listen to episodes, read transcripts, put together an outline and from there, work with Carey […] to put together a panel by panel breakdown, using a lot of the actual script dialogue in the process.” From there, “the four of us work on the script together, and then we get Carey involved, and we tweak it further […] we go back and forth, and refine and refine, but it’s very much a collaborative effort.”
“Even once we get to thumbnails,” Carey said, “everyone is still very much involved. We talk a lot, even as far as pencils and inks; the whole team reviews those at every step. Everyone has a chance to make sure their voices are as influential in the graphic novel as they are on the podcast.”
Travis spoke up then and had to insist that while it was a collaborative process, “both Carey and Dad are being modest. Yes, Griffin and Justin and I are coming to it with our characters and knowledge of the world, but Dad is the one who brings, like, years of comic book experience and script-writing experience, without which this graphic novel wouldn’t even exist. Like, we just wouldn’t even be able to write it. Both with this and Journey Into Mystery (a recent project the McElroys wrote for Marvel Comics), we just can’t think in terms of comic book scripts the way that Dad can. Dad builds the skeleton, which I would argue is the hardest point.”
When it came to the artwork, Travis said, “it isn’t until the thumbnails that Justin, Griffin and I can even picture what the book will look like. From there, we have a lot of input […] but until that’s done we can’t help, and we’re just there cheering Dad and Carey on, giving them moral support. Without Carey and Dad, the books just wouldn’t happen!”
“Well, it’s hard to argue with him!” Clint said, laughing.
When asked about the difficulties of writing these characters at this point in their journey, and looking back at their characters after years of playing them, Clint and Travis both offered very different perspectives on character growth. “It took a lot of work, to be honest with you,” Clint began. “Here’s the thing: we tried very hard not to make Magnus, Taako, and Merle grow too quickly; when you know the ending, [and who they become] and what that story is going to be, we had to resist making these characters too close, too soon. It was a little bit of a challenge.”
“Especially with the first two arcs,” Travis said, “we’re still figuring it out. You know, you want to get to the ‘cool thing,’ but something I’ve learned from doing The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother, and Me is: there will always be things I think are the most interesting or the funniest, or the whatever, and then we’ll see people reacting strongly to things I never even thought were a thing. So, one of the challenges in adapting a story is disconnecting your own personal experience, and saying ‘I am making this for an audience. I don’t know the most important thing to the person reading it, so I’m going to treat everything as equally important.’”
He then elaborated, saying, “I may think this is the most defining moment for Magnus, but then when you look at what others are saying, that moment may not even come up for them! So, trying to see the whole picture, rather than focusing on the thing you’re most interested in,” was an important lesson he took away from the whole experience.
Travis went on to say that an especially fun part of now doing the graphic novel, is that the focus isn’t on the main trio of heroes anymore. “Before, Griffin was making NPCs who acted around Magnus, Taako, and Merle, but now, it’s not just the three of us and the DM making a story together, but all the characters existing together in the world . . . we get to pay a lot more attention to Killian, Angus, Lucretia, and more, because now they’re not just NPCs, they’re all real characters in the book!”
To end the conversation, I asked what everyone’s favorite moment from Murder on the Rockport Limited was, and almost everyone agreed that the end of the book held the best moments.
Travis immediately responded. “Easy one for me. Magnus rappelling down the side of the train! It made me sooooo happy.”
Clint chuckling, agreed, saying, “it wasn’t until we started writing the script and laying it out, and realizing as we got to that part, ‘Wow, this is kind of a weird scenario,’ but Carey took what could’ve been very difficult to get across, and it comes across so well. It’s basically an action sequence! She never ceases to amaze me.”
Thanking Clint for his kind words, Carey said that she loved drawing the big set piece at the end of the book with the villain. “A lot of that sequence is the main trio working together for the first time in a way we haven’t quite seen before. You saw a little bit of it in Gerblins, but over the course of Rockport, you see the three of them getting a little more comfortable with each other. As Clint and Travis said earlier, we were all cognizant of not wanting to rush that development, but in Rockport, you definitely start to see them getting more comfortable with each other.”
“Yeah,” Clint said, “we saw them kind of forced into being a team in Gerblins, but in Rockport, that’s where they take the first real couple of steps toward being one [by choice] for the first time.”
The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited is out on July 16th from First Second Books.