BOOK REVIEW: JOSS WHEDON: GEEK KING OF THE UNIVERSE - A BIOGRAPHY / AUTHOR: AMY PASCALE / PUBLISHER: AURUM BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
We’re surely all in agreement that Joss Whedon is the most extraordinary and visionary storyteller of his generation. The man’s a unique and tireless talent who has created a string of classic TV shows which have redefined the genre and reshaped forever the way stories are told on television. His work through writing and directing the first Avengers movie took him up to the next level and 2015’s sequel, Age of Ultron, is already beyond highly anticipated. He’s on top of the world… but getting there has been one hell of a journey – and it hasn't always been an easy one.
Amy Pascale’s exhaustive, fabulously readable biography takes us through Whedon’s liberal childhood with his artistic, free-thinking parents, his time as a shy, imaginative student at Winchester College in Hampshire (UK) and his faltering steps as a scriptwriter for a number of long-forgotten American sitcoms (and a stint on the legendary Roseanne). His early professional years are studded with glorious successes and soul-destroying failures; he worked regularly ‘punching up’ dialogue in struggling scripts such as Toy Story and Speed and he was devastated to see his work on Alien: Resurrection torn apart by an unsympathetic director. His film script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was compromised by a creative team who saw his Slayer’s exploits as broad and comedic rather than dark and genre-defying. Years later of course, he was to get the chance to bring his vision of Buffy to the screen in a TV series which rewrote all the rules…
But for all his cult successes – Buffy, its spin-off Angel, the short-lived space western sci-fi Firefly – and all the industry acclaim and recognition they delivered; Whedon was still struggling to create a really big breakthrough hit. His shows tended to amble along on small US networks where their low ratings could be tolerated because they were expected; those which made it to the big networks were invariably scuppered by executives and bean-counters who didn’t really understand what he was doing and why more people weren’t watching.
It’s a fascinating, exhilarating story of a prodigious talent who just won’t give up because he’s got too many stories to tell, and he’ll tell them one way or another. Across one memorable eighteen-month period Whedon went from show-running three TV series for his Mutant Enemy production arm – Buffy, Angel and Firefly – to running none, his TV empire either coming to the end of its natural lifespan (Buffy), unexpectedly cancelled (Angel) or snuffed out just as it was finding its real creative feet (Firefly). But Whedon just carries on telling stories, whether in comic book form or as spec-scripts for horror movies and thrillers, most of which have never seen the light of day. His experiences writing an ultimately rejected script for Wonder Woman would surely have crushed a less determined/resilient writer.
Geek King of the Universe is largely a trawl through Joss Whedon’s career, its glorious highs and its dispiriting lows. It’s warts’n’all stuff too; the book doesn’t shy away from problems early in his career when he was an unpopular presence on set due to his boyish inexperience, tensions on set are regularly – if discreetly – referenced and perceived weaknesses in certain scripts and projects are never glossed over. This isn’t a book written in pure awe of Joss Whedon, it’s a book which clearly wants to look at the man behind the myths and as such it explores his strengths and his weaknesses, his foibles and his idiosyncrasies. He’s depicted as loyal to those he admires – mainly his devoted wife Kai Cole, their two children and the repertory company of actors who have populated his shows – but unflinchingly single-minded and ruthless when he needs to get the job done the way he knows it should be.
Amy Pascale has written a book which is almost unputdownable. It’s not just the story of one incredible man, his imagination and his battles to bring his irresistible characters and stories to the screen; it’s also a fascinating, cautionary and essential story for newcomers and industry wannabes wondering just how hard it is to make a name for yourself in the world of film and television. The answer seeps through every page of this wonderful book. It’s this hard, all the time.