The (Tres Horny) boys are back in town … and those wild-eyed boys haven’t changed that much, right down to the destruction that trails in their wake. It’s The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited, the second installment of the graphic novel series based on the hit podcast of the same name.
The actual play podcast is dungeonmastered by McElroy’s babiest brother Griffin, and played by middlest brother Travis, oldest brother Justin, and family patriarch (and comic book writer) Clint McElroy, and the graphic novel follows the first “season” of the podcast featuring the McElroys’ jaunt through the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Published by First Second, and illustrated by Carey Pietsch, the first installment, Here There Be Gerblins, became the first graphic novel to ever top the New York Times’ trade fiction best-seller list.
Ahead of the July 16 release, Newsarama spoke with Travis, Clint, and Carey about adapting a podcast to the page, everybody’s favorite boy detective, and what readers can look forward to on this journey into murder mysteries.
Newsarama: So you’re getting ready for the second Adventure Zone graphic novel — not just one, but two! How does that feel?
Travis McElroy: You know, I would say it’s … I am someone who loves data, I love both the android and information. And so I always prefer having … I like having two points of reference rather than one. And as far as I’m concerned, while I really, really loved Gerblins, I think that in just about every way — in, no, I’m going to say, in every way, I think book two is better. So I just, I’m so excited for people to get to read it, and see how they feel about it. And, you know, for the last year I’ve really loved seeing people still, even a year in, like tweeting about it or, you know, posting videos of, or whatever, their reactions to the first book, and I’m just so excited to see how people feel about the second book.
Clint McElroy: And I kind of enjoyed getting back to the story, because in the process that we are, you know, like, working on the latest arc, Amnesty, on the podcast, and working on the third graphic novel, and it was just kind of great getting the actual book in my hands and getting back and hanging out with Taako, Magnus, and the other guy, and just enjoying the living daylights out of it.
Carey Pietsch: I think I feel very similarly to the both of you, both in that I’m so deeply blown away and proud of how well this book came together. I love Gerblins to pieces, but I really think it shows how much we all learned from that book, and really brought to bear on Rockport Limited. And similarly, I think comics is a really solitary pursuit. The vast majority of my day job is me sitting alone at a desk and flinging things into the void at our editor and the four of you, and it’s really, really exciting to know that in a little bit this book that we’ve all been working on so hard, for so long, is going to be out in the world. So I’m very scared, but very excited.
Nrama: Carey, you mentioned how much things have kind of changed between the first book and the second book. I know that — I imagine that adapting a comic from an audio medium must be a kind of a particularly unique challenge? Like any adaptation is difficult, but to go from jokes you hear to jokes that translate on the page, did your process change at all on how all of you collaborated on the script and the art between Gerblins and Rockport Limited?
Clint McElroy: I don’t know if it changed. I think it intensified a little bit. I think it became even more collaborative.
Travis McElroy: The word I would use is streamlined. Streamlined.
Clint McElroy: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. I mean, we’re used to working with each other, Carey and I and the boys are used to working with each other. We’ve got that template from from the first book. We’re very, very … it is, and I’m looking for a stronger word than collaborative but it is, very much so. And with technology the way it is today, you can instantly collaborate on things. And so I think that we worked very hard on the comedy end of it. I think we really had, and we did in Gerblins too, and even more in this one, to decide what does work, you know, in audio and may not necessarily work on the printed page, and vice versa. And it was really easy, I mean there was a lot more work, but it was easier if that makes any sense. Now, we have a feel for how to do this. Now, we have a feel for how this story’s going, and so it wasn’t so much a cutting as it was making adjustments to it.
Carey Pietsch: Yeah, I agree. I think I feel really lucky that we have a book under our belt, and we were able to kind of take a look at, okay, what did we do in Gerblins when we were faced with a joke that initially kind of came across in tone of voice on the podcast. How do we translate that visually, and a lot of the times that is in the script being strong enough to really translate the bulk of the set up and expectation. Then we also have this added medium of we can show you visually what that tone of voice would look like in acting and body language. So I think it really is a translation. It’s not, we’re not losing data. We’re just adding this other data stream and kind of shifting into how would this work in a visual mode.
Travis McElroy: I also think one of the things that’s been like, that I’m so glad that we had book one under our belts going into this is there’s a lot more action in book two than there is in book one. And so all that practice we got of like, translating jokes to a visual medium, we now can use that kind of same language we used to discuss what needed to happen to do that with the action and the fight scenes and that kind of thing.
Carey Pietsch: And I think I also, I’m really grateful for how much working on
Gerblins made me a better cartoonist in a very real way. I think kind of getting thrown into the deep end of okay, we’re going to figure out how to show magic on the page, how to cram a lot of action into this really tight-paced story really let me become a better, better at my job, and be better placed to do, to work with this team to make those action sequences really sing. Although I am biased, so take it with a grain of salt.
