If you’re a fan of comedy podcasts and/or Dungeons & Dragons, you’ve almost definitely heard of The Adventure Zone. The podcast — in which the brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy play the tabletop roleplaying game with their dad, Clint — is hilarious, weird, at times incredibly touching, and is hugely popular among D&D fans and non-D&D fans alike.
When Here There Be Gerblins reached the top spot on the New York Times trade fiction list in 2018, the McElroys and Carey were obviously thrilled. But, according to Justin, there was one surprising drawback to the news.
“There is a bad thing about having a No. 1 New York Times bestseller that a lot of people don’t have the guts to tell you about,” he says. “If people then say you have a bestselling book, for the rest of your life, you have to resist the urge to say, ‘Actually, it was a No. 1 bestseller.’ It is absolutely humiliating to say that out loud, but your brain will try to make you do it every single time.”
2.Knowing how the Adventure Zone podcast ends made it simpler to figure out which parts to keep and which parts to cut for the graphic novel.
“Some parts were easy” to condense or cut completely from the Murder on the Rockport Limited novel, says Griffin — such as the part of the podcast where the characters fight a bunch of swamp leeches before even getting to the murder mystery on the train.
“There were certain things I added to the arc to make [the podcast] more game-y. And that’s bad storytelling [for a graphic novel], because what were the leeches for? Are the leeches gonna come back and burst through the door? No, they don’t come back,” he explains. “They’re only there because I thought they needed to have a fight before we had five episodes of the boys solving a mystery without any fighting.”
But the great thing about recreating Murder on the Rockport Limited for the graphic novel is that the entire story is already complete in podcast form, so the McElroys could go back and clean up the narrative while still keeping in all of their favorite parts.
Explains Griffin: “We now have the benefit of having this omniscient perspective of knowing how everything works out. We don’t have to improvise stuff, and our solutions to things don’t have to be clumsy. We can take what happened and de-clumsify it in whatever way works and whatever way doesn’t completely dismantle this story we told [on the podcast].”
3.Carey was drawing The Adventure Zone fan art long before she came aboard for the graphic novels.
While Carey had already made a name for herself illustrating comic books (including for the Adventure Time and Lumberjanes series), in 2015 she was spending a lot of her spare time creating her own art based on the Adventure Zone podcast — which led to her connecting with the McElroys themselves.
“I had the chance to work with the McElroys on a live show poster for TAZ/MBMBAM the following year, so we’d worked together a little bit, and I’d been half-jokingly, half-deadly-seriously talking about how much I’d love to get to be a part of a comics adaptation if such a thing ever happened,” said Carey. And eventually, a literary agent brought them together with the intention to pitch an Adventure Zone graphic novel. “I was so, so happy to have the chance to do just that!”
4.She had many, many conversations with the McElroys before she drew a single panel of the graphic novel.
While Carey was the one doing the drawing, she solicited as much input as possible from Justin, Travis, Griffin, and Clint in order to make sure the characters in the graphic novel matched the characters in their imaginations.
“[The McElroys] really are involved from start to finish. Before we even start doing designs, we all talked about what they wanted their characters to look like in the graphic novel, ” said Carey. “Little details like, ‘How hairy should Magnus’s knuckles be?’ It was a really talkative, collaborative process, which was great.”
5.It was always a given that Griffin himself would be a character in the graphic novels.
One of the biggest part of what makes The Adventure Zone such a successful podcast is Griffin McElroy’s diligent and elaborate work as the game’s Dungeon Master. From the very beginning of creating the graphic novel, everyone involved knew they needed to keep that element in the story, by having Griffin occasionally pop up in the story to move the action along or to sarcastically comment on what’s happening (and, naturally, freaking the fictional characters out).
“Griffin’s voice is intrinsic to the success of The Adventure Zone, and to lose that entirely would be to lose an essential character of what makes the podcast work,” explains Justin. “Since the beginning of The Adventure Zone, our characters have been pushing against [Griffin’s] narration. So if the narrator wasn’t represented in some way, we’d be missing the push against it, too.”
Still, it took some trial and error to figure out the best way to portray this.
