High fantasy’s an almost common genre for comics. Great books like Nimona and Rat Queens are sterling examples. Likewise, actual-play Dungeons and Dragons podcasts are a thriving, if not dominant, genre. Critical Role’s cast of talented voice actors have produced years of stirring, funny adventures and the new arrival Dungeons and Daddies is one of 2019’s breakout podcasts. However, there’s never been a comic based on a popular actual-play RPG podcast. Until now.
The Adventure Zone is a two-time New York Times bestseller based on the McElroy family’s (three brothers and their dad) D&D exploits. It chronicles the adventures of warrior Magnus Burnsides, dwarf cleric and #1 Pan Fan Merle Highchurch, and Taako, the elven wizard who was over it all before the adventure began. Written chiefly by Merle’s player and McElroy papa, Clint McElroy, the comic is based on the improvised dialog and player errors that make the podcast comedy gold. Hovering above them all is the game’s Dungeon Master, youngest brother Griffin McElroy, whose unique approach to DMing crafted an inventive and memorable fantasy using the boys’ three idiot adventurers as his foundation.
In the first volume, Here There Be Gerblins, the story starts off with the low-level adventurers beginning a stereotypical RPG quest (in fact, based on the D&D starter kit). They’re soon beset by goblins—er, gerblins?—and travel reluctantly underground on a rescue mission. They spend some time solving problems in the most amusing ways possible, making friends with giant Bugbears and throwing wolves into fires, before getting mixed up in some seriously weird stuff. The uber-plot involves magical artifacts so powerful the boys can’t even hear their names. After the team’s missteps destroy an entire city, they accept a job with the Bureau of Balance, a secret organization in the business of destroying these world-threatening magical objects.
The second volume, Murder on the Rockport Limited, manages to get away from standard fantasy hijinks and fill out the world these weirdos inhabit. With the boys locked on a magical train with a murderer, it’s a kind of locked room mystery where magic prevails over logic. It’s cleverly written and starts to really establish the strangeness of the setting and the high stakes the boys are battling for.
Overall, these are enjoyable books, though probably more enjoyable for fans of the podcast than for readers who don’t already have these characters’ voices stuck in their heads. The books revel in juvenile characters and smart writing, reminiscent of Rat Queens in some ways. Griffin’s head hovers over the heroes, narrating with a voice only they can hear, and as a result the 4th Wall is practically nonexistent. The boys are genuinely funny, though, and it’s fun to see their relationships develop and personalities grow. Interestingly, in spite of the general atmosphere of sophomoric fun, there are moments of tragedy as well, and the heroes’ response is appropriately somber. If you’re thinking a straight, white, all male family game of Dungeons and Dragons might result in an atmosphere of brohomie you’re not wrong, but the comic’s world is actually quite inclusive. There are several queer characters throughout, including Justin McElroy’s Taako. While their sexuality is never the most important thing about any of these characters, there are three significant same-sex couples that will be introduced in future volumes. Based on the podcast, this is a series with its best stories pending, but the comic has started off well. Carey Pietsch’s artwork and storytelling are tremendous assets. She has an eye for detail that helps streamline a chaotic, partially improvised story and a gift for color schemes, visual humor, and expressive characters.
This book was written with adult audiences in mind. The profane humor and occasional gore throughout would probably equal a PG-13 rating in a film, but, overall, libraries will probably want to place The Adventure Zone in their adult collections. The book is also violent and rarely takes its violence seriously, so take that into account as well. This is an excellent addition to popular collections in public and academic libraries, especially libraries serving significantly geeky communities. The books synergize well with podcasting discussion groups and classes, and of course are bestsellers likely to reach outside the standard comics audiences. Overall, these first two volumes are winning, and promise a solid future for McElroy Family comics. This is a must-buy for libraries. The volumes do not stand alone, so collecting the entire series is recommended.
The Adventure Zone: Volume 1 and 2
By Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElron
Art by Carey Pietsch
vol 1 ISBN: 9781250153715
vol 2 ISBN: 9781250153708
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 16+
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Character Traits: Gay