~LILY RENEE & TRINA ROBBINS . . .
I did !! – catch the ‘LILY RENEE, Escape Artist’ booksigning !!
it was an absolutely amazing evening.
‘LILY RENEE, Escape Artist’ – the true story of LILY RENEE WILHEIM . . . “From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer”.
Written by TRINA ROBBINS.
Pencils by ANNE TIMMONS.
Lettering by FELIX RUIZ & CAYETANO GARZA Jr.
Coloring by Studio C10.
Published by GRAPHIC UNIVERSE – A Division of Lerner Publishing Group, NYC
96 pages. full color.
Hardcover: $10. note: prices at the MoCCA event.
LILY RENEE WILHEIM, elegant and composed, and who finds herself suddenly in the limelight – and being outed as a pioneering, and one of the most influential woman comic book artists ever, in the male-dominated comic book industry of the 1940s . . . the so-called golden age of the comic book industry. she seemed quite pleased, very lively and eager to address this formerly forgotten chapter of her life.
we have to thank TRINA ROBBINS, the book’s author, a well regarded comic book artist and comic culture historian in her own right – for bringing Lily Renee’s story to light for a new generation of fans.
the illustrated book, moving as fast as a comic book – which it is – gets right to it, beginning with Lily Renee’s upper class childhood in Vienna, Austria, in the 30s – just before the dark storm that was the German Nazis – shook her world upside down.
there’s nothing better than a true story – and Trina Robbins tells it well.
the book is fast paced, full of facts and covers a lot of ground, in a most compelling page-turning manner. seemingly addressed to young readers, I found it an absolutely fascinating read . . . children’s books are the best – ain’t that the truth !!
Trina Robbin’s swift narrative is a kind of retelling – based on the specifics of the oral history as Lily Renee remembered it, over the course of several interviews.
as anybody who has ever attempted to write knows – it’s the pace – and the edit, that make the story flow – and this story does flow.
what was so interesting about the booksigning . . . was being able to hear the author and her subject discuss the book in person – and thus to learn a little more of the fascinating personal memories – behind the pages.
for example: YES, I DID ASK why wasn’t our heroine pictured . . . robed in that huge princess-style all white coat with a huge Leica camera swinging about her neck, as she boarded that Kindertransport whisking her out of Austria just in the nick of time . . . on the cover of the book, which would have been a super striking image – or what !!
esp as it was so graphically recalled by Lily Renee in a recent Newsweek interview. the somewhat very sane answer from Ms. Robbins: “because she hadn’t told me !!” . . .
isn’t that just like human memory – an organic fluxus with no inbuilt google bot search. we so forget how is it is to be human – these days. memories are like that – especially memories from long ago – they bubble up slowly, accumulatively – especially perhaps those memories long repressed.
this being a storybook, a comic book albeit an historically accurate one, of a not very easy time, a dark time, a cruel time . . . and not an art book, or detailed biography per se (which is sure to follow) . . . the early reference to the artwork that Lily Renee was exposed to as a child, the gorgeous but brooding and sensual Gustav Klimt, the dark emotional Shiele, the grotesque pornographic Otto Dix – which is what originally attracted me to this adventure – is rather badly addressed, and skimmed over – in this single frame reference on page 5, illustration above.
but, not to fear – it holds plenty of other actual moments . . . better rendered.
one memory that seemed to have made a particularly hurtful impression on Lily Renee, and which is addressed in depth in the book – was how degrading it felt to be labelled an “enemy alien” once she escaped to London, even though she was not singled out personally, all Austrian and German refugees were labelled such across the board.
and as such, being a young “enemy alien” woman, she told her audience at MoCCA she was not allowed to work at the general hospitals in London – which had men, in particular soldier patients . . . . for fear of her potential to be a spy !!
in fact, at the MoCCA booksigning this was still one of the most single most stinging episodes that she spoke about – it still seemed an issue. a thorn, a huge huge insult to her soul and her integrity. instead, and please take note of the bulldog British solution – she was sent to work at a maternity ward: no males. only mothers and babes. her unspoken implication: they wouldn’t trust me among their men, but there I was racing their vulnerable babies, the future of their race – in my arms to air raid shelters. imagine.
the talk was accompanied by a brief but striking slide show. this is Lily Renee on her first day in New York City – where she is one of the lucky few to be re-united with her parents. the book sadly recounts the continuing upheaval in her family’s life. her father once the proud and prosperous manager of a huge European steamship line, the legendary Holland America – has found work as an elevator operator in New York. and even that he cannot do – he has hurt his hand the very first day. a memory apparently deeply ingrained in Lily Renee’s heart.
