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Biography dissects creative talent of ‘Avengers’ writer

BY BOB D’ANGELO
Tribune staff

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“Joss Whedon: The Biography,” by Amy Pascale (Chicago Review Press)

Joss Whedon has described his writing voice as a “literary transvestite.” His legion of fans continues to marvel at that talent.

The longtime writer and director, who became a mainstream success when “The Avengers” hit theaters in 2012, has always given strong voices to female characters. His cult television series “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” evolved because Whedon was tired of the 1980s genre of horror films. The idea for the series, which ran from 1996 to 2003, “came from seeing too many blondes walking into dark alleyways and being killed.”

“I wanted, just once, for her to fight back,” he said.

Whedon has won many battles — and has lost quite a few, too — since making his writing debut in 1989’s TV series “Roseanne.” And in “Joss Whedon: The Biography,” author Amy Pascale puts Whedon’s career into perspective with a readable work that will appeal to the more casual fan.

Whedon’s rabid followers — many of whom congregate at websites like whedonesque.com to share stories, break news and debate plot twists — will be familiar with his history and may treat this book as a one-stop reference guide. But that’s not a bad thing.

Pascale, a director at MTV who co-founded and edits the Web magazine PopGurls.com, is an unabashed fan. “When I say that Joss Whedon changed my life, I’m not being hyperbolic,” she writes in her acknowledgements.

Still, Pascale manages to walk a tightrope in this biography, mostly displaying an even-handed treatment and not spiraling into hero worship. She has done thorough research and conducted interviews with Whedon, his wife, Kai Cole, and several of the actors, writers and directors he interacted with through the years in shows like “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and even the ill-fated “Dollhouse.” She also draws from many published interviews to present a more thorough picture.

Even when she does slip, Pascale manages to bounce off a snappy line. At end of “Buffy’s” fifth season, when the show was switching from the WB network to UPN, WB began distancing itself from the series as its 100th episode approached. Pascale writes that “while it was well within its rights to no longer support the series, the WB behaved like a teenage girl burning all photos of an ex-boyfriend after a breakup.”

Where Pascale shines in “Joss Whedon” is her behind-the-scenes look at Whedon’s projects. This is a biography that does not necessarily focus on the man so much as his achievements. There are some nuggets of personal information, particularly in the book’s early chapters, but a more probing look at what makes him tick personally certainly would have been interesting.

But in the final analysis, what drives the book is a look at Whedon’s creative talent, which is considerable. His résumé also includes an animated series of “Buffy,” comic book work, a musical for Internet distribution (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” written during the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007-08), Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Nothing”) and a rapidly generated — the screenplay was written in three days — comedic horror film (“The Cabin in the Woods”).

Whedon’s pedigree as a writer is steeped in Hollywood. His grandfather wrote for 1960s sitcoms like “The Donna Reed Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” His father wrote scripts for “Benson” and “The Golden Girls,” and also was a writer for “The Dick Cavett Show.”

But he learned his critical thinking, which enabled him to write strong female characters, from his mother, Lee Stearns. Whedon describes her as “extremely outspoken, strong and loving.”

Another key influence was Jeanine Basinger, the head of the film department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut who recognized Whedon’s out-of-the-box perspectives and encouraged him.

One interesting aspect of the book is Pascale’s look at early Internet message boards (of which she also was a part) where fans bonded to comment on and debate about Whedon’s projects. In fact, Pascale was an early member of the Bronze, an online community that included fans of “Buffy” along with cast and crew members. It was not unusual for Whedon to post on the board.

And fans had some pull, too. Their love for “Firefly” helped bring that show to the theater as “Serenity” in 2005.

Whedon owns a writing style that has been described by his peers as being like “a chess master who can think so many steps ahead.”

In “Joss Whedon: The Biography,” Pascale helps the reader follow every one of his moves.

BD’Angelo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7771

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