Fantasy Meets 'Fast and Furious' in 'The Adventure Zone'

Fantasy Meets 'Fast and Furious' in 'The Adventure Zone'

What do Dungeons & Dragons, the Fast and Furious franchise and podcasts all have in common? The McElroys' latest graphic novel, The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal, that's what!

The latest adaptation of the McElroy family's wildly popular podcast, The Adventure Zone, which follows the Dungeons & Dragons-driven escapades of Taako, Magnus and Merle in their quest recover the highly dangerous magical items known as the Grand Relics, Petals to the Metal sees the gang take a break from fighting off gerblins and solving murder mysteries on trains to try their hand at the high stakes, high octane unofficial past-time of Goldcliff; battlewagon racing. Think Fast and Furious meets Mad Max: Fury Road except instead of humans driving the suped-up vehicles it was elves, halflings, dwarves, human-sized gerbils and a sentient octopus.

Petals to the Metal sees the intrepid trio team up with detective-by-day and battlewagon racer-by-night, Hurley, to stop her former racing partner, the Raven, from succumbing to another Grand Relic's thrall. Featuring everything from bank heists to costume contests and a lesbian shoujo romance for the ages, it's the series' most action-packed story arc to date, perfect for long-time fans and curious newcomers alike. So if you've ever wondered whether Vin Diesel would play as an orc or what kind of whip Gandalf would tear up Middle Earth in, I can't promise the you will find the answers in this book but might as well pick up a copy and find out for yourself right?

To celebrate the third installment in the New York Times-bestselling graphic novel series, PAPER caught up with creators Griffin McElroy, Travis McElroy and illustrator Carey Pietsch to talk about the challenges in adapting a podcast for print, what tweaks they made to the story, what got left on the cutting room floor what makes drawing cars so deceptively hard.

This is your third time adapting for the graphic novel. Has the process gotten more streamlined for you this time around? What kind of things did you know going into it you were going to keep?

Travis McEclroy: I'll start because I always talk too much. In some ways, it's become a lot more streamlined. We're really good at working together at this point, we have a good vocabulary going, but in other ways, we are hitting new — I wouldn't even say challenges as much as just different things to consider. This is the point in the story where a lot of big building blocks for the overall plot start to come into place, there's a lot more character development and things start to get a little heavier as far as the interactions of the characters and the plot and everything. Plus, we take some big swings in this chapter of the arc as far as action and big set pieces go, so there are new things we had to figure out.

Griffin McElroy: In a lot of ways, this is our most straightforward arc, I would argue. It's pretty easy to convey what's happening in this one because it is so action-heavy. The last third of it is mostly this huge race, so from a narrative perspective, that's a bit easier to get across. From an artistic perspective, much more difficult from what I understand.

Carey Pietsch: I think I feel really lucky that we had two books to work our way up to it. I had to cut my teeth on a single robot in book one and the train in book two to even be able to chase down the prospect of the 50-page Fast and Furious car race. Travis and Griffin also both made good points about the bigger stakes coming into focus in this book in a way that's both really exciting and makes me really glad that we had a couple of chances to really figure out how to work together well and bring all of our skills to bear on conveying it effectively.

What sort of things this time around did you keep and what did you get rid of?

Travis: As far as I can remember, there weren't any huge chunks that we had to cut out. This is the most straightforward as far as A leads to B leads to C, the plot is very clear from beginning to end.There was definitely some chunks we trimmed down just for space, but I don't think there will be anything that people will read and be like, "Aw, what about the scene with the blah, blah, blah?" With the addition of Carey's masterful art we add more to it than we had to remove.

Griffin: The battlewagon race, just for page length's sake, I think we cut three or four actual wagons and condensed a couple of them into a set piece. It's interesting, this is fairly unconventional from a fantasy storytelling perspective. But the battlewagon race is, in a lot of ways, the most D&D we ever play. It is literally a three-episode long series of unconventional combat encounters, which is not something we ever did again. That represents the type of thing that we have cut out of these books and will probably continue to cut out of these books is just a lot of fights that lend themselves to being a fun game for us to play, but really not adding a lot to the story. Fortunately, I think these were so wildly out of the box that they were absolutely necessary to be a major part of this book.

