“The song is now yours, just as the story has always been yours” (Ep. 68: Story and Song – Finale, Part 2)
When I tell people I am interested in Dungeons and Dragons, it raises some eyebrows. It is even more difficult to explain that I don’t technically play D&D, but I routinely listened to other people as they play. It takes a little time. “No, I don’t play with them. Yes, it is still fun. No, there are no visuals, it’s just a big story told through a series of small campaigns.”
I feel like this explanation isn’t enough to capture just how incredible The Adventure Zone is. It is a hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt story which manages to include the listener without having them play or see anything. It is an utterly unique experience, one made even more extraordinary by its fan culture and transmedial position.
A major argument in transmedia (this week’s theme) concerns the influence and involvement of fan culture. Skeptics of fan culture generally argue that fandom is ultimately based on commercial gain and industry. This implies that fan culture is a one-way transaction where the producer makes something, and the fan buys it. I think this is an extremely dismissive position which disregards other forms of media like podcasts, which are typically free and widely distributed. The Adventure Zone specifically troubles this reading because its active community has such a foundational and informative role. They are not simply an audience, but a network which influences the form, content, and distribution of this media.
The Adventure Zone is a free biweekly comedy podcast run by the McElroy brothers and their dad. Since its release in 2014, the podcast has become immensely popular, in part for the McElroy’s brothers other well-known podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me. Both programs are run by donations, support from the Max Fun Network, and by ad breaks; two per episode. Donations are not mandatory, and most of their popularity comes from word of mouth. This background has created a direct relationship between producer and consumer, with the McElroy group often reaching out for advice and feedback on their work. For example, many of the characters in the podcast are named after twitter followers. This demonstrates that the podcasts is directly shaped and influenced by its fandom.
Likewise, the podcast often tours across America, and fans pay to watch four guys play D&D. It is more fun than it sounds. These sold-out performances are usually in massive theaters, and they give fans the chance to interact with other fans and the McElroy family. People dress up and meet in advance. There are also multiple Facebook pages and websites where fans share their artwork, favourite moments, and ask questions. It is different than any sort of fandom I have ever encountered.
These details are important to understanding how close the fandom has become, perhaps in part due to the auditory nature of the podcast. You are in control of how these characters appear in your mind. As such, podcasts are equally private and public, as you personalize your experience with the medium, but can share this experience with others.
This brings me to why The Adventure Zone’s transmedial position is so unique. Because of its auditory nature, no adaptation or visualization of the program is inaccurate. The numerous fan cartoons, cosplays, and drawings are technically official canon. There is no wrong way to visualize these characters because there is no official rendering.
Because the audience is in control of the show’s visual content, its fandom is less structured than any film or television fan groups. The Adventure Zone thus has an open fandom which consistently welcomes new interpretations of the characters. The McElroy family acknowledges this in their graphic novel series, which dramatizes the podcast. When they announced the adaptation, they emphasized that these were just additional versions of the characters. This statement suggests that the content creators are on the same authorial level as the fandom. The graphic novels emphasize this by including fan drawings in the back sections.
My reading of this distribution is that there at least three versions of The Adventure Zone: the audio podcast, fan made cartoons, and the graphic novel. The cool thing about this is you can listen/watch the same moment in different ways. Each version translates the podcast’s auditory nature differently and tries to draw attention to other creative possibilities. For instance, in many of the short-animated clips on YouTube, artists mix the show’s comedic style with cartoon logic, like arrows, written titles, and the overall moment and space of the characters.
The graphic novel does something different because it no longer has the auditory quality. Its characters cannot move around like a cartoon, nor can they speak out loud. Instead, the graphic novel uses word bubbles and fonts to emphasize accents and banter and maintain the podcast’s quick auditory pace.
There is even a fan made live action version of the Adventure Zone on YouTube which I highly recommend (done by AZFanFam). This version performs the podcast and divides the audio into two worlds: the real and the adventure. As a result, the live action not only re-enacts the content, but the creation of the podcast. This is something which each of the adaptations have done differently, as the cartoon works game play into the visuals, the graphic novel has the DM as an ominous character, and the live action shows people playing the game.
Each of these approaches add a further layer of visual humor to the show’s content. As a result, these adaptations contribute to the broader characterization and narrative of The Adventure Zone. While the podcast is still the authority on what happens, it is not the only authority on how it happens visually. The podcast combines with these auxiliary works to create a more open-ended and inclusive story, one which extends beyond the creators.
I highly recommend the podcast to everyone, in addition to the animated clips on YouTube. The first season of the show, Balance, has been adapted into a few graphic novels, the third of which comes out tomorrow (July 14). It is sure to be something amazing.