Comics and fantasy role-playing games have shared a similar trajectory as of late: once considered distinctly nerdy pursuits and viewed as mildly disreputable by the broader culture (when they weren’t the subject of full-blown moral panics, anyway), they both have recently been thrust into the mainstream, whether via big budget movies or name-dropping teens on Netflix. Yet somehow, both forms of entertainment have maintained their legit geek cred.
The success last summer of the graphic novel The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins illustrates (heh) the intersection perfectly: a number one New York Times’ bestseller based on a popular podcast that’s all about a family sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons. With that in mind, we rolled a d20 to perform a skill check on the 13 great graphic novels below, and discovered they are all highly proficient in satisfying tabletop gamers looking for a fantasy fix between play sessions.
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins and Murder on the Rockport Limited!, by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
Like we said, this is a graphic novel based on a podcast in which three brothers play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad, which might sound boring if you’v never experienced the growing phenomenon of “actual play” podcasts, nor previously encountered one of co-writers the McElroy brothers many, many other podcast projects. And certainly the show is hard to describe, precisely because it’s so unique, even in the field of gaming podcasts: it’s comedy, but the McElroy brothers—Griffin, Justin, and Travis—and their dad Clint also take the storytelling and characterization quite seriously (the rules of D&D… less so). Their first campaign is retold in Here There Be Gerblins, brought to life in brilliantly colorful art by Lumberjanes‘ Carey Pietsch, who also co-writes. The goofiness of the audio version is very much in evidence, but the graphic novel puts a bit more focus on the story itself, making the case that the quest of Taako, Merle, and Magnus stands on its own as a funny, swearsy, compelling adventure. The same creative team assembles for volume two, Murder on the Rockport Limited! which arrives next month. It’s a super-silly locked-train mystery, and we can’t wait to see how the book deals with some of the weirdest gags in the podcast’s history, including a town populated by clones of soothing radio personality Tom Bodet. (Also, it just so happens that B&N has a sweet exclusive editions of both books, variant covers and other goodies inside.)
DIE, Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles
This new series from Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + the Divine) is also the first comic series from digital painter Stephanie Hans, and visually, it’s a stunner, and the art is in service of a compelling fantasy/horror narrative with a neat hook: in 1991, six teenagers disappear while playing a Dungeons & Dragons-esque role-playing game designed by one of their party. Two years later, they suddenly reappear—five of them, anyway—on the side of a road 50 miles away, older, scarred (emotionally and physically—one of them is minus an arm), and unwilling or unable to explain where they’ve been. And years later still, as adults, the delivery of a mysterious package containing a very special d20 draws them back into the dangerous, otherworldly plane from which they’d previously escaped. The fantasy world of DIE is a grim amalgam of fantasy and steampunk tropes, a sort of fractured vision of Earth history filtered through a teenager’s idea of what’s cool, and the characters are swimming in pathos, each still bearing the damage done to them by their first trip into unreality. Shades of Stranger Things, Ready Player One, and Birthright make this one a surefire fan favorite; Gillen clearly understands the dynamics of tabletop gaming—both how a campaign should work, and why people become invested as players. He’s done the work, too—extensive essays at the back of the first trade volume lay out the specifics of the worldbuilding, which are tied in every respect to different aspects of gaming—character types, tropes, and subversions.
Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons, by Patrick Rothfuss, Jim Zub, and Troy Little
Impressive credits on this one: Jim Zub (again!) up with fantasy novelist and D&D superfan Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle) and cartoonist Troy Little (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) for a story of a game gone horribly, and hilariously, wrong. Morty wants to impress a girl at school, so asks D&D veteran Rick for some help. Before long, the whole family is trapped in a world in which the rules of the game are the rules by which they’ll live or die. The good news: it’s a legit Dungeons & Dragons crossover, so there’s plenty of cool stuff for fans of both R&M and D&D. The better news: co-writer Patrick Rothfuss is such a huge fan of both properties that the book works as well whether you’re a fan of one, the other, or both. (Listen to him discuss its creation in-depth on the Barnes & Noble Podcast.) The B&N edition of the book features an exclusive intro and cover gallery, among other bonuses.
Coda, by Simon Spurrier, Matías Bergara, Michael Doig, Jim Campbell and Colin Bell
Sword and sorcery RPGs, much like fantasy literature, tend to traffic in tried-and-true tropes. They’re ubiquitous because they work, but sometimes it feels as though we can never quite get beyond Robert Howard and JRR Tolkien. In Coda, Simon Spurrier (The Spire) and Matías Bergara (Cannibal) are looking to do just that, literally, creating a post-fantasy world in which magic, once commonplace, is now gone. What’s left is a wasteland in which a former bard named Hum and an ill-mannered, five-horned steed team up to save the soul of his wife, and are inadvertently caught up in a struggle to control a post-magic world. Bergara’s detailed art and surreal colors perfectly complement Spurrier’s offbeat scripting, because you need just the right artist to pull off a foul-mouthed pentacorn. The feel is akin to a particularly off-the-wall gaming session with your closet buds, each of you trying to out-weird the other in plot twists and character creation.
Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
Noelle Stevenson’s star has risen rather dramatically in recent years: she’s written Lumberjanes and Runaways, served as showrunner for the upcoming She-Ra Netflix series, and helped shepherd an adaptation of this book to the screen (it’s out in 2020). The book that kickstarted her career back when it was just a webcomic with a fervent Tumblr following, Nimona is told from the point of view of self-proclaimed supervillain Ballister Blackheart, who is joined at the outset by a new sidekick—the titular Nimona, an energetic shapeshifter who is trying to help Ballister get revenge against Sir Goldenloin, an old friend from The Institute, the hero training organization that rejected him. The setting is nominally a fantasy realm, but with modern technology tossed in here and there. Though cosplay was Stevenson’s stated inspiration, the book works uniquely well as a companion to an RPG session: as a result of its webcomic origins—the narrative developed a page at a time over years— the story and style evolve in surprising, often shocking ways. At the outset, it feels like a jokey book about a slightly surly but generally hapless sidekick who comedically botches attempts to help her master. As things progress, though, each character’s role is thoroughly overturned in ways that constantly surprise. In the same way that a game of D&D can go in unexpected directions, Nimona becomes a book in which you can never quite predict what’s going to happen.
Birthright, by Joshua Williamson, Andrei Bressan, and Adriano Lucas
Many gaming campaigns begin at home (whether said home is a house, a hole, or a hall), before the characters set out into a bigger and more dangerous world. That’s true as well for a boy named Mikey Rhodes, though he never intended to leave his family and set out on a quest, and the journey Birthright takes him on is less an adventure than a journey back to where he came from, first physically then emotionally. At the outset, the young boy is stolen away to the dangerous and bloody fantasy realm of Terrenos. His family is all but destroyed by his loss, but his eventual return is just as devastating: he shows up a year later in a scarred, musclebound adult body, having experienced decades of life in the unforgiving land. He’s been damaged by his experiences, but he’s also come back with secrets, and a mission. Where many fantasy stories end with a return, Birthright is very much about what happens after.
Ladycastle, by Delilah S. Dawson, Ashley A. Woods, and Rebecca Farrow
The dudes are all dead: King Mancastle boldy rode out on crusade with his many vassals and retainers, but never came home; they got themselves eaten by a dragon and brought down a curse on their castle and those they left at home. Monsters are on the way, threatening all those who were made to stay behind. Merinor, a blacksmith’s wife, is proclaimed king, with an army lead by the Princess Aeve. Fortunately, one of the old knights is left to teach the ladies of the castle everything they need to know about fighting before the monsters arrive. Unfortunately, he was left behind for a reason. It’s a neat twist on the typical castle-based fantasy narrative, boasting gorgeous art and a subversive sense of humor.
Elfquest, by Wendy Pini and Richard Pini
Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest came to a conclusion earlier this year, exactly 40 years after beginning life as part of an underground comic anthology. That’s a lot of storytelling to succinctly summarize, but generally, the saga revolves around the Wolfriders, a tribe of warrior elves on a primitive, Earth-like world called Abode. Science fiction elements develop along the way as we learn the origins of the various elf species and the history of Abode, but at its core, the Wolfriders struggle for survival in cooperation and and competition with other species, especially humans. Though the tone is quite different, several classic D&D-esque elements are represented in the series, which was, appropriately, developed over the years into an RPG as well as two tabletop games.
Rat Queens, by Kurtis J. Weibe, Stjepan Šejić, Tess Fowler, Owen Gieni, and Tamra Bonvillain
Described by creator/writer Kurtis J. Weibe as a “love letter” to his years spent reading fantasy and playing D&D, Rat Queens puts a mondern twist on genre tropes with an all-female cast and ample LGBTQ+ rep (the series is a previous winner of a GLAAD Media Award). The book follows the titular band of adventurers, made up of a hillbilly mage, a hipster dwarf, an atheist cleric, a hippie halfling, and a transgender orc. Across several story arcs (for a time, the series was on hiatus after several artist changes, but is now back on a consistent schedule), they’ve fought off assassins, fought off a scourge of monsters, and investigated the sinister goings-on at a magic school. While D&D‘s old-school rep is as a game geeky boys play in basements across America, Rat Queens proves that the world of gaming—and gamers—is so much more delightfully diverse.
