Why You Should Consider Reading Joss Whedon

Reading Joss Whedon © Syracuse University Press
Reading Joss Whedon © Syracuse University Press

Joss Whedon. If I had to make a shortlist of people who could become the Patron Saint of Geek, he would be at the top of it. These days, his body of work is so broad that you’ll struggle to find a geek who doesn’t love at least some parts of it. From The Avengers to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, through Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the sheer range of genres within the Whedonverse is astonishing, although each one features a certain something in their dialogue and overall attitude that make them distinctly Whedon.

Whedon’s work is in fact so highly regarded that it has given rise to it’s own academic group, The Whedon Studies Association. The association hosts biennial conferences—this year’s conference takes place in just a few weeks at the California State University in Sacramento—and also produces its own peer-reviewed journal, Slayage. Slayage is free to access and filled with papers on every aspect of the Whedonverse. The current issue, published this month, is a special double issue focusing only on The Cabin in the Woods, but with titles like “What’s Your Fetish?: The Tortured Economics of Horror Simulacra in The Cabin in the Woods” (Jerry Metz, 2012) and “’C-can[sic] we rest now?’: Foucault and the Multiple Discursive Subjectivities of Spike” (Andrew F. Herrmann), you can immediately see that this is not light reading. For anyone interested in the concept of Whedon Studies and wanting to delve deeper into the Whedonverse but unwilling or unable to sit down with a full academic essay over lunch, Reading Joss Whedon might just be the book you’re looking for.

The Cover of Reading Joss Whedon © Syracuse University Press
The cover of Reading Joss Whedon © Syracuse University Press

Reading Joss Whedon collects together articles that cover all types of Whedon’s work, although there is naturally something of a focus on his television productions. It is arranged into collections, beginning with a set of essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, moving through Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and finally, Dollhouse. Collection/part five, “Beyond the Box,” covers Whedon’s non-TV work with four essays on Dr. Horrible (webseries), Buffy’s Season Eight (comic series), The Cabin in the Woods, and The Avengers (films). Each TV series is also given a brief introduction for readers less familiar with them. The final part of the book covers “Overarching Topics” and covers subjects that stretch across multiple Whedon works with essays including “Technology and Magic: Joss Whedon’s Explorations of The Mind” (Jeffrey Bussolini) and “Hot Chicks with Superpowers: The Contested Feminism of Joss Whedon” (Lauren Schultz).

A second table of contents is also provided that groups the essays by subject. This is especially useful to those of us looking to use the book as a reference tome. The subjects used include Human Identity, Gender, Narrative & Writing, and Myth & Intertext. Together, they do an impressive job of summing up what the Whedonverse does best and the questions it repeatedly raises.

One of the things I took away from early in the book was a comparison between Whedon and Shakespeare. The comparison wasn’t discussing talent or output, simply their working practises. Whedon is known for working with a small group of actors repeatedly (Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, etc.) in much the same way that Shakespeare’s plays were usually performed by the same group, The Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men. It’s a point hammered home by Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a production he has himself referred to as “a love letter—to the cast.”

Another point I found especially interesting was a discussion on the way Whedon’s work often focuses on the concept of “chosen” family rather than family as defined by blood. It’s a recurring theme I hadn’t ever really thought of. The Scoobies in Buffy, the crew of the Serenity, even The Avengers. All are groups who have found their “families,” rather than being born into them. It’s far from being an idea unique to Whedon; the TV shows Supernatural and Warehouse 13, for example, address the concept regularly and somewhat more explicitly, but it’s certainly a recurrent Whedon theme. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premiered too late to have essays included in the book, has drawn on similar themes.

I am not a die-hard Whedonite; rather I have remained on the fringes of his Verse, dipping my toes into almost every one of his creations (to date the only Whedonverse show I haven’t watched is Angel). However, despite not being familiar with every last nuance of the Whedonverse, I found Reading Joss Whedon a deeply insightful collection that not only made me look at the Whedonverse with different eyes, but at other media as well. I especially loved “All Those Apocalypses: Disaster Studies and Community in BTVS and Angel” (Linda J. Jencson), which looked at the ways disaster and survival was presented throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The essay has me thinking in new ways about not only my own fiction, both written and viewed, but the way these subjects are presented by the real-world news media as well. Not being a huge fan, I occasionally had to do a little googling when episode titles were casually thrown in as references (it’s been a few years since I last watched Buffy), but this didn’t detract from my overall understanding or enjoyment.

Reading Joss Whedon is a great book both for Whedonites looking to read more about their favorite verses and for those interested in storytelling and media as a whole. If you’re after something to really stimulate the mind as you lie on a beach this summer, this might just be the book you’re looking for.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes. 

Buffy’s Back! Complete Recap for Newbies and Returning Fans

Buffy the Vampire Slayer © Dark Horse
Buffy the Vampire Slayer © Dark Horse

Since its premiere in 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has established itself as a perennial favorite both to a core of die-hard Whedonites and to a broader mainstream audience. The show wrapped in 2003 after seven seasons on television but returned for an eighth in 2007, this time as a comic series from Dark Horse. The series was so popular that the initial 25-issue run was expanded out to 40. In 2011 the series returned for Season Nine wrapping at the end of last year, and this week the tenth season has begun.

The beginning of a new season is a great jumping on point for anyone interested in joining the Buffy-verse for the first time, or for those returning after an absence. However with nine seasons of backstory there’s now a lot of history to get through. All seven seasons of the TV show are currently available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video but that’s a whole lot to sit through even for those with a lot of spare time, and that’s before you get to the comics. So for those of you interested in diving headlong into the show again, here’s a (mostly) spoiler-free recap of the road so far.

