Trina Robbins Discovers "Lily Renee"

Trina Robbins is a writer and artist working in comics since the underground movement of the 1970s. More recently she's written a variety of projects including "The Chicagoland Detective Agency" for young readers. She's also one of the great comics historians. Her work as a writer and editor has been essential to establishing the contemporary credentials of many creators such as Nell Brinkley and Tarpe Mills. Robbins is one of those critics whose opinions one may not always agree with, but she remains one of the most intelligent, passionate and well-read critics and fans of the comics medium.

Robbins' new book from Graphic Universe is "Lily Renee: Escape Artist." The true story of Lily Renee, a girl who grew up in Vienna, escaped to Britain after Nazi Germany annexed Austria on the kindertransport, worked at a hospital during the blitz and was later reunited with her parents in the United States. All before she turned 17. In her teens and twenties, Renee worked as a comic book artist, most notably for Golden Age publisher Fiction House. Being the early '40s, many of the comics this young woman illustrated involved fighting the Nazis she had escaped and on paper was able to tell the stories of strong women fighting the Nazi threat in their own way.

It's a story almost too incredible to be true, and Robbins and longtime collaborator Anne Timmons do an impressive job bringing it to life in a new graphic novel for young readers. Robbins spoke with CBR News about her new OGN and other projects including a collection of Ms. Renee's comics work.

CBR News: Trina, when did you first come across Lily Renee's work?

Trina Robbins: I am an enormous fan of Fiction House Comics. In the late '60s someone told me, and I wasn't that surprised, that the pages that are signed "L. Renee" were by a woman, Lily Renee. Which makes sense because who ever heard of a man named "Renee." Although when Lily was drawing comics for Fiction House during the '40s she did get fan mail to "Mr. L. Renee."

You included that scene in the book, which was a great moment, but for people who aren't well versed in Golden Age history, what was Fiction House?

It's interesting that they're not more well-known. Fiction House was amazing. The stories were very pulpy but they were very good. When you think about the early '40s and you look at the superhero comics they were really simple and very lame. Fiction House comics, even the writing was a cut above the others. Very much in the style of the old pulp magazines, I think. They had that pulp feeling and of course the other thing, and the most important thing to me, is that they had all these heroines.

You look at superhero comics from the early '40s and there are some superheroines. As the war progressed there were more because there was that feeling that women could be strong and could do all these things, but originally there were very few. That's why Tarpe Mills was so amazing, that in 1940 she did this great superheroine but that's so rare. [Editor's note:The newspaper strip "Miss Fury" was collected earlier this year by IDW/Library of American Comics in a volume edited by Robbins.]

In Fiction House the women are not superheroines, but they're heroines. There are jungle girls and girl reporters and aviatrixes and girl detectives and girl spies. It's really, really cool. They're in control; different from so many superhero comics where women are the heroes' girlfriend and their role is being tied to a chair and rescued. Not that Fiction House didn't also have lots of heroes. All of their books were anthology comics, so they had four or five stories in them and of those four or five, two sometimes more would have heroines and they didn't get rescued by their boyfriends.

Fiction House really seems to come from more of a pulp tradition, which has a great tradition and legacy of art.

The art is absolutely great. Lily wasn't the only really, really good artist working for them.

Fiction House had a number of great artists including Will Eisner, Nick Cardy, Bob Powell, George Evans and a number of female artists including Ruth Atkinson. What was it about Lily Renee's artwork that stood out for you?

One thing that I have always found is that you can tell the difference between a man and a woman's comics by the detail in the clothes. Lily's characters have great clothes. "Senorita Rio" has a fabulous wardrobe. A lot of guys, when they draw comics -- well, nowadays they give women tiny little ridiculous outfits, but in the '40s they would tend to give the women your basic feature-less, knee-length, red dresses. They didn't have an eye for fashion. Not always, of course, but very often you can tell when something is by a woman by the details and the eye for clothes. Lily had this great sense of style. It's been commented to me that there's a lot of Viennese expressionism in her work. I see hints of Egon Schiele. There's a hint of that kind of expressionism in her work, especially in the "The Werewolf Hunter," which is her most moodiest and design-iest and most expressionist work.

You've written about her in your historical works. After you discovered that "L. Renee" was a woman, how did you track her down?

I didn't track her down. Her granddaughter found me. I got an e-mail one day saying, "I am Lily Renee's granddaughter." [Laughs] I couldn't believe it. I was sure that Lily couldn't still be alive but I thought, this is so incredible, I can ask her about her grandmother. I emailed her back immediately and she replied, "My grandmother is alive and well and can tell you all of this herself" and gave me her number.

Getting an e-mail like that is probably one of the great gifts a historian can receive.

Oh my god yes. Shortly after I found her I went to New York and met her. I did an interview that was in "The Comics Journal" in '06.

You did that interview with her. At what point did you start thinking about writing a biography of her?

At least two years ago, probably more. Her story is so incredible. It's like a positive alternative to the Anne Frank story. Both of them are true, but this one has a happy ending and how great to tell this story. I couldn't have done this if it had a sad ending. Obviously I wouldn't have known about Lily if she had been killed, but if her parents had not survived, I don't think I would have had the heart to do this.

