The Arty Semite

How a Holocaust Survivor Escaped Into Comics

By Paul Buhle

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Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
By Trina Robbins, Illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh
Graphic Universe, 96pp., $7.95

This is quite a remarkable little book, by quite an artist-writer duo, on quite a subject. Miriam Katin, Holocaust survivor and comic artist herself, reviewed “Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer” in graphic form in the October 7 Forward, but this reviewer has a bit more to say.

The daughter of a Yiddish journalist and one of the founders of Underground Comix in the late 1960s, Trina Robbins was also a central figure in the small but important genre of women’s comics of the 1970s to 1990s. A Greenwich Village hipster and proprietor of a boutique shop, she drifted into the comics of the East Village Other and then out to the West Coast with most of the other Undergrounders.

Robbins has been the leading scholar of women’s comic art in the United States, with distinguished volumes on cartoonists and comic artists. She is also a writer-illustrator of some of the earliest strips on Jewish women’s history, including a famous piece on the Triangle Fire tragedy. In recent years she has become a sort of senior dignitary of comic art and her work has been seen in ever-further quarters. She has not been able to escape being a role model for young women thinking about doing comic art of their own.

The Lily Renee story, aptly subtitled “Escape Artist,” is first of all about the discrimination and persecution suffered by Renee in pre-war Austria, after an early childhood among Vienna’s prosperous Jewish community. Removed to Holland on the Nazi-directed Kindertransport, she traveled onward to Leeds, England.

Renee was among the fortunate, and her parents managed to get out of Germany to the U.S., where they awaited her. Looking for work, she stumbled upon comics and there, another story begins.

At that time women worked in the comic book trade mainly as secretaries, rarely as artists. In the boom years, when millions of comics appeared each month and small companies flourished (before disappearing into the maw of overproduction and the anti-comics campaigns of the McCarthy era), Renee created dynamic female characters with extraordinary powers, and (in some cases) opportunities to fight Fascism.

Robbins’s book ends with 15 pages exploring Renee’s life, and a couple of photo pages of Lily and her family. Created for young readers, “Lily Renee, Escape Artist” manages to cram a lot of information in just a few pages, and the art by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh is deft. Trina Robbins is also directing a reprint project of Renee’s work, so we can expect more treasures to come.


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