Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
By Trina Robbins
Pencils by Anne Timmons
Inks by Mo Oh
Lettering by Felix Ruiz and Cayetano Garza Jr.
Coloring by Studio C10
Graphic Universe (a division of Lerner)
Ages 9 and up
On shelves November 1, 2011
I was asked the other day what kinds of nonfiction trends were appearing in books for children these days. I thought about it. I’ve a better sense of coincidences than trends. I mean, if there are three books out on the same subject or two biographies appearing about the same person at the same time, that I’ll notice. Pulling back and looking at the genre as a whole is more difficult. Still, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that kids today are lucky. When I was a child the biographies in my school library were paltry. What we had tended to be fairly dull and about the same twenty people too. Things have changed a bit since then. You still see the same subjects featured over and over and over again (a pox on you, Thomas Edison!), but here in the 21st century some publishers aren’t afraid to highlight people whose accomplishments could be labeled “unsung”. The inventors of Day-Glo, for example, or a man who went to jail after refusing to shave his beard. When I heard about the character of Lily Renee, however, I was seriously excited. I mean, come on. It’s right there in the subtitle. “From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer”. How are you going to resist that? Telling a true tale in a graphic novel format, Lily Renee covers new ground, though perhaps not as compellingly as one might hope. It’s a fascinating story, no question. One does wish that the format suited the subject, though.
A child in the 1930s, Lily Renee Wilheim grew up in privilege and splendor. That is, before the Nazis invaded Austria. Jewish, Lily was lucky enough to find a spot on the Kindertransport, an agreement between Germany and England to send Jewish children out of the country. In England Lily lived for a time with her penpal, then found work as a nurse, ultimately moving to America. There she was reunited with her parents. In the course of looking for work she answered an ad for a comic book artist and, amazingly, got the job. In this way she was able to draw characters like the elegant spy Senorita Rio, who fought Nazis, in a sense, on Lily’s behalf. A glossary of German to English Terms and further information is included at the back of the book.
Graphic novel biographies written for children have a lot in common with picture book biographies. Limited by their format, the author has to decide right from the start how much of a life to tell. You could try to squeeze everything about them into your scant pages, which used to be the method most authors preferred back in the day. A smarter option may be to find what it is about that person’s life that defined them and is why we remember them today. Then you tell their story with that moment at the core. So John Porcellino’s Thoreau at Walden looks just at the man’s Walden experiences while Houdini: The Handcuff King by Lutes and Bertozzi follows a single escape in the great man’s life and hinges his story on that moment. Robbins has done something similar with Lily Renee. Because her story is most fascinating when you consider its scope, we watch a lot of her youth in Vienna. The book then follows her through her teen years, following her escape from war torn Europe to America. It ends after she has acquired the comic book job that would define her career and then recaps what happened after that. Constrained by space, the book cannot delve much further into her experiences as such an artist and that is a real pity. I would have loved to know more about what it was like working as a woman in such a male dominated field. Robbins shows the initial surprise at the cusp of her hiring but nothing after that. Considering how the issue of women comic artists continues to be a hot-button issue (Marvel has been criticized recently for its plethora of XY chromosomes and reluctance to hire those of the XX persuasion) this is where I wanted the story to get into a little more detail. Instead it ends abruptly, leaving the reader frustrated.
The art in this book baffled me a bit. Indeed, the text and images together had a strange stilted quality to them. The vibrancy you’d expect from such a tale appears to be lacking and I wanted to figure out why. After a time, I decided that it was possible that Robbins and Timmons were attempting to reference classic comic books with their style. This would account for a lot of the angles, images, and gestures that look old-fashioned when compared to a lot of graphic novels today. That’s my theory anyway. And the backgrounds in the book are actually quite fantastic. There’s a shot of Kristallnacht that drills home the horror of the event quite effectively. The fact is that the art is quite nice, it’s the coloring that’s a problem. Using computers to color comics is a haphazard affair. Good coloring can be the making of a book. Bad coloring makes even the best art appear tawdry. The coloring in “Lily Renee” is passable but by no means extraordinary and drags the whole enterprise down.
At the beginning we see a photograph of the real Lily embedded in the story. I would have liked more of this as the story continued. Sure, at the end there’s a cluster of images of Lily (who, for the record, may have been one of the world’s more beautiful women) but imagine how much more powerful the book might have been if we saw continual reminders that the story we’re reading here actually happened to a real person.
One thing about the book I liked without hesitation was the backmatter. In addition to the Glossary of German to English terms there are wonderful sections explaining everything from the British Internment Camps (something I’ve never encountered in a book for kids before) to automats. Each section begins with an illustration then recounts the subject thoroughly. There’s even a part dedicated to female WWII comic book artists! Fascinating to its core.
It would be difficult for anyone to seriously claim that it is easy to write a biography for children. Graphic novel biographies, in turn, are twice as hard since you not only have to have your storytelling skills up to par, you need excellent artists, inkers, letters, and color artists at your disposal too. When all those people are working at the top of their form then the end result is gold. “Lily Renee” strives to reach that goal, but due to problems in one area or another it falls a little short. A valiant attempt to highlight a true unsung hero of women’s history, I appreciate this story being told. Hopefully this may inspire other people to delve into Ms. Renee’s past as well. Well-meaning.
On shelves November 1st.