Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion [BOOK REVIEW]

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While Angel gets a similar but shorter treatment to Buffy, the worlds of Firefly and Serenity are coupled together in the same chapter. Although it feels like it could have been longer, considering there’s only fourteen episodes and a feature film to analyse, it’s not too disappointing. The look at the post-colonial perspective of Firefly is interesting, as is how it introduced realism back into Sci-Fi — but the real impact that the show had on TV, and not just on TV, was the level of devotion and power it showed the fans possessed. Reading “The Power of Fandom in the Whedonverse” is a reminder about how impressive the achievement of getting Serenity to the big screen was, especially coming off the back of just fourteen episodes of a TV series, of which only eleven were broadcast. It’s also a reminder of how certain shows find new life, after their initial run on TV, on DVDs.

Mal’s ethics are the subject of much discussion in this section and moral ambiguity is a thread that runs through the whole book from Buffy to Dr. Horrible. While Mal’s character and his actions are often compared and contrasted with Han Solo, it’s pointed out in “Nathan Fillion Misbehaves All Across the Whedonverse,” Mal shoots first (there’s no trying to make the characters more likeable in Firefly), we’re reminded in “The Ethics of Malcolm Reynolds,” that he tries to live by his own moral code, even if he fails sometimes, a fact which makes Whedon’s characters so relatable.

“For Mal, the ultimate good for human beings is freedom. Mal understands that there is a price to pay for freedom. One has to protect oneself and one’s property, without having a government authority to call when someone threatens you.”

While Mal’s hero status is undeniable, his motivations are de-constructed in the essay and then put back together offering a better understanding of his character. For anyone interested in the man behind Mal, there’s an exploration of Nathan Fillion‘s role in the Whedonverse in “Nathan Fillion Misbehaves All Across the Whedonverse,” shining an entertaining light on his fanboy nature and various roles the most recent of which is Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. As with the more Whedon-focussed pieces, the reader gets of sense that Fillion appreciates his fans as much as the creator of the shows he stars in.

The power of fans and the interaction between the community and the creator in Whedon’s later works is another topic explored in this chapter. With reference to Firefly/Serenity and Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Jack Milson looks at how fans have helped to shape the Whedonverse:

With the rise of the participatory and enthusiastic fan community, the power now lies in balance and flux between industry and audience. Dr. Horrible and Firefly/Serenity are prime examples of off kilter works succeeding in an environment flooded with reality television, mainly because of the devotion of their audience, however small”

It may be a few years ago now but he brings home how, Serenity in particular, was a miracle of fandom and something which hasn’t really been seen since.

The other sections in the book include Comics, Dr Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, Dollhouse and Films. While each of these comics/webisodes/series/movies might not have spawned as much discussion or as big a dedicated fanbase (or in the case of The Avengers, it hasn’t yet) as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, there’s still just as much insight into each section’s subject. In the case of Dollhouse, there’s an interesting look at how the show evolved, it’s strengths as well as its weaknesses, and how it got a second season but didn’t achieve the legendary status of Firefly before it, and plenty of discussion on the wide-reaching implications of its basic premise of transplanting personalities into the willing “dolls”.

Although this book was written before The Avengers had chance to wow cinema-goers worldwide, the last article “Six Reasons Why Joss Whedon is the Perfect Director for The Avengers” is perhaps the one to go to if you want to get to the bottom of what makes Whedon great, boiling down his strengths and highlighting the key elements that make his output so brilliant. “Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay,” was one of the reasons given for why Whedon would be perfect (or now has proved himself perfect) for directing The Avengers, but staying with the Firefly/Star Wars comparisons it might be just as fair to say “Whedon is no George Lucas”, which is really what I felt when I turned the last page of this section. Here is a guy who cares about and listens to his fans, who knows that less is more and can actually write some good dialogue.

My major gripe with this book, which isn’t that major if you view it primarily as an academic resource, is that I felt it would have been helped by more interviews, and that the ones that are included could have been more focused on Whedon, as some felt more like a general chat about their subject. That being said, one interview which sticks in the mind as being quite insightful (even if it was mainly because of her story and not what she revealed about Joss) was the one with Jane Espenson who in addition to writing episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly has worked on a huge range of shows including Once Upon A Time, Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica among many others.

In short, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion is a smart book for smart fans, which treats its reader with as much respect as Whedon does his audience. Admittedly at times I found it a little too academic for my tastes, especially as something I was reading from cover to cover, but after I’d finished it I found I not only had a much better understanding and appreciation of everything from Buffy to Dr. Horrible but of serialized TV in general. Whatever place the reader prefers to call home in the Whedonverse, they should all find something they can relate to and agree with.

It will no doubt be a boon to future generations of students looking for a definitive collection of critical essays, as well as a jumping off point to look for others on Whedon’s works, at least on the series and movies which we’re already familiar with. When you reach the end you get the sense that you’re only reading the first half of a much longer story and there seems little question that Whedon’s career hasn’t yet peaked. Especially with The Avengers dominating the box office at the time of writing, and a sequel which has already been announced (though Whedon has yet to be confirmed to direct); with his recent comments that it should be a smaller movie perfectly reflecting what’s been said in this book. While this particular movie gets a brief mention at the end of the book, there’s no doubt there is much to be written on the subject which ranks among the best of his work (and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a huge fan of comic books or their spin-off movies).

To Firefly fans the word “companion” has a slightly different connotation to the way it’s used in the book’s title and there’s no doubt that the book is as inviting to followers of Whedon as Inara’s bed would be to a potential client. ‘Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion‘ may be of the biggest interest to Buffy fans but whatever your favourite series is of his, this book is all kinds of awesome.

8/10 Seriable Stars

Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion: The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More: The Essential Guide to the Whedonverse is available today from Amazon (Amazon UK) and Titan Books.

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