Lily Renée, Escape Artist. written by Trina Robbins. art by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Graphic Universe (Lerner Books). 2011, 96pp, $9.99
Lily Renée, a comic book pioneer, celebrates her 100th birthday this week, on May 12th. Defying the odds, which included evading the Nazis, Lily Renée secured her place in the history of comics. Another comics pioneer, Trina Robbins, was inspired to take Renée’s story and turn it into a graphic novel. This book stands out as a compelling biography that is meant for younger readers, probably up to teens. It’s a gentle narrative meant to relate to readers in their formative years that focuses on Renée’s early years with some hints as to what lay ahead once her family is able to move to New York.
How best to tell the story of someone who survived the threat of the concentration camps–and then sort of stumbled upon and got to play a small role, as a woman, within a “man’s world” during the great golden age of comics? I believe Trina Robbins got it just right! As I suggest, this is a character study, one best appreciated by readers who are still getting their first batches of history and processing it. The art by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh is right in step with the crisp narrative. All in all, this is a great example of the sort of informative book that can be read in one sitting, perhaps as part of a classroom presentation.
In 1938, Lily Renée Wilheim is a 14-year-old Jewish girl living in Vienna. She proves to be a natural artist and that provides a hook, a purpose. Then the Nazis march into Austria. The Night of Broken Glass was not just a nightmare, as young Lily first thought, but very real. Thankfully, Lily is able to leave the Nazi threat behind, essentially “escape,” to England as part of a Kindertransport refugee program. Her parents will eventually follow but the die is cast: Lily learns that she must depend upon herself, cultivate her own talents.
This is a slice-of-life narrative and it definitely succeeds. It is not intended to be epic storytelling. It is meant to gently share a certain time and place: a time when a girl is becoming a woman and must face life and find her way. So, to end the story just as Lily is beginning a career in the comics industry is a fitting place to say goodbye. And, as if to underscore the fact that this is for younger readers, Robbins includes a series of short supplementary material on concentration camps, internment camps, high tea, English currency, Queen Wilhelmina, the Holland-America Line and Horn and Hardart automats.
This brings us back to Lily Renée celebrating her 100th birthday in 2021. There will be a panel discussion celebrating Lily Renée and Women in Comics that you’ll want to check out. Just go over to ComixPlex to get more details and to register.
And, by the way, as cartoonists, my partner, Jennifer Daydreamer, and I were notified about Lily’s upcoming birthday and we sent a birthday card. It is trailblazers like Lily who have shown the way. Above is Jennifer’s portrait of Lily in her youth, around the time she would have been working for Fiction House comics.