If your only exposure to the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons has been through mainstream allusions to nerd culture and dated references to eighties fads, à la Stranger Things, then you probably assume that it's all about wizards, quests, weirdly shaped dice, and an almost neurotic amount of attention paid to keeping track of player statistics. And you would be correct, to an extent. But what most people miss about the lasting appeal of the game is that it taps into an innate human desire to tell stories. At its heart, D&D relies upon the creativity of its players to construct its conflicts and work together to resolve them in ways only limited by scope of one's imagination.
Enter the McElroy brothers, comprised of Justin, Griffin, and Travis, who over the past decade have amassed a podcasting empire built off the back of their weekly advice show, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, that has led them to star in their own TV show on the now defunct streaming platform Seeso, appear on Forbes "30 under 30" list, and land rolls in the upcoming Dreamworks film, Trolls 2. In 2014, the McElroys launched a spin-off of the podcast based on a one-off episode the brothers recorded of themselves playing D&D with their father, in what then became known as The Adventure Zone.
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Following the tale of adventurers Merle, Magnus, and Taako as they embark on a quest to destroy seven powerful artifacts known as the Grand Relics and save the world, the podcast soon grew over the course of a few episodes from an irreverent take on traditional fantasy tropes to a sprawling multi-arc epic. Filled with intricate storylines, a remarkably diverse cast of characters, and genre-tributes each contained in their own episodic arc, The Adventure Zone blossomed into an exhilarating and incredibly moving feat of storytelling that far exceeded anything the McElroys could have initially anticipated.
Capitalizing on the unexpected success of The Adventure Zone, the McElroys teamed up with Brooklyn-based illustrator Carey Pietsch to recapture magic of the podcast in the form of a graphic novel. The fact that their first book, The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times' bestseller list is not only a testament to the dedication of their die-hard fanbase but to the McElroys' widespread appeal.
Now the McElroys and Pietsch are preparing for the release of the highly anticipated follow-up adaptation to the podcast's second arc, The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited, in stores July 17, so we thought it apt to sit down with Justin, Griffin, and Carey to get the full low down on the new novel, what lessons they learned from book one, and whether or not they technically infringed on a major corporation's intellectual property.
In the transition between book one and book two, what did you keep? What did you leave behind?Griffin: I don't know that we left much out at all. If anything, the stuff that we learned in book one makes the writing of book two a billion times easier. There's a reason why the first book took us a couple years to figure out, and then the turnaround on Murder on the Rockport Limited! was so much quicker. This one is a murder mystery which is weird, not only in the context of a [Dungeons and Dragons] game, but in the context of our story overall. There were a lot of things about the mystery that played okay in a podcast when we had eight or nine hours that we did not have in a graphic novel.
Justin: I think there's a lot of stuff if you're improvising a cozy mystery, you're probably going to get a lot more leeway from the audience because it doesn't have to hold up to as much scrutiny as if you sit down and read a graphic novel in an hour and a half. There's a lot of tightening-up of the essential mystery, but overall, book one was an adaption of the first arc and it's a much looser story, less guided story. We weren't even telling the actual narrative of the show for most of that first book so we had a much better idea, by the second arc, of where we were going.
Carey: I think this is something Clint [McElroy] has spoken a lot about one of the big advantages of having a story that is very literally on rails is that you do know what points you have to hit in the adaptation along the way. So there is a little more guidance in the process of adapting it from the podcast into graphic novel format. Clint's also spoken about the fun of writing in visual gags. He wrote some really fun magazine ad takeoffs, and there was the Family Circus gag in book one that could only be done in comic form. One of the great advantages of comics is that, while you lose the audio channel, you get this visual channel that you can use alongside text, so that you can present information in the background in a way that's a little more subtle than saying like, "And also, there's a mysterious shadowy figure walking by you at this very moment."
How did you figure out what elements of D&D you wanted to keep, because the mechanics of the game is how the story is told. How did you try and make that accessible to a wider audience and then translate that into a graphic novel?
Justin: I think we have probably jettisoned so much of that except where it is of narrative value. I think that there's a few funny outcomes as far as that stuff goes, but by and large, would you guys say there's less direct gameplay in this book?
Griffin: We really trim that stuff down a lot, not for accessibility reasons honestly, like I don't think we had a conversation about, "Oh, there's lots of people who don't know how to play Dungeons and Dragons. It would ostracize them if we included that stuff in the book." It was just for consistency's sake. We had the conservation of how much of the gaminess of it we wanted to maintain and the answer is only where it makes the story, or the action, or the humor better. There's a bit in Rockport where Merle tries to cast a spell that he doesn't actually know, which is something that Dad tried to do when we were playing the game, and I let him do it because I'm a pushover. That makes for a fun moment in the book so we include that.
