Guest Blog by Sheila Williams

One of the myths that exists concerning women’s relationships with science fiction is that editors didn’t (and don’t) want fiction from women. The corollary myth is that women have had to hide their identities under androgynous names like Leigh or initials to get their work considered.

All of which seems strange to me since women have edited science fiction since the late 1920s. Women editors have never had a mandate to buy stories from men only. And women editors have been very influential in the sf field.

Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazineis one of the most influential editors in all of science fiction. She has worked at Dell Magazines for decades, becoming the editor of Asimov’s in 2004. She has won two Hugo Awards for her work as editor of Asimov’s.

She is also the editor or co-editor of twenty-six anthologies, the most recent of which are Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’s 30th Anniversary Anthology (Tachyon Publications) and Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov’s Science Fiction. Sheila is the co-founder of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, which is given out each year in Orlando, Florida, by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

Like all of us who have chosen to work in the sf field, Sheila has loved science fiction since she was a child. When I asked her to write a blog for this website, she came back with a piece about one of her major influences—the portrayal of strong women in comics.

 

DISCOVERING WOMEN OF WONDER

by

Sheila Williams

 

     Among my few golden middle school and early high school memories are the Sunday afternoons spent perusing the comic book shelves of a local drugstore with my brother Bobby. My brother loved Superman and Superboy, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Richie Rich, Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost, the X-Men and the Justice League of America, plus all the terrifying horror comics and anthology comics like Adventure and Action. We each received an allowance of 25 cents per week, and the comic books cost at least 12 cents. Although he was a year and a half younger than me, Bobby was an excellent student. He did the math and realized that he needed to enlist my help to get his comic book fix. If we pooled our allowances, and perhaps if I threw in a bit of my paper route and babysitting money, we’d have enough reading material to tide us over from one Sunday to the next. I liked the superheroes just fine, but I didn’t have much interest in Richie, Archie, or Casper, and the horror comics gave me nightmares. But Bobby had an ace up his sleeve. He showed me that Adventure comics contained stories about Supergirl. Wonder Woman and Lois Lane already had their own comics, and the Black Canary was on the verge of joining the JLA. Soon I was just as addicted as he was.

The strength and resolve of these super women stayed with me.

The late sixties and early seventies was an exciting time for a young girl’s immersion in comics. Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, which depicted Lois almost exclusively as a man chaser, had been running as a humor comic since 1958. In 1968, it experienced a makeover. Lois went “mad and mod,” ditched her wardrobe, and reappeared as the hard-charging journalist we love today. There was some slippage—Lois still appeared in fantasy issues where she removed her office nameplate the moment Superman or Clark Kent proposed marriage, but mostly she seemed to become a more modern and independent character investigating social issues and having her own adventures.

            Just as Lois was becoming more empowered, Wonder Woman’s superpowers vanished and she entered her “white phase” as “Diana Prince.” She lost Steve, left the military, and stopped wearing her signature red, white, and blue costume. Now dressed mostly in white, she opened a “mod” boutique and learned marital arts from “I Ching,” her Chinese mentor. Like Batman, Diana now resolved crises with physical strength and dexterity. This is the version of Wonder Woman that I still love. She was still descended from Amazons, still more than human, but the ideals that she and Lois espoused seemed somehow more attainable.

              That didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate super powers. I was thrilled when Supergirl received her own comic book in 1972. I had already followed the career of Superman’s cousin Kara in Adventure Comics. I drew dozens of outfits for a costume redesign contest. I never got my entries into the mail, so had no one to blame when I found myself unimpressed with the winners.        

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

           Although my tastes ran more to DC heroines, I enjoyed the adventures of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Still, I could never get into the character of Sue Richards. As a twelve-year-old, I couldn’t relate to her desire to have children or her decision to step back from the FF. I was also frustrated by her invisibility superpower. I knew that she could also generate force fields, but it seemed to me that when the going got tough, Sue mostly just disappeared. For some reason, the story line about Crystal, Johnny Storm’s girlfriend and Sue’s sometime replacement, never worked for me either, but I was passionate about the misunderstood Inhuman, Medusa. Even when Medusa played the villain, I loved the chaos she wreaked with her prehensile hair.      

      My interest in comics waned about a year before I started college. Medusa had been redeemed, Wonder Woman got her powers and costume back in 1973, and she forgot all about the now deceased I Ching. Lois Lane and Supergirl’s independent magazines were discontinued in 1974. My brother was making money at his own after school jobs now and no longer needed help subsidizing his habit.

            Still, the strength and resolve of these super women stayed with me. Like Kara, Diana, and Lois, I was able to strike out on my own. Unlike Supergirl, I never visited another planet, but I did manage to live in London for a year. Like Wonder Woman, I left a small enclave where everyone knew me for a fresh start in a large city—in my case, St. Louis and then New York—and like Lois, I eventually pursued a successful career in publishing. A couple of weeks before my own wedding, a well-known science fiction writer asked me if I’d be quitting my job once I married. Shocked, I told him I was stunned, that I’d never even considered the idea, but that the question had suddenly reminded me of Lois Lane and her imaginary wedded life with Clark/Superman scenarios. The author then explained that his query was actually a euphemism for, “did I plan to have children.” I told him that children were an open question, but my career was not.

            Later, though, I discovered that like Sue Richards balancing a family and an occupation is no picnic. With two children of my own, I find Sue far more sympathetic and interesting now. Yet, somehow, I’ve managed to pour my energy into both paths. Although those women of wonder weren’t real, reading about their fantastic exploits and grace under pressure helped instill a confidence and a sense of adventure that pushed me forward. I’ll be taking my daughters to New York’s Comic Con soon. Perhaps they’ll find some inspiration for their own life choices while we’re there.

2 comments for “Guest Blog by Sheila Williams

  1. October 18, 2015 at 10:27 am

    I wasn’t a comic book reader. But I do remember sitting in front of the TV each week as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman saved mankind or Steve from the clutches of evil.
    That was the first time I can remember a woman being something other than helpful or helpless.

  2. pattydann3@gmail.com
    October 29, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I think Sheila Williams is a Woman of Wonder. What a great essay! No wonder she’s such a terrific editor. She’s gifted with words and has retained her passion for life, both imagined and real. I could read a whole book about her childhood and becoming an editor.

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