If you told me three-and-a-half years ago that I would soon become fairly obsessed with a hybrid storytelling-comedy podcast in which three brothers played a long form game of Dungeons & Dragons with their dad, I would’ve said… well, yeah, that sounds like me.
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It’s not that I’m a die-hard Dungeons & Dragons fan—I’ve never even rolled a D20. But I have always loved the idea of the game—of a group of friends sitting around together, telling themselves a story.
It helped that the friends, in this particular case, are Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, three guys I’d been listening to for years via their tongue-in-cheek advice podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, which is basically an hour of them trying to keep a comedy bit going for as long as they can until it stops being funny (or stops being funny and then becomes funny again). The idea of these good, good boys bringing the same wit and irreverence to a game of D&D—and with the help of their dad, Clint, a beloved background presence on MBMBaM and a professional radio personality—sounded irresistible.
And it was. And then it was more than that.
The Adventure Zone started off without a hint of gravitas. Griffin, serving as Dungeon Master, walked his siblings and dad through a slightly tweaked starter campaign, the quest narrative serving mostly as an excuse for them all to riff on pop culture and fantasy tropes. (I mean, Justin named his elf wizard character “Taako” and spent a good number of episodes hunting down the ingredients to make his namesake food, and Clint’s lovable dwarven cleric Merle Highchurch tended to forget which god he’d devoted his life to.)
But even then, there were hints the show would turn out to be more than just a goof—Travis, the most experienced gamer of the bunch, had clearly put a lot of thought into the tragic backstory of his character, noble fighter Magnus Burnsides, and Griffin was already doing a lot of his own worldbuilding to layer atop the one found in the D&D starter set.
By the time the McElroys wrapped up the first campaign, in which Magnus, Merle, and Taako team up to infiltrate a cave teeming with
goblins gerblins to recover a lost treasure that turns out to be a magical object of unspeakable power, the show had envolved into something strangely compelling—not quite a game of D&D, and not quite a comedy podcast, but something altogether new.
I liked it. So did other people. A lot of other people, many of them brilliantly talented artists who brought the characters to life in images shared on Tumblr and across social media (a bound collection of fan art, The Adventure Zine, was crowdsourced in order to raise money for charity).
For the next three years, TAZ’s community of online fans only grew alongside the narrative, which eventually became as layered as that of any television show or fantasy novel, with twists and turns and romances and reversals and so, so many endearing characters. Merle, Magnus, and Taako evolved from funny voices (or from the players forgetting to do their funny voices) delivering one-liners into real heroes with backstories that meant a lot to listeners—Merle’s struggles with his faith and a broken family, Taako’s guilt over past tragedies he had a hand in, Magnus’s ache at the loss of a partner. These three and so many other characters—the rest of them voiced by Griffin— built out a world trapped in the midst of an increasingly complex (and only occasionally convoluted) fantasy/space opera tale involving magic, revenge, the multiverse, and the bonds that endure beyond death.
It’s a really good podcast. You should listen to it. It will only take you about 75 hours. Once you’ve finished, you’ll want more. You certainly won’t want to let go of the world or the characters.
Fortunately, you no longer need to: The Adventure Zone is, of course, now more than a podcast. It’s also a graphic novel—hopefully, the first in a series of them; this volume covers the first campaign, Here There Be Gerblins, and a little extra, taking us through roughly episode seven of the show.
A podcast transitioning into a comic might sound odd (though there is precedent), but it isn’t too surprising, considering this is a fantasy story, and fantasy is all about making people imagine new worlds (hence all that fan art).
The thing is, it works quite brilliantly, whether you’re an existing fan of the podcast or not. A large part of its success has to do with the fact that it hews so closely to the show—its written by the four McElroys, who worked hand-in-hand with artist/co-writer Carey Pietsch—while also taking advantage of the comic book format. It’s not a straight adaptation so much as a reimagining of the story in a new medium, one that is very much about the visuals (it’s worth noting that Clint previously adapted films for comics, including just gems as Three Ninjas).
Griffin’s DM is still a presence, occasionally appearing in the corner of a panel to inject a bit of meta-humor: banter with the characters, remind them of the rules, or introduce a travel montage. The characters feel faithfully represented, perhaps even more so than they do in the actual episodes; at that point in the show, the players were still figuring things out, while the comic, written years into the run, benefits from hindsight. This also means there are plenty of opportunities for foreshadowing and in-jokes; the book definitely merits a close read or two to catch all the little details.
Carey Pietsch deserves special recognition for bringing to life a world that had already long flourished in listeners’ minds, as well as in countless pieces of fan art. While the McElroys have been canny about stating that there is no official “canon” version of the characters and that the comic simply presents one interpretation, there’s also never a point in the graphic novel that any of the characters—from the three adventurers, to countless gerblins, to effete dark wizard Magic Brian—look like anything but themselves. Even better, Pietsch shows remarkable skill at depicting humor and action with an economy of panels; fans know the ending of this campaign is fairly epic, and the book nails the visuals (Taako’s famed “Abraca-f***-you!” moment is rendered suitable for framing).
It’s hard to overstate the appeal of The Adventure Zone; as evidenced by the size and volume of its fanbase (and when I say “volume,” I’m speaking literally, as I’ve attended one of their live shows). That it is fun and funny is expected (it’s practically baked into the premise), but I’m in awe of what it accomplished in terms of long-form SFF storytelling (I’m not alone: no less an august fantasy personage than Patrick “Kingkiller Chronicles” Rothfuss provides an introduction to this volume). And if there’s any format that does long-form storytelling well, it’s comics.
I’m ready for the next campaign. Let’s roll for initiative.
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins is available July 17. The Barnes & Noble edition includes an exclusive variant cover and two-sided poster.