Joss Whedon: Geek King Of The Universe review

Aliya reviews Amy Pascale's biography of Joss Whedon, a chronological look at the many beloved projects he's worked on...

When I think of the word ‘geek’ I think of the fact that it’s a title to hand out to the passionately enthusiastic people of this world. I’m really obsessed with certain films and books and ideas, and I want to be able to talk about them with others who aren’t afraid to get all excited about their ideas in return. So you can call me a geek if you like. At least that’s quicker to type.

This biography proclaims that Joss Whedon is the Geek King of the Universe. That’s a really big title. For someone to earn that kind of title I would expect them to be bursting with films and books and ideas, to the point where they are constantly creating and recreating. I’m picturing the kind of person who is overwhelming in their intensity and dedication, but also really pleased to just be part of making some amazing products. Other geeks would bow down in homage to this Geek King, but also, strangely, consider him to be an accessible figure. Because Geeks are, after all, about sharing the love.

So, yes, I’d say that the title of the book is accurate, and Joss Whedon is the Geek King of the Universe of film and television. To read this biography is to be handed a long list of brilliant projects that he has touched. It’s as interesting to read about the biggest events he’s been part of as it is to find out how many projects he’s not been given proper credit for.

It’s a chronological look back at his life so far, starting right back at his school days and leading us through his first writing jobs and his experiences in the TV and film industries. This eventually leads to a series of his own in the form of the magnificent Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and from that point on his fans start to enter the picture. I’m really glad that author Amy Pascale concentrated strongly on the fan culture that surrounds Whedon, and highlights the role that the internet plays in building a community of support around him. Such support gives a clear indication of how much his creations are loved, and it shows how Whedon can continue to pursue ideas when many others would move on. So Buffy starts as a movie and becomes a series, and Firefly gets a new lease of life as the film Serenity, purely because Whedon did not give up. His tenacity, and his appreciation of his fan-base, comes through strongly throughout the book.

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Another element that presents itself mainly in the anecdotes provided by those he works with is his commitment to his vision. This doesn’t always make him the cuddliest figure; he knows what he wants and he makes sure everyone is providing it. Nobody who collaborates with him, from writers to actors to crew members, is given an easy time of it. Either you’re doing what he says, or you won’t be around for too long. I’d be disappointed if the book whitewashed over this aspect. How could you make a success of a phenomenally difficult concept like Avengers Assemble if you weren’t utterly dedicated to putting your vision across? The reason his projects are so loved is that we hear his voice in them – that dry, snappy wit, and the way reality is mixed into the world of the fantastic so that everything is subverted. Women can be powerful without sacrificing their personalities, and men can be supporting characters without looking weak. That voice, and that vision, fits as easily to Shakespearean projects as to superheroes, but it does flow from him. Anything that could compromise that voice is going to be pushed aside.

For me, the least successful aspect of the book is the opening in which we get Whedon’s formative experiences presented as a kind of blueprint for everything that came after. His family life, his mother’s influence, and his time in an English school no doubt all shaped who he is today, but it seems a bit predictable to claim that’s the reason he became a great writer. I’m never keen on exploring the motivations behind the writing in a simplistic way; not everyone with a strong mother figure and a private English education ends up creating Cabin In The Woods. These early chapters may interest really dedicated fans just for the sake of getting a sense of who Whedon was as a child, but I found the book really warmed up once we got down the business of being a writer and left the psychology behind.

In the later pages we get a good sense of what working in film and television is really like. The description of the relationships really stuck with me. Buffy is portrayed as a difficult experience with egos in play as success comes to call, whereas Firefly seems to have been a joyous, if short, working experience. Angel has its own vibe, and Avengers Assemble is just a sheer hard slog that everyone takes very seriously. I do have to say that there’s a great Samuel L Jackson anecdote about the role of Nick Fury that I wouldn’t dare to spoil for you – but when is a Samuel L Jackson anecdote not going to be a high point of any book? It’s great to read his point of view, and the points of view of so many others who have worked with Whedon. It does give you an insight into how much he inspires enthusiasm; so many people, from Nathan Fillion to Neil Patrick Harris, are all keen to talk about their experiences in the Whedonverse.

So, on the strength of the evidence in this book I’ll accept Joss Whedon as Geek King of the Universe, and I’ll continue to look forward to everything he does. Personally, I’d prefer to skip the early pages of his life and just get right into the detailed descriptions his projects, but to each their own. Geeks live and let live, after all. Unless you’re messing with their creative vision, naturally.

Joss Whedon: Geek King Of The Universe is published on Thursday the 24th of July.

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3 out of 5