Today is the 100th birthday of Golden Age comic book artist Lily Renée, who was born on May 12, 1921.
Lily Renée Wilheim was born in Vienna, Austria to an upper middle class Jewish family. Renée had an interest in art & illustration from an early age, drawing as a hobby and visiting art museums. As she recounted in an interview conducted by Jim Amash in 2008 for Alter Ego from TwoMorrows Publishing:
“I drew clowns, ballerinas, tigers, and scenes that depicted what you would see in theatres. My parents took me to the theatre, where I saw some ballets, and I also went to dance classes. When I was older, I went to the opera twice a year with my school.”
In 1939 the 14 year old Renée was forced to flee Austria a year after the Nazis occupied the country in the Anschluss. Renée was placed by her parents on a Kindertransport (Childern’s Transport) ship which was part of the movement that helped thousands of children escape from Nazi-controlled Europe ahead of World War II. She arrived in Leeds, England, and went to stay with a family in nearby Horseforth whose daughter she had previously been corresponding with. Unfortunately the family that took her in believed they were getting an unpaid servant. The next year and a half was a difficult period for Renée as she struggled to survive in a foreign country, not knowing if her parents were alive or dead.
Finally in 1941 Renée received a letter from her parents explaining that they had escaped to the United States. She hoped to join them, but her efforts were hindered by the British authorities. By now World War II had broken out, and Renée was suspected of being an “enemy alien” due to her possessing an expensive camera that had belonged to her family. She attempted to sneak out of the country, but was caught; however an anonymous stranger intervened and negotiated her release, and she was able to travel to New York City by ship.
Life in New York City in the early 1940s was a struggle for the Wilheim family, who had been left completely bereft. Crammed into a small apartment alongside other refugees, they attempted to make ends meet. Renée took on various artistic odd jobs to help out, such as painting wooden boxes, illustrating catalogs for the Woolworth’s department store, and modeling:
“There was somebody named Jane Turner, a very well-known fashion illustrator, who liked the way I moved, so she asked me to model for her at home in a lovely townhouse. The clothes were sent from the department store, and I was dressed in all these elegant dresses while she would draw me. Then I would go home in my old, outmoded clothes, and that was weird.”
Renée’s mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper from comic book publisher Fiction House looking for artists. Renée had no knowledge of or interest in comic books, but she applied for the position in order to help her family. It was low-paying, unglamorous work, and Renée was uncomfortable working alongside the mostly male staff of Fiction House, many of whom would make crude comments to her, but she stuck with it out of necessity.
Despite the fact that Renée understandably saw comic book illustration as a means to an end, a way to pay the bills and put food on the table, she nevertheless produced exceptional, beautiful work during her short career in the field. Her pages were also distinctive for the highly unusual layouts and panel shapes she utilized.
After starting out erasing pencil lines on inked artwork and drawing backgrounds, she began regularly illustrating the adventures of aviatrix Jane Martin beginning with Wings Comics #31 (cover-dated March 1943) from Fiction House. Another of the features Renée worked on was The Werewolf Hunter beginning in Rangers Comics #16 (April 1944):
“Eventually, they tried me out on a feature, which was one that nobody wanted to do: “Werewolf Hunter.” I made it into something else because I didn’t want to draw wolves. I talked to the writer and convinced him it should be about magic, where people change into other creatures, not werewolves. So we did that, and it became quite popular.”
Starting with Planet Comics #32 (Sept 1944) Renée also began drawing the post-apocalyptic sci-fi / fantasy feature The Lost World.
The character Renée would become most associated with was Senorita Rio, a glamorous Hollywood actress & stuntwoman who, after her fiancé was killed during Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, faked her own death so that she could become a secret agent for the Allied Forces, fighting against the Axis Powers behind enemy lines.
Introduced in Fight Comics #19 (June 1942), Senorita Rio was created by artist Nick Cardy. Renée began drawing the feature with Fight Comics #35 (Dec 1944) and she quickly established herself as the definitive artist at depicting Senorita Rio’s thrilling, exotic adventures combating Nazi spies and fascist agents throughout South America. Renée was the regular artist on the Senorita Rio feature for the next three years.
As she would explain in 2006 when interviewed by Trina Robbins for The Comics Journal, the Senorita Rio feature became a source of escapism for Renée from her difficult existence:
“And I just wanted to say with all these comic strips and also this name Senorita Rio, it’s sort of like a fantasy. Senorita Rio got clothes that I couldn’t have, you know, she had a leopard coat and she wore these high-end shoes and all of this and had adventures and was very daring and beautiful and sexy and glamorous and all of that.”
It was also cathartic for Renée, a beautiful young woman whose existence had been upended by Nazi oppression, to draw the adventures of a character who looked much like herself fighting against the scourge of fascism:
“I could live out a fantasy, if only on paper. It was a form of revenge.”
Due to her signing her work for Fiction House as “L. Renée” or “L.R.” for a number of years it was not known that she was one of the early female artists in the comic book field.
In 1947 Renée married artist Eric Peters, another refugee from Vienna who had fled the country after his political cartoons earned the ire of the Nazis. In 1948 Fiction House relocated outside of New York. Finding work at St. John Publications, Renée and Peters worked together illustrating several issues of Abbott and Costello Comics. Renée and Peters proved very adept at drawing the comedic misadventures of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Regarding the division of labor between them, Renée explained:
“[Eric] drew the Abbott and Costello characters, and I drew the girls, and did all the inking.”
Renée also drew stories for the various romance titles published by St. John. It was at St. John that Renée began signing her work with her full name.
Renée left comic books in the early 1950s, moving into freelance illustration, textile design and jewelry design, all of which at the time were regarded as much more respectable fields. She wrote two children’s books. After her husband passed away in 1990, Renée began taking classes at Hunter College, which inspired her to write several plays.
Renée’s work in comic books was rediscovered in the early 2000s when one of her granddaughters contacted comic book creator & historian Trina Robbins. In 2007 Renée was a guest at the San Diego Comic Con and was nominated to the Friends of Lulu Hall of Fame. An illustrated biography, Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer, written by Robbins and drawn by Anne Timmons & Mo Oh, was published by Graphic Universe in November 2011.
Renée’s signature character Senorita Rio lives on, having been revived in 1985 by Bill Black of AC Comics to be one of the founding members of the all-female superhero team Femforce. AC has also reprinted a number of the Senorita Rio stories drawn by Renée. Fantagraphics reprinted several stories drawn by Renée in The Comics Journal #279 (Nov 2006).
The comic books published by Fiction House and St. John have entered the public domain and can be read on the Comic Book Plus website. The Grand Comics Database appears to have a fairly comprehensive listing of the stories Lily Renée drew. If you have not seen her beautiful, detailed artwork before then I definitely encourage you to view it online.
Lily Renée is a remarkable woman who showed great fortitude in surviving tremendous hardship during her teenage years. I am glad that she eventually was able to make a new life for herself here in the United States, and that she has lived long enough to see her beautiful comic book artwork be rediscovered to be appreciated by new generations of fans.