The Fanboy next Door: Whedon and his Appeal to self-professed Geeks

Curator's Note

One aspect about Joss Whedon and his work worthy of discussion is his appeal to “geek” audiences and the way he is marketed (and markets himself) as a “geek.” This observation is based on audiences’ desire to perceive showrunners of television series as sole authors instead of acknowledging complex, multicentered production conditions (i.e. Whedon wrote only 17%, directed 14% of all Buffy the Vampire Slayer-episodes, and was showrunner for the first five seasons).

Whedon’s (self)portrayal as “geek” or fan/nerd contributes to his immense success and popularity, with similarities to the following of “cult” directors like Quentin Tarrantino. Like Tarrantino’s films, the texts that Whedon is involved in producing seem to form a brand, despite crossing various genres and media forms (from Shakespeare to the self-reflexive horror of Cabin in the Woods to the Buffy spin-off comic books). Yet viewers and readers seem eager to follow the work of their “Joss” and trust him to bring a certain style to these diverse narratives. Consider Whedon’s cameo appearance in Veronica Mars as linking that show to Buffy and ultimately to the Whedon “brand.”

In this regard Whedon is a great example of what Suzanne Scott has conceptualized as the authorial identity of the fanboy auteur, a liminal – and gendered – figure equipped with “narrativized fan credentials and self-identification as a fan/geek, positioning himself as an ideal (if ultimately conflicted) intermediary between producer, text, and audience.” The fanboy auteur Whedon is so appealing to “geek” audiences because he is “one of us” and loves “his” texts. Concerning Buffy Whedon has frequently stated that he intended to make a show that is multilayered and open to several readings, that viewers should be able to “bring their own subtext.” Yet the “subtext” that seems to offer the most rewarding reception of the texts that Whedon is involved in producing is one of “geek” culture. In the interview Whedon expresses his annoyance at the commercial exploitation of fan audiences, but ultimately is this not what fanboy auteurs do as well - profit while participating?


Great post, Maria. It seems to be no coincidence that Whedon has recently been involved with a number of comics-related productions. I'd say that the fanboy auteur (including the subtext you mention) has perhaps been the most significant author role/performance in superhero comics at least since the 1980s, when creators like Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, and many others sought to legitimize their work by empashizing their personal roots as long-time fans. One difference, however, seems to be that once these authors managed to establish themselves as auteurs, they tended to separate themselves from fanboy or geek culture. Miller, for instance, is notorious for claiming singular visionary/avant-garde superiority over the geek masses and so-called mainstream commercial comics production. It might be interesting to think about how this relates to Whedon.

Thanks for the comment and connection to comics, Daniel! What you said about Frank Miller probably also applies to Whedon as evident in his comment about the supermodel watching star wars whom he does not understand as geek or produce texts for. But Whedon has overall been very consistent at marketing himself as Fanboy auteur, his growing success and popularity seems to have confirmed this (self-)marketing, so there is no change or separation as for Miller. It is interesting how their status as fans provides these creators with the legitimization to promote them as sole authors of their text (I am one of you, I know what kind of texts you enjoy and I make them) while the realities of production are so different, especially for comics because none of these creators are actual comic artists/draw comics themselves, right?

It seems to me that comics and film/television share a production process that involves many people in different functions and thus makes conventional/romantic notions of authorship problematic. Auteur theory, I'd say, is one way of getting the singular author back into the game (which is important because celebrity figures make for good marketing). In superhero comics, the personal attribution of particular author functions usually involves the naming of writer and artist/penciler (and sometimes the editor), but things become more tricky when people speak of Alan Moore's Watchmen or Frank Miller's Batman: Year One (omitting the artists and thereby privileging the writer). I guess what I'm trying to say is that each medium and also each genre tends to produce its own notions of authorship, but in a time when storytelling is often transmedial and people like Whedon work across genres and media, it makes sense to think about the larger cultural history of "fanboys," "geeks," and "auteurs". And this is where comics (going back to the 1950s) provide a particularly fertile ground - but then again, it makes sense to keep the differences between media in mind as well: as you say, Whedon does not separate himself from fan culture, unlike Miller/Moore etc.

Thanks for this post, Maria. I would like to quickly push back on your comment, however, about Whedon as sole author. Though Whedon has undoubtedly become a name that draws audiences to texts, I do believe many fans of his work have more complicated understandings of authorship across his oeuvre. Perhaps it takes a certainly level of "geek"--one who reads the credits, goes online in between episodes, listens to box set commentary--but knowing which episodes of Buffy Jane Espenson wrote or what track Maurissa Tancheroen sang on Dollhouse (while also co-writing episodes with Jed Whedon and appearing as an actress in the finale), to give two brief examples, are pieces of information about the series' other authors that some fans know and cherish too.

I'm curious about whether this fanboy auteur concept can also be related to the tendency in certain academic areas - particularly in popular culture studies - for critics to also "market" themselves as fans of the genre they study. I'm thinking specifically of academic criticism of horror films. It seems like every introduction to the horror film begins with the author's discussion of how he (usually he) came to the field, as a long-time fan or, if not, defending himself for tackling the topic as a non-fan. In either case, it seems oddly necessary for these academic authors to position themselves in relation to fandom in way not typical for many other fields. But maybe this particular genre's status as a "cult" genre lends itself to this approach more than, say, the postmodern novel, which of course would also connect it to television aimed at geek audiences as well. Any thoughts on the role of "cult" status in connection with geek culture?

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