The Five Best Essays in Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Cabin in the Woods, writer/director Joss Whedon doesn't just create entertainment that can be enjoyed in the moment -- it can also be discussed and analyzed for years after its finished its television or theatrical run. Case in point: Titan Books' newly released Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, a weighty compendium of short retrospective pieces (every section begins with a "Joss Whedon 101" to the particular work at hand), academic essays and interviews with such collaborators as actor Alexis Denisof and writers Jane Espenson and Tim Minear. Collected by the pop cultural survey site PopMatters, the pieces included in this tome span Whedon's entire career from the small screen to the big screen to the four-color pages of comic books. As with all anthologies, not every entry here is a winner. Some essays cross the line from admiring to flat-out hagiography, while others offer rote summary in place of interesting analysis. But combing through the book, we found five essays that are definitely worth a read. Check out our picks below and click here to order the book for your own personal Whedon library.

"Returning to the Basement: Excavating the Unconscious in Buffy's 'Restless'"
Authors: Laura Berger and Keri Ferencz
What It Is: A lengthy, insightful reading of one of the best Buffy hours ever produced -- the dream-oriented fourth-season finale "Restless." The authors break down the symbolism and thematic resonance of each of the four dreams featured in the episode in a way that makes us want to grab our Season 4 box set and watch "Restless" all over again.
Sample Passage: "Each of the four dreams in this episode can be seen as an explication and dramatization of the irreconcilable tension between who one is and who one should be."

"I'm Very Still: Anthropology of a Lapsed Fan"
Author: Lily Rothman
What It Is: What happens when the character you start watching a show for winds up departing the series? That's what happened to freelance writer Lily Rothman, who got drawn into Buffy -- both the show and fandom in general -- by Seth Green's fan-favorite character Oz. When Willow's wolfish boyfriend hightailed it out of Sunnydale midway through Season 4, though, Rothman found her interest in the show and Oz-centric fan community she joined waning. The highlight of the essay are her attempts to track down the former members of that group to talk about what Oz and Buffy still means to them, if anything. It's an intriguing look at the so-called "long-tail effect" of a series in action.
Sample Passage: "Among the flotsam of fandom, there were gripping reminders of what life had been like when the show was still on, the way we cared so much about actors and episodes and one another, and what could have been if I hadn't let it go. Suddenly, I was 14 again, up too late on a school night, glued to my mid-'90s-model Power Macintosh in my family's living room, unable to make myself log off."

"TV's Grim Reaper: Why Joss Whedon Continually Kills the Characters We Love"
Author: Kristin M. Barton
What It Is: Whedon fans have become so inured to the writer/director killing off beloved characters, guessing whose next on his kill list has become something of a game. But why is he so damn bloodthirsty? Barton culls through Whedon's extensive body count and examines how the deaths of such characters as Tara, Wash and Wesley resonate in their respective universes.
Sample Passage: "The secret, perhaps, is how he uses those deaths to promote the gritty reality his characters face and to help motivate characters and push their stories forward.

"The Three Faces of Anne: Identity Formation in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel"
Author: Don Tresca
What It Is: Don't feel bad if you don't immediately remember the character of Anne Steele from Buffy and Angel -- after all, she only appeared in a total of five episodes between the two series. Despite her limited screentime, though, she's remained a popular point of discussion amongst fans for the way her character was used. Tresca re-examines her five appearances and evaluates her place in the larger Whedonverse. This essay is a fine example of how even minor characters can carry great importance.
Sample Passage: "Naturally, all of the characters in both programs have strong identities that form as the shows progress, but Anne is different in that, while many of the other characters develop identities that are very much determined by their experiences with the supernatural, Anne's identity develops outside the supernatural realm: the way the identities of those young people watching the show develop."

"Alien Resurrection, the Script that Shaped Joss Whedon's Career"
Author: Raz Greenberg

What It Is: Before bringing Buffy to TV and kick-starting his career, Whedon was writer and/or script doctor of several big-budget Hollywood spectacles, including Speed, Toy Story and the fourth entry in the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection. The latter film proved a particularly pivotal project for Whedon, as its troubled production pushed him to take more creative control over his own work. Comparing Whedon's original script against the finished film, Greenberg finds that Alien Resurrection actually shares many of the thematic and narrative concerns that he'd go on to explore in his later work. It's a thoughtful re-evaluation of a problematic, but intriguing film placed in the larger context of its author's subsequent career.
Sample Passage: "The strength of the bonding between Ripley and Call and between Buffy and Dawn is based on the fact that all of these characters move outside the cycle of normal human existence."

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