Recently, we sat down with the folks behind the hottest graphic novel releasing this summer, First Second’s The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins. Our writer Cody sat down with the creators behind the book, author and father Clint McElroy, artist Carey Pietsch, and brother/Magnus Burnsides-er Travis McElroy. They discussed the challenges of adapting a beloved podcast and how retirement helps the writing process.
*All sentences like this should be read as the narrator from the opener of The Adventure Zone, it’ll be more fun that way.
How’s it going, guys?
Clint: It’s groovy!
First off I just wanted to congratulate you guys. I was just looking at the book again last night and man it is a hoot.
Clint: That’s what we were going for: hootness! We were going for it to be really hoot. Thank you.
First question, what was your guys’ favorite part of putting together this adaption?
Travis: It was really fun, I would say, going back through it having completed the Balance arc. Going back through and revisiting where it began, knowing where it ended, was really interesting. So in going back through the original episodes, but also adapting it to the beginning of their relationships, beginning of their characters, and getting a second chance to tell it. It was just really fun to go back to where it began.
Clint: For me, it was honestly, truly, workin’ with Carey. She sees these things that we just goofed around about in the beginning and that were labors of love and goofiness and then seeing them take form by her was very weirdly moving for me. Working with Carey was one of my favorite things about doing the whole book.
Carey: I think one of the things that makes this book so special is that Travis and Justin and Griffin and Clint, obviously Clint particularly on scripting the adaptation, but that the whole team was so involved in really making sure that character voices were right.
Which meant that they could do that with the benefit of having seen where Balance went and how these characters changed over time. So that was really, really wonderful and exciting for me too, was to see how they all approached it. I guess that when we first started out Balance was still ongoing, but with the added benefit of where it was going to go.
I don’t know, I think I’m so excited for the book to be out in the world it is hard to compete with the feeling of holding a finished book in your hands. It really does feel like magic. But right now that’s my favorite part, looking forward to when everyone gets to read it too.
Clint: Kind of an offshoot of what Carey said too was the fact that we did know what was gonna happen and made it kind of a cool challenge to not lean into those bits too soon in the narrative. Because when we started off, we had a different mindset and the characters didn’t really know each other and didn’t particularly care for each other very much at the beginning and it was the temptation…
Following up on what you mentioned working with Carey. Carey, you got involved with The Adventure Zone back when they did the Zine is that right?
Carey: Yeah, I started out drawing a ton of fan art listening to the show in… 2015 I want to say? And I got to know a bunch of people that way and I had a chance to work with a bigger group of the fan community when Megan Raley and I co-ran The Adventure Zine.
Which was such a cool project to be a very small part of and I’m still in awe of how generous and kind-hearted everybody we had a chance to talk to and work with and the people who made that project really were.
It was great to see so many interpretations of those characters through that zine. Did anything change in your imaginations of those characters from those first fan drawings to the final product we see in Here Be Gerblins?
Carey: Yeah absolutely, I think that the designs we landed on in Gerblins the actual book are really a collaborative process. Had a chance to sit down and talk about them as a team and really get everyone’s input on how they envisioned their own characters.
Some of the jokes get moved around, quips given to different characters, or Griffin. What went into the choosing of that, what jokes got dropped, what got moved around?
Travis: Yeah, it was really, I would say, an intensive conversation that went on for about a year and a half where the first version of the script, like draft number one, was pretty much word for word accurate. I mean cut for times and descriptions and stuff, but pretty accurate.
But then, when we started discussing it, we realized a lot of the jokes and a lot of the lines and stuff made sense and were funny in an audio medium. But when we put them in print they just weren’t landing. We tried for awhile to make stuff work that we really loved. There’s a bit in the show where the joke is that every time the three characters speak above a whisper, spores come up — and the joke is that we pretending not to understand that.
So we keep yelling “WHAT,” but in print, it just wasn’t working. We couldn’t convey the tone of the meta nature of the players understanding and the characters not and that’s the joke. So we realized we were being really precious about it and so we stopped thinking about it as an audio medium and started thinking about it as a print medium.
When we did that, we realized we could make certain jokes work by shifting stuff around and keeping the intention the same, but changing the delivery of it or changing the wording slightly or changing what character said it. And I think that that is where the book started to come into its own for me. It stopped just being an adaptation started being the graphic novel story we would have told instead of a podcast.
