Between a half dozen podcasts, the Graduation and Ethersea arcs of The Adventure Zone, and who knows how many other sundry projects, the McElroy family has managed to keep busy even with their live tours on hold this year. And so has their collaborator, artist Carey Pietsch. Volume 4 of The Adventure Zone comic dropped this week, and her art is delightful as always, complementing a story that grows bigger and more universe-breaking with each passing volume.
There are still jokes, don’t get me wrong! Taako, Magnus, and Merle still make ridiculous decisions under ridiculous circumstances set by their DM/narrator/god. But things are getting real in The Crystal Kingdom: romance is blossoming, multiverses are being revealed, and ghosts from our characters’ pasts have returned to haunt them in more ways than one.
The Crystal Kingdom follows our intrepid adventurers as they attempt to reclaim the powerful philosopher’s stone before it turns the world into (albeit beautiful and pink) crystal. At the heart of the crystal is a high tech lab run by Lucas—a scientist that may not yet be under the thrall of the stone, but who is shifty and secretive about its sudden transformation. Where is his mother Maureen? If he didn’t send this crystal golem to defeat our party, who did? And what exactly does he mean when he says he can open portals to other planes of existence?
If Petals to the Metal begins to wade into TAZ’s central story, Crystal Kingdom plunges us in feet-first. The dots may not be connected yet, but the dots are all present now—from the Hunger to Kravitz revealing the boys’ death count to heartbreaking allusions to offscreen characters. Most remarkable, of course, is the revelation of other planes and the generic shift that they entail. Just because TAZ started as a D&D campaign doesn’t mean that it’s ever been purely high fantasy—Griffin, our DM, left that behind when he plopped the boys on a moon base at the end of the very first arc. But whatever high tech we’ve seen in the story to this point has gone unexamined until now. The introduction of Lucas and Maureen has transmuted TAZ’s fantasy/sci-fi venn diagram fully into a circle. And this is even before we get to (spoiler) the spaceship later in the series.
As the story grows, so do its characters and their relationships. What’s most remarkable in this volume of the adaptation is that, even as we delve further into each character—starting to let them stand on their own instead of in relation to their real-life players—the feeling that this story is being created by a genuinely loving family expands. The boys light up with the return of Angus McDonald, boy detective and obvious Griffin McElroy stand-in. There are many charming panels depicting them fondly laughing at each other—especially Merle, played by the father of the group—’s jokes. And finally, of course, there’s Lucas and Maureen, whose love feels so real and lived-in, and even transcends worlds.
With the volume’s development of Carey—a Dragonborn rogue— and introduction to Kravitz—a reaper and bounty hunter for the goddess of death—Crystal Kingdom is also the queerest volume of the story to date. Dear god, the flirting. It turns out the story can contain much more romancing when the characters aren’t being played by two brothers! And Clint and Pietsch do a wonderful job of incorporating these relationships too—at the end of the day, there’s much more you can do when you have visual cues at your disposal rather than just dialogue and action. Did I mention that Kravitz is as hot as I imagined him? Because he very much is.
As the story gets weightier and requires more exposition, the jokes in TAZ have started to lessen—it was true of the podcast and is true of the comic as well, with visual gags and easter eggs far fewer than in previous volumes. Between the action, pacing, and stunning artwork, though, it’s easy not to dwell on the change as you read. The coloring and design for the crystals are gorgeous—as is Merle’s new arm!—and Pietsch’s panelling and page layouts continue to impress (there’s even some bonus content about her artistic process at the end of the volume).
Fans of The Adventure Zone aren’t likely to be disappointed. The Crystal Kingdom is every bit as lovable as its podcast forebearer and every bit as fun as the comics that preceded it.
The Adventure Zone: The Crystal Kingdom is available from First Second.
Em Nordling is a writer & PhD student in Atlanta, GA. They are also a level 5 artificer named Al.