'Señorita Rio', from Fight Comics #42 (February 1946).

Lily Renée was a pioneering female cartoonist working in the American comic book industry during the 1940s. An Austrian World War II refugee, she joined the art staff of the publisher Fiction House, where she drew features with female pin-up-style heroines like the aviator 'Jane Martin', the spy 'Señorita Rio' and the magical 'Werewolf Hunter'. She already left the comic book market at the end of the decade, after which she worked as a children's book author and playwright. By the time of her death at age 101 in 2022, Lily Renée was one of the last remaining artists of the "Golden Age of American Comic Books".

Early life
Lily Renée Willheim was born in 1921 in Vienna, Austria. Coming from a wealthy and privileged Jewish family, her early years were spent in luxury. As a child, she enjoyed drawing, dancing, visiting museums and the theatre, but being an only child also made her lonely at times. At age six, she already had an art exhibition of her drawings, and a picture of her sent in by her mother won a photo contest that could land her a movie contract. However, her father Rudolf - a manager with the transatlantic steamship company Holland America line - forbid his daughter to enter show business. With the "Anschluss" in March 1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. After that, life became hard and dangerous for the Jewish population of Vienna. Lily was no longer allowed to go to school, and around her people were deported to concentration camps.

In 1939, Renée's parents managed to get their daughter on a so-called "Kindertransport", a program that shuttled children out of mainland Europe to England. Arriving there at age 14, she was on her own with nothing to her name except a coat and a valuable camera; her parents' attempt to salvage some of their wealth. In Leeds, Renée spent two years working as a servant, nanny and candy striper, but also met with prejudices of the war-torn England populace. Since the teenage refugee always carried around an expensive Leica camera, she was instantly suspicious, and when she lied to Scotland Yard about having this camera, she was labelled an "enemy alien". Around that time, she received news that her parents had safely emigrated to the United States. However, she was not allowed to leave country as she was still under investigation. Secretly, she took a night train to London and from there managed to arrange her transfer to New York on board of the 'Rotterdam'. This was coincidentally a ship of the Holland-American line, her father's former employer. On its return trip, the 'Rotterdam' was sunk by a U-boat.

'Jane Martin' (Wing Comics #36, August 1943).

New York City
In New York City, Renée was reunited with her parents, and joined them in their one-room apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Willheim family had lost all of their possessions. Her mother had a job crocheting ribbon dresses, and her father eventually became a certified accountant. To add to the family income, she took whatever after-school job she could find. She painted wooden boxes with Tyrolien designs and did several modeling jobs, including posing for the well-known fashion illustrator Jane Turner. Through the Reed Agency at Rockefeller Center, she could use her own art skills to illustrate catalogue pages for Woolworths. In the evenings, Renée took classes at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts. In late 1942, her mother pointed out an advertisement looking for comic artists by the publisher Fiction House. Even though Renée knew nothing about comics - her own ambitions were towards stage and costume design - she applied anyway. Bringing with her a portfolio that included a drawing of Tarzan and Jane, she was hired by Fiction House editor Thurman Scott on a two-week try-out basis.

Working as a young woman in a male-dominated industry was not an easy task. In a 2009 interview published in Alter Ego magazine issue #85, Renée recalled she had to endure belittling remarks and innuendo jokes by the male artists working in the publisher's art studio. However, she was not the only female working as a comic book artist at the time. Since a large part of the male staff was drafted and sent to Europe to fight in World War II, the vacancies were filled by European refugees and female cartoonists. Besides Lily Renée, artists like Ruth Atkinson, Fran Hopper and Marcia Snyder were also drawing comic book stories, mostly through Jerry Iger's studio. After starting out with erasing pencil lines and doing some background art on other people's pages, Renée was eventually handed her own stories to pencil. Between 1943 and 1948, first for 18 and then for 25 dollars a week, she worked from scripts by anonymous writers on several features for the Fiction House titles Wing Comics, Rangers Comics, Planet Comics and Fight Comics.

Cover illustrations for Planet Comics #39 (November 1945) and Fight Comics #47 (December 1946).

Fiction House
Following the success of their 'Sheena Queen of the Jungle' feature - created in 1938 by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger - Fiction House had focused on producing comic books starring pin-up girl heroes. Having an interest in costume design and background in the fashion industry, Lily Renée became a prominent artist of such features. With her delicate line art, she drew beautiful heroines in elaborate dresses and costumes, while her talent for storytelling allowed her to use effective camera angles and elegant page layouts. In addition, her knowledge of German Expressionists like Gustav Klimt and Otto Dix gave her the opportunity to add mood and mystery to her panels. Since she signed her work with "L. Renée", Lily Renée often received fan letters addressed to "Mr. Renée".

'The Lost World', from Planet Comics #33 (November 1944).

