There’s been a genuine boomlet in books about Joss Whedon’s works in recent years. Most have been about individual franchises, such as Jane Espenson’s series examining Firefly/Serenity. “Reading Joss Whedon” is a bit different for a few reasons.
“Reading Joss Whedon” conspicuously and consciously crosses franchise boundaries. The book covers almost every major Whedon franchise, including Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse, and even Avengers (Agents of Shield had not yet aired on television when the book was written).
Because it covers such a broad oeuvre, the editors helpfully provide detailed summaries of each franchise so readers can follow along without having watched every single TV episode or movie. I actually found this to be surprisingly effective as I had not watched any Buffy or Angel episodes but did not feel totally lost when the thematic essays discussed events in Buffy. So, even if you’re not a fan of all of Whedon’s work, as long as you’re willing to read the summaries you should find this book fairly accessible.
The book is divided into essays that focus on specific franchises, as well as essays that look at themes that transcend franchises. I found the former essays to be less interesting as they tended to cover old ground. Whedon studies scholarship has grown so much that it’s getting tough to find new insights. With three books about Firefly, how much more can you say about 14 episodes and a movie? Perhaps because it’s the black sheep of the Whedonverse, I actually found the essays about Dollhouse to be the most interesting as they developed new ground and tempted me to rewatch the series.
The thematic essays were generally the more interesting part of the book. The authors explore issues such as the mind-body dichotomy. Is there a soul separate from the body? By connecting commonalities in River Tam and Echo, the author of that essay actually produced a surprisingly compelling interpretation of Whedon’s stance on that issue. That essay in particular really highlighted the benefits of crossing franchises and building upon common themes. I hope and suspect that such cross-franchise scholarship represents the future of Whedon studies.
“Reading Joss Whedon” comes at a time when Whedon scholarship is maturing into its own subfield and the book takes some time to reflect upon that fact. The authors are conscious of where the discipline lies. The last essay serves as a sort of retrospective on Whedon studies. It was a great idea to include this sort of introspection, especially now at a point where Joss Whedon seems like he’ll be busy with comic book movies rather than original franchises in the near future.
If I could offer one suggestion for future volumes it would be to go beyond the bounds of Whedon. For some of the broader philosophical and artistic questions the book raises, I think it would be fascinating to compare Whedon’s approach to other artists. It would also help answer the question of what makes Whedon so unique. Why has academia gravitated towards him and not George Lucas or Steven Spielberg?
As with any edited volume such as “Reading Joss Whedon,” some essays are better than others. That said, I definitely recommend this book to anybody interested broadly in Whedon’s works, or even just fans of some of his larger franchises.