Book Review: The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited!

The McElroys' hit RPG podcast-turned-comic earns its exclamation mark

<i>The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited!</i>

There's always plenty of drama around adaptations. Nine times out of 10, we're talking book-to-film, which lends itself to worries about what'll be cut, who'll be cast, whether the people doing the adaptation will Get It, and whether anything will look like you imagined. Podcast to graphic novel? Well, that's a much rarer beast, but not one without similar fan anxieties attached. The Adventure Zone: Balance, a Dungeons & Dragons actual play podcast arc that ran for a nice 69 episodes from December 2014 to August 2017, is the brainchild of the McElroy family, of comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me fame. Brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin and their dad, former radio host and comic book writer Clint McElroy, are at the helm of the graphic novel adaptation of their improvised audio adventure, so any fears about loss of creative control can be assuaged. But it's still a heady task to recognizably translate characters who were defined by tone of voice onto paper, and to make story beats that were originally off-the-cuff feel intentional the second time around.

Murder on the Rockport Limited! is the second volume in The Adventure Zone graphic novel series and, unsurprisingly, benefits from having a little less to set up and more playful source material to work with. (The adventure covered in the first volume is largely based on a pre-existing D&D game, while everything after is the invention of Griffin, who was the podcast's Dungeon Master.) After accepting employment at secret world-saving organization the Bureau of Balance, wizard Taako, fighter Magnus, and cleric Merle are given their first assignment: to recover a dangerous magical item that's been locked aboard a train. What follows is Agatha Christie by way of Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Precocious boy detectives, fantasy wrestling stars, magical locked room mysteries – it's all very delicious icing on top of the cake that makes TAZ: Balance what it is: a gregarious, largely incompetent trio of adventurers who you absolutely, unavoidably fall in love with.

Of course, it's little surprise that you'd enjoy this iteration if you are a devotee of the podcast, but Murder on the Rockport Limited! cements the fact that those who read the graphic novels without that background will be getting a confident, stand-alone version of the story that succeeds on its own merits. Artist Carey Pietsch's work is more richly designed and emotionally resonant than ever, and it's especially exciting in one of the short, more serious sequences that's original to this adaptation – you can't help but look forward to how she'll handle the weightier material that arises as the series continues. No shock given its source material, this is a text-heavy graphic novel, but Pietsch keeps up an elegant, economical flow of panels that lets the jokes land with aplomb. The Rockport Limited is a ride you don't want to get off of.

The Adventure Zone: Murder on the Rockport Limited!

by Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Carey Pietsch
First Second, 240 pp., $19.99 (paper)

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