Actual-play Dungeons & Dragons podcasts might be one of the most perfect media genres suited for graphic novel adaptation. Right up there with superhero fight sequences, high fantasy stories of triumph and tribulation usually make for pretty good comics.
The Adventure Zone, despite its ironic lack of either dungeon or dragon, can be found on almost every shortlist of “Best D&D Podcasts” out there. And with 3/3 books already topping the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller list, the 4th installment of the graphic novel adaptation is already generating high anticipation.
Earlier this month during NYCC, the creators announced the July 2021 release date along with preview pages of the artwork. The Crystal Kingdom – named for its corresponding quest on the podcast – is available now for preorder.
How It All Began
The Adventure Zone is an actual-play D&D podcast created by brothers Justin, Travis & Griffin McElroy, and their dad Clint McElroy. Originally recorded as a filler episode for their widely popular podcast My Brother, My Brother And Me while Justin was on paternity leave, The Adventure Zone quickly grew to be a fan favorite.
With Griffin helming as the DM, the first campaign – referred to as “The Balance Arc” – follows the story of rustically charming human fighter Magnus Burnsides (Travis McElroy), high-elf wizard and self-proclaimed TV star Taako (Justin McElroy), and spiritually conflicted beach-dwarf cleric Merle Highchurch (Clint McElroy) as they adventure across the world to find and destroy the seven Grand Relics responsible for a catastrophic global war.
The brothers had already earned notoriety as both podcasters and co-founders of gaming journalism site Polygon (Justin & Griffin). But the irresistible charm of three brothers playing fantasy make-believe with their dad inspired a new level of fandom. To say the podcast blew up in popularity would be a grave distortion of its quick trajectory.
The Adventure Zone was catapulted from the trebuchet of triviality straight into Fantasy Legends. Episodes were being downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. Crowds of devoted fans adorned in elaborate cosplay filled the completely sold-out live shows. As the boys describe it, navigating the podcast from then on was like “driving a car that began to fly”.
Discussions of adapting the podcast into a graphic novel were inevitable. That same summer The Crystal Kingdom finale aired, the podcasters met with comic artist Carey Pietsch in a Panera. A magical collaboration was underway. And The Internet responded with a standing ovation.
What Makes The Crystal Kingdom So Special
The Crystal Kingdom served as a turning point in the campaign. With origins as a filler episode, the boys didn’t initially set up an elaborate narrative. Tonally aligned with almost every other piece of “McElBoy” media out there, the podcast began as not much more than a goof-filled saunter down fantasy lane.
But a noticeable change of atmosphere settled on the podcast during this quest. Griffin began laying the framework for the epic story he had been concocting behind the scenes. A mysterious, red-robed figure foreshadows a great and all-consuming evil force. A morally questionable scientist utilizes disks engineered by one of the Grand Relics to glimpse the entirety of existence. The grim reaper appears, accusing the heroes of escaping the finality of death a criminal amount of times.
The three heroes – and pretty much everyone listening – become suddenly and irrevocably cognizant of the complexity of the world around them. I won’t lie, I had to pause and mash that “skip back 15s” button more than a couple of times.
The Unique Challenges of Visual Adaptation
Complementary to the new level of fictional intricacy, The Crystal Kingdom is also the point where Griffin began to thoroughly develop and compose an original score for the podcast. He had interjected original tracks into the previous quests, but now the music was like an additional character. It gave movement to the narrative flow and became inseparable from the story. This was a delight to the ears of the podcast listener, but how will this work in the graphic novel? To leave out the music completely would be to rob the story of an entire limb of expression.
The answer is a combination of a few elements. For this particular book, the environment and backgrounds seem like they will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Referred to by Pietsche as “The Pink Book”, The Crystal Kingdom takes place on a base that is actively being consumed by an ever-growing pink tourmaline crystal. The overwhelming presence of that icy, rock-candy crystal somehow captures the delicate and ethereal essence of the soundtrack.
They confirmed the inclusion of at least one of the Vocoder verses sung throughout the podcast, bringing in that “mysterious robotic” vibe. And if the past is any indication of the future, series letterer Tess Stone will make sure that the visualization of the sound effects doesn’t leave that essential “krinkle tinkle” behind.
The Unique Advantages of Visual Adaptation
The 20 minutes it took for Griffin to paint a word picture detailing a laboratory consumed by pink tourmaline crystal can be easily exemplified in one panel. This one, to be exact.
In stark contrast to the 12 hours it took to listen to The Crystal Kingdom, readers can digest the visual adaptation in about 45 minutes. But for Carey’s sake, do spend more time than that appreciating the artwork. Creating a novel-length comic is not a task for the faint of heart.
What Do Fans Have to Look Forward To?
Brand new additional content from fan-favorite NPCs like grim reaper Kravitz and boy detective Angus McDonald. 200+ pages of Taako sporting a high bun and pink hairclip in a spacesuit. Justin making the wildly ambitious and completely unfounded promise that the world will be safe enough by release day that you can walk into a bookstore and physically purchase this book (he said it, so it must be canon, right?).
It might be too far in the future to conceptualize yet, but the thought of reading this book in a comic store swarming with fellow nerd friends feels like the pink tourmaline at the end of the tunnel.
The Adventure Zone: The Crystal Kingdom is available for pre-order now, and will be released July 13, 2021.