As you get further away from the end of the first season of the podcast and going through these, do you feel like you are at more liberty to experiment with what you do in the books?

Travis: I think so, but it's less about experimenting as much as, after the Crystal Kingdom arc, we'll be past the midpoint of the series and going back over the story that we created with the podcast, we're able to clarify things and streamline stuff. We have the benefit of hindsight of how it all ends up. We're able to say, "This is necessary to the plot, to the characters and to the overall story." If there's something that was really fun to do in the moment but maybe it's just taking up space, it can just live in the podcast. I think we're able to hone the story to a much finer point than we did with the podcast.

Griffin: Yeah, I don't think we're very precious about it at all anymore. We understand that we have the opportunity to improve, that's probably something that anyone who's even taken a second pass at a story says, and a lot of the time they do a terrible job of it, but I think we're doing pretty good. First couple of books, me and Justin and Travis were a little more on the side of, "Oh, but that was such a great goof for the podcast," and now we're at the point where we have seen what we are able to do with this second pass and adding the entire visual element from Carey's art. We are not precious at all; if something is not working from the podcast, we drop it, or if there is some huge structural change because it's the best way to tell in the format, then we do not hesitate to do it. This might sound kind of cliche, but we really benefit from the fact that we are working on this as a committee. There's the four McElroys and Carey and Alison [Wilgus], who is our editor, and then we have Calista [Brill] and Morgan and Jeremy and all of these people who are all fans of the podcast and are really committed to making the book what it is. Even if the four of us, one day, went completely bonkers and said, "I want to rewrite the entire set-up," they would be like, "No. You're not allowed to do that." We have a lot of checks and balances to make sure that the decisions that are made could benefit the overall product and not just our whims as artists. Please put the word "artists" in quotes. [laughs]

Carey: It is so cool now that the four of you are done with the entire Balance arc to hear you talk through not just where the story goes, but where the characters' emotional arcs go and be able to bring forward little bits of their own individual stories early on that are going to help make those later points sing if and when we get to them.

What are some of your favorite moments that you were excited for people to see in this novel?

Travis: I'm just so excited for people to see the battlewagon race. I think it's fun. Going into it in the podcast, I was worried that we wouldn't be able to actually do high-octane, fast-paced action, and I think we pulled it off there. Going into a much more visual medium, I was excited to get to see it happen and the designs that Carey has done for the battlewagons and translated it to the page is so good. We went back and did a second pass on Hurley and Sloane's story and clarified a lot of things and fixed some of our mistakes as far as falling into problematic tropes in the past. I'm really excited for people to see that. I think people are going to dig this book.

Griffin: It's the nature of the podcast that every scene had to really focus on Taako, Magnus and Merle, or Taako or Magnus or Merle. So scenes focusing on two NPCs in a podcast would just be me talking to myself for extended periods of time, which is not great audio or a great way to bring my players into the storytelling. But for the book, we don't have to do that, so we were really able to flesh out Hurley and Sloane, the origins of their relationship in a way that I am just over the moon about.

Carey: I'm a sucker for a shoujo romance, so I'm really excited for people to get to see how that plays out in the book. My plea about the battlewagon race, which I also think turned out great — it was so cool the way that you guys came up with the condensing and combining a couple wagons into individual set pieces, I feel like that really helped keep the momentum and the plot engine, the literal engines moving it forward in a way that's really snappy and fast-paced to read. So, maybe read it twice, maybe go back and read it again because it took a long time for all of us to make.

Travis: Buy a second copy, read them, alternate between them, and then buy another copy for your friends and see what they think about it.

Hurley is so beloved as an NPC, how did you go about brushing up that plotline?

Griffin: It's so many things, right? We have the added experience of time and seeing how the audience responded not just to that storyline, but the idea of us going for character development like that. Up to that point, I think you could argue that all of our NPCs were, some of them memorable, but also set dressing a little bit more than everything else. Hurley, for sure, we tried to make more than that, but also in building this romance between Hurley and Sloane, that was pretty well beyond anything we had tried to do before in the podcast. It's also where we started to feel more confident when we were making the show that we could take bigger emotional swings, which really informed the rest of the podcast. We didn't do a great job in terms of avoiding tropes and problematic representation here and there. Obviously that is a thing that we tried to address during the podcast, but now we know where the podcast ended up and where those characters ended up, and we are able to — not necessarily even revise what happened in Pedal to the Metal, but change the timing of what happened in the arc as a whole. This is the tricky thing, it's one of those things that I'm happiest about this book. We were able to do Hurley and Sloane justice in a way that we didn't during the Petal to the Metal podcast arc, but also not wanting to spoil the hell out of the book for people who haven't read it yet.

