Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book Review: Whedonistas! A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them

To be truly considered a formidable geek, one has to have experienced a mind altering, bridging on unhealthy, obsessive love for at least one movie and/or television show before reaching an age where one is cognisant enough to understand that it may not be "cool". Something that cemented in one's psyche the idea that loving a piece of fiction is not only valid, but something to be celebrated, something that isn't full of shame, but pride. And fandom doesn't ever come down to one artist or one universe. Fans of all ilks bond because of a mutual understand that loving a property - any property - enough to be compelled to dress up as characters, write fan fiction, own way too many collectibles, watch every episode multiple times, so on and so forth, is totally, 100% acceptable and awesome. It's why I've always loved conventions so much. We're all there because of how much we love a genre property, and whatever that property is, we support each other, sans judgement. If your specific corner of fandom overlaps with someone else's, than hey, even better.

For me growing up, my first loves were the original Star Wars trilogy (a tale of profound obsession that I will save for another time) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy aired during the exact years I was in middle school and high school and while I took fandom vacations into other things like Xena, The Matrix, Scream and Spiderman, Buffy was my constant. At age 12 I had a life goal to own every piece of Buffy merchandise every created, and between seasons 1 and 2, I think I actually did accomplish that, for a few months at least. Between seasons 2 and 3, I met the whole cast at Comic-Con and wrote a poem about it. I loved Xander, Oz and Spike. I wrote fanfiction. I listened to "Once More With Feeling" until I knew every word to every song. Buffy was always there for me, no matter what I was going through and I'm still grateful to Joss Whedon for giving me characters to look up to, a group of friends who would die for each other (and have) to remind me that just because I didn't have it yet didn't mean I never would, and love stories of all shapes and sizes, all meaningful, whether born out of friendship, initial attraction, hate, respect, common interests or zero common interests, I learned from each one. I wanted to be successful to get the chance to one day be a part of something like Buffy. It was the impetus for so much in my life - *all* positive.

But I don't think about this often. In fact, I hadn't thought hard about Buffy in a while, not since rewatching the first two seasons with my roommates at the time 4 years ago. But last week I got my hands on a copy of a new book, Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them and it awakened something in me. Here is a book filled with essays, an "eclectic and exciting collection of essays that touch on nearly all aspects of the shows, the fandoms and the people to whom they made a difference", written by writers, artists, and fans alike, that flooded me with memory and emotion of my time watching Buffy. And while the pieces on Buffy connected with me the most on the surface, every essay, no matter the subject, felt familiar, like a part of my brain being explained and explored. I haven't even seen all of Firefly, yet I found myself tearing up during Dae S. Low's "The Browncoat Connection", in which Low details finally finding a group of people to connect with in her fellow Portlandian Browncoats.

More after the jump

This is a recurring theme in Whedonistas - finding connections through Whedon fandom. In one of my favorite selections, "A Couch Potato's Guide To Demon Slaying: Turning Strangers Into Family, Buffy Style",  Heather Shaw details the comings and goings of roommates and how the roommate dynamic seemed to always parallel the ever changing family dynamic on Buffy, and how this eventually led to Heather meeting her husband. In "My European Vacation, A Love Letter/Confession", Kelly Hale writes how fellow Buffy fans were the only ones there for her when her life fell apart and gave her the strength to get back up on her feet.

While many of the writers are women who have careers as authors and credit Buffy and their own Buffy fanfic as a gateway drug (seriously, it's fascinating how so many of these women, myself included, note that Buffy was the last genre work that provided them with an overwhelming sense of needing to write fanfic, to get into the characters heads, to play with the already established themes and dynamics), there is also the librarian who suddenly found her job something to be proud of, the ordained minister who made me rethink the snap judgements I have often held for those who work in religion and the aerospace engineer who sees such great inspiration in Firefly's Kaylee that it made me appreciate Mal's "mei-mei" even more than I thought possible.

Aside from the personal stories, including one that brought me to tears as the author details how "The Body" almost single handedly got her through the day her brother-in-law committed suicide and how relating to Buffy's depression in "Once More With Feeling" was what began to pull her back into normalcy, there is plenty of theory, including analysis of how Mal Reynolds fits into the myth of the old west, a feminist defense of what happens to Penny in the third act of Dr. Horrible, how Buffy is best to watch during a time of education, of growth and constant changing, and Angel is best to watch during those aimless years, post college, how Buffy altered the landscape of romance fiction, why monsters go good and why good guys go dark, how Angel plays with the notions of masculinity. how the varied characters of Dollhouse represent the many stages found in adolescence through adulthood and so on. There is even insight into what it was like to be a fan of Buffy and Angel, living in the UK, where the episodes weren't readily accessible, a tracing of Dr. Horrible fandom, from the beginning of the writer's strike to the release of the DVD and a detailed account of what it was like to work on the first Watcher's Guide, the author receiving more or less unlimited access to the Buffy set, cast and crew, before things like publicists and success got in the way. Not satisfied? There are interviews with Jane Espenson and Juliet Landau as well.

It was a thrill to read each and every one of these essays. I especially loved seeing which themes/moments got the most mention (found family, real world femininity, Buffy's table-turning opening scene, The Shanshu Prophecy from Angel, Kaylee's shindig dress, Dark Willow flaying Warren) as well as which episodes were most frequently referenced (Buffy's "The Body" and "Earshot", Angel's "Not Fade Away" and "A Hole in The World", Firefly's "Out Of Gas" and "Objects in Space"), and which characters were most often mentioned as favorites (Wesley?!). One of my favorite themes was that of the "non-believer" discovering the Whedonverse. Early-dismissal-turned-devouring-of-seven-seasons-in-two-weeks-straight is the technical term for this, I believe. Despite having been a Buffy fan from the beginning, I still very much relate to this, as my best friend mercilessly made fun of me throughout all of middle and high school for watching Buffy, but is now one of the biggest Joss Whedon fans I know and can't believe herself that there was a time she doubted.

With a book like this, a collection of essays, you could easily pick and choose which ones to read. You could go straight to the ode to Oz ("We're Here to Save You") or directly to the bit about Illyria giving Wesley closure before his death, ("The Kindness of Monsters") although careful, you may cry and/or gasp with reminder of that episode's brilliance, but I recommended reading each one in order. Much like a successful mix CD, there is a flow that feels specific and cohesive. And even if you were only a huge fan for one of Joss' creations, I guarantee that won't stop you from enjoying the essays about his other work. Sure didn't stop me from loving every minute I was reading this collection and getting to know the women behind it.

These women are younger, older, gay, straight, professional writers, amateur writers, from all over the country and a few from across the pond too, but they all have one very big thing in common - Joss Whedon has affected their lives with his creations. Whether emotionally or practically, he made a difference. No one who contributed to this book of essays would be the same without Whedon and neither would I.

If you feel like re-falling in love with the Whedonverse, if you're still in love with it and miss it, if you want to get jazzed up for the Avengers, if you want to get a fellow a fan a gift they will eat up, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Whedonistas! A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them
Edited by Lynne M Thomas and Deborah Stanish
Mad Norwegian Press
Released March 15, 2011
Buy a copy here