Jump Into The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins With Clint McElroy, Carey Pietsch & a Divine Special Guest

Main Art by Carey Pietsch

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Jump Into <i>The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins</i> With Clint McElroy, Carey Pietsch & a Divine Special Guest

The Adventure Zone podcast has been going strong for four years, and although it started as a spin-off of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, it has its own intense cult following. The three McElroy brothers (Justin, Travis and Griffin) and their father, Clint, D&D it through fantastic realms, encountering monsters, solving puzzles and dicking around. It’s arc-based storytelling, which makes it quite well suited for adaptation into a comic book. The McElroy clan has collaborated with Carey Pietsch (Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, Mages of Mystralia), a force in her own right, to adapt the first leg of the story into The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, due out from publisher First Second today. You could call it FNBN (for nerds, by nerds). Pietsch and patriarch Clint McElroy answered some of our questions about the book, with some interruptions from the voice of God because you cannot keep that dude from setting the record straight sometimes.


The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins Cover Art by Carey Pietsch

Paste: How did y’all decide to turn a podcast into a comic and why?

Clint McElroy: All the great comics started out in other media. Superman was first a radio show and—

God’s Voice: No it wasn’t, my dude.

McElroy: It wasn’t?

GOD: Nope. It was not. It started out in comics.

McElroy: Well, Spider-Man originally was a Saturday morning cartoon show with this great theme song that—

GOD: Again, completely false.

McElroy: Oh, and I suppose Frank Miller didn’t adapt the Sin City comic from the delightful Sin City movie?

GOD: You have that completely reversed.

McElroy: Fine! Because I wanted to win an Eisner Award! Happy?

Paste: How did you recruit artist and co-adapter Carey Pietsch, and why her (other than that she’s so great)? Did you consider other artists?

McElroy: Carey was one of our first champions. She loved Taako and Magnus and the dwarf (whose name escapes me), and we like working with people who love us… it makes it easier to get their forgiveness when we screw up.

Paste: Do you play D&D or similar games (or have you ever)?

McElroy: I fancy myself as a game player from way back. Parcheesi, Candy Land…I hold a national record for solving a game of Clue in ONE TURN! I crawled through the caves of Zork, and turned knobs in Myst. I can fess up to Pepsi One-fueled all-nighters trudging through Azeroth. But with my hand to God, before the first TAZ episode I had never touched a 20-sided die. Now I can’t seem to put it down.

GOD: I’ll allow it.

Carey Pietsch: I do! I had some less than stellar experiences trying out tabletop games way back in high school, but listening to The Adventure Zone convinced me to give them another chance, and I’m so glad that it did. I’m currently in a Monsterhearts campaign with a bunch of brilliant women that’s a tasty snack of a horrible supernatural teen drama to get to play through, and I love every moment of it. I’m also in a campaign that started out in D&D 5E and shifted systems into Dungeon World to better fit our party’s play styles. I’ve tried Shadowrun, but the format was a little too tense/focused on survival for me. It’s such an interesting setting, though! More games now than ever focus on being accessible to new players, and if you like the idea of building stories with your friends—and especially if you had fun with play-by-post RPs online growing up, which I squandered a lot of my teen years on—I think it’s worth giving them a try.

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins Interior Art by Carey Pietsch

Paste: How did you slim down (or beef up?) the narrative to fit the book? What were the difficulties with adapting it from an auditory narrative to a drawn one?

McElroy: I don’t feel like there was ANY slimming down. Carey’s wonderful art covered so much of the visual aspect (which before had to be described in the podcast) that it really freed up the story. Some jokes had to be adapted because, while they really worked in auditory form, they just didn’t translate well to the page. But not very many of them. Carey’s inane sense of humor (so like ours) saved a lot of gags.

Paste: Carey, how much input did you have to the story? Is it harder to work with a single author or with four?

Pietsch: The graphic novel hews pretty closely to the Gerblins arc of the podcast! After Clint, Griffin, Justin and Travis’s initial script pass, we all collectively spend a lot of time talking through what we think will work on the page, what might need tweaking and changes in pacing to properly land and what isn’t going to translate; it’s not always an exact 1-to-1 conversion, and there are places where we decided as a team to make small edits on the page. That said, when things do differ, I think that the changes in the graphic novel help preserve the feel of the show—charming, funny and upbeat fantasy—in the new format, even when the exact content is very slightly different.

In the past, I’ve only ever worked directly with one other person on collaborative projects, and I was initially a little nervous to work on a book as part of a five-person creative team, but I feel so, so lucky to have gotten to do so. Clint’s scripts are fantastic, and Griffin, Justin and Travis have all poured so much careful thought and consideration into adapting The Adventure Zone into a graphic novel! It’s made me excited about this story all over again. There’s really nothing like the magic of working as part of a whole team doing their level best to make this book as good as it can possibly be.

Paste: Clint, have you ever written for comics before? Are you a big comics reader?

