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Books

With Feeling: 'Joss Whedon: The Biography'

The only problem with the sincerely enjoyable Joss Whedon: The Biography is that we learn a heck of a lot more about his creative endeavors than we do about the geek god himself.


Joss Whedon: The Biography

Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Length: 387 pages
Author: Amy Pascale
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08
Amazon

While the opening sequence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reminds us that “into every generation a slayer is born”, a screenwriter like Joss Whedon seemingly comes along less often. Or at least that’s the overarching theme you’ll find in the new book Joss Whedon: The Biography.

The much-celebrated Whedon, the man behind Buffy, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, is certainly at the height of his popularity. The writer/director has had a cult-like following for two decades, but thanks to the box office triumph of The Avengers, he’s become even more of household name. (Seriously, how many other TV writers get quasi-famous, let alone have legions of diehard fans?) So, it’s perhaps the perfect time to produce a comprehensive biography of Whedon, and author Amy Pascale has crafted exactly that. Whedonites can rejoice over the new biography, even if the rest of the world might be less than enthused by the offering.

Pascale, a director at MTV who also co-founded the online magazine ] PopGurls.com, is clearly a fan as, quite frankly, would be the average person who wades through the book’s 387 pages. She even says in her acknowledgements, “When I say that Joss Whedon changed my life, I’m not being hyperbolic.”

The author’s level of fandom, while understandable, serves as a double-edged sword at times. The book is as much a love letter to Buffy die-hards and a guide to Whedon’s creations as it is a straightforward biography, and therein lies the problem. It’s plenty informative and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily focus on the man as much as his achievements. For example, more time is spent discussing his work as a comic book writer on the Astonishing X-Men series than on his relationship with his wife, Kai Cole, or the birth of his children. Meanwhile, entire chapters are devoted to, for example, single episodes of Buffy.

If you’re not a Whedon fan, this biography may not win you over; there’s a lot of hero-worship. But Whedonites can enjoy that his works -- from his time writing on Roseanne to his underrated black-and-white version of Much Ado About Nothing -- each get at least their own chapter. Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, Serenity, The Avengers: they’re all there. Pascale devotes proportionate weight to Whedon’s biggest projects, chief among them Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which obviously (and rightfully) holds a special place in the author’s heart. She also skillfully describes his work as a script doctor that bumped up the dialogue on projects like Toy Story and Alien: Resurrection and Speed.

The end result makes you want to go back and enjoy Whedon’s many projects all over again. There are also fascinating anecdotes about his never-produced screenplays, like his attempt to create a satisfactory Wonder Woman script and his action movie script for Suspension, which is essentially “Die Hard on a bridge.”

For fans, the most interesting parts of the book are the less-familiar tales devoted to Whedon’s less celebrated works, such as his time filming Dollhouse or writing comic books. Most of the stories told about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly,The Avengers, and even Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog have been given new polish and depth, but nonetheless have already been shared elsewhere. For younger fans who are new Whedonites thanks primarily to his work with Dr. Horrible, Cabin in the Woods, or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., however, this book is tremendously informative.

For longtime Browncoats or followers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Scooby Gang, it mostly presents a gathering of relatively well-known tales about feminism, comic books, ensembles, Shakespeare, cancellation and perseverance, albeit as a single, authoritative and likable one-stop reference.

Oddly enough, Whedon, as Pascale’s book would have it, seems to have faced almost entirely no detrimental conflicts or shortcomings in his 50 years on this Earth, save for the fact that, — in case you missed it by being new to planet Earth -- Firefly was cancelled. From his frustrations on the set of Roseanne leading to enough free time to create the script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Writer’s Guild strike leading to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, almost every setback mentioned seems to have worked out to Whedon’s favor in the future.

Pascale writes, “If Buffy the film had been a hit, there would most likely not have been Buffy the television series—nor Joss Whedon the director…” Even the chapter that discusses the cancellation of Firefly is a little too upbeat for what must have felt like a period of total defeat.

