For those unaware of the long running D&D podcast The Adventure Zone and the current discussions surrounding its graphic novel adaptation, here’s a primer. The Adventure Zone was initially created in mid 2014 as an isolated spin off episode of the My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast. The one shot became very popular very quickly, was spun out into its own podcast, and has had a new episode released every two weeks for almost three years.
As an audio drama created by 4 straight white men, the show has over the years had its run ins with representation discussions, with the brothers largely being receptive to criticism and responding to it proactively. A strong example of this was after they tragically killed off a pair of lesbian characters, at the time the only two confirmed queer characters on the show, they took on board criticism of the Bury Your Gays trope and confirmed multiple other characters in the permenant cast as queer. This willingness to take on board and adapt based on criticism is key to the discussion currently going on in the TaZ fandom.
So, let’s get into the current debate. A graphic novel adaptation of the first TaZ arc is currently in production for a 2018 release and a couple of pages were recently released to show off the art direction planned for the adaptation. Considering the source material is an audio drama that rarely gives definitive visual descriptions of its cast, the ways the cast of the show have been represented in the graphic novel have been very contentious for a number of reasons.
The biggest point of discussion has been Taako, a confirmed gay male wizard with a complex background.
Taako was initially named off handedly and without much thought in the initial one shot episode of The Adventure Zone. His entire characterisation boiled down to “Wizard who’s on an a mission to invent the taco”. Taako was a joke name created as a play on the food taco, and not much more thought went into his naming than that.
Over time, a sizable portion of the TaZ fandom began to headcanon Taako as a person of colour in the vacuum created by any solid racial confirmation. I fall into this camp, without any solid evidence either way I tend to picture Taako as a person of colour, and I’m not entierly sure why. It’s just a thing I picture about the character without having any visual reference point. In my mind Taako isn’t white when I listen to the show and picture the character, but I acknowledge I don’t have any canon evidence to back up that interpretation.
The TaZ cast somewhat embraced the sheer variety of interpretations of their cast by stating that any version of the character fan artists choose to create is canon and that they do not intent to contradict peoples headcanons. They have proclaimed numerous times that there is “no canon appearance” for their cast, so the fan community ran with their headcanons and became deeply invested in them.
Initial art for the graphic novel had Taako as a white character, which many fans criticised. This week new test pages were revealed in which Taako was coloured fantasy blue. When this happened, a lot of people got dissapointed that he was not represented as a person of colour by human standards. They saw blue skin as a cop out, a way to simultaniously make Taako a person of colour and not one, and they were unhappy. This is not an unfair criticism, as non human skin tones in fantasy are often used as a way to portray no white characters without making them human PoC racial representations.
The McElroy boys put themselves in a tough situation in many regards by being such proactive allies during the development of The Adventure Zone, an issue at the core of the current backlash they’re facing.
By addressing bury your gays and in response adding additional gay characters, by adding a canon trans Npc and getting consultation from trans people on how to handle them, by addressing the accidental racism born from the conflation of popular fan canon vs their initial naming plans (naming characters after tacos and Chilupas that much of the fandom separately began to headcanon as PoC), they’ve shown themselves willing to learn, take on board criticism, and make retroactive changes to either past lore or future narrative in order to work around that and improve representation.
This is by no means a bad thing, but their willingness to change has fostered an expectation in the fanbase that they will always change their creations when criticised. I think they’ve put themselves in a spot where to not change based on these criticisms is seen as prioritising some criticism over others. It validates some complaints over others. It suggests one ignored valid criticism was not important enough to solve.
Any criticism not acted upon now creates a hierarchy of representation importance, a tough thing to create within.
These four white guys are doing better at representation and taking on criticism than most creators, hence the immense pressure regarding this retroactive semi canonisation of race. The fact they so often get representation right is why do many people have placed such a high importance on them nailing racial representation in this new adaptation.
Also, as much as the McElroys say there is no canon visual for the cast, they themselves commissioned podcast art of the core characters, and with the comic being the first licensed visual of the cast, I think it’s kind of lazy to pretend there are not versions of the characters clearly more canonniclly evidenced than others. I personally headcanon black Taako, but I can’t deny that he’s not black in either the podcast art or the upcoming graphic novel as it currently stands. Those are both evidence against black Taako as canon. For the McElroys to pretend that the below image doesn’t to some degree canonise white/grey Taako more than other interpretations feels like it’s avoiding taking authorial ownership for the times in the past they have commissioned art of the cast.
The McElroys have two choices with the TaZ graphic novel, neither of which is ideal. They can either make Taako a Mexican or Latinex character, drawing potential criticism from people entering the story fresh being bothered that a mexican / Latinex character called Taako is obsessed with Tacos but accepting and working within the confines of the largely accepted fan canon, or avoid making him a person of colour and invalidate a batch of peoples interpretations of the character, but also sidestep accusations that the character is called Taako and on a Taco quest because he’s mexican.
Throw into that debates about his fantasy blue version tiptoeing close to jewish characature teritory (Jewish characatures were often green with pointy noses and some feel the new design comes close to this) and there’s a lot of awkward issues to balance.
When you’re known for responding to criticism, but multiple criticisms conflict with no flawless side, how to you proceed? How do you decide which of a number of flawed responses to commit to? This is the TAZ issue as it currently stands.
I don’t know that there’s a good solution to this situation, but I think one thing is clear. The McElroys are stuck in their current awkward position because they’re been such proactive and positive allies in the past. The fact they’ve been so willing to adapt to criticism now puts them in a spot where early decisions made three years ago are near impossible to cleanly retroactively fix.
There are valid criticisms to be had of The Adventure Zone, but it’s important to remember that these criticisms are happening largely because the boys have up until now been so utterly impressive with their willingness to work on criticism. If they can possibly find a good solution to this issue, I have faith that they will make use of it.
I would urge the community to have that same level of faith in the McElroys willingness to improve when making their criticisms of the graphic novel designs. I’m not asking people not to be critical of the designs, criticism is healthy and valuable, but please criticise from a position of memory that the McElroys have done more than most to learn and grow from past critique. Let’s trust that they’re listening and trying to find a good solution, and be willing to accept that the solution landed on may differ from our mental image of the character.