Nrama: No, I wanted to say specifically Carey, about your art, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated, both in Gerblins and in Rockport, is you have such an eye for little details. I try to always be really attentive about like lettering and sound effects and stuff like that is as a reviewer but like, you have such a great eye for how to use lettering to make something work that you might not expect would work from the podcast to a comic book page. So I’ve always been really impressed with that.
You mentioned kind of streamlining things and kind of figuring out how to go from the story of the podcast to the story, kind of the condensed version from the graphic novel. Travis mentioned he liked numbers, so I have some: in terms of the actual podcast Rockport Limited encompasses almost twice as many episodes as Here There Be Gerblins. There are six in the first arc, 10 in the second arc. How do you make the decision of what to for time, what is the most essential to take from these for the graphic novel?
Carey Pietsch: I’m going to butt in to buy them time, but also to say thank you so much for talking about the lettering, Tess Stone is actually the letter on the book.
Nrama: Oh, thank you!
Carey Pietsch: He’s the cartoonist on Not Drunk Enough, which is a really wonderful webcomic, he has such a brilliant eye for hand-lettering and really making sound effects part of the artwork, so it’s always been a real pleasure to work with him because I think he is such a brilliant artist that what he brings to this book really makes the lettering part of the artwork and not just something for on top.
Nrama: No for sure, and thank you so much for correcting me on that. I am also obsessed with Tess Stone, so that makes me really happy. Thank you.
Carey Pietsch: He’s very good!`
Travis McElroy: The thing that — what’s interesting, it’s a fun challenge, but it is a challenge of like, in Rockport, not only is there more, you know, we made more episodes, more action, all of that, we also start introducing more characters that would become really canonical, important characters. Characters like Angus, we do a lot more with Lucretia, we do a lot more at the Bureau of Balance in general.
And so we not only had to think about, you know, what needs to stay in place to make the story clear, but also what do we need to make sure we don’t alter because it would change — we’re always trying to think of the books as, if somebody’s never listened to the podcast, and they just pick it up, will they have the same experience as someone listening to the show? And so the last thing I’d want to do is change people’s experience of getting to know the characters and getting to fall in love with the characters because we need to cut something for time.
So it became a very surgical kind of thing of like, how do we find time, where do we buy that time without changing too much, and I will say, a big part of that, like I said, is in Carey’s ability to translate action into art. So rather than, like on the show, we’d have to spent a lot of time explaining the setting we were in, and the actions we were taking, and the effects that those actions had, Carey can then take that and do it in, like, one panel, and get across the exact same thing it would have taken us twenty minutes to describe.
Clint McElroy: And something that’s really cool about Rockport is, it is very much more of a linear story. I mean, we more or less, it’s literally and – it literally is on a train, and it’s moving straight ahead at a pretty rapid pace, and that’s kind of the way the story goes. I mean, it’s just kind of straight ahead, and that made it a lot easier to make decisions, and to make any kind of changes or additions, because you know, we knew where the story’s going, and it goes, it most definitely goes.
Nrama: And in terms of you – Travis had mentioned all the new characters that are being introduced in Rockport Limited, are there any specific characters that you were really excited to get to introduce this time around?
Clint and Travis: Angus.
Travis McElroy: You know. Angus. Here’s the thing. The thing about Angus that I love so much is one, it is – obviously Angus is a fan favorite. Everybody loves Angus. Totally. Get it. But also, it is the character that I most closely associate with Griffin as the player. I think that Griffin, like when I think of Griffin, and The Adventure Zone, how would I depict Griffin, I would depict him like Angus.
There’s just something, maybe it’s because Angus is also my favorite NPC, so when I think of Griffin and The Adventure Zone, I think of Angus. And so it’s really fun. I think also Griffin had a lot of fun when he was voicing Angus, like using Angus as kind of a little bit of his own megaphone, commenting on when we would do stupid stuff, or say stupid things, that he would have to say like, Well, I don’t think that makes any sense! He would just straight up say what Griffin was thinking. So I’m just, I love Angus so much.
Clint McElroy: Also, it was kind of cool meeting more of the Bureau of Balance staff, you know. I mean, we met one or two of them before, but we kind of spend a little bit more time with them, and you know, introducing Leon and Fantasy Costco.
Travis McElroy: Avi.
Clint McElroy: Yeah, so that was fun, that was – especially knowing, you know where things are going, and you know, we made a very conscious decision that we want to flesh out this whole universe, because this … we’re telling a very large, very big story that after Rockport is really going to get really large and in breathtaking style. And so it’s really kind of cool to get to know some of these characters that are going to be so important later on in the story.
