The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal
Written by Clint McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, and Griffin McElroy
Art by Carey Pietsch
Lettered by Tess Stone
Published by First Second
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Tres Horny Boys have returned, and they're kicking it into high gear in the third installment of The Adventure Zone graphic novel series, Petals to the Metal. Out this week from publisher First Second, the McElroy boys and Carey Pietsch deliver the most action-packed installment yet of the series, ramping up the stakes as they send Taako, Merle, and Magnus on a death-defying thrill ride through the glamorous city of Goldcliff. With two successful artifact retrievals under their belt for the Bureau of Balance, investigating a cat burglar should be a walk in the park. Instead, it escalates into a face-off with their most dangerous target to date, and a shotgun seat to the dangerous world of underground battlewagon racing.
Co-adaptors Carey Pietsch and the McElroys have done an excellent job to date of creating a graphic novel series that's as welcoming to newcomers as it is to longtime fans of their podcast. By virtue of the change in medium, the narrative has undergone a number of changes in the transition so far, mostly for the sake of streamlining the story or adjusting jokes to ensure they work in both formats. Petals to the Metal marks the most substantial departure from the source material to date, and it's these changes that serve as the emotional heart of the story.
Petals to the Metal marked a significant tonal shift in the podcast — the transition from a show about three lovable goofs with little emotional connection to the destruction they typically leave in their path, to one about three adventurers on a heroes' quest forced to reconcile with the devastating impact of the artifacts they're chasing on people they find they actually care about. This also marked some of the most significant criticism faced by the show at the time for playing into unfortunate media tropes about queer characters, which the graphic novel addresses by making clear romantic connections and moving up a reveal dungeon master Griffin originally made in the series' final episodes to address the critique.
This reveal — done in a series of beautiful illustrated and colored by Pietsch depicting a cherry blossom tree through the seasons to suggest it still likely lines up with the show's original timeline — and the moments leading up to it are a testament to the power of adaptations as much as they are to how much it can mean when a creator is willing to say, "I did mess up, and I recognize it's my responsibility to fix it." I'm certainly not here to suggest there's nothing else to critique about the show, or the books, or this book, but so much has been added here, done with such a clear and powerful affection for the world and these characters through both the writing and Pietsch's engaging character designs and stunning shoujo-inspired flashbacks. It's easy to see the entire creative team recognized an opportunity to do some gentle course correcting in the wake of the massive audience the show and graphic novels have both garnered, and they seize it here with great aplomb.
On a more structural and less emotional note, Petals to the Metal also marks some of the most ruthlessly efficient editorial work of the series so far. The arcs of the show get longer as it progresses, but the graphic novels stay the same size, and the team does excellent work maintaining the show's comedic tone and the action with great economy of space. The team has a keen eye for where to adjust and add, and (often thanks to Pietsch's staging and expressive faces) how to preserve jokes from audio to a visual medium. There are a number of other minor changes throughout, reflecting how differently some of the characters' more, uh, destructive tendencies play out when you're actually seeing them happening, and the piece de resistance is the book's driving action — the battlewagon race.
The McElroy family created an engaging and wonderful narrative with the world of The Adventure Zone: Balance, but Petals to the Metal specifically showcases Carey Pietsch's skill as an illustrator, and particularly the eye for composition she brings to the graphic novel team. The battlewagon race — a Death Race-meets-Fast and the Furious clash between fantastical, deadly contraptions — is an adrenaline-fueled riot of wild designs featuring Pietsch's best color work on the series to date. There's a frenetic energy to every panel, perfectly punctuated by vibrant lettering effects from series letterer Tess Stone, that will have your heart racing with every turn of the page til the culmination of the book's final dramatic battle.
This book is just so good. Petals to the Metal is imbued with so much consideration for the impact it's had, and fondness for the wider world of The Adventure Zone and the characters there, even beyond just Merle, Magnus, and Taako at this point. Petals to the Metal captures perfectly the humor and charm that made the show such a delight and elevates it, embracing the opportunity to create a world filled with characters more fully realized than a Dungeons & Dragons show voiced by a dad and three brothers sometimes gave them space to be. No matter your familiarity with the McElroy podcast family of products, Petals to the Metal is an absolute delight to read, a riot of action that will fill the Fast 9 void in your summer, and maybe — just maybe — might even make you shed a tear.