'Jane Martin' (1943-1944) was the first feature Lily Renée was commissioned to draw. Jane Martin is a female aviator hero who fights the Nazis. Originally drawn by Nick Cardy, Lily Renée took over in Wing Comics issue #31 (March 1943), and continued the feature through issue #48 (August 1944), after which Ruth Atkinson became the artist. By December 1943, Lily Renée was also assigned to draw 'Werewolf Hunter' in Rangers Comics, a feature nobody else wanted to do, as she recalled in the aforementioned Alter Ego interview. Previously drawn by several other Fiction House staffers, Lily Renée didn't like to draw wolves, and convinced the writer to make the comic about magic where people change into several types of creatures. In Planet Comics, she also did episodes of 'Norge Benson' (1944), a sci-fi feature previously drawn by Al Walker and Fran Hopper. For the same comic book, she also succeeded Graham Ingels on 'The Lost World' (1944-1947), a saga about the heroic Hunt Bowman and his girlfriend Lyssa who lead a guerrilla war against the alien Voltamen, who rule the futuristic Earth of the 1970s.

'Werewolf Hunter', from Rangers Comics #18 (August 1944).

Señorita Rio
The Fiction House character Lily Renée is mostly associated with is 'Señorita Rio' (1944-1947). Appearing in Fight Comics, Señorita Rio is the secret identity of Hollywood movie star Rita Farrar, who signs up to became a spy and Nazi hunter after her husband is killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thanks to her Hispanic heritage, she can go on secret missions to hunt down Nazis and other villains in South America without attracting attention. Like other features she did for Fiction House, Lily Renée was not the originator of 'Señorita Rio' - that was Nick Cardy in 1942 - but her elegant work on the feature eventually defined the character.

'Abbott and Costello in: About Space' by Lily Renée and Eric Peters (Abbott and Costello Comics #3, July 1948).

St. John Publishing
In 1948, Fiction House relocated its operations to outside New York City. Since they didn't want to commute, Lily Renée and her second husband Erich Gold (AKA Eric Peters) - also a cartoonist and Viennese refugee - began an association with another company, St. John Publishing. There, they were assigned as a team to draw stories for 'Abbott and Costello Comics', a celebrity comic book starring the American comedy duo. Working together on most of the early issues (1948-1950), Peters drew the two comedians, while Lily Renée tackled the girl characters and did the inking. For D.S. Publishing, Peters and Renée also drew funny animal comic books with 'Elsie the Cow' (1949-1950), the mascot of the Borden dairy company, originally designed by Vic Herman. During the early 1950s, Lily Renée did her final comic book work for St. John's romance and girls titles, such as Teen-Age Romances, Teen-Age Diary Secrets and Mopsy. In 1948, she also drew the one-shot teen humor title 'Kitty'.

From the opening story of Kitty #1 (October 1948).

Artistic work post-comics
By the mid-1950s, Renée left the comic book industry for good. In 1953, she had remarried to Randolph G. Phillips (1911-1982), a financial consultant who was heavily involved in the American Civil Liberties Union. After that, Lily Renée Phillips, as she was now called, did freelance work for Lanz of California, doing Tyrolean and floral designs for textile. After the birth of her children, she turned to writing and illustrating children's books. Among her own books were 'Red Is the Heart', a story about how a little boy invents colors through his feelings, and 'Magic Next Door', a juvenile detective story. She also illustrated 'Battle of the Bees' by Carl Ewald and a version of 'Aesop's Fables'. After her husband's death, Renée went back to college, studying philosophy and English literature. It lead her into taking a playwriting class, after which she wrote five plays, of which only 'Dial God' was performed in the little theatre at Hunter College.

Final years and death
Even though Renée had left the comic book industry decades ago, her contributions were still recognized in the studies and references, most notably the books about the history of women in cartooning, released by Trina Robbins since the mid-1980s. In 2006, Lily Renée's grandaughter contacted Robbins, informing that her grandmother was still alive and would love to talk about her comic book career. This catapulted a renewed interest in the legacy of this veteran of female cartooning. In 2006, Lily Renée Phillips was interviewed by Trina Robbins for The Comics Journal, and in 2009 by Jim Amash for Alter Ego. In 2007, Renée visited Comic-Con International at San Diego for the first time and was inducted into its Hall of Fame. In 2011, Trina Robbins wrote a graphic novel about Renée's wartime years, 'Lily Renée, Escape Artist - From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer', illustrated by Anne Timmons (pencils) and Mo Oh (inks) and published by the Lerner Publishing Group. The book was awarded a gold medal from Moonbeam Children's Books and a silver medal from Sydney Taylor Jewish Library Awards.

One of the last remaining artists from the Golden Age of Comic Books, Lily Renée lived to become 101 years old, spending over 40 years in her apartment on Madison Avenue in New York City. Until old age, she was still drawing and painting. She passed away on 24 August 2022, shortly after the birth of her third great grandchild earlier that year.

Lily Renée. 

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