Scales & Scoundrels, by Sebastian Girner and Galaad
In this recently wrapped series, Girner and Galaad set out to both honor the traditions of the fantasy quest, and also have a bit of fun with them. (The book even kicks off with characters playing an in-world RPG called “Dragon’s Hoard”). There’s also that familiar narrative: a group of adventurers set out on a quest for “The Dragon’s Maw,” a famous labyrinth rumored to be full of treasure. Treasure hunter Luvander, reluctant leader of the band, is tired of being a penniless adventurer, so she plans the fantasy version of the last-big-score deep in the dungeon. What begins as a light, funny quest story soon develops into something deeper and more interesting, as the backstories and relationships of the main characters develop and the stakes get bigger—just as a game of D&D grows more interesting as you discover more about your character. The bright, detailed art draws from both manga (in the characters) and Euro-comics (in the textured backgrounds and bold colors).
Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, by Fujino Ōmori, Kunieda, and Suzuhito Yasuda
I mean, maybe? 15-year-old Bell Cranel is living the dungeon-crawl lifestyle: deep below a city run by capricious gods and goddesses, he’s wandering an enormous labyrinth populated by all sorts of goblins and dragons. As an adventurer, he’s strictly an amateur—trying to survive and level himself up whenever he can. He wouldn’t mind meeting a girl, which he does when level-5 swordswoman Ais Wallenstein saves him from a minotaur. All that’s left is to convince her that he’s worth the time. The manga is an adaption of Ōmori’s light novel series, which has also been made into an anime and a film.
Delicious in Dungeon, by Ryoko Kui
Another dungeon-crawl manga, but this time with a bit of extra flavor (haha): Laios and his guild were on a raiding expedition deep in a mystical dungeon when things went badly awry—they were soundly stomped by a dragon; all their provisions, goods, and coins were lost; and, on top of everything else, Laios’ sister was eaten. Luckily, thanks to an enchantment that binds the souls of those killed in the dungeon to their bodies, she’s got a bit of life left in her, at least if they can track down the beast before she’s fully digested, so the guilt-ridden team heads back to rescue her. They figures out a clever way to survive with nothing: they eat their way through the various monsters and creatures in the underground world. Every few chapters, the book even offers up handy cooking tips from their companion, Senshi the dwarven chef. The team is always forced to consider the cost of weapons, provisions, and fees to recruit new members, in a very explicit, very fun reference to the structure of an RPG.
That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, by Fuse, Taiki Kawakami, and Mitz Vah
Ever dreamed that you’d wake up in a fantasy world straight out of a campaign? Just maybe be careful what you wish for, or so this manga series suggests. Mikami is a middle-aged guy in Tokyo, working a go-nowhere job, with few friends and no romantic prospects. One day, he wakes up in a fantasy world straight out of an RPG—which would be cool, except that he had to get stabbed to death on a city street to get there. Even worse, he doesn’t get to be a knight or a wizard, but only a lowly slime creature. On the upside, he discovers, over the course of the series, that being a slime gives him opportunities for heroism that he never grasped as a human. (Can slimes grasp? Absorbed, then.)
Dungeons & Dragons
And of course, there have been many D&D comics going back to the 1980s. If you’re looking for some to read in-between your own quests, you could certainly do worse than to sample some of the most recent. Over three volumes and counting, Jim Zub and several impressive artists have told the story of a new generation of misfit heroes rising to face a new threat to Baldur’s Gate, starting with Legends of Baldur’s Gate. It stars a fun group of adventurers involved in a largely standalone narrative, though they do get involved in further exploits in Shadows of the Vampire, Frost Giant’s Fury, and the forthcoming Evil At Baldur’s Gate. Fans of Forgotten Realms hero Drizzt Do’Urden will likely enjoy The Legend of Drizzt series, in which creator R.A. Salvatore adapts his own novel with a script from Andrew Dabb and gorgeous art from Tim Seeley. Finally, if you’re looking to kick it old school (and revisit an era when parents were pretty sure you were summoning demons with those dice), there are several collections of the classic early run. Dungeons & Dragons Classics, Volume 1 is a great place to start.
Pathfinder, by Jim Zub, Andrew Huerta, and others
Jim Zub, writer of the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate comics, clearly doesn’t discriminate against other franchises; he also writes the first three volumes of Dynamite’s Pathfinder run (given that the Pathfinder RPG began life as a series of D&D supplements, the transition probably isn’t all that dramatic). As the story begins, the goblin tribes of Varisia are uniting in line with the rise of an ancient evil awakening on Golarion. Warrior Valeros, gathers his friends including the sorceress Seoni, wizard Ezren, ranger Harsk, and cleric Kyra to face the coming danger. The volumes include supplemental material for the RPG itself, so you can stay pretty close to the gaming table as you’re reading.
What books are you taking on your next campaign?