It's almost too unbelievable to be true.

I know. It's wonderful, isn't it?

Why did you end up telling this story as a graphic novel as opposed to a prose book like your great book "Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century?"

Well, I was working for the publisher [Graphic Universe] and was on good terms with my editor, who I absolutely love. She's one of the best editors I've ever had in my life, if not the best editor. I thought, well, this is the way to do it and this is the place to do it. I'm also working on a collected Lily Renee art book.

The book ends just after she begins working at Fiction House. Why did you decide to end the book there?

It's the perfect ending. I love all of the stuff she did but I have to say my favorite is "Senorita Rio." She's this gorgeous, dashing counterspy and she fights Nazis. Lily, who was persecuted by the Nazis and had to escape, is now a grown up drawing a character who fights Nazis. Lily was able to fight the Nazis on paper.

You've worked with artist Anne Timmons in the past. I know that you did "Go, Girl!" at Image Comics years ago, but how did you first meet?

That was the first thing we did together. I had met her at a convention. She actually says that I met her earlier at [Comic-Con International] San Diego but the first time I remember meeting her was at a con in Portland. I guess both times she must have shown me her portfolio and she was so good. She could draw anything. She was really, really good and yet she couldn't get work. To me it was obvious that it's because she drew like a girl and they weren't hiring people who drew like girls. There is a difference and nobody can tell me there isn't a difference.

I was looking at "Womanthology" and the work in there is gorgeous. It's so beautiful and these women are so talented but the thing I noticed is that so much of it is pretty. I look at mainstream superhero comics and so many of them are so ugly. Everybody's gritting their teeth. Everybody has big jaws. Everybody's beating each other up. It's all angular. To me it's ugly and I don't like it. What mainstream editors and publishers were looking for when Anne showed them her work, they were looking for graphic violence and gritted teeth and big jaws. They were looking for that bizarre Kirby-esque exaggerated perspective where the fist is coming right out at you. Anne doesn't draw like that. Anne draws like a girl and draws pretty and that's wonderful. That's been considered an insult: "Ew, she draws like a girl." Well, it's not an insult. As far as I'm concerned, I prefer what women draw. Of course the mainstream comics companies have never understood this. Over and over they would say, "Girls don't read comics." Well girls didn't read their comics because their comics were ugly and violent and it wasn't what girls wanted to read.

What is your working relationship like with Anne?

I write a complete script in which everything is described and there's lots and lots of reference. I see Anne's pencils and I comment on the pencils. They're usually wonderful but there might be one or two things that I might have to point out.

I know that last month you and Lily were in New York and the two of you did some events together.

Yes, Lily and I did two events. I flew to New York do this with Lily. We spoke at MoCCA, the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art, and also at a really really nice bookstore in the Village, Books of Wonder. Lily just stole the show. She's fantastic.

Other than the interview you did, have you had much time or opportunity to talk with her?

I visited with her in New York before our first talk. I had tea at her place along with the cartoonist Miriam Katin. She's wonderful and she had done this great review of the book in comic form [for "The Jewish Daily Forward"]. I asked her if I could buy it from her.

Now, in the late '40s, Ms. Renee stopped drawing comics. Why did she stop?

She stopped drawing comics but after that she illustrated children's books and designed jewelry. She painted. She wrote a couple plays. It's not like she stopped being creative. But you know what happened in comics [at that time], the field just dried up.

And it was not a respectable profession at the time.

It never was. [Laughs] I think her latest work was 1949, maybe 1950. Not only were the publishers starting to fold, but they also had mostly stopped hiring women.

You mentioned that you're assembling collection of her work. Is this intended to be a selection? Are you trying to collect all her work?

It's her comics, though there's no reason why we can't have some of her children's book illustrations in there at the end. Mostly I'm doing Fiction House, but then there's work she did for St. John's in '49 which is really interesting. You can tell that it's by Lily but it's very different. It's light. She drew, along with her husband Eric Peters, "Abbott and Costello" comics. I'm going to reprint at least one of those. A very, very kind man who's also a fan has one of the romance comics and one of the teen comics that she did for St. John's and he's sending me those to use in the book.

Do you have a favorite among her work?

"Senorita Rio" is definitely my favorite because she's just such a great character, but "Werewolf Hunter" is great too. It's just so surreal and so has that feeling of mysticism.

Earlier in the year, the Library of American Comics released "Tarpe's Mills' Miss Fury" which you edited. I know it's only been out since summer, but how has the response to the book been?

I think she's doing well. I mean, I keep getting reports from people who love it otherwise she's not been out long enough for me to actually have numbers back. The publishers send you numbers once a year, but I think she's doing well. I'm getting great response.

What else are you working on? I know that you're still writing the "Chicagoland Detective Agency" series.

I just sent in the script for "Chicagoland" #5. I'm about to start on the collected Lily Renee. I've been talking with Gary Groth at Fantagraphics about three different projects and I haven't signed contracts for any of them yet but he definitely wants to do them. I think of it as my work over the next three years.

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