Book Review: Joss Whedon: The Biography

Joss Whedon: The Biography

*Update: I was informed by author Amy Pascale on Twitter that Joss Whedon: The Biography is not an “authorized biography” and have edited this review to remove any references to it as such.  I apologize for the mistake.

I had some mixed feelings about reading a biography of Joss Whedon.  For starters, I rarely read non-fiction (just as a matter of personal preference), but what made me more reluctant was my personal admiration and loyalty to Joss, the man who has created so many of my favorite stories over the past fifteen years or so.  The man who created “cult classics” like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly in addition to writing and directing The Avengers, one of the most successful films of all time, is certainly a subject ripe for study, but what to expect from a biography?  Could it capture the essence of this Lord of the Geeks that his fans all know and love, while managing to explain to the uninitiated why he’s worthy of our praise, while managing to find something new that will surprise even his most devoted followers or that could give a deeper meaning to his work?  While I found the book to be an enjoyable read, the bigger answers to these questions turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

Joss Whedon: The Biography, after an introduction written by Nathan Fillion, begins at the logical beginning, with Joss’s birth in New York to a second-generation writer for television and a history teacher.  Much of the information from his early days will be new (or at least less familiar) to his fans, and, as fleshed out with interviews with friends and teachers, paints a picture of the boy Joss, a born storyteller growing up in a home filled with art and the business of TV.  It follows him through his parents’ divorce to a boarding school in England, to his days at Wesleyan University, and we see how his later work was shaped by those early experiences and the role models in his life (first and foremost his mother).  We ride a roller coaster of excitement and disappointment through his early career, from writing for Roseanne, to his script work on movies like Speed and X-Men, to the heartbreak of the final product of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film and Alien: Resurrection, to an Oscar nomination for Toy Story.  To those who are less familiar with Whedon, the breadth of his early writing experiences will surely come as a bit of a shock.

The real meat of the book comes as Joss finally hits his stride with TV reboot of his beloved Buffy, and spends the bulk of its time during the period when Joss had three shows on the air at once with Buffy, Angel, and Firefly.  The book spends a great deal of time on these shows, matching each new chapter to a television season and digging deep into the creative process and experience of juggling these shows.  It discusses his rise to fame (or something like it), as well as dealing with some of the trials and criticisms that each of those shows received.  It touches on the unique nature of his army of fans, from their initial formation in the early days of TV’s presence on the internet to their reactions to some of the show’s most controversial plot points to their continuing support of him today.  From the “golden age” of Joss, the book continues on to his more recent work, not only on TV with Dollhouse, but as an online pioneer with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and in film with The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, and Much Ado About Nothing, leaving us in the (nearly) present day, with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. about to begin its second season and Avengers: Age of Ultron set to premiere on May 1, 2015.

Amy Pascale is obviously a huge Joss Whedon fan, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to this biography.  She writes well, in an entertaining and readable fashion, and she certainly understands the appeal of Joss’s work, but she comes with her own set of prejudices as a fan.  As a biography written by a fan, I would never expect anything but a glowing portrait of the man (which is what we get), but there are definitely biases as to the amount of attention paid to certain Whedon works while others are almost ignored.  She goes in-depth into Buffy, using it as the book’s anchor, which makes a lot of sense as it is perhaps his defining work so far, but that tactic has its disadvantages.  Early in the book, as she covers his childhood, she often will point out how particular moments inspired plot points or characters in Buffy, though it’s hard to know whether she’s drawing these conclusions on her own or whether they came out of her interviews with Joss (my guess would be the former).  And later, during the period where Buffy was on the air, she will spend pages on individual episodes, their inspiration and their reception, which would be fine except that Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and Dollhouse don’t get nearly as much attention (the section on Dollhouse is especially disappointing).  She devotes a large section to “The Bronze,” an internet community that formed in the early days of Buffy’s fan community of which she was obviously a part, which comes off as fairly self-indulgent.  It’s certainly an important part of the early days of the fandom, but it doesn’t make for interesting reading and doesn’t deserve as much discussion in the book as it’s given.

Pascale clearly has some strong opinions on plot developments in Buffy, some of which may be widespread but are hardly universal.  When she doesn’t like a particular work she focuses almost entirely on the criticism of it by fans or the press (Buffy season six, the conclusion of Cordelia’s story arc and anything to do with Connor on Angel, Dollhouse season one), while stuff she doesn’t particularly care for gets covered in a way that feels more like an obligation (Firefly, the Buffy comics).  She also does some interesting picking and choosing when it comes to Joss’s early career.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning the circumstances of his attachment to a variety of movies, and exactly what he contributed to stuff like Speed, yet other movies are completely ignored without even a mention.  I, for one, desperately wanted to know about his involvement with Twister, while his work on two animated movies, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Titan A.E. were also left out.

Still, despite these complaints, the book is an enjoyable read.  It’s filled with interesting quotes and anecdotes from a wide variety of sources.  Pascale conducted a lot of interviews with many different people from Joss’s history, including family and friends as well as coworkers, as well as mining previously existing interviews, and many of them have interesting things to say.  Whether it’s Joss’s reputation as a man who loves to dance or his first encounters with some of his more famous colleagues, there’s plenty to enjoy reading.  Pascale’s devotion to Buffy does allow us a deep exploration of the behind-the-scenes building of that show, particularly when it comes to Joss’s involvement in the writing process of the show, from initial ideas to breaking a story to his methods for writing and editing the work of others.  Joss occasionally comes off as controlling (particularly when Pascale is not a fan of the resulting story), but he mostly just feels like an artist, most of whom are generally protective of their work.

The moments that work the best, however, are the personal ones.  Joss has touched a lot of people’s lives and careers, and it’s clear that many people have a fondness for him.  Even those who might not have gotten along with him still have a respect for his abilities.  The book is filled with quotes from writers, directors, producers and actors, many of whom have immense praise for the man, but what really struck me were those from the ones who know him best.  He may be the “Geek King of the Universe” (as the horrible UK title of this book would tell you), but he’s still filled with insecurities that are immensely relatable.  Every time his wife, Kai Cole, added something to the story, it was always a sweet, loving look at a real person and not a pop culture god.  It’s in these moments that the book really fulfills its potential, turning genius at the height of his fame into someone we can see ourselves in, who struggles with the same things we do but who uses that pain to tell fantastic stories.  It helps that Joss and his circle are all enormously funny and talented, of course.

There’s still more to come from Joss.  With a sequel to the biggest success in his career due next year, a moderately successful TV series on the screen, and an unknown number of projects secretly hidden away in his mind, hopefully Joss’s next fifty years (he just turned fifty in June) will be as biography-worthy as his first fifty.  With a career that, at the moment, is definitely trending upwards, it would be interesting in a couple of decades to see another biography of the man written (perhaps with a little less bias).  We are certainly in the “Year(s) of Joss,” as the books’ final chapters claim, but are we catching Joss at his peak, or merely at the beginning of a continuing slope?  Joss Whedon: The Biography doesn’t claim to know the answer, but will certainly leave the question in your mind.


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