Carey Pietsch: I also have a deep soft spot for Angus. I think one of the things I really loved about, Clint you were talking about how this is kind of a story on rails. I think one of the things I really liked about it was how much time it meant we got to spend with, you know, the characters who were on the train because that’s where the bulk of the story takes place. So it was really fun to have a chance to kind of flesh out Jess and Graham and Jenkis – Jenkis, wow. Jenkins and Angus a little bit more through like, how do they move around the train? What is their body language like when they’re interacting with each other, or with the main trio, so I think it was really, really fun to get to spend a little bit more time with everybody on the page too.
Travis McElroy: I will also say, my favorite things about the book that also might be the adaptation process of turning this into a graphic novel is Carey’s work of Jenkins’ facial expressions makes me so happy, because it captures so much of what Griffin did in the voice work in facial expressions. It’s one of my favorites. I like, you know, all of the visual jokes and everything, but easily my favorite thing of turning it into a visual medium is getting to do facial expressions and go through them like, what if he looked a little more like this? And like, it’s just, it’s so great. It makes me so happy.
Carey Pietsch: It’s really gratifying.
Clint McElroy: One of Carey’s panels that I absolutely love was where she took a joke that I came up with and realized it so perfectly. And I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s a very Suessian reference in a close-up of Jenkins that made my heart flip.
Carey Pietsch: I know exactly what you’re talking about, and when I saw what you had written in the script, I think I made the same expression on my own horrible three sizes too small face, so I’m really glad with that collaboration.
Nrama: I feel like those are some of the moments where … Travis had mentioned not wanting to have the graphic novel be a wholly different experience from the podcast, but those moments like with Jenkins and getting to see people’s body language.
And especially, at least for me, with the Bureau of Balance on the moon base, those were the moments that it was a really positive transformative experience, because getting to see what Carey did and also Tess’ work as well made it feel so much more fully realized in a way that you don’t necessarily get to get when you’re listening to people you’re like, I know what I think is happening from the sound of your voice, but I don’t know what your face looks like. So it’s hard for me to connect. So this is a really interesting distinction and kind of a way to make it feel like more intense, like almost immediately it was just more intense in terms of storytelling.
Carey Pietsch: First thank you, but I also want to say how lucky I feel that a lot of that really is coming from the McElroys also, because all four of them are involved at every stage of the comic-making process. So it’s, even when we get to thumbnails and we get to pencils and inks, they’re all taking the time to really go through and read through each stage and comment on it. So they’re also able to bring their own voice into there on what those final products look like in a way that I think really makes it a lot stronger.
Travis McElroy: And I also think – I’m really happy to hear you say that, C.K., because one of the things that … like we said this a lot about book one, but I mean, it’s true of all the graphic novels we’re working on, is that when we are working on it we’re really trying, and it’s a little meta, but we’re really trying to think in terms of. if instead of a podcast, if it started out as a graphic novel, what would it have been like. Because we don’t want it to just be like an adaptation that you really only enjoy if you also listen to the podcast. We don’t want to take for granted that the people reading the book know what it’s based on. And so we really try to think of it as its own entity, and not just a reflection of the other thing. So thank you. Thank you very much.
Nrama: I want to go back to the art a little bit. You mentioned introducing Angus and we’ve talked a little bit about the body language. Everybody gets new looks for the train! They get their new train aesthetic. What inspired that because I was in love with all of those choices and especially some of Magnus’s editorial choices involving sleeves.
Travis McElroy: Yeaaahh!
Nrama: Especially some of those.
Clint McElroy: So we have new outfits for the action figures. I mean it really is. Oh, I mean – no.
Nrama: Well you got to get the original figures and then you got to get the limited editions.
Travis McElroy: I think Carey, you could probably speak to that more than I could, as well as the inspirations for the individual costume designs.
Carey Pietsch: Yeah! Maybe someday I will release the pages and pages of discarded attempts at fancy train disguises. But Clint, one thing I thought was really cool was you wrote into the script was they were going to this particular theater costuming department to pick out their gear, so it was neat to think about – you know, there’s a lot of fantasy bullshit in the costuming choices in The Adventure Zone in general. I think I’m more interested in what feels like a fun character choice than being totally beholden to like, medieval European actual clothing.
So I just wanted to kind of take the outfits they had in the first book and kind of, okay, now what if they had access to a bigger budget, a higher level, and maybe whichever pairs of Lucretia’s boots she left lying around the theater. So how do you translate like, the feeling and look that these characters seemed like they felt comfortable in, in book one, into this slightly fancier setting, or what they would think would be fancier, at any rate.