Travis: Griffin mentioned earlier us not being precious about the story we created, and when we started Adventures - I can say this pretty conclusively about me, Griffin and Justin - had not really written narrative fiction before. So we fell into what I think a lot of first time authors fall into, of just clearly doing a trope and a problematic one at that. I'm thinking we have invented this, this was our brilliant idea, and then people, very rightly so, said, "Hey, we love these characters, we love so much of what you did with them, but this is a thing." And yeah, they're absolutely correct, and the idea of sticking to our guns on that is just inconceivable to me. The idea of saying like, "No, the way we did it was right." Because it so clearly isn't. The thing that I have realized going back through and adapting this book, even though I think hands down Angus McDonald is the most beloved NPC, I think that Hurley was the first time Justin, Dad and I as players and as characters just respected the NPC we were working with and instantly welcomed them like, "Yup, whatever you say." I don't know why exactly, it's probably 100 factors, but Merle, Magnus and Taako instantly respected Hurley and I think that it was really fun to get to revisit a lot of those scenes and give Hurley and Sloane a second pass.

Carey: Griffin, you were talking a little bit before about having space to actually develop characters who aren't the main trio when it's no longer staring down the barrel of you talking to yourself into a microphone, and I feel like that's one of the really cool things about this book. There's room for a lot more of just seeing how Hurley and Sloane interact with each other on the page both in the way that we structured them talking to the other characters about their relationship and also in the background while the battlewagon race is happening, in the background while some of the fights are happening. I feel like we got to do a little bit of that with Hurley and the main trio, too. You can learn a lot from her body language around them and their body language around her to show how comfortable they all are together. It's good, I think we made a good book.

Travis: I don't think it happens, well maybe close to the end when things… I'm not even going to talk about what happened at the end of the entire season. This is the first and one of a very, very small number of times that an NPC kind of becomes the fourth member of the party, and that's just a really cool energy to see.

Speaking of the art, Carey, let's talk about your love/hate relationship with vehicles.

Carey: Man, yeah, it's now been long enough that I've swung all the way around to, "Maybe that was fun," but if you had asked me in the middle of drawing it a year ago, you could probably get a very different answer. I'm always grateful that these are battlewagons and not cars, but it's much easier to convince someone visually that that yes, this is definitely a battlewagon, you have to trust me, because they don't know what a battlewagon looks like. Whereas, if I were trying to draw a human car, like a car that you see all the time, I'm working against your entire working visual schema. You probably kind of know what a car looks like, and you can tell if I have the angle of the windshield wrong. Really leaning into making these weird, cartoony animal-based, Wacky Races meets Red Line meets Speed Racer vehicles that happen to have wheels on them most of the time genuinely made it a lot more fun for me. The tone of the Adventure Zone podcast and these books in general is so much about fun and joy, I'm really glad we agreed battlewagon designs that let the experience of drawing them have some of that as well. They're hard, though, that's the hate part. They're really difficult to draw.

What's specifically hard about cars as someone who doesn't illustrate? Is it the machinery? I imagine drawing the underside of a car is very difficult.

Carey: I think you landed on it. There's a lot to try to keep in your brain all at once in working memory when you're trying to draw a car. And for me, at least, that's harder to break down in stages because I don't have, I'm not as practiced at it as I am with drawing a vaguely humanoid-shaped thing, where you know a torso and a head and arms and legs. Car parts are not shaped like people parts.

Travis: Oh!?

Carey: I know, novel. A new discovery about cars. If I practiced cars as much as I practiced people, it would not be that hard, but I don't, so it is.

Griffin: Now, Carey, was there ever a point in working with this that you thought about drawing the battlewagons just like people laying down on all fours with tires for hands and feet?

