LitStack Review: Joss Whedon: The Biography by Amy Pascale

by Sharon Browning
Joss Whedon:  The BiographyJoss Whedon Biography
Amy Pascale
Chicago Review Press Incorporated
Release Date:  August 1, 2014
ISBN 978-1-61374-104-7

It seems a little strange that a biography is released for a personality who is not only relatively young, but who also is at the top of his game.  Maybe the book should have been called “Joss Whedon:  The Biography, Part One”?

Still, it makes some kind of sense.  Joss Whedon (actually, Joseph Whedon – he renamed himself “Joss” in college) is considered a god in geek fandom circles; one of the most popular circulating tee-shirts at major comic book/fantasy conventions (and wherever geeks gather) states “Josh Whedon is My Master Now”.  The creator of iconic television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse , developer of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., co-writer of Toy Story and Cabin in the Woods, architect of the media-changing web production Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, writer and director of 2012’s immensely successful The Avengers (as well as the upcoming Avengers:  Age of Ultron), he also has written comic books (including Fray, Astonishing X-Men and Runaways) and scripted, produced, directed, edited and composed for a cinematic modern take of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot on a shoestring budget in two weeks – at his house.

In fact, Joss Whedon has been so visible in the last decade or so, it almost seems as if audiences already know him, to some extent.  Full of childlike enthusiasm, he exudes energy and creativity; he wears his social beliefs on his sleeve (not the least of which is his support for equality and for empowering women – key aspects of much of his writing), and appears to truly enjoy interacting with fans and industry folks alike.  And people like him.

So what can a biographer do with Joss Whedon?  Luckily, what Amy Pascale, author of Joss Whedon:  The Biography doesn’t do is give us some gossipy, smarmy tabloid treatment of this Hollywood superstar.  Instead, she fleshes out what many of us have heard in snippets and tidbits:  how Joss felt like an outsider in high school (“If Joss Whedon had had one good day in high school, we wouldn’t be here”), the influences that helped him hone his distinctive writing style, the upbringing that affects so many of his projects.  She meticulously takes us through Joss’s beginnings and development, up to his work on The Avengers and glimpsing into what is yet to come, bringing in a wealth of insight from actors, industry professionals, fellow writers and producers, mentors, family, friends and leaders of the fan community, as well as Joss himself.  She doesn’t put Joss on too high of a pedestal (which must have been difficult, as she is an avowed fan, “obsessed” since his Buffy years), and there are places in the biography where she doesn’t back away from relating times where Joss has struggled both in public and private – which, of course, makes him even more admirable.

Indeed, we learn a lot of fun and precious things about Joss Whedon.  Such as, he loves to dance.  (In the book, fellow producer and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen calls him “a dancing fiend” and Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics says he is “the most enthusiastic, white boy dancing fool that I have ever seen in my entire life.”)  That he played Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, like “any proper geek”.  How he and his father (also a Hollywood writer for the likes of Captain Kangaroo, The Dick Cavett Show and The Electric Company, whom Joss would admit was “not necessarily great with kids”) would connect over the works of composer Stephen Sondheim (“Some fathers can’t really talk to their sons, but they can throw a baseball,” Joss said.  “We’d throw on all the Sondheim albums.”).  How in the early 1980s he became a “full-tilt” Deadhead, attending “at least” fifteen Grateful Dead concerts – including some of the more, um, psychedelic aspects of the performances.

And we learn the big things, too, like how his mother’s sudden death of a brain aneurysm in 1992 took away one of Joss’s major role models, and how growing up as the son of a comedy writer, he learned the power of being able to make people laugh (“There were times when I didn’t feel as though I was getting the attention I deserved, and I learned that if you said something funny, people would stop and listen.”)  How he cut his professional teeth writing for television shows such Roseanne and 1990’s Parenthood, but without getting credit for it – something that would influence how he would relate to others when he came into a position of authority.  How Much Ado About Nothing was more a vacation for him than a project to accomplish, a true labor of love that grew out of unrehearsed weekend readings of Shakespearean plays that he would host with current cast and crew members as well as friends, hearkening back to the days when his mother would also gather loved ones around at their commune-like farm in the Catskills to read the Bard’s words.

All this is wonderful stuff, but to be honest, eventually it becomes a bit bland, somewhat superficial.  While in Joss Whedon:  The Biography we get to know a lot about Joss Whedon, it still feels as though we don’t get to know Joss Whedon.  We hear a lot about the projects he works on, the influences and high expectations (and hopes) for such iconic figures as Buffy and Angel, we learn of his professional relationships, his methods, his causes and his work ethic, but there is very little we see of the person underneath it all that can’t already be gleaned from searching “Joss Whedon” on Google.  He talks about his relationship with his parents (who divorced when Joss was nine), but he doesn’t share his own views of parenthood – the mentions of his own children (he has two) are few, and scattered.  His wife, Kai Cole, shares some wonderful stories of her and Joss, but she’s a somewhat background figure in the book.  We hear about how much Joss loves his fans – and it’s obvious he does -but we don’t hear much about how his unique celebrity impacts him on a more profound level; it’s nice knowing how grateful he is to his fans , but it would be nice to get more than can be read in a forum post.  It’s like being served up beef stroganoff when you were expecting fillet mignon – tasty and filling, yes, but not transcendently memorable.

To be fair, I believe this is not due to some lack on the part of Ms. Pascale as an author or a researcher.  I get the sneaking suspicion that there were certain parts of Joss’s life that he simply declared as off limits:  his children, his wife (who admittedly is a relatively shy person) and their relationship, perhaps even his own demons.  I’m willing to accept that not hearing about these things is more a statement of respect of the author to her subject rather than a shortcoming of scope; heck, if something isn’t freely volunteered, I, for one, am okay with not pushing for it.  But there does seem to be some grit and gristle missing from this book, and that perhaps it could have been stronger had it had dug a bit deeper.

But then again, maybe there will be time for soul searching in “Joss Whedon:  TheBiography, Part Two” – a better opportunity for author and subject to look back and profoundly reflect on a life well lived.  I mean, heck, the guy is young yet!  There’s a lot more to come in the story of Joss Whedon.  For now, if you are a fan of Joss Whedon or belong to the Whedonverse, or you are interested in seeing what it’s like as an insider to the Hollywood process, if you are a burgeoning film student or someone who is thinking of becoming a screenwriter, or if you simply geek out on popular culture, then Joss Whedon:  The Biography should definitely be on your reading list.  It’s shiny.

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