The two disappointments of Lily Renée, Escape Artist
I’ve found two major types of disappointment in my years of comics reading. The first, and most common, is one you’re probably all-too familiar with: the disappointment of reading a comic you fully expect to be good—because of the creators involved, the reputation of the publisher, the buzz among fans or at the shop, the positive reviews you’ve read, whatever—only to discover that it is not, after all, any good.
A rarer, and more stinging type of disappointment is when you come to a comic that you want to be good, only to discover upon reading that it is not, alas, any good.
I started thinking about this while reading Lily Renée, Escape Artist (Graphic Universe), a biography of woman who, as the subtitle reads, went From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer.
I felt a bit of the first type of disappointment, as this was written by Trina Robbins, a talented cartoonist and skilled and incisive writer of and about comic. But it was the second type of disappointment I felt most strongly while making my way through the book—which actually got to be a bit of a struggle after a while—and that type of disappointment only increased as I kept reading.
As this very comic explains, Lily Renée was a remarkable woman who lead a fascinating life, one worthy of being told in a great example of the medium she was one of the first women to work in. But this isn’t such a comic.
You’ll be forgiven if you don’t know who Renée is. She drew comics for Fiction House in the 1940s, her most famous strip she worked on being Señorita Rio, a Brazilian nightclub singer who fought Nazi and retired from the industry in 1949. Signing her work “L. Renée,” many readers at the time didn’t even realize she was a woman. She then moved to St. John, where she worked on Abbott and Costello and romance comics.
The Golden Age comics industry is a pretty fascinating subject for a lot of reasons, from its big city, Great Depression-to-WWII setting to the colorful, often crooked characters that ran it to the the amazing men and women who worked in it, often reluctantly, or until something better came about, eventually falling into a new, all-American medium and founding a deep well of fantasy that American pop culture goes to with greater and greater frequency for its imagery and entertainment.
And Renee was one of the first ladies in it? The sub-title notes her entry into the field as the climax of her story, the end of her story as it’s being told here. Only seven pages are devoted to that time though, and the story ends with a Renée getting the Señorita Rio assignment, and then a one-page summary of the rest of her life, with a drawing of her as a grandmother and the highlighting of a Nazi-fighting hero as a sort of wish-fulfillment for the artist who was so horribly persecuted by the Nazis herself.
The story begins in Vienna in 1938, and tells of the thrilling (from our historical remove, of course) danger of the time, as young Lily’s idyllic life is interrupted by the arrival of the Nazi regime.
Life gets gradually tougher for her Jewish family, and, after Kristallnacht, which the teenaged Renée heard from her bedroom, thinking it all a bad dream, she relocates to England, under an agreement in which Germany allowed Jewish children under 17 to move to England if they had a sponsor.
Life wasn’t easy there either, and she went on to work as a nurse, was suspected of being a spy and then finally moved to New York City, where she finally reunited with her parents. She found work as an artist’s model and as an artist, drawing pictures for catalogs, before being hired to work on comics.
It’s a pretty fascinating story, as Renée lived through, and experienced first hand, key moments in world history, not just comic book history.
The telling of that story doesn’t quite match it, however. Robbins’ script is terse and declarative, seemingly crafted for educational rather than entertainment purposes (a 16-page “More About Lily’s Story” section that includes a glossary and short articles about period details certainly bears that out). Sadly, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both, and the comic reads like the sort that regards children as not very bright adults, rather than their own audience.The art, penciled by Anne Timmons and inked by Mo Oh, is also sorely lacking, the single best image being the cover, and, from there, the rest of the book looking to be about the quality of a Chick Tract, save with perhaps less personality. The art looks rushed, the characters are indistinct, the settings are indistinct and there’s little sense of a special time or place in any of them; 1938 Vienna looks like 1940s New York which looks like 2012 anywhere.
The production values are similarly sub-professional, with cheap, computerized lettering and flat coloring.
I didn’t like it at all, but it was somehow worse than simply reading a bad comic, because it was a bad comic based on a true story, a great story, and one that I wanted to read a great comic about.
Underscoring the deficiency of the art work are the copious images of Renée in the back of the book, showing what she looked like in real life, so we can see how uninspired the artist’s rendering of her really is.
That, and there’s an example of her work in the back—the cover of Fight Comics #47, featuring Señorita Rio on the cover—which shows what a great artist Renee was, and how much flair, personality and style her work, rough and primitive the way so much Golden Age comics art looks, is still more potent than the scores of pages Timmons, Mo Oh and their collaborators put together for this book.
By the time I put it down, I found myself wishing Robbins had instead written a prose version of Renée’s biography for children, and Graphic Universe simply filled the book with photos and examples of Renée’s own art work.