Buffy Season One (Giles, Buffy, Xander and Willow) © Fox
Buffy Season One (Giles, Buffy, Xander, and Willow) © Fox

Season One
After being expelled from school, 16-year-old Buffy Summers and her mother move to Sunnydale, California, in the hopes of starting afresh. Secretly Buffy hopes to leave behind her life as a vampire slayer but life isn’t that simple and within her first day at Sunnydale High the supernatural is already closing in on her. Soon she teams up with fellow students Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris who, along with Watcher/school librarian Rupert Giles, form the Scoobies – a team who will go on to fight evil in countless forms over the coming years.

Season Two
The relationships established in season one increase in complexity during the show’s second outing. Xander hooks up with school top dog Cordelia and Willow with Oz, a guitar player with a canine secret of his own. Even Giles gets in on the action by establishing a relationship with computer science teacher Jenny. However these relationships and the issues they encounter pale in comparison to Buffy’s own relationship with Angel which will irrevocably affect everyone around them.

Season Three
Buffy returns to Sunnydale after unsuccessfully attempting to start a new life in LA and she’s not the only person arriving in town. The Watcher’s council send in Wesley Price to replace Giles, fearing that he has become too emotionally attached to Buffy, and a second slayer named Faith also arrives. Throughout the season, which marks Buffy’s final year of high school, the Scoobies work against the town Mayor who is planning to make their graduation more memorable than any before and for all the wrong reasons.

Expanded cast of Season Four (Oz, Giles, Xander, Riley, Buffy, Spike, & Willow) © Fox
Expanded cast of Season Four (Oz, Giles, Xander, Riley, Buffy, Spike, & Willow) © Fox

Season Four
Buffy and Willow enroll at the University of California: Sunnydale where each begins a new romantic relationship; Buffy with graduate student Riley and Willow with Tara—a witch like herself. The vampire Spike returns but soon finds himself at the mercy of The Initiative, a secret military organization based beneath the campus but with many links above ground. Eventually Spike teams up with the Scoobies and together they fight against the latest monster to be unleashed on the unsuspecting town.

Season Five
We are shocked to be introduced to Buffy’s younger sister Dawn, and even more surprised when every character acts as if they have known her from the beginning. Buffy meets the season’s key “Big Bad”, an exiled Hell God named Glory who is looking for her way back downstairs through the use of a key which will open the door between Hell and Earth. As the season progresses Buffy’s family life is shattered, and when Glory kidnaps Dawn she has to decide whether or not to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Season Six
A contender for the show’s darkest era, not one character escapes from season six unscathed. Buffy falls into a deep depression and begins a mutually abusive relationship with the one person you would never expect. Concerned about her reliance on him, Giles leaves for England, and Xander’s forthcoming wedding is ruined by a last minute decision. Even Dawn begins suffering from kleptomania and Willow’s addiction to magic continues to grow. When a fight between Buffy and season Big Bad Warren Mears results in an accidental death, Willow’s powers turn dark forcing the Scoobies to fight against her.

Buffy Finale (Giles, Dawn, Faith, Buffy, Willow & Xander) © Fox
Buffy Finale (Giles, Dawn, Faith, Buffy, Willow & Xander) © Fox

Season Seven
The final television season introduces the First Evil, an incorporeal power that is killing off all potential slayers and raising an army of ancient vampires. Giles gathers a number of potentials who seek refuge at Buffy’s house as the First Evil and the preacher Caleb work against them and cause activity around the Hellmouth to increase. Soon most of the population of Sunnydale has fled. Several characters return for the finale with Willow activating all potential slayers for an almighty showdown. Not everyone makes it out and the town of Sunnydale is destroyed completely but the show ends on a positive note regardless.

Season Eight
One year after the destruction of Sunnydale, Buffy and the Scoobies have set up a military-like approach to slaying. Now based in Scotland the Scoobies organize over 500 slayers in squads around the world, however they are seen by the US government as international terrorists and many groups are actively working against them. Soon a new pro-vampire world order is established and the groups are forced into hiding as relationships between them grow more complex. When the true identity of the season’s Big Bad—Twilight—is revealed, things become even more intense. After the death of someone close, a distraught Buffy destroys a powerful artifact which subsequently removes all magic from the universe and leaves Buffy as a pariah.

Buffy Season Nine © Dark Horse
Buffy Season Nine © Dark Horse

Season Nine
Buffy and most of her friends are now living in San Francisco. Buffy works in a traditional slayer role as Willow departs on a quest to restore magic and a new team slowly begin to come together. Because magic is now gone from the world Dawn begins to fade from existence, devastating Xander who has now formed a relationship with her. He is approached by the demon Severin who wants to restore magic and the two begin secretly trading information. Buffy and the Scoobies travel to the Cotswolds in an attempt to save Dawn, eventually facing off against Severin. Magic is restored and the season ends with the revelation of an entirely new form of vampire, however Watcher’s Council is destroyed and the pages of their primary research book now blank.

The Buffy-verse is one of the most complex out there and this recap only begins to scratch at its surface. Alongside the primary Buffy TV series there was the Angel spin-off which itself has transitioned into multiple comic series—Angel at IDW and the more recent Angel and Faith through Dark Horse. Dark Horse also produced a 63 issue run that ran alongside Buffy on television prior to Season Eight. Joss Whedon produced the Fray mini-series about a future slayer, and of course there are dozens of novels and collected short stories—not to mention the original 1992 film. For anyone entering the fandom, the sheer volume of material can be a little overwhelming.

I hope that this recap gives you a taste of the series and allows you to step into this brilliant world. I’m reading to dive back in and so we say, “Once More with Feeling!”