Lily Renee: Fighting The Axis With A Sable Brush.

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Fiction House’s Senorita Rio waged a war of vengeance against the Nazis in Fight Comics during WWII, eager for revenge against all fascists after the death of her Navy Ensign fiancé at Pearl Harbor. Though Rio was launched by Morgan ‘Jo’ Hawkins and Nick Cardy, it’s artist “L. Renee” who is most closely associated with the character, and who had her own very personal reasons for bringing the Allies’ most lethal lady agent’s adventures to life.

Fourteen year old Vienna teenager Lily Renee Wilhelm was horrified when the Anschluss united Austria with Nazi Germany. The daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, her father lost his job as the director of a prestigious cruise line, she was expelled from school, their home and possessions were soon confiscated and they were forced to move into a cramped shared apartment in the new Jewish ghetto. Knowing things would only get worse, Lily’s parents got her out of the country in the Kindertransport program that allowed Jewish children to emigrate overseas. Knowing very little English, Lily was taken in by a British family just before war broke out in 1939, unaware that the host family was actually more interested in a free house servant than aiding Europe’s endangered Jews. Ill-used and nearly starved, Lily fled, but with Britain and Germany at war now, she was picked up by the authorities and incarcerated as an enemy alien. A distant relative intervened and Lily got a job as a nurse’s aid in a military hospital. Unaware if her parents were still alive, working 12 hour shifts, shunned by her British coworkers, still unfamiliar with the language, it was a brutally lonely life for the young teen, her only solace found during her rare off hours when she indulged her amateur interest in art, drawing on any scrap of paper she could find.

L Renee 3While England endured the Blitz, Lily was shocked (but thrilled) to discover that her parents had, in fact, managed to escape Austria and arranged for her to join them in America. A perilous cross Atlantic freighter voyage dodging storms and German U-Boats finally reunited the family in New York. They found an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lily’s father got a job as an elevator operator, while she pitched in by hand painting Tyrolean scenes on knick-knacks while going to night school, even as the U.S. joined the war. Splitting her time between modeling jobs for fashion designers and classes at The Art Students League and The School Of The Visual Arts, Lily landed an apprentice position at an agency doing illustrations for Woolworth’s catalogs, but her mother was convinced she could do better, eventually prodding the young girl to answer a want ad for comic book artists. Lily balked, certain a woman wouldn’t be considered, particularly one so young, and still convinced while she waited with her portfolio on her lap in the Fiction House reception area surrounded only by men.

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But she was hired and soon found herself working side by side with pioneering women comic artists like Nina Albright and Fran Hopper, doing prep work and backgrounds, clean-ups and inking for the princely sum of $18 a week. Eventually she was assigned to draw some Jane Martin, Pilot issues, then given The Werewolf Hunter horror title, a series she often scripted without credit.

After Nick Cardy moved on to other titles, random artists temporarily filled in on Fight Comics popular Senorita Rio series till it was handed to young Lily Renee. She usually signed her work only as “L. Renee”, and her fan mail (much of it from servicemen) confirmed that most readers assumed she was a man. Lily Renee continued to do the Senorita Rio series for most of its run, finally leaving for other titles after the war, and eventually leaving the comics industry for textile design and other artistic endeavors.

L Renee 2But who could be better suited to drawing this iconic WWII era character, a woman so distraught over her fiancée’s death at Pearl Harbor that she abandons her glamorous, successful Hollywood career, fakes her own death and goes undercover as a government agent combatting fascist spies and saboteurs in her native South America. Lily Renee knew a thing or two about the dangers of Nazi tyranny, and drew Senorita Rio with relish as she rooted out evil German agents and collaborators, dispatching the bad guys (and a lot of nasty femmes fatales) with a compact automatic hidden in her garter holster, and always doing it in style, often as not in Senorita Rio’s trademark red dress and matching heels.  Not quite as skilled a draftsman as Nick Cardy was, young Lily Renee still celebrated Rio’s athleticism and daring, while embracing the one-time Hollywood starlet’s very apparent sensuality. In Renee’s hand, Rita Farrar/Senorita Rio surely got more than a few WWII era reader’s pulses racing in slinky peekaboo scenes that graced most stories. And like all good Golden Age comics heroines, Rio was frequently captured by the bad guys, but she was never a helpless damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Notable among that era’s female characters, it was Senorita Rio herself who did the rescuing, and always triumphed over the enemy.

In 2007, Lily Renee was nominated to the Comic-Con International Hall Of Fame, and as of this writing, is still with us at age 99.

Senorita Rio

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Hollywood’s stunned when Tinsel Town’s latest sensation, Rita Farrar, dies mysteriously on the eve of the South American premier of her latest movie, “Lady, Dance No More”, apparently falling overboard and lost at sea on an Argentina-bound cruise. But what no one knows is that Rita’s faked her own death in order to go undercover as a U.S. agent, bent on revenge against the forces of fascism following the death of her Navy Ensign fiancée at Pearl Harbor. Discarding her stage name and even her real name, Consuela de las Vegas, Rita becomes “Senorita Rio – Queen Of The Spies”, one of America’s most lethal operatives, rooting out Axis spies and Nazi saboteurs throughout South America.

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Created and scripted by Morgan ‘Jo’ Hawkins, Senorita Rio first appeared as one of numerous rotating characters in Fight Comics #19, eventually taking over the covers for about a year, and ran in almost every issue throughout the WWII years, continuing her adventures with a slightly reworked origin story in the early postwar period. The Gwandanaland Comics The Complete Senorita Rio is an enormous oversize 470-page trade paperback, the third of these Golden Age comics collection books I’ve gotten (following Crimes By Women and Betty Bates). While the publisher could invest a little time/money with even an entry-level graphic artist for some rudimentary Photoshop clean-up of their page scans (heck, they could even be color balanced and sharpened in Preview, when it comes down to it), and there are no extras – introduction, background, writer/artist bio’s, etc. – these Gwandanaland books are still a tremendous bargain. If, like me, you’re always on the hunt for the women detectives, girl reporters, female costumed superheroes and ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the mid-twentieth century comics, pulps and paperbacks, you’d have to spend a fortune to collect the entire Senorita Rio series.

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The initial series was beautifully drawn with real verve by Nick Cardy, who must’ve moved on to other projects while Senorita Rio was handled by a rotating team for a few issues, then handed over to comics pioneer Lily Renee, who had her own special reasons for doing a daring and deadly Axis-fighting heroine. More about that in the next post…

Joan Mason – Reporter

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Joan Mason – Reporter from Victor Fox’ Fox Features Syndicate appeared in about 16 Blue Beetle comics as an on-again off-again girlfriend and sometimes foil of the superhero, eventually getting her own feature stories. Yet, for all of her investigative reporting and sleuthing skills, Joan never managed to figure out that Dan Garrett was actually the Blue Beetle.

Mason worked for various newspapers, depending on what the writers (or even the letterers) came up with, oddly enough, even the Daily Planet in some stories, though it’s not intended to be