McElroy: What??? You never read the comic book adaptation of Freejack? Universal Soldier? Three Ninjas Kick Back? Break out your Overstreet Guide and check the name in the writing credits! (It’s right next to the “MINT PRICE $2.25” notation.) I also wrote a Green Hornet mini-series for Now called Green Hornet: Dark Tomorrow and Eclipse Comics’ Blood is the Harvest, about two people who hunt down monsters and kill them (I wonder why that never caught on?)

I am a huge comic reader and have been since my dad brought this home for me from Woolworth’s: [picture of Superman (1939 1st Series) Annual #3]

I was six. I haven’t stopped yet. If you doubt, check in with the guy from whom I rent the climate-controlled storage building full of comics.

GOD: You’ve don’t have to. I can verify.

Paste: How long did character design take? Was there a lot of back and forth?

Pietsch: Character designs were a collaborative process between the McElroys and me, and it did take up a good chunk of time overall. There were a few characters whose final outfits kept changing (usually in small ways) right up until the moment I had to ink them! The process included me giving the script a very close reading, then going back to re-listen to relevant chunks of the arc, discussing what everyone had in mind for various characters, creatures, locations and props, and then several rounds of revisions until we landed at designs that worked for everyone.

McElroy: My participation consisted entirely of me saying: “Pietsch, you’re a friggin’ genius.”

GOD: Watch the language, pal!

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins Interior Art by Carey Pietsch

Paste: Carey, did you do your own coloring? Because it is gorgeous. Also: nice panel structure!

Pietsch: Thanks very much! I love color work, and I did color this book; I was assisted by brilliant cartoonists Megan Brennan and Niki Smith, who were my flatters. All the lettering, though, was by Tess Stone, and he did such an amazing job! I love his work and felt really lucky to get to work with him.

I think about color as a way to heighten emotion, add drama or reflect the tone of a scene more than as a literal representation of what this would look like in real life because, hey, it’s comics. And I love thinking about layouts and panel structure! There’s so much variety and thought in the different ways to lay out a page, and how controlling the flow of the scene in that way affects the way we parse it. I’ve been trying to vary my comics diet, and around the time I was doing thumbnails and layouts, I was reading B.D. action-adventures, a lot of shoujo, some sports manga and an endless list of webcomics, and I was (and am!) so, so impressed with the smart and novel solutions cartoonists come up with for laying out a page. It’s fun to think about and experiment with!

Paste: What did you learn in the process of this project?

McElroy: I learned that apparently I have the unusual gift of coming up with comic book sound effects. At least that’s what Carey tells me. Some her favorites were: SPLORRCCHH! WHA-BLAMMO!! and BLA-WHAMMO!!

Pietsch: I learned the hard way that I imprint like a baby duckling on anything I draw more than like, twice, so I had to go to increasingly absurd lengths to talk myself into drawing every on-screen death in the book. Did you know, for instance, that gerblins are creatures of pure energy and they can never really be killed? The increasingly messy mauling is all theatrics. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

I also learned that I should never read Clint’s scripts in public the first time through because my surprised/delighted laugh sounds a lot like a witch cackle, which is a noise I end up making a lot. (Including at every stellar sound effect!)

Paste: Carey, your comics tend to be pretty female-centric, but the three main characters in this book are male. Was that weird? Or at least out of your comfort zone?

Pietsch: I grew up tearing my way through all the sci-fi and fantasy I could get my young hands on at the local library, and those genres have historically been dominated by male authors and characters. So to the extent that reading builds perspective-taking and empathy, I have a lot of practice in that area! And that’s an extremely small slice of the ways in which women and nonbinary folks have experience, out of necessity, in considering and centering men. Pushing back against that is why most of my personal work is about women. But because this project is a genuine collaboration, I’ve been able to bring that energy and perspective here, too: so yes, the three main characters are men, and/but/also, I’m drawing this thing in a pretty female gaze-y way. Which is a long way of saying: nah, it’s cool, I’ve got this.

I think it’s also useful to consider this question in terms of these three specific main characters (not “a male character,” but “these male characters”). One of the aspects of cartooning that’s the most interesting to me is the way in which adding a visual dimension gives you this whole separate channel of character info to play with. You can pose and answer questions like: how do characters move through space? What do they look like at rest? How much of what they’re feeling shows on their faces? That’s all information that you can provide in a single-channel format like audio-only or text-only mediums, too, but I love that in comics you don’t have to specifically call it out; you can build it up in the background over the course of 20 or 50 or 200 pages and get a sense of character in this really natural way. But that only really works if a character is well-defined and if you can answer those questions in the first place based on what you know about their personality! Clint, Griffin, Justin and Travis have built so much life and thought and specificity into these characters, and into The Adventure Zone podcast in general, that it was really a pleasure to extrapolate from there and figure out how they would work in a visual medium.

Paste: Is your show the reason Pat Rothfuss is taking so long to finish the next book in the Kingkiller Chronicle?

GOD: Let me handle this one. Patrick is on a very special mission, assigned by me. Give the dude a break. OR FEEL MY TERRIBLE WRATH!!!

The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins Interior Art by Carey Pietsch