It’s the most wonderful time of year—which is to say The Adventure Zone graphic novel release season! Clint (Merle), Justin (Taako), Travis (Magnus), and Griffin (God, DM, take your pick) McElroy are back this July with the Petals to the Metal arc, accompanied as always by the incomparable Carey Pietsch. Just like the preceding arcs, volume 3 of TAZ bundles silliness, action, and good old-fashioned RPG mechanics into one stunningly colorful package. As fans of the original podcast know, however, Petals is also the story’s first real hint of what’s to come for our intrepid heroes. Try as they might to maintain a veneer of all-goofs-all-the-time, Tres Horny Boys are on their way into a plot that’s not only epic, but also secretly poignant and life-affirming.
The arc itself starts slowly, with Taako, Merle, and Magnus bumbling through exposition and item acquisition, and builds into a crescendo when they get on literal track to apprehend this volume’s villain. The Raven—elusive, hyper-competent petty thief—is in over her head when she starts to use the Gaia Sash on Goldcliff’s (already technically illegal) battle wagon race tracks. But her heart is still laid bare in the form of her racing partner Hurley, who will believe in her through thick and through thin, through vengeful gangs and giant octopi. Our heroes join Hurley in trying to prove the Raven’s goodness—through the tried and true method of defeating her in a splendiferous fantasy race battle.
Pietsch and the McElroys have taken full advantage of the adaptation process here—not just in the visual jokes and emotive facial expressions, though those remain a delight—but also by making marked improvements to the actual text of the story. The pacing of this arc is much refined, and foreshadowing and characterization that were impossible in the heat of gameplay have been added to make the narrative feel more cohesive and intentional. The biggest change, though, is to Sloane and Hurley, whose relationship is rendered in so much more detail and depth than audio could allow. The podcast’s misstep into the “bury your gays” trope is unraveled as well—something that originally happens much later in the story, but which has been smartly rearranged to give us a much-needed happy ending for these sweet, tender lesbians.
Petals to the Metal’s less tragic ending is part of a larger overhaul as well, which is that the comic starts to weave in some of TAZ’s ultimate themes much earlier. Its last pages offer readers hope, kindness, and community—things we can all use a bit of in 2020, and things which will also grow in resonance and relevance as the comic series advances. The Red Robe’s monologue on the nature of man, “the want, the… Hunger” is—while certainly less cheerful—similarly a touch of foreshadowing to both plot and overall message, present in the original but emphasized here by the subsequent conversation with the Director. I have to imagine this will be a welcome addition for new readers, and as an old fan of the podcast, it just makes me emotional. This comic’s going to break my heart and put it back together all over again, isn’t it?
All of this being said, the original run of Petals to the Metal was already the first real foray into the meat of the story, and this remains true of the comic. More questions begin to bubble up—and more importantly be denied by our mysterious Director—and we see the Hunger for the first time (illustrated by Pietsch so effectively it gave me chills). The narrative (which is to say Griffin) starts forcing Tres Horny Boys to treat NPCs—if not more seriously—more humanely, and to doubt the information they’re being fed. The goofs will certainly remain in subsequent volumes—but they will be accompanied by so much more darkness, mystery, and heart than their predecessors!
It should go without saying that the artwork and comedic style of the comics remain consistent, which is to say perfect. Pietsch hides so many tiny visual jokes throughout her panels, you’ll never want for a laugh on any given page. Not to mention the race at the center of the arc is fun as hell, packed with gags and action alike. Add to all this the first appearance of much-beloved characters like Steven the fish and Garyl the binicorn, and you truly have a recipe for success.
The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal is a treat. A silly, gay, gorgeously illustrated treat. Read it, love it, and savor these last moments of tomfoolery before Griffin McElroy learns how to make you cry.
The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal is available from First Second.
Em Nordling reads and writes in Louisville, KY. They are also a level 3 halfling wizard named Linus.