In the 1940s few people reading the comic book adventures of Señorita Rio, a stylish spy working for U.S. intelligence in South America, appreciated just how much the artist drawing her was putting into those vivid images. Few even knew that the artist was a woman.
“Señorita Rio got clothes that I couldn’t have,” the artist, Lily Renée Phillips, told the comic book artist and historian Trina Robbins in 2006. “She had a leopard coat, and she wore these high-end shoes and all of this, and had adventures and was very daring and beautiful and sexy and glamorous.”
Señorita Rio’s battles against comic book Nazis and their South American collaborators had personal resonance for Ms. Phillips, who with her once-prosperous family had been driven out of Austria by real-life Nazis and spent World War II struggling to get by in New York City.
Her impassioned Señorita Rio imagery was, she acknowledged, “a form of revenge.”
Ms. Phillips, who earned respect in a largely male field — she was one of the few women to draw comic book covers in the 1940s — despite a harrowing early life and on-the-job harassment, died on Aug. 24 at her home in Manhattan. She was 101.
Her son, Richard Phillips, confirmed her death.
Ms. Phillips went largely unrecognized until being rediscovered in the last two decades, largely through the efforts of Ms. Robbins. She did not stay in the comics business long, but her work has come to be recognized for its inventive variations on the traditional grid format, and for its strong women.
“She objected to being called a feminist,” her daughter, Nina Phillips, told The Guardian in 2019, “as she thought modern feminism was too ideological and went too far. But whether consciously or not, an enormous part of her output showed female characters in traditionally male roles.”
Lily Renée Willheim was born on May 12, 1921, in Vienna. Her father, Rudolf, was an executive for a cruise line, and her mother, Elsa (Goldstein) Willheim, encouraged her early interest in drawing. But life for the Willheims and other Jewish families was thrown into turmoil in March 1938 when German troops entered the country and annexed Austria, with considerable support from the Austrian people.
Lily had been studying English in school and had a British pen pal, whose family agreed to sponsor Lily’s removal to England as part of the operation known as Kindertransport. She arrived in Leeds in 1939, but the sponsoring family treated her like a servant, and she soon struck out on her own. She found work as a mother’s helper and then as a nursing assistant at a hospital, where her job included carrying infants to bomb shelters when air raid sirens went off.
For months she didn’t know if her parents were dead or alive, but eventually they sent word that they had made it to the United States and arranged for Lily to join them there.
It was a nerve-jangling trip. Ships tended to travel in convoys for safety, but, as Ms. Phillips later told the story, a sailor on her ship fell overboard while trying to hoist the anchor, so its departure was delayed while he was rescued. Her ship made the passage alone, sailing in a zigzag pattern to avoid German U-boats.
In New York, she found her parents struggling to get by, the Nazis having expropriated their money and property. Her father eventually became an accountant, but her mother was taking sewing work and Lily worked at an assortment of jobs to help out. She modeled for a fashion illustrator, and a plaster cast of her head was used to make mannequins for the retailer Peck & Peck.
“People used to say to me, ‘I know you,’ but they didn’t know me,” she told Jim Amash, a comic book artist and historian, for a 2009 issue of the magazine Alter Ego. “They just knew the mannequins.”
In 1942, her mother spotted a want ad that said the publisher Fiction House was looking for cartoonists and encouraged her to apply. When she was hesitant, her mother told her to draw a Tarzan and Jane sketch, which she did, presenting it at her interview. The publisher agreed to give her a two-week trial, and the job stuck.
She started out drawing backgrounds and cleaning up the work of more experienced artists, erasing pencil marks and such. The staff was almost all male, and the sexism was oppressive. She described the job to Mr. Amash as “erasing other people’s pages, drawing the backgrounds, and being totally miserable because the men thought of nothing but sex, and they were always making innuendos, and they just stared at me, which made me very uncomfortable.”
Sometimes they would pencil in lewd comments or images, knowing it would be her job to erase them. But she stayed with it, and soon she was given feature work on a series about a woman pilot named Jane Martin and on The Werewolf Hunter, a moribund feature no one else wanted. She said she took it upon herself to give it a makeover.
“I didn’t want to draw wolves,” she said. “I talked to the writer and convinced him it should be about magic, where people change into other creatures, not werewolves. So we did that, and it became quite popular.”
“It was perfect for Phillips,” Newsweek noted in a 2010 profile of her. “She infused the imagery with the oozing patterns of Vienna’s Art Nouveau wallpaper; she soaked the scenes in the magical realism of German fairy tales she had grown up with.”
Soon she was drawing Señorita Rio, a feature that had first been drawn by Nick Viscardi but was turned over to her and became her best-known work. She signed much of her work “L. Renée,” she said, and many fans thought she was a man. Soldiers wrote to “Mr. Renée” asking for pinup drawings of Señorita Rio.
Mr. Amash said by email that Ms. Phillips took the stylistic touches introduced in the comic book shop of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger in the 1930s and gave them her own twist, both in varying the panel grid and in the physical look of her characters.
“Ms. Renée added an elegance, charm and anatomical fluidity that eluded many of those workmanlike house artists,” he said. “As her pictorial approach to human anatomy improved with experience, so did a glamorous sheen that helped refine the ‘good girl’ style of the time period with more natural, feminine women.”
She had left Fiction House by the end of the 1940s and began drawing with her first husband, an artist named Eric Peters, working on Abbott and Costello comics, romances, even an Elsie the Borden Cow comic. After she and Mr. Peters divorced, she moved on to other professions, including working in textile design and writing and illustrating children’s books. In 1953 she married Randolph Godfrey Phillips.
Ms. Phillips’s daughter said her mother did not talk about her comic book career when she was young.
“In the ’40s when she doing these strips it was a great embarrassment for an artist to lower his/her standard in such a manner,” Nina Phillips said by email. “It was as if a ballerina was doing stripping on the side.”
She learned of that part of her mother’s past only when she opened up a drawer one day and found some sketches.
“I was 12 years old and stunned to see a drawing that my mother had done for Tarzan and Jane,” she said, “with Jane not only in a ripped animal skin but with a snake around her leg as well.”
Randolph Phillips died in 1982. In addition to her two children, Ms. Phillips is survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In 2011 Ms. Robbins published a biography of Ms. Phillips in the form of a graphic novel, titled “Lily Renée: Escape Artist.” In one panel, Ms. Phillips’s boss offers her the chance to draw Señorita Rio.
“I like this!” Lily says. “Señorita Rio doesn’t fly like that other guy in the comic book, but she’s powerful too.”