“Early on we had discussions of how best to represent everyone — did we want all four McElroys present in the book? Okay, no, we just want Griffin, but how do we best implement that?” says Carey.
Adds Justin: “We had a great gag early on with Carey, where we discussed that every [non-player character] would look vaguely like Griffin, like they’d all have glasses and similar haircuts to him. We abandoned that pretty early on; it was a bad idea.”
6.There’s one action sequence in Murder On The Rockport Limited that was very difficult to illustrate.
“There’s a stunt that [Travis’s character] Magnus does in Murder on the Rockport Limited that defies the laws of physics,” says Griffin. “It was impossible for me to visualize when we were doing it in podcast form, let alone to imagine it in a graphic novel. Carey is some kind of cyborg to pull it off.”
Illustrating that sequence was “incredibly difficult,” Carey admits, but she used a lot of real-life figurines and even took photos of herself acting out scenes in order to portray it as accurately as possible. “I have a lot of very fucking stupid photos of myself trying to jump from chair to chair in my office — that I will never release to the public,” she says. “I also got a model train and some little army men and swung them around so I could figure out how it would actually work.”
But, she adds, most of the novel was much easier to draw, due to the work from the McElroys. “A lot of the heavy lifting is done by Clint, Griffin, Justin, and Travis in their script — it’s not just a transcription of the podcast, but it’s all of them thinking about how it works on the page.”
7.The graphic novel includes a totally new ending scene that was not in the podcast.
During the process of writing Murder on the Rockport Limited, the group’s editor came to them to point out a logical inconsistency in the story that needed to be addressed.
“It’s one of those things where now, we know where the story goes, we know the relationships between these characters and where they go, so why would one of the characters act a certain way or not act a certain way?” explains Griffin.
So, while keeping true to the original story, a new ending scene was created from scratch in order to make the overall arc make sense, and to set things up for the future.
“[The scene] is totally original for this book, and it literally took my breath away the first time I saw it,” Griffin says. “It’s my favorite part of the book, hands down.”
8.It took Griffin a while to perfect his role as Dungeon Master for the Adventure Zone live shows.
Being the Dungeon Master for a relatively open-ended D&D podcast is one thing, but writing an arc for The Adventure Zone live shows is another — there’s a strict time limit, but you want to include plenty of action, comedy, and room for the players (and the audience) to enjoy themselves. For Griffin, he simply had to keep doing it order to learn how to do it better.
“It is tough! It’s the kind of thing that you can’t just be good at when you start doing it. Early on, we would have live shows that would definitely get away from me and you could tell listening to them how much we rushed and fudged our way through stuff,” he explains. “Now, I know the pace at which the boys can play D&D and how much I need to prepare, and where to leave gaps for them to fuck around. And that’s only stuff I’ve learned after doing twenty-some-odd live shows.”
Something that helps, Griffin says, is going easy on themselves and not expecting everything to go perfectly. “The biggest thing we’ve allowed ourselves to do is we’ve introduced an intermission now, so we’re like ‘Well, if the first act goes for an hour and the second act goes for 15 minutes, that’s fine!'”
9.And yes, Griffin knows about the lightsaber meme that he’s in.
You’ve probably seen the meme — a screenshot of a video ostensibly made in a high school classroom, featuring a teenage boy using a plastic lightsaber to block another lightsaber from hitting him behind his back. Well, the boy in that meme is a young Griffin McElroy, and it’s from a video he made in his news production class at Huntington High School in Virginia.
“I mean, if that had been the first meme of me that had arrived on the internet, I think I’d be pretty disappointed, but honestly, it ranks closely to the middle of the pile of shame for me,” he says. “First of all, that lightsaber fight was fucking badass, you can’t tell me that it’s not. There’s a lot of cool shit in [the video], it’s well cut. If people enjoy that, then fine.”
Even more impressive is that the video includes a parody of the “mmm whatchasay” moment from The O.C. — made years before Saturday Night Live did it in the 2007 sketch “Dear Sister.”
“That was way ahead of the curve!” says Griffin.
Don’t miss The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited, on sale July 16!
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