Death is in the air, and if ever there was ever any question about the wickedness of crystal healing, trust The McElroys (Griffin, Travis, Clint and Justin) to spin its virtues (or lack thereof) into one hell of a yarn. In The Adventure Zone: The Crystal Kingdom, the trusty trio of Reclaimers at the Bureau of Balance is tasked with retrieving a crystal relic from a magic-wielding scientist before apocalypse happens. And all while Taako finds a kindred spirit in the Grim Reaper, Merle has a reckoning with the Almighty, and Magnus does what he does best–beat and club his way with whatever menace dares stand before him.
The McElroys join their TAZ comics collaborator, artist Carey Pietsch, to talk to The Beat about The Crystal Kingdom. While they’ve discussed the process of adapting a podcast to the written page with us in the past, never before have they revealed which character they’d most like to hang with. You can find that, along with an exclusive four-page preview of the forthcoming graphic novel, below. Without further ado, let the friendly sibling rivalry begin!
Nancy Powell: From whose mind did this quest [from The Crystal Kingdom] originate? And what role did RPGs play in your lives, prior to The Adventure Zone podcast?
Griffin McElroy: So, I DMed our first season of The Adventure Zone, so the setting was whipped up by me in an attempt to hurl Justin, Travis and Dad’s characters into this sci-fi/fantasy crystallized ghost story … thing. All the arcs, more or less, were inspired by movies or media I was into at the time; CK is a take on Alien. I wanted to see what the stakes would be if I put them in an environment that, while nice to look at, was ready to kill them the second they dropped their guard. (Which they did, a lot, but I went easy on them anyways.)
We hadn’t really played tabletop or pen-and-paper RPGs before we recorded the first season; but I’d say RPG video games were super formative for all of us. There’s a lot of like, video game-y structure to TAZ: Balance, which probably would have been way different had I had a bunch of prior DMing experience to go off of.
Clint McElroy: When I should have been attending press conferences, writing news stories, and interviewing the Hoi Polloi of Huntington for the radio station I worked for, I was behind the locked door of my office, knee-deep in Grue guts, playing Zork.
Travis McElroy: We also played this game called Hero Quest growing up. It was like a board game version of D&D that came with a bunch of pre-written scenarios. After a while, we just made up our own.
Powell: How difficult was it to adapt The Crystal Kingdom to the graphic page? What kind of creative adjustments did you have to make?
Griffin: The difficulties of adapting Crystal Kingdom all circle around the fact that it’s where we really start pounding the pavement on introducing the big storyline for the whole campaign. I’m really happy with how that’s presented in the book, but it took a while to get it to a point where it wasn’t too dense, but also didn’t leave out too much stuff, leaving us with less narrative chips to cash in later on in the series.
We also wanted to flesh out the comparatively small number of new characters we introduce in this arc, namely the pseudo-mad scientist Lucas Miller and his mom, Maureen. It took a few drafts before we realized that’s what the book needed, so there’s a lot of story stuff not from the podcasts here that I’m really happy we were able to do.
Justin McElroy: I will say this is the TAZ book I was most looking forward to just seeing. Carey has done such an astounding job of capturing the fractal, vaporwave nightmare I imagined while we were playing. It’s a thing to behold.
Carey Pietsch: Crystal Kingdom has always stood out to me as an arc with a very strong sense of place, thanks to the combination of Griffin’s soundtrack and the ways that everyone interacted with and reacted to the lab! A lot of early development time was spent on figuring out possible ways to translate that specific otherworldly crystal vibe into the book without providing so much visual information in the background that it would overwhelm the characters themselves. I’m really happy with how it worked out in the final pages!
Powell: If you had to identify a character you would want to hang out with in TAZ universe, who would that be and why?
Griffin: Honestly? Merle. He just seems like a good hang.
Justin: Probably Kravitz: He’s a good dude with impeccable style, a real sweetheart who also happens to be the Grim Reaper. When will your worst enemy die? Kravitz isn’t telling! (But maybe after a few cocktails? Who knows?)
Clint: I would like to hang with Ned Chicane. He is a gifted raconteur, an aficionado of cheesy horror flicks…we just have SO MUCH in common! (BTW: Merle is a good hang)
Travis: Killian and Carey. Wait, does it count as a “hang out” if they do cool flips and fight bad folks while I clap and cheer?
Carey: This isn’t “hanging out with” so much as it is “rooting for,” but: I would LOVE to get to go to a fantasy wrestling match where Jess the Beheader faces off against Queen Sabine.
Powell: What are each of you currently reading? And which books are you hoping to catch up with this summer?
Griffin: I was finally, finally reading the first Mistborn book when my son was born this past March, and haven’t gotten back to it, because the idea of spending time I could be sleeping for anything else seems like hubris.
Justin: Until a week or so ago, I only knew John Scalzi as a great DJ and photographer, but get this: He’s an author too! I’ve been neck deep in Old Man’s War, a great sci-fi action story that I’m kicking myself for not getting into earlier.
Clint: I am on the sixth book of Marc Cushman’s “These Are the Voyages” series, must-reading for any Star Trek fan. Also “Low Chicago”, one of the mosaic novels from the ‘Wild Card’ series by George R.R. Martin (New kid. Shows promise)
Travis: I am on panel 2 of 3 of this Marmaduke comic strip and I am on the edge of my seat. Can’t wait to see how they wrap this one up. Also, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Carey: Prose-wise, I’m reading A Master of Djinn and The Chosen And The Beautiful! The comics at the top of my excited-to-read pile right now are Blue Flag, The Legend of Auntie Po, Jukebox, and Bug Boys: Outside & Beyond.
Powell: Tell us a bit about the excerpt that The Beat is revealing alongside this interview.
Griffin: There’s so much to unpack here. You get to see a bit of Lucas being at odds with the party, you get to see a bit of the crystal golem that pursues them throughout their adventure, but the star of the show here is clearly UPSY. Turns out, when you include elevators in your fantasy Actual Play podcast, people give you a hard time. After fielding complaints from the whole world after using elevators in a few of the arcs, I included UPSY as an act of rebellion. He’s an unknowable horror, and I love him very much.
Clint: I love Taako’s “Wizard of Oz” dad joke.
Travis: I am truly concerned that seeing Upsy on the page will awaken something deep and primal in the population of Earth/the Universe.
Carey: Upsy was a very fun design challenge, and I think what we landed on is a great balance of “I can kind of see how that was MEANT to work” against “but in practice, it really, really, doesn’t.” This excerpt is also a pretty representative slice of the crystal color palettes– it’s a VERY pink book and it was a real treat for me to get to color all the rock candy crystal environments. I can’t wait for everyone to get to read the whole thing!
Published by First Second Books, The Adventure Zone: The Crystal Palace arrives in bookstores on Tuesday, July 13th, and in comic shops on Wednesday, July 14th.