Joss Whedon is one of a handful of writer-directors (along with J.J. Abrams, Peter Jackson, Kevin Smith, and Quentin Tarantino) who rule the current age of nerds. Whedon has a notoriously rabid fanbase, especially those who championed his work through cancellations (Firefly) and disappointing box office (Serenity). To these fans, Whedon rarely does wrong. And in Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography, Whedon has never done wrong. He comes across as an impossibly good (and, thus, uninteresting) figure who chirpily learns lessons from banal tribulations. In the foreword by Nathan Fillion, star of many of Whedon’s projects, he calls him “heroic,” which best describes the view of Whedon here. Joss Whedon is a sycophantic enterprise, a serviceable document of his career, well researched, thorough, and topic savvy, but she spends more time tracking the ins and outs of Whedon’s many projects than she does on his actual life. Whedon, here, is more like a composite of all his creations, a Creator, and less like an interesting person deserving of a full-fledged biography.
Pascale is clearly a fan, but in her introduction, she credits “Joss and Buffy” with giving her the “fortitude and bravery” to deal with a heavy, personal “twenty-year burden” in her life, which means Whedon’s art has a deeper, more emotional meaning for her as well. Whedon’s work, she tells us, “is a testament to defeat,” to those who “face every challenge and celebrate every victory along the way, even if they final battle doesn’t go their way. The defeated do not fail, because they keep on fighting.”
While this is a nice enough sentiment to espouse in art, it doesn’t make the most compelling narrative arc for a biography. Whedon, via Pascale’s prose, “shows how his defeats can be counted as wins too.” When he worked on the writing staff of Roseanne, where the environment was fraught with tension and acrimony, Whedon found the value in the miserable experience: “every time somebody opens their mouth they have an opportunity to do one of two things—connect or divide…Connecting is the most important thing.” Whedon seems to come out of every hardship with some pat lesson he’ll use in the future. This arc—whether created by Whedon in his interviews or by Pascale in the writing, or both—fails to compel. Personal elements—the very things that would help the reader invest in Whedon as a person—are handled tangentially, as when, after two chapters describing the creation and quick cancellation of Firefly, and with comments from stars, producers, and writers, Pascale writes:
As his series ended, another story in Joss’s life was just starting. Five days after Fox announced that the show had been canceled and two days before it finally aired the pilot, Kai [Whedon’s wife] gave birth to their son, Arden, on December 18, 2002.
Entire chapters are devoted to, for example, the scholarship that’s emerged on Buffy or a reboot of Buffy for the big screen that never happened, while Whedon’s son gets a paragraph (and a short one, at that), and Kai less than a page, the impression lingers that this isn’t a biography of a man so much as a biography of a number of works of art.
Besides a number of instances of clunky, clichéd writing (“After graduating from Wesleyan in 1987, Joss faced the question so many young people confront upon leaving college: what do I do now?”), Pascale has a tendency to summarize and explain every movie and episode she references. Do we need, in 2014, a plot description of Toy Story? Is Pascale writing for posterity, when the film will be less familiar to people? This is a typical conundrum of books about potentially esoteric topics: How does a writer explain the necessary exposition without bothering fans who already know that information? Or as David Foster Wallace put it in his book about infinity: “How can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody’s who’s had a lot of college math?”
Ultimately, though, Pascale sees Whedon much the way fans do, ending the book with a quote from Jeanine Basinger, Whedon’s professor from Wesleyan:
I think about the old days, ancient days, where there were men who were created as storytellers, designated storytellers. They wandered the Earth, and they told stories. They had friends, they had companions—probably they had families. But mostly, they were alive just to be there to tell stories, to bring the stories because we need stories, we must have stories. Those of us who can’t write them, create them, tell them, our job is to consume them. And we die if we don’t have them. And he feeds us. It’s a kind of sacrifice to be the storyteller. And Joss is the modern version of that character.
This is the Whedon of Pascale’s book: a mythic hero who exists simply for storytelling, so that his fans can feed off of him. Never mind the man telling these stories. Never mind his humanity, his family, his life. Whedon is like Oz, but Pascale isn’t as interested in pulling back the curtain. Never mind him.
Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography is available now from Chicago Review Press; to purchase it, click here.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a regular contributor to The Millions, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Colorado Review, PANK, Chautauqua, Black Heart Magazine, Thrasher, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @jrc2666.