Carey: We talked a lot about different ways to incorporate Griffin as DM [Dungeon Master] into the story and I think talking about how much of the elements of D&D or table talk in general to include as part of that conversation. I absolutely like what we landed on which is, for the vast majority of the time, when there is table talk or a rule invoked, it's only when that DM character is present. It's showing you visually also that this is taking place outside of the bounds of the story, it's like a mechanical underpinning.
How did you go about balancing what maybe the fans wanted or were asking for versus making it more accessible to an audience that maybe hadn't had exposure to the podcast?Griffin: That was something that we really had to figure out in book one, and is one of the many, many things that carried over into book two. There are moments, especially early on, that manage to hook the people who were listening to TAZ to turn them from listeners of the show to actual fans of the show. The question is how we get to those moments without presuming that the reader is already a fan of ours. We don't want to do those readers a disservice by just popping in, page one, cracking in-jokes that only listeners of the podcast will get. It's been more important to us to just tell the most cohesive version of the story that we told. The ending of book two, there are moments that are entirely new, and they are some of my favorite moments that we have come up with while making these adaptations, and so I feel like people who listen to the podcast who want a bit more of that juice, that expanded juice, that they like in the podcast, I think the graphic novel is going to provide.
Specifically for Carey, what were some of the challenges of visualizing these characters that had only been previously described in auditory form?Carey: There's so much richness in the voice acting and emotion and drama that comes across in the audio version, and I think that can tell you a lot about the way a character acts. The music Griffin makes for this show also lends a lot to setting and tone and creating a sense of place and time. This is start to finish a collaboration, and I really mean it. Once we get into storyboarding, inking, and panels, the whole team — all four of them — really are able to set aside time to go through and provide feedback on the artwork and make sure that it is lining up with what they had in mind overall. I feel really lucky that it's not just me alone because that would be untenable.
When it came to things like "Fantasy Costco" or Garfield, the Deals Warlock, were there certain maybe legal lines you had to walk right up to?
Griffin: I'm hoping nobody rats us out to either Costco or the Jim Davis estate.
Justin: That's wild. I'm shocked they haven't. Man, we just left the door wide open on that one.
Carey: We definitely had more conversations about what to do with Garfield than maybe anybody else in Rockport in particular. I like what we landed on a lot, but we definitely went through a lot of different versions. I don't want to spoil what we landed on, but that was definitely a group effort.
Griffin: I will go ahead and spoil it. We basically just traced a picture of legitimately the copyrighted character, Garfield. It is 100% exactly Mr. Davis's work.
Carey: You can't prove that and I deny everything!
Justin: Well wait until you see our book and then see us in court!
Carey: It's not Sanrio, I think we'll be okay.
Justin: And [Jim Davis] is so fucking precious about that character, you know what I mean? He won't lend it out to just anybody.
Justin, as a cis-white heterosexual male telling the story of Taako, a gay character, were there certain things you did to help you approach that?Justin: The most helpful thing I did was listen. Two things: I think the first that was really important to me was listening to people whose life experience is closer to Taako's and seeing what resonated with them and what felt true to them. I think the second thing was after we said that Taako was gay, after that decision was made, I just tried to treat him like any other character at that point. I didn't overthink it because I think there's a distinction between telling the story of people whose life experience is different from your own and telling stories with people whose life experience... I would not try to write the definitive version of what it's like to be a gay man in Fandolin, right? Or like a gay elf. But I can be a gay elf doing other things because it's just a fact of this character and I can draw my own experiences from that.
In the creation of the graphic novel, did the way that the characters develop over the course of the podcast inform any choices that you made going back and starting over?
Justin: Oh god yeah. Absolutely. I don't fault the podcast for this because it is the nature of an improvisational show, but there was a lot of spaghetti being thrown at the wall in terms of character. I had a phase, where I was playing Taako as an idiot. It seemed funny to me that he would be a dummy and it didn't work and it didn't make sense for the character. So, when we're able to take a second pass with the graphic novel, that's the kind of stuff you can edit out. I have a much clearer picture of how Taako is after years of making the show, and we can make the graphic novel jive with that a little bit better to make it more coherent and consistent with where we ended up.
Going forward, what are your hopes for future volumes?Griffin: We had the recent realization that every arc that we try to adapt like this is going to be twice as hard as the arc we just did. What's special about Rockport Limited is it's the second arc of the story that we did in the podcast and it's where I, as DM, just threw out the pre-made campaign and just decided Okay, we're going to completely do our own thing. There are some things that only happened because I threw out the D&D playbook that we started with and the leaps we take in the stories we try to tell gets more ambitious as we keep moving forward. Not only do the arcs themselves get more complex, we touch on things a little bit in Rockport about sort of the grand complex arc of the entire story, the macro storyline, but in the next arc it gets even heavier, and then in the arc after that it gets way, way heavier. So, adapting that in particular is tough because we have to throw that dart now and if we keep up this publishing pace, we're trying to hit a target seven-whatever years from now. My hope is that we can continue trying to thread the needle in a way that I hope we did in Rockport.
Images Courtesy of First Second Books