Trina Robbins even had a few slides of the actual little painted ‘folk art’ wooden souvenir boxes that Lily Renee hand painted and resorted to selling – to make ends meet, to put food on the table for her and her parents.
Her mother took in piece work (sewing).
this was a slide of Lily Renee working as a fashion model, as the book relates: “Sometimes Lily modeled clothing for Jane Turner, a well-known fashion illustrator.” Lily was quite, and still is – a beautiful woman. she also worked drawing pictures for Woolworth catalogues, fifty cents an hour.
and, then at the concluding pages of the book – we learn that, although nobody quite realized it at the time – she was to make history, of another kind, apart from her saga of Nazi survival . . . as the book relates, her mother sees an ad in the paper, “Lily — a comic book publisher is looking for artists. Why don’t you go there ?” and so Lily went to work at the New York City office of Fiction House comics – – in the 40s, suffering from the absence of so many men gone to war.
it’s ironic that she gets her big break, though to her it was just a job and a low-level one at that – as she recounted in the Museum talk – because of the shortage of men – gone to fight Hitler and his Nazis !!
and simply put . . . as this slide which Trina Robbins presented, Lily made comic book history, not only for being one of the few woman at the time to get to draw their own features, but for bringing onboard into the formerly straightforward American comic book lexicon – the German Expressionist and chic, not to mention, foxy drama and high sophistication voltage of her Viennese youth. this was ‘WEREWOLF HUNTER’ !!
but, she has become most famous for her sexy Brazilian counter-spy, the dangerous Senorita Rio – or as the comic book story of Lily’s life says: “She’s a Brazilian nightclub entertainer, but in her secret identity she’s a counterspy, fighting Nazis in South America . . .” !!
and thus the comic book and true story, ‘Lily Renee, Escape Artist’ comes to a final page, where the current Lily Renee is given the closing quote: “Senorita Rio was a fantasy for me. She got clothes that I couldn’t have, she had a leopard coat, and she wore high-end shoes and had grand adventures and was very daring and beautiful and glamorous.”
and she . . . “Beat the Nazis.” (!!)
the real-life – 2011 – Lily Renee seemed to enjoy the talk, and discussion very much.
the last page in the storybook, also relates that: “Lily Renee continued to live in New York. She married and raised a family. After she stopped drawing comics in 1949, she created textile designs and designed jewelry. She wrote and illustrated children’s books and wrote 5 plays . . . Her two children and grandchildren grew up proud that their grandmother was a comic book artist.”
well, not quite that simple – as it turns out.
LILY RENEE . .. with the book’s author – TRINA ROBBINS, signing books after the talk.
and that’s the great thing about going to hear – the artist talk in person.
apparently not quite so . . . though all’s well, that ends well.
LILY RENEE and TRINA ROBBINS . . .
apparently the real truth is: after Lily Renee, for reasons not quite disclosed, walked away, after a decade, the entire run of the 40s, of pioneering vivid illustration work in the comic book world, both as a woman, and as an artist – she seemed to turn her back on it. she didn’t keep any copies of her work, she certainly didn’t have any on display in her home . . . . and apparently she really didn’t tell her own family, as in husband or children about it either !!
they had no clue !!