Travis McElroy: I love it because it’s very like, Shakespearean, like, Shakespearean theater. Not Shakespearean actual, but like…
Carey Pietsch: Right!
Travis McElroy: It’s so great.
Carey Pietsch: I’m so glad that comes through! Yeah, that’s some of the stuff I was definitely looking at for sure.
Clint McElroy: And this will fit in well with our spin-off plans of Bureau of Balance community theater, the adventure.
Nrama: I would buy that tie-in series and I would buy my own set of train fashion montage fashion dolls, you know, I’m all in on the merchandising decisions that are available there. Are there any specific moments in Rockport that you’re really excited for anybody who’s picking up the graphic novel for the first time to get to experience, but that you’re especially excited about how they translated from the podcast to the graphic novel?
Travis McElroy: I really like the way that — there’s a moment where they’re cannonballing in, in the glass sphere, and the structure of that, the way that we kind of made some little timing edits to go from the launch to getting them in the ball is one of my favorite visual gags maybe ever. Yeah, I’m pretty happy with it.
Clint McElroy: And there’s some also, like I said, I mentioned before about getting to spend time with some of the other Bureau of Balance characters, visit the Fantasy Costco, and the Artificer, and I’ll tell you what, we haven’t mentioned this before, but we start off with the big celebration, right? The, not Candlenights, what is it –
Travis McElroy: The Lunar Interlude, it’s the –
Clint McElroy: Yeah, yeah, the Equinox thing. So. That was a lot of fun.
Carey Pietsch: That’s uh… that’s not Rockport.
Clint McElroy: Oh! Back up!
Travis McElroy: I’m jumping ahead.
Clint McElroy: Strike that! I was kidding. I don’t have any favorite moments. I have no favorite moments! They’re all my favorite moments! I’m shutting up now.
Carey Pietsch: There’s a couple of, there’s a moment that was just released in the preview where Merle gets to make a really horrible face that is one of my favorite horrible faces in the book. I try not to pick favorite horrible faces, but that one’s definitely up there, when he’s kind of lying his way into the Rockport Limited club on behalf of everybody. But I’m also really fond of the entire last quarter of the book, which is maybe an unfair answer, but I feel like it’s structured in a way where you get to see everybody kind of take their final bows and then step off-screen, and then the stuff that happens in the kind of post-train epilogue was really, really cool to get to work on.
Nrama: As we’re wrapping up, just one more question. So we touched on this a little bit at the beginning, but when you first teamed up with FirstSecond to decide to do the graphic novel adaptations, and did you ever anticipate what an immediate hit the series would be, or like the kind of reaction that you would see both from readers and fans of the podcast.
Travis McElroy: I mean, we hoped! I think … I, and this will surprise no one, I am the McElroy with the least amount of humility. So I will say that what we didn’t do was take for granted that people would like them. I think that was one of the things that we worked really hard on from the beginning. We never just said, well, people will buy it because they like the podcast. And so every decision we made, every conversation we had, was always from the point of view of, like, making it the best it can be. So I was nervous, for sure, when we put it out.
But I was also very proud of it, in a way that I think would be very easy if you’re doing an adaptation to just kind of write it off as, and then we had to do this. But I was really, really proud of it. I think we all were, as its own stand-alone thing. So we were pretty excited to put it out, and it’s how I feel about this one too, we worked really hard on it, but I’m really proud of it. So I’m nervous, but nervous in a way of, like, I think it’s really good and I hope that people will think it’s as good as I do.
Clint McElroy: I was gobsmacked. So, I was blown away. I told somebody the other day, now that I’m retired, every day brings something cool. And I mean, every day we would get these updates from Calista and from Allison and the folks at First Second, and our terrific agent Charlie Olson, and then we would find out about the New York Times, and then we find out about – every day has been just, it’s actually killing me. My nerves are shot. So much good news, and over and over again, so I was blown away. You hope for it, but you don’t want to take anything for granted and now I just am excited about people getting experience the ride along with us.
Clint McElroy: On the train.
Clint McElroy: That is the Rockport! He said, beating his allusion to death
Nrama: Carey, what about you?
Carey Pietsch: Man, sorry, I was sitting here quietly being overwhelmed thinking back to how terrified I was a year ago. And you know, I’m still very scared, but I think it was such a wildly, wildly humbling and overwhelming experience to have the book come out and to hear that so many people connected with it.
I think I talked a lot about how solitary a pursuit comics feels like, so it really has been the five of us and then the First Second team kind of working alone in our silos on this for a year. More than a year, you know, we started this, what, like three years ago? It’s 2019? So it’s, to put all of that work and passion and love into this project together and then to hear people respond to it was just deeply, deeply meaningful and completely overwhelming in the most startling and wonderful way.