“You know, computers are on the way out. I think paper’s gonna make a big comeback,” Xander said early in season two of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Computers have managed to stick around, but Buffy’s goofy sidekick was right about paper devoted to the cult-classic TV show.
Since the early days of “Buffy,” which debuted in 1997, Whedon has been the object of critical and scholarly attention, much of it in old-fashioned, paper book form. “Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion,” a collection of 60 articles by 47 contributors covering his entire body of work is one of the newest examples.
This hefty volume purports to present a broad sample of the literature that Whedon has inspired. The reader won’t be surprised to find therein the typical post-modernish pieces conjuring up long-dead French intellectuals (in this case Jacques Lacan, perhaps the deadest of them all), something to be expected, given the roots of pop cultural studies in late 20th-century critical theory. Also present are the familiar interviews with some of Whedon’s actors and writers, of middling interest to all but the most devoted fans.
In a piece titled “Note to Self, Religion Freaky,” however, contributor Ronald Helfrich points toward a potentially more fruitful approach to understanding shows like “Buffy.” He reminds us that before drawing grand conclusions on the meaning of this or that character arc or plot twist, we ought to take into account the practical conditions under which TV shows are produced. Yet there is little in the “Companion” that actually speaks to the the different formats Whedon has worked with — TV, movies, comics — as they affect his artistry.
The most worthwhile contributions are those that go some way toward explaining Whedon’s peculiar appeal. Among the most helpful pieces are the introduction by Robert Moore, who tries to elucidate the reasons why “so many of us have to watch (and re-watch) his shows and films,” and a piece by Matthew Hurd on why Whedon, in spite of the many doubters, was the perfect choice to direct “The Avengers” (writing before the movie was released, Hurd turned out to be prescient).
As these pieces suggest, Whedon’s brilliance is ultimately rooted in his thorough understanding of, and deep love for, the genres he works in and in his uncanny ability to remain faithful to their conventions while simultaneously subverting or transcending them. This he does through such tricks as his trademark mashups (it’s a teen soap and a horror story! a Western and a space opera!); narrative acrobatics that turn villains into heroes, heroes into villains and back again; and highly stylized dialogue that is yet so natural-sounding that it’s easy to forget that much of it consists of faux slang (the famous Buffyspeak) invented for the occasion by Whedon and his writers. Among my favorite examples is this one from “Buffy”: “dollsome,” as in “Ms. Calendar is reasonably dollsome, especially for someone in your age bracket.”
Such fun, however, is sorely missed in this “Companion.” Helfrich does make a feeble attempt at humor by comparing and contrasting “Buffy scholarship” with the type of biblical exegesis pioneered by Spinoza in the 17th century, but that’s about it. The rest resembles nothing more than “Buffy” at the worst moments of season seven — solemn, humorless and tedious. Perhaps this is a sign of intellectual insecurity, a way to preempt accusations of frivolity when commenting on TV shows about teenagers fighting demons or cowboys riding in spaceships. I thought we were past that. At any rate, it makes for dull reading, which is unfortunate when your subject matter is arguably the most brilliantly written and entertaining body of work in contemporary popular culture.
Cartayrade is a historian and writer living in Arlington.