Carey: Oh, I hate that. That's actually worse.

Travis: Or like Turbo Team, mid-transformation, where their eyes become headlights and their smile becomes the front grill.

Carey: You found something worse than cars.

Travis: I actually think we might have just invented the movie, Cars.

This might be a good opportunity to dive into the influences and references for this particular arc, both in plot and in the art style.

Griffin: Plot is so easy. I had just started watching The Fast and the Furious movies when we were doing the podcast. So, we started doing the podcast in 2014, this probably would have been 2015, mid-2015 when we hit this arc. That summer, I had seen Fast Five for the first time, and that movie absolutely rips ass. But it blew me away, all of the arcs — most of them anyway — are grounded in inspiration from a specific movie or movie franchise or game or game franchise. My love of Fast Five and all of the following movies was so unironic and pure and powerful that I just really wanted to do a whole arc about it. I forgot when Mad Max came out, obviously the combat — yeah, Mad Max: Fury Road was also 2015, so that was probably part of it, too. Shit, even the idea that there's a master criminal who is also a racer, that's Fast and the Furious. That's literally the plot of it. Some of the other arcs are maybe a little bit harder to track what inspired it. Crystal Kingdom was when I was watching a lot of old sci-fi/ horror movies for the first time, and I had just gotten into the Alien franchise, it's something like that. Something with a creepy, sci-fi stalking trope through a scientific lens. That's a little bit tougher to track. I feel like you can get to the end of this book not knowing anything about me or the show or who I am as a person and be like, "Well that was The Fast and the Furious. That was one of those Fast and Furious [movies]."

Travis: As a player, it was Mad Max: Fury Road. The thing I was most excited about heading into the battlewagon maze was getting to jump from car to car, that was all I wanted. Both myself and Magnus was totally down for that. That is such a dumb thing to say to talk about my character having his own drive and impulses —

Griffin: I agree!

Travis: Yeah. But this was the arc where I think I really fell in love with playing Magnus as a character. In the one before that, we were doing a train murder mystery and that was just not what he was geared towards, but jumping from car to car and throwing people off moving vehicles, I was like, "Yes, finally, this is what Magnus is built for!" It was perfect.

Carey: There was a point where I was keeping track of how many times people jumped from car to car because I had to come up with a lot of different ways to draw that and keep it fresh. It is a fun movement, I reread a lot of Haikyuu!! because those volleyball kids do a lot of jumping.

Griffin: I was going to ask if there was a visual reference. It's easy when you're doing the podcast to watch Fast and Furious and say some bullshit, but did you have a visual anchor? You talked about the vehicles, but the actual racing action itself, did you have anything to go off? Like Speed Racer, anything to go off of?

Carey: Absolutely. I love the Wachowski sisters' Speed Racer so much, that feeling of plugging your brain directly into the feeling of being five and watching cars go fast. It's good, it's really good. And Red Line, which is a similar vibe anime movie about cars that go fast and very little else. And then I read a lot of Oh My Goddess which has a surprising amount of car chases in it in between the shenanigans, and some of the all-new Ghost Rider, obviously that has a lot of car chases, too. It was cobbled together, but I think at the intersection of Fast and the Furious, Mad Max, Speed Racer [and] Red Line, which is a lot of things to intersect, but somewhere in that frenetic, cartoony energy is where I wanted that race to live.

Are there any final thoughts, hopes and wishes? Things you're excited for fans to experience?

Griffin: I'm excited to see the reaction of people who have read this book because I genuinely think this was a turning point for the podcast and for the people who listen to it and their relationship with the podcast. I am excited to see if a similar shift happens for the people who are reading this for the first time. Some of my friends never listened to the podcast but have been reading the books and it's kind of cool to get their reactions to it.

Travis: This feels a little bit like I'm just saying this to bait people into buying the book, but I'm really excited for people to see the last page, the last two pages, somewhere in there. I think I'm really happy with where we ended that on, I think it's a perfect synergy of the illustrations and the writing, and I think it's great.

Carey: I feel like it's cheating for me to say the final third of my book, the entire final third. But that encompasses the race and a bunch of big emotional resolution moments and the ending and epilogue. I can't wait for people to get to read it.

Photography: Portraits to the People