Clint: Also, we made the decision fairly early on in the process that, while if you listen to the podcast it’s very Griffin heavy — because Griffin is describing everything, Griffin is playing all the NPCs — but in describing everything, that is taken over with the art. Carey’s art but Griffin is very definitely a character in the story. We made the conscious decision that Griffin had to be a character in the story, had to have a presence in this story.
And as we went along, like Travis was saying, there are times when the characters make what we call meta-observation that really work better if it was Griffin making that observation or commenting that observation.
So in shifting some of those lines around, there was that motivation as well to try to keep that – and like Travis said delivery is such an important part of the audio. It was funny because we discovered as we went along with the graphic novel that the delivery was determined by the visual aspect. Once you got to know Merle’s character or Taako’s character or Magnus’s character, any character, then you would start reading in a delivery. Reading in characters – at least that’s what, I was going for…
Carey: Yeah and building on what Travis and Clint have both said, I think what you specifically mentioned about some lines going to other characters than they were on the show really comes down to, forgive me, it’s balance. It’s really just balance of who is talking, how much time are they taking up, how much page real estate are they taking up.
I have to make sure all the characters are having a chance to show that personality and sometimes that means we all decided as a group that, “Okay, maybe this particular line should shift to somebody else, so they can have a turn to talk.” Or, even from a logistical sense, is there room for this person to say seventeen things in this panel or do we need to split this panel and give one of their lines to somebody else?
Ok, yeah that makes a lot of sense and I suppose it helps that a lot of the humor of the three characters is kind of interchangeable, so you can really shift things around with that.
Carey: I wouldn’t say it’s interchangeable, but I do think that the sort of things that come through in vocal pers- or not vocal personality, but voice acting in character and tone of speech in a podcast we can then do through, not stage direction, but through acting and the way a character delivering a line on the page.
I think there is a lot of individuality in the characters and the way we portray that on the page really lets that flavor come through even when a line wasn’t originally said by that person.
Travis: I also am willing to bet — I am not super experienced in the world of graphic novels and adaptation and that kind of thing — but I’m willing to bet this is a fairly unique project because in this circumstance the people adapting it are the individual creators of individual characters.
So when we make passes at the script and made notes and everything our notes, “Magnus wouldn’t say that,” or “I would, as Magnus, use this word instead of that word.” And so like we really went through it with an eye to making it sound like our characters and our voices and what they would say. I mean tiny changes like I would say ‘sure’ instead of ‘yes’ because that’s what I would say. So even as we’re changing lines and mixing them around, still really making it sound like us and our characters.
Carey: Yeah and I think that level of care is really what makes the book sing.
Yeah, it really does, I think that does come across, perhaps interchangeable wasn’t the right word, because I can definitely get the sense that when you read like Merle’s bits, for instance, you really feel Clint being the one refining it. You guys did a fantastic job.
Clint this one’s specifically for you, how has the retirement from radio helped the process, podcasting, writing, etc?
Clint: Oh it’s helped that process a lot! Haha, the fact that I get to sleep in past 3:30 in the morning adds a lot to my wellbeing and general outlook on life. Which makes me more positive, which makes me a better writer. It has had an impact on the fact that it’s freed me up, made me better about deadlines because now I know – one of the reasons I retired was to dedicate myself to this.
So it has been really, pretty cool in the fact that I am now able to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is get up in the morning and get writing. And know that I got to accomplish this certain thing, a certain number of panels, a certain number of pages, a certain number of stories in a given day and the structure has been really great for me. It has really changed everything in a very positive way.
Clint, you’ve worked in comics before, you’ve done adaptations of Universal Soldier and such like that, was this experience very different from those previous experiences?
Clint: Well, and don’t forget Three Ninjas Kick Back!
Clint: Yeah that one usually slips by on everyone’s resume. Haha –
Travis: You did Three Ninjas Kick Back? I didn’t know that –
Clint: I did Three Ninjas Kick Back, yeah and Universal Solider and it was really different because when I did all of those adaptations, they were done the same way. I think they were all for ‘Now Comics’ and what they did was, they’d send me a script and they sent me a half a dozen pictures and that was it. That was it. And – not a finished movie, not a finished product, nothing like that and if you’ve ever — if you are able to find the very rare copies of things like Universal Soldier there are so many things that are different in it because so much had changed by the time it hit the screen.
