JOSS WHEDON: THE BIOGRAPHY – Book Review
For a man whose career is not yet at its halfway mark (knock on wood) Joss Whedon has had an awful lot of books written about him. The amount of academia dedicated to his work has long been a source of fascination/running gag to outsiders and last year saw the release of Titan’s Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, which was thick enough to choke a [Bad] Horse. Now we have Joss Whedon The Biography, the first book dedicated not just to the work, but to the man himself. Supposedly.
Full disclosure I am a full fledged Whedonite. I’ve seen every episode of every television show he has run and read nearly every comic. I will never love a show the way I loved Buffy. I discovered it the year after it went off the air and I straight up devoured it. Burning through the series in something like three months. I gave out copies of Firefly as Christmas presents in the slim hope that it would somehow help make Serenity a reality. I saw Cabin In The Woods four times in the theater just so I could watch the reactions of the friends I dragged to it. I will straight up fight you about Dollhouse. I am Scooby Gang for life. And I was underwhelmed.
Let’s start with the good. Amy Pacale’s book is at its best when she is examining the minutia of Whedon’s career. She finds and reviews every spec script, every script doctor session, every pitch and unproduced project and goes into them all with exacting detail. She makes a convincing case for Whedon’s importance to Toy Story something that Pixar has always downplayed and his responsibility for Speed. Curiously the one opportunity she really misses is Whedon’s work on The Quick And The Dead, which she dispenses with in a paragraph. Odd because it was a collaboration with Sam Raimi; a director whose humanist bent, cult following and work in the disreputable genres of horror, comic book movies and fantasy parallels and contrasts Whedon’s own career. Also as Whedon was rewriting John Sayles it represented the first time he was asked to override an A-lister, a significant milestone.
She is similarly meticulous in documenting Whedon’s creative process as both a producer and writer. Carefully showing how he cultivates his creative teams, acting troupes, network of mentors and fan base and manages to inspire near unprecedented amounts of loyalty from all of them. She also takes care to get into his nuts and bolts methods of writing as well.
As a work of criticism Pascale’s book is wider than it is deep. In all fairness this is primarily a work of biography, not criticism, but the way that Whedon’s life contrasts his work feels like unplumbed material. Whedon is a child of privilege whose work is instinctively sympathetic to the underdog. He’s an outspoken progressive in his public life whose work revels in a libertarian paranoia of organizations, governments and people in power. And as meticulous as the work on Whedon is Pascale is often maddeningly imprecise when she writes about other aspects of pop culture. These range from minor (comic book readers line up for their new material on Wednesdays not Tuesdays) to major (The Bad And The Beautiful: Not a western) to just kind of baffling (Pascale seems to have come under the curious notion that Stagecoach is darker than The Wild Bunch.) Call it nitpicking, but when you’re writing a book about pop culture accuracy counts, particularly when you’re writing a chapter bragging about how well versed in pop culture your subject is and a fact check is an IMDB search away.
The real problem with the book is that it reads too much like a hagiography to be a truly top notch biography. Pascale stops short of having Whedon feed the multitudes of Comic Con with seven loaves and fishes, but only just. The portrait of Whedon she paints isn’t just of a good guy with a creative voice to kill for but of someone who has never had so much as a cross word for anyone he’s ever encountered. This is not merely a sermon to the choir but a sermon to the College of Cardinals. No one’s asking for a hatchet job, but there is nothing here of Whedon that goes any deeper than his public persona. After four hundred pages this Whedon simply does not emerge as three dimensional. Pascale’s book dares to ask, “Just how awesome is Joss Whedon?” and then boldly answers, “So Awesome!”
This is a victory lap, not a biography.