Why cast a spotlight on Joss Whedon? What is it about the body of work that he has to some degree overseen that warrants PopMatters publishing nearly 60 essays and interviews over a five-week period? Why do so many people care so deeply about his television series, comics, movies, and Internet musicals?
Whedon’s influence on pop culture has been so deep and wide-ranging it is hard to realize that we are only 14 years removed from the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the fledgling WB network. The WB is long gone at this point, as is UPN, where Buffy found a home after the WB threatened to kill the show after a dispute over money, but Buffy continues to obsess and delight fans to a degree granted only a handful of shows.
Lest one try to marginalize the show by assigning it “Cult TV” status, one should also keep in mind that Buffy remains the most intensely studied television series by television critics and scholars in the history of television. Unlike many other series targeted by TV scholars, such as the shows making up theStar Trek franchise, studies of Buffy are almost entirely textual analyses of the show’s content and rarely tangential studies of the show’s fandom. People remain primarily concerned with what Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse have to say about culture almost to the complete exclusion of questions about who watches these shows or why.
Writing was almost literally in Joseph Hill Whedon’s blood (he later morphed his first name into “Joss”). While his mother was an active feminist, his father Tom was a television writer, working on series like Benson, The Golden Girls, and Electric Company. Joss’s grandfather was also a television writer, causing his grandson to assert that he was the first third-generation television writer. Grandfather John wrote for such famous ’50s and ’60s shows as The Donna Reed Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show. His brothers Jed and Zack followed in the family tradition, and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen (the self-described “Asian Whedon”) is also a TV writer.
Although Joss Whedon had a more than a minor impact on popular culture prior to Buffy—through his writing on Roseanne, screenplays for Titan A.E. , Toy Story (netting an Oscar nomination for best screenplay), Alien Resurrection, and (perhaps most famously) the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and for his work as a script doctor on films like Speed, Twister, and Waterworld—his real impact came with television. The success of Buffy created the demand for the spinoff Angel and created the opportunity for the space Western Firefly, which although it was quickly cancelled by Fox when it failed to be the hit replacement for The X-Files that they expected it to be, went on to be one of the most loved series ever. Due to remarkably strong DVD sales, Firefly was continued in a feature film, which while not a box office success (though it as well has gone on to be a consistent seller DVD and Blu-ray releases, so that the film has turned a substantial profit for the Universal), has grown in critical regard and today persistently makes lists of the best SF movies ever made.
After the cancellation of Angel by the WB and the box office failure of Serenity, Whedon turned to comics, no doubt because it gave him a degree of freedom that work on television and film, both of which are collaborative efforts in which networks and studios exercised constant veto power, had denied him. While still working in TV he had produced the critically acclaimed comic Fray, a story of a vampire slayer in the future, while his later work with John Cassaday on Astonishing X-Men resulted in one of the more celebrated superhero stories of recent years and created the Kitty Pryde story. He later took over from Brian K. Vaughan on Runaways, a comic that itself had been deeply influenced by Buffy.
Joss then embarked on one of this most ambitious comic book projects, working with the Dark Horse label to continue Buffy’s story by producing Season Eight in comic book form. Although there have been countless comic book continuances of movies and television series, having new and canonical versions of series was practically unheard of at the time (since then others have done so as well, such as Rockne O’Bannon writing Farscape stories; Bryan Fuller hopes to continue his late lamented series Pushing Daisies as a comic)…