A Real-Life Comic Book Superhero
Quinlan, Adriane, Newsweek
Byline: Adriane Quinlan
Lily Renee Phillips's first job in comics was erasing the errors made by the male illustrators who sat around her. It was 1943 in the cramped, smoky offices of Fiction House--the epicenter of comics publishing at the height of the golden age of comics--and Phillips was one of two women on staff and a handful working in the business who filled desks emptied by the war. The illustrators around her drew in graphite, then inked them over. It was her job to erase too-thick arms, stray bullets--and the lewd notes they wrote her in the margins. She hated it so much, she often cried herself to sleep. "I never wanted to come back," she says. "At the same time I wanted to do good work; I wanted very much to succeed for my own sake."
And so she did. Phillips went on to become perhaps the best-known female illustrator of her day, revered by the medium's obsessive fans and yet undiscovered for nearly 50 years. Since 1949 the woman who signed her pages "L. Renee" had been declared missing by the comics world. Fans knew her only by her unusual work: panels that evoked German expressionist films, costumes that could have appeared in the pages of Vogue, and heroines who moved with the muscular grace of dancers. "Some people are just illustrators and some people are storytellers," says golden-age historian Jim Amash. "She was actually both."
Her illustrations seemed to come from a different world, and indeed they did. It wasn't only her gender that set her apart. You can see in her work flashes of Klimt, Schiele, Dix, and other high-art painters she studied as a wealthy young girl in prewar Austria. You can also see the influence of what happened next: World War II. Phillips spent two years as a Jewish war refugee in England, wondering if her parents were still alive, and ultimately escaping to the U.S. with the kind of derring-do you might find in Senorita Rio, an immigrant turned spy who became Phillips's most celebrated comic creation. "Whatever is in you comes out in the drawings. I think this is probably why they are so personal," Phillips, 85, says now from her spacious Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan. At a time when we can't seem to get enough of macho action movies, videogames, and assorted comic-book-inspired fluff, Phillips is that rarest of artists: a woman whose work--and whose very existence--conveyed a sense of import in an otherwise candy-colored world.
She began to draw as a lonely girl looking for an escape. Phillips was the only child of a father who had wanted a son. On the weekends he led her through Vienna's museums. To fill the silence of the large, old apartment, she drew fictional friends--filling pads of paper with caricatures, making up stories. And then the world changed. In 1939, at 14, she was put on the Kindertransport. In an attempt to take money out of Austria, her parents hung a Leica camera around her neck and swathed her in a snow-white coat, "like a princess coat with a standup collar," Phillips recalled. "It was insane." She landed in Leeds, England, without knowing if her parents were alive. She was quickly put to work: as a servant, a caretaker, the nurse to a German general's children, and a hospital candy striper whose dorm crawled with rats and whose job was to bring the newborn babies down to a shelter when the air-raid sirens blasted. In her two years in England, she drew only a single drawing, of Eve lying on a bed of thorns. "I still don't know why I drew that, where it came from," she says. But how could it not have been a self-portrait? It showed an innocent girl unable to escape from her thorny, impossible world.
Finally, when she was 16, a letter arrived from her parents, now in Americaalong with her ship's passage. It was too late. Just a few months earlier, a Scotland Yard officer had accused her of being a spy--why else would a young Austrian refugee always be carrying around an expensive Leica camera? Phillips was put on a list of "enemy aliens," which meant she was forbidden to leave England. …