But I learned a lot doing that because still, you had to self-edit a lot. You had to not include everything and still know what the major beats were. And still get across the brilliant acting of Jean Claude Van Damme. This was a totally different adaptation process in the fact that I was familiar with the finished product as opposed to those.
And I liked it, I liked the definition of it, I liked being the objectives of it. In some ways, it’s even superior to making things up out of whole cloth, that you create yourself. In the fact that its good to have some of those restrictions and guidelines to know when and where you’re working and where to use that creativity.
Absolutely. Travis, you kind of touched on this earlier, the influences you guys got to add to the book as you re-edit it and go through scripts and what have you, was there anything else you got to influence on the project at all?
Travis: Sorry, I might’ve missed the question.
It’s okay, it was just you mentioned that you guys, the brothers specifically went over the script and would change words to fit characters, to readjust as it were. And I was curious what other things the three of you got to bring to the book?
Travis: Yes, I think when we were like you guys got this. We tried to be a little bit hands-off with it. And then I think we were juuuust not capable of staying hands off and we have been — I mean listen I would never claim to have done as much work on it as dad or Carey, but it has been a very collaborative process where Carey is sending us the thumbnails to take notes.
Every week for the last like, what, twenty months or so we have had one to two to three hour-long conference calls to discuss, sometimes like big, big things about the graphic novel, but often times really minute like, “In this panel, this person says this, what do we think?” And we’ll talk about that for twenty-five minutes.
And so I would say that it reminds me a lot of the podcast itself, where Griffin is bringing the skeleton and the structure and then we’re kind of filling in the rest. And I would say dad and Carey are kind of the DMs of the graphic novel and they bring it to us to flesh out what our characters would do and our facial expressions, what word choice our characters would use, and that kind of thing.
So I think it has been the best form of what this collaborative process could be. Without anybody getting too frustrated at each other.
Carey, is there a panel or a piece of art that you did for this that is a particular favorite, particularly proud of?
Carey: Oh, that is hard because I think, having spent so much time on it, that kind of out of necessity while I’m doing each page it ends up being my favorite, which is kind of a defense mechanism to make sure I am giving each page the attention it really deserves. I am particularly fond of the sequence in and just out of the well. I think that it is a really visually strong sequence. I’m really glad it has the room to breathe and I’m really stoked for folks to see it.
Clint: I have a favorite! It’s a particular panel in which Taako calls out a certain spell. I remember the first time I saw it, telling Carey that she was a goddess after I saw it for the first time.
Clint: There are so many but that was almost a weekly note. Where we would say, “Carey this is the perfect—” it harkens back to what I said before, her visualization, her creation really was just so special to our—
Travis: I would say, I want my favorite page in and hoping – I think it made it into the book. But there is a, in the middle of a very harrowing action sequence, there is a page about where Bogard has been—
Travis: Has traveled around and I think it’s a perfect combination of dad’s sense of humor and Carey’s art and I think its one of the most emblematic of the humor of the book. Something so, it’s a joke we couldn’t have done in podcast form. That is purely a brainchild of dad and Carey that is so perfectly suited for the book. I really think people are going to enjoy it.
Carey: Yeah, when I saw that panel in the script I nearly died of pure delight and joy.
Clint: Hey Cody, that kinda brings up something that I wanted to mention in the fact that you know a lot of people have asked, “Okay what didn’t make the cut, what did you have to take out for the graphic novel?” and I don’t think, I don’t really think that its so much subtraction.
I really think a huuuuge amount of the podcast is in the graphic novel, especially the story of Magnus, Taako, and the other guy, but not – but its additive. The things that were added to it, that’s what Travis was talkin’ about in the fact that this is not a pared-down version of the story from the podcast.
It is added to, it is a bulked up version because, once you consider the visual aspect and the jokes that were added, and not just jokes I mean real, honest scenes that — well I don’t want to take us too seriously but scenes that kind of move you, that have a little emotional texture to them, added to the process. I don’t think it subtracted from it at all.
The last page of the book, of course, is the one page Rockport Limited tease, is there a firm plan in place to bring all the arcs of Balance into graphic novel form?
Travis: Let’s say… this is how I’ll phrase it, “We’ve had such a good time adapting this first graphic novel, we would be super excited at the possibility of doing more.” Hypothetically.
Clint: In theory.
Carey: Yeah and theoretically, you mentioned Rockport, hypothetically, just, you know in an abstract sense, there might be exciting news about that particular adaptation coming this fall around New York Comic Con.
Carey: Just maybe.