This makes for a sometimes-dull narrative, as you might imagine. Whedon, the guy who gave us Spike, Angel, Jayne, Buzz Lightyear, and Dr. Horrible, would surely be the first to tell you that any appealing story needs flawed characters that face conflict. Yet to Pascale’s credit, the author doesn’t exaggerate or overdramatize events to create a false illusion of conflict where there was none just for the sake of getting a reader to turn pages. If you're hoping for shocking tales of gossip and struggles beyond disagreements with network executives, then this isn’t the place to look.

Along with her wildly optimistic approach, Pascale’s writing style is direct and engaging. She provides a well-researched walkthrough Whedon’s career.

Also to her credit, to create the book Pascale collected an astonishing horde of pre-existing interviews (all meticulously cited) from Whedon himself and many people who have worked alongside him. Writers, cinematographers, producers, actors and comic book artists seem all too ready praise Whedon. Even Robert Downey Jr., not known to lavish praise and gush over, well, anyone, describes his Avengers director by saying, "He's so smart and so good.”

Perhaps the world really is one big Scooby Gang.

The author draws from these many published interviews to present a more thorough chronological picture of Whedon’s vocation. It might seem easy to knock Pascale for digging through old interviews but Whedon fans should appreciate it when they realize the exhausting amount of work that must have went into collecting and summarizing them. On top of that, Pascale also conducted original interviews with Whedon and those who know him best, though they do not in any way make up the bulk of the quotes in the biography.

Nonetheless, while a more probing look at what makes Whedon tick personally would have been interesting, like Whedon’s best characters, Pascale does the best with what she’s been given. Ironically, the most personal details are found in the earliest chapters, about his relationship with his parents, particular his mother Lee Stearns, who was a political activist and lover of Shakespeare, both which distinctly influenced her son’s life.

However, Pascale seems like she would be better suited to devote an entire book to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, she should write that book. Almost every accomplishment in Whedon’s career, whether pre or post-Buffy, uses the cult classic television show as a distinctive point of reference. For example, the author writes that Whedon’s time spent observing teachers and later attending a Winchester boarding school went on to “inform the character of Rupert Giles, the stuffy British school librarian who serves as Buffy’s mentor.” Even when discussing his adoration for Veronica Mars, which gets its own half-a-chapter, Pascale draws obvious parallels between both shows due to their “witty writing and a smart girl hero.”

Pascale, amidst Whedon’s narrative, also devotes much of her prose to the early Internet message boards devoted to Whedon’s shows. Pascale was an early member of the Bronze, an online community that included fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show’s crew members and occasionally Whedon himself. The frequent references to an online fan community from the late '90s may be the most polarizing aspect of the book. While an odd inclusion for a biography, they will seem either peculiarly charming or overly tedious.

It should also be said that if Pascale wrote a memoir called What Joss Whedon Means to Me, I’d pick that book up, because the personal snippets of the author’s life mentioned in Joss Whedon: The Biography that correlate with Whedon’s work are as intriguing as they are brief. Less enjoyable are the instances when the author pauses to personally critique a program’s storytelling merits. I’ll be the first to admit that the author’s claim that season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was lacking and full of “convoluted and clumsy storylines” is valid, but this sort of thing hardly deserves a place in Whedon’s biography unless Whedon himself is interviewed about it.

All in all, Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography is a worthwhile tribute to a great writer/director at the peak of his creative talents. It’s a fantastic guide to his many projects and you’ll glean a lot about them from Pascale’s exhaustive work and meaningful writing. However, you won’t learn so much about the man himself, which again, is what makes the title misleading; there’s untapped potential there. Nevertheless, fanboys and fangirls can, will, and should marvel at this journey through Whedon’s contributions to pop culture. It just won’t slay anyone who fails to see that Whedon has “done the impossible.”

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