Lily Renée turns the big 1-0-0 today, which is a remarkable achievement. If you don’t know who Lily Renée is, don’t feel too bad – until a few years ago, I didn’t know who she was, either, but I’ve since become a big fan. Lily Wilhelm was born in Vienna and escaped the Nazis as a teenager, eventually coming to New York to be reunited with her parents. In her early 20s, she began working for Fiction House Comics, becoming one of the earliest female artists in comic book history. She worked in comics for about 15 years, before moving on to other things. She is most associated with “Señorita Rio,” a feature that ran in Fight Comics in the mid-1940s, but she drew a lot of other stuff, including Abbott and Costello Comics.
I own only one comic that features Renée’s work, but I’ve seen quite a bit of it over the past few years, and it’s beautiful work. It’s a shame more of it isn’t easily accessible, but such is the fate of so many Golden Age comics, especially if they’re books that don’t have a marketable character or are owned by one of the big conglomerates. So many artists have slipped through the cracks because they never worked on Batman or they didn’t get a cult following that would give Fantagraphics or some other boutique publisher reason to collect their work. Renée seems to be one of them, so despite some of her work having been collected, it’s hard to find and not as celebrated as some (Renée, obviously, is not the only Golden Age artist to suffer from this fate, but it’s her birthday, damn it, so I’m focusing on her!).
The only work I have by Renée is her “Rio” story in Fight Comics #48 (cover dated February 1947; cover by Joe Doolin). It’s not a terribly good story, mind you – a simple jungle adventure with a “white savior” jungle queen and rubber smugglers – but it is wonderfully drawn. Let’s take a look at some pages:
The first image is nice and dramatic, and the warrior queen leads the tribesmen into battle. Renée uses spot blacks effectively to hide the woman’s identity (her sister is on an expedition to find her, so while we know it’s she, there still needs to be some dramatic mystery!), and she breaks the panel border to show the spear the queen is holding. The use of blacks throughout the story and on this page is very effective. She shadows the faces in Panel 2 so that we focus on Rio’s panicked face, and she shrouds Hal’s face in Panel 3 to show his nefarious intent. She breaks Panel 4’s border again to show Rio’s importance, both in the panel and in the story. One of the frustrating things about a lot of Golden Age comics, especially the ones from DC, is a poor use of perspective, but Renée, obviously, doesn’t have a problem with that. She doesn’t really need the airplane’s wheel in Panel 7, but she puts it in so she can place the bad guys in a bit of perspective.
Amazing use of spot blacks here, as Rio meets one of her agents (she works for the U.S. government) to discuss the bad guys in Panel 1, and then moves through the jungle in Panel 2, both of which are gorgeous panels. The shadows of the leaves in Panel 2 are particularly well done. but notice how she does it throughout the page, so that the sense of foreboding pervades the entire scene. Once again, she shades Hal’s eyes as he talks to the native, showing his evil without making it too obvious. The jaguar on the limb in Panel 5 is a bit odd, as it seems pasted in, but it’s still a nice drawing.
Like a lot of Golden Age artists, Renée drew characters with somewhat flat and wide faces (notice Rio in Panel 1) and with a slightly cartoonish style (note the villains in Panel 4), but she had a sleek, sexy languidness to her line work that stands out, and unlike many of her contemporaries, her style was fluid enough that her action scenes didn’t look too stiff and static. She’s not Neal Adams, of course, but she’s better than a lot of artists from this time period. On this page, we get the use of blacks again, rising up to encircle the villains in Panel 4, striping the “warrior queen” in Panel 5, and turning the fight in Panels 6 and 7 into a dark, desperate affair. Panel 6, with the queen and her tribesmen in the foreground “encircling” the tiny camp in the background, is a wonderfully designed piece of work. And once again, we see Hal shrouded in darkness in Panel 2. Hal is kind of a douchebag.
Renée has led a fascinating life, and comics is just a part of it. FotB Ben Herman wrote a nice piece about Renée this morning, and here’s a good essay from last year. Both have more art samples, which is keen. Raise a glass to Lily Renée today on her 100th birthday!