In May 2021 I posted about the 100th birthday of the remarkable Golden Age comic book artist Lily Renee. Born in Austria into an upper middle-class Jewish family, the teenage Lily Renee Willheim was forced to flee her homeland in the late 1930s after the Nazis seized power. Eventually arriving in New York City in the early 1940s as refugees, the Willheim family found themselves squeezed into a tenement apartment. Among the various odd jobs Renee took to put food on the table, she was an artist for comic book publisher Fiction House.
After slipping into obscurity for several decades, Renee was rediscovered by comic book historians at the end of the 20th century. The now elderly Renee met her newfound fame with a great deal of bemusement. For her, her comic book career had been merely a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life, and she was understandably perplexed that her work from sixty years earlier was now receiving such interest.
Renee passed away on August 24, 2022 at the age of 101. While she is no longer with us, much of her work for Fiction House is being brought back into print for the first time in decades. Among these are the stories featuring the character she is most identified with, Senorita Rio.
The adventures of Senorita Rio appeared in the adventure anthology Fight Comics beginning with issue #19 (cover-dated June 1942) and ran through issue #71 (Nov 1950). PS Artbooks, who have been publishing a series of handsome volumes reprinted a diverse selection of Golden and Silver Age comic book material, recently collected the Senorita Rio stories together in three volumes.
The majority of Renee’s Senorita Rio stories are collected in Fight Comics Featuring Senorita Rio Vol 2, which PS Artbooks released in June of last year. I finally had a chance to pick it up right before the holidays last month. Vol 2 contains the stories from Fight Comics #35 to #50.
Senorita Rio is Rita Farrar, a glamorous Hollywood actress & stuntwoman who, after her fiancé’s death at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fakes her death so she could become a secret agent for the Allied Forces. Given her Latina heritage, her talents as an actress and her fluency in Spanish & Portuguese, Senorita Rio was sent on numerous undercover missions in Central and South America, pitting her against a succession of Nazi spies and fascist plotters. Following the end of World War II we see her tracking down Nazi war criminals who have fled to Latin America.
Rio stands out as one of the first strong female heroes of American comic books. She was tough, intelligent, beautiful, resourceful, and independent. Within the decade, as American mores became much more conservative and the Comics Code Authority was implemented, female characters regrettably became much more flighty, one-dimensional damsels in distress. So I look at the Senorita Rio stories as a valuable demonstration that prior to the mid-1950s there were some notable female protagonists.
The writer of the Senorita Rio stories is unknown, with most of them credited to the pen name of “Morgan Hawkins.” Truthfully, the plotting on these is fairly basic, and occasionally ridiculous, as was often the case with comic books in the 1940s. The stories are fun, just as long as you don’t hold the logic up to too much scrutiny.
No, the appeal here is definitely Renee’s artwork. Having received an extensive education in Europe, and regularly visiting the museums & art galleries of Vienna in her childhood, Renee’s work is very much informed by a classical sensibility. Her layouts & storytelling are highly dynamic, inventive & unconventional, and her drawing is possessed of an ornate flair. Renee takes the rather boilerplate plots of “Morgan Hawkins” and transforms them into visual feasts.
To understand just how much Renee’s work would have stood out to the readers of the mid 1940s, I think it’s useful to compare it to her contemporaries. There are a pair of stories in this collection drawn by a young Bob Lubbers. While Lubbers would eventually establish himself as one of the best “good girl” artists in the industry, rendering beautiful, sexy women with aplomb, here he’s just starting out, and his art seems very rough & simplistic compared to Renee’s detailed, illustrative work.
Much of the original artwork from the Golden Age no longer survives. Fortunately several examples of Renee’s work on the Senorita Rio feature still exist, and a few of them are reprinted in this collection. It’s wonderful to be able to look at these, to see the fine details of Renee’s ink lines.
Fight Comics are among the public domain comic book series available to view on the website Comic Book Plus. Comparing the scans of the Senorita Rio stories on that site to this collected edition, it’s apparent that PS Artbooks did a quality job of maintaining the color tones of the original printings. So many older comic books that were published on newsprint, when reprinted on the slicker paper of collected editions, unfortunately end up being garishly recolored. So I appreciate that PS Artbooks made the effort to be as authentic to the original published appearance as possible.
Above is the Senorita Rio title page from Fight Comics #44 scanned from the original comic book on the Comic Book Plus website side by side with the reprint of the page from the PS Artbooks collection. As you can see, the colors on the reprint are very close to the original.
Now that PS Artbooks has finished collecting the Senorita Rio stories, I hope they will reprint some of the other features that Lily Renee worked on, such as “Jane Martin” in Wings Comics, “The Werewolf Hunter” from Rangers Comics and “The Lost World” from Planet Comics. As nice as it is to be able to read those stories on Comic Book Plus, nothing compares to having a physical copy in hand.