Huntington’s Bestselling Authors

Former local radio funnyman Clint McElroy and his three wildly talented sons recently spent three weeks atop The New York Times’ best-seller list with the release of their first graphic novel.

By Jaime Green

 

“It’s like a car that flew all of a sudden.”

This is how Justin McElroy described The Adventure Zone, the role-playing game podcast he makes with his brothers and father. At the time, he was talking about how what started as a goof turned into a powerful form of storytelling. But the metaphor applies just as well to how The Adventure Zone has grown beyond a podcast — most recently, into a graphic novel published by First Second Books, which earlier this year spent three weeks on The New York Times’ best-seller list.

This wasn’t the McElroys’ first venture into the audio arts. Patriarch Clint McElroy co-hosted WTCR mornings for 23 years, retiring in 2017; Justin and his brothers Travis and Griffin are eight years into their first podcast project together, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, or MBMBaM. That show was turned into a six-episode TV show, shot in Huntington in 2016, and the podcast is still going strong.

MBMBaM was the seed of The Adventure Zone, too. In late 2014, Justin was about to become a father for the first time. He knew he’d need a bit of paternity leave from MBMBaM, but rather than leave listeners in the lurch, the brothers decided to record a one-off episode to bridge the gap, a lark that they thought might be fun for their audience — they’d record themselves playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons with their dad.

Griffin led the game as dungeon master, with his brothers and father role-playing a band of fantasy-world adventurers: an elf wizard, a human fighter and a dwarf cleric. They played out of the D&D starter book, following a pre-written campaign.

Fans loved the episode, which the McElroys soon made its own podcast, The Adventure Zone. After a couple of episodes played from the book, Griffin started writing his own quests and storylines. And that’s when the podcast really took off, into an epic narrative that played out over the following two-and-a-half years.

That storyline was dubbed “Balance,” and even though it concluded last April it lives on today in the form of a graphic novel. The idea came from the McElroys’ literary agent. It would be a way to connect new audiences with The Adventure Zone and an exciting artistic expansion.

“We just leapt at the chance. It made so much sense. And of course, I’m a lifelong comic book fan,” said Clint, who has written for comic books in the past, ghostwriting the adaptations of Universal Soldier and Freejack. “I raised my sons right and made them read comics. So it just seemed like a natural progression.”

A natural choice, but still a daunting one. A visual world would need to be invented for an entirely audio-based property. Luckily, the McElroys found illustrator Carey Pietsch, a talented comics artist who happened to also be a longtime fan of the show. Pietsch helped them figure out not only what the characters would look like, but also how their stories could be told in print.

“I used to think the artist would be like the cinematographer on a movie. Carey was more of a director,” Clint explained.

But the challenge wasn’t just how to tell the story — it was what exactly the story would be. The graphic novel would have to start at the beginning, back with the first episodes of the podcast, a story arc called “Here There Be Gerblins” from the pages of a D&D campaign book.

Griffin said revisiting the early characters and their sometimes absurd choices gave him a new appreciation for how they’d eased listeners into a years-long story.

“It’s not a bad idea to have your characters be goofballs before asking the audience to care about them,” said Griffin. “I think that’s what we accomplished accidentally in the first arc.”

Justin also appreciated the chance to revisit that earlier material.

“Some really cool stuff comes out of the fact that we improvise the show — you don’t overthink it, you take chances,” said Justin. “But creating the graphic novel felt like a polishing. It was nice to take our time with gags, to really make each line the best it could be.”

“During this new creative process, we spent the whole time hoping that people would like it,” said Griffin. “And then there came this turning point where we found out.”

The turning point was more like a wave, building as fans began to react to early glimpses of the book, surging through a week of sold-out book release events across the country and finally cresting the week after the book’s release.

“I can’t think of a moment that has been more surreal than finding out that the graphic novel adaptation of our goofy Dungeons & Dragons podcast had become a New York Times best-seller,” said Griffin.

In fact, it was No. 1 for paperback trade fiction and No. 3 overall, an astonishing debut by any standard.

It’s no surprise, then, that volume two of The Adventure Zone graphic novel is in the works. But the McElroys are hardly jumping from the podcast ship. The family now makes seven podcasts between them, a veritable audio empire. Justin and Griffin recently left their jobs at video game website Polygon and now all three brothers are full-time podcasters … and graphic novel co-authors … and TV show co-creators … and whatever else comes along. As Griffin put it, “If something comes up that sounds like a really cool opportunity, and I think we could do a good job with it, that’s where we’ll dip into next.”




 

JAIME GREEN is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the romance review columnist for The New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor at Catapult and the series editor for Best American Science and Nature Writing.

 

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