. . . until one of her granddaughters recently googled her grandma – and voila !! BUSTED !!
she found Trina Robbins’ groundbreaking essay, ‘LILY RENEE’ in The Comics Journal, Nov 29, 2006 – online.
for the most part a first person interview – this essay started the ball rolling, and the interest which it generated – mushroomed into the book at hand. Grandma – you were a comic book artist !!
and, so a big big thank you, to Trina Robbins. ‘herstorian’ and story-teller.
and so this wonderful artist, also a woman with a big big survival story – Lily Renee, long unrecognized, has finally come to light, after what ? . . . she worked as a comic book artist through the 40s, and now its 2011 – 70 years . . . !!
it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the profound and, way way vivid, sexy, ok, erotic !! chic and dramatic visual impact this young escapee from the turmoil and terror of the Nazis – left behind her in the comic book world . . . and by extension in our contemporary culture . . . and if that isn’t a darn good story – I don’t know – what is.
and lastly, what’s a look to the past, without a word to the future.
outside the booksigning: ERIN FINNEGAN, currently an animation tech support at Tisch Film School, NYU. who just happened to work as a Graphic Novel Editorial Assistant at Lerner Publishing Group – the publishers behind this book – while it was in production.
She has also been an Animation Production Co-ordinator at Cartoon Network, PBS and Fox . . . She writes freelance for ‘Anime News Network’, and among other projects, she is a Manga Reviewer for Publishers Weekly. she also podcasts at: ninjaconsultant.com
ALL PHOTOS: NANCY SMITH, source photos are credited in the captions.
UP-DATE: NOV 13, 2011: NAZI TORCHERS in BROOKLYN . . .
just in case you think comic books aren’t relevant, serious or need to be heeded . . .
or . . . that the Holocaust – is an old story.
the above ‘LILY RENEE, Escape Artist’ comic book review was posted on Nov 7, 2011 . . . with no timeline anticipated in the artist talk – or the post.
but 3 days later, in New York City, on Nov 10, 2011 – which turned out coincidentally to be the actual 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht – the notorious night of outright public Nazi destruction targeting Jewish shopkeepers in Germany and Austria – we had our very own little, but very real – mini Kristallnacht of hate in Brooklyn !!
“Hate mongers torched 3 cars on a heavily Orthodox stretch of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn yesterday and scrawled swastikas and other vile messages in vehicles and park benches.
Residents on the Midwood block lined with synagogues and yeshivas were awoken at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of sirens and the sight of towering flames shooting from the vehicles. . .
‘The fact that this most recent attack came on the heels of the 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht may or may not be a coincidence,’ Mayor Bloomberg said. ‘Either way, this kind of hateful act has no place in the freest city in the freest country in the world.'” – NY KRISTALLNACHT, Nazi torchers in B’klyn/THE NEW YORK POST/Nov 12, 2011
TRINA ROBBINS did present this archival slide of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – in her artist talk. but she made no mention of the eerie historical timeline – when in early November of 1938 the Nazis destroyed the glass windows and storefronts of Jewish owned shops – in a very graphic display of hate, and sent a crystal clear message as to their future intentions.
When she projected the slide, Trina actually said: “Kristallnacht, what a beautiful word – to have such a terrible meaning.”
in the comic book, ‘Lily Renee, Escape Artist’ … ‘From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer’ – Kristallnacht gets 3 whole pages . . . this evil night of outright and public Nazi destruction and aggression against Jews in Germany and Austria . . . in Vienna – her hometown – apparently made a deep and terrible impression on the young Lily Renee. it’s especially terrible when one considers what a civilized, make that sophisticated, chic and creative society Vienna had been, during her early childhood – when it was virtually the center of the intellectual and scientific world of its time.
“In Berlin, a seventeen-year old Jewish boy named Herschel Grynzpan, protesting the brutal treatment of his family by the Nazis, had shot and killed a German diplomat. The Nazis retaliated by starting riots in Berlin and Vienna, with mobs led by the Gestapo disguised as citizens.” “So this time they really did burn the synagogue.” “It’s not safe anymore. We have to leave Austria.” “Because of the broken glass covering the sidewalks and streets, this night was named Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass.” ~ ‘Lily Renee, Escape Artist’, the true story of comic book artist and pioneer Lily Renee Wilheim – written by Trina Robbins, and illustrated by ANNE TIMMONS and MO OH.