Author Spotlight: Rhonda Wilcox
Book: Reading Joss Whedon
Rhonda Wilcox is a professor of English at Gordon State College in Georgia. Besides Reading Joss Whedon, the author has also worked on titles such as Why Buffy Matters and Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is also known for being the Co-Founder/Editor of Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies Association.
Tell us a little bit about your forthcoming title, Reading Joss Whedon.
For this book, we (coeditors Tanya R. Cochran, Cynthea Masson, David Lavery and I) were fortunate enough to get over two dozen of the scholars who have done the most perceptive and eloquent work on Whedon in recent years. We have about 400 pages of insightful discussion of all the major works. There are essays about the television series, the comics, the films, the internet. In addition to the in-depth essays, there are general introduction essays to Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, so that readers who are mainly familiar with one can follow discussions of the others. The essays cover a great range of topics, from tight focus on a particular episode to thematic discussions across the whole oeuvre (gender, religion, identity, and so forth). The chapters are written with great respect for the work of Whedon and his collaborators—and expressed in a lucid, thoughtful style. Furthermore, the essays are full of references to other good essays on Whedon (and other subjects) too, so that I think it’s fair to say that this book opens up the world of Whedon.
You’ve been called the world’s foremost authority on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what does your current title offer that hasn’t been studied before in the Joss Whedon universe.
I recently saw an internet article that listed the fifteen Whedon episodes that needed more attention. Well, one of those episodes (“Conversations with Dead People,” from Buffy) has a whole chapter on it in our book. The book has work on Whedon’s film of the Shakespeare play Much Ado about Nothing; on his very different film Marvel’s The Avengers (which he wrote and directed); on The Cabin in the Woods; on the Buffy Season 8 comics; on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—as well as material on all the old stand-bys, but from new angles. Have you ever thought about Buffy’s apocalypses from the perspective of serious Disaster Studies research? Have you thought about the mythology of Echo and Narcissus in relation to Dollhouse? How about Whedon’s directing echoing Douglas Sirk in Angel? I could go on and on about these essays. I will also mention that the final chapter is actually a history of the academic work that has been done on Whedon and his collaborators—so it can be a springboard to finding other strong scholarship on Whedon.
Can you tell us a bit about your background with Joss Whedon, when did you first become interested in his work and how have you pursued it over the years.
I had already been publishing television scholarship for a number of years—starting with a little essay called “TV and the Curriculum,” which was actually my way of publishing something on Remington Steele and Moonlighting. I had published on many significant Science Fiction-Fantasy series (Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Star Trek, among others). I started watching Buffy when it first aired, and the longer I watched it, the more impressed I was. David Lavery and I published the first U.S. collection of scholarly essays on Buffy in 2002 (Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). There were so many more good essays than we could fit in the book that David suggested we start an online scholarly journal, a peer-reviewed journal—which we did in 2001, before the book was even out. (It is still running today, now under the title Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association, with an international editorial board of scholars.) In 2002 I was invited to be keynote speaker at the Blood, Text, and Fears conference at the University of East Anglia in England—the first academic conference on Whedon, and one of the best experiences of my life. In 2004 David Lavery and I convened the first Slayage conference—again, an academic conference, not a convention (although those have joys of their own). It was the first Whedon conference in the U.S. These Slayage conferences have met biennially since, in the U.S. and Canada. (The next one is to be at California State University – Sacramento, June 19-22, 2014. It is too late to submit a proposal to present, but not too late to register to attend.) In 2005 I published Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I am proud to say was a finalist for the Stoker award and won the WSA’s award for the best book that year (the “Mr. Pointy” award). In 2008, with Tanya R. Cochran, I published a collection of essays on Firefly and Serenity; that was also the year that Tanya, David, and I legally formed the non-profit Whedon Studies Association—an organization that had existed de facto for many years. For the last five years I’ve been working with co-editors Tanya, David, and another outstanding Whedon scholar (and very hard-working person), Cynthea Masson, and two dozen plus wonderful (and patient) contributors, to bring out this collection of essays, Reading Joss Whedon. I make forays into publishing on other good TV as well (I edited a collection of essays on Veronica Mars with Sue Turnbull, for example, and later this year an essay of mine will be coming out in a collection on Fringe), but I do not foresee an end to writing on Joss Whedon and Co.
For those who don’t know much about Joss Whedon or his works, what would you tell a reader picking up Reading Joss Whedon?
Earlier this year, there was a report on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show about Russians who were bravely, publicly protesting against their government’s policies. When asked why, a Russian woman quoted a line from the “Epiphany” episode of Whedon and David Greenwalt’s Angel series. How much more meaningful can you get than that? Whedon helps us think through the big issues—but he doesn’t batter you with them. He gives us characters who develop over time in believable ways, and as they live, they inhabit those issues, those ideas. Furthermore, they do it in some of the wittiest, most memorable language around. Viewers get the pleasure of symbolic depth expanding the meaning beyond the specific plots, too. And the longer you watch, the more striking and meaningful the visuals become—not to mention the music, more and more of which he is writing himself. (In Whedon’s version of Much Ado about Nothing, we get Shakespeare’s lyrics set to Whedon’s melody.) Those of us who’ve written this book think that Joss Whedon is one of the creators whose work is going to last. In Reading Joss Whedon, we hope to show you why.
We love that this is an extensive reader, covering all of Joss Whedon’s work; do you have a specific essay or section that you are particularly excited for?
That is an absolutely unfair question. How can I pick? The answer would depend on my mood, I suppose. There’s a whole section, a batch of essays, on Buffy, shorter sections on the other series—and more. I genuinely am impressed by each essay in the book. I’ve already mentioned some of them (directly or indirectly) above. Perhaps I might note that the “Overarching Topics” section contains some really significant work drawing together new insights and earlier research. (It could be a little book on its own.) There’s an essay that explores the way Joss Whedon displays his mastery of TV as a long-form art through “Character, Narrative, and Time”; there’s a philosophical one on the way narrative embodies and divines ethics; there’s one that discusses the vexed question of Whedon and the soul; and I must say, I was astonished at how much was packed into a relatively short essay on the debated issue of Whedon’s feminism (it’s called “Hot Chicks with Superpowers”). And what the hey, I will add that it was a great happiness to me that I got to write about Much Ado about Nothing.
Why do you think that Joss Whedon’s work is important enough to have a scholarly anthology of essays published?
The world at large is finally catching up to the idea that TV can be art. Joss Whedon is one of a handful of really exemplary TV auteurs, a person who thoroughly uses his medium—and he somehow managed to do it on network television, not HBO. He has the gift of true collaboration, drawing to him wonderful collaborators (other writers such as Jane Espenson, musicians such as Christophe Beck, art designers such as Carey Meyer, editors such as Lisa Lassek, directors of photography such as Michael Gershman, and many more.) Furthermore, his work (as writer, director, producer, musician) is expanding, with the internet Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the comics such as Buffy Seasons 8-9, and films ranging from the mighty Marvel’s The Avengers to the black-and-white intimacy of his screwball noir version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Like most creators who are worth paying attention to, Whedon helps us deal with the difficult issues of life through the joy and solace of art.