Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins is an excellent adaptation of the early adventures of Critical Role's first party of adventurers. Back in 2015, Geek & Sundry launched Critical Role, a weekly web series where a bunch of "nerdy ass voice actors" play Dungeons & Dragons. The show quickly became an online juggernaut, selling out theaters for live performances, spinning out into its own studio and company, and eventually breaking Kickstarter records when it raised over $10 million to fund an animated series based on Vox Machina, the heroes at the heart of its first campaign. Critical Role also became one of the forces for D&D's recent resurgence and helped put the game back at the forefront of pop culture relevancy.
One of the quirks of Critical Role's first campaign is that it starts in media res, as Geek & Sundry simply moved the group's existing home game into its studio. When fans first met Vox Machina, they were already established adventurers with their own castle, established allies, and plenty of in-jokes. As a treat to its viewers, Critical Role released a brief summary of Vox Machina's early adventures in the form of a video short, but that was about all we knew about those early days... until last year. In 2018, Dark Horse Comics released Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins, a six issue digital series co-written by Matt Mercer and Matt Colville and illustrated by Olivia Samson that showed how the Vox Machina team came to meet.
The comic was a smash hit for Dark Horse, often outselling perennial powerhouses on Comixology when new issues were released. Because the first mini-series sold so strongly, Dark Horse announced a sequel series that picks up a short time after the first series and is being released as a print comic instead of a "digital first" book. Like the first series, Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins II is presented as a straight-forward fantasy series totally removed from the D&D table. Unlike First Second's The Adventure Zone graphic novel, there's no DM narration or meta-commentary, with the focus instead on the rich and colorful cast of characters familiar to every Critical Role fan.
If you're a fan of Critical Role, reading Vox Machina Origins II will be like re-visiting old friends. The first issue picks up a bit after the original, with most of the team working together comfortably as an adventuring party. While they haven't reached their world-saving abilities, the group has learned how to function as both a fighting unit and a social circle, and there's a familiarity now present that was missing from the first miniseries. If the first series was akin to the first Avengers movie, than Vox Machina Origins II is like the opening sequence of Avengers: Age of Ultron where everyone looks cool as they jump out of a jeep into gunfire.
One big change to Vox Machina Origins is the addition of Jody Houser, who replaces Matt Colville as the scriptwriter for the new miniseries. The series seems to function a bit more smoothly under Houser's guidance—the dialogue feels more natural, the transitions are cleaner, and the comic.... well, it feels more like a comic than the first miniseries did. Maybe that's because the Critical Role team is more familiar with how to pace a comic, or maybe it's because the comic is now available in print format instead of the default option of Comixology's panel-by-panel Guided View, or maybe it's just because Houser is a seasoned comics pro with a knack for adapting TV, movie, and video game franchises into great comics.
A major strength of the series is how effortlessly the comic seems to slip into the voices of the various Vox Machina characters. You can hear the voices of each character as you read the comic, from Travis Willingham's simple and brutish Grog to Laura Bailey's exasperated and haughty Vex. The comic even captures the spirit of Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer played by former cast member Orion Acaba, before he gets written out of the book to explore places unknown.
Olivia Samson continues to shine in her role as artist, and she brings so much life and personality into these characters, especially through the use of body language. From the way Keyleth insecurely clutches her staff to how Scanlan's world comes screeching to a halt the moment he meets Pike, who is introduced for the first time in the comic, Samson seems to know how each character behaves and functions even when they aren't talking. It speaks volumes how much personality Samson conveys even when drawing characters asleep, and she's a key reason why this comic feels like a love letter to the series instead of a cash grab. Both Houser and Samson are Critters and it shows in every page of this new issue.
Vox Machina Origins II is one of the best comics adaptations I've read in a while. It oozes fun and personality, and serves as an excellent starting point for fans interested in what Critical Role has to offer. It's also a great fantasy series that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves traditional adventures in high fantasy.
Published by Dark Horse Comics
On July 10, 2019
Story by Matthew Mercer
Script by Jody Houser
Art by Olivia Samson
Colors by Msassyk0comments
Letters by Ariana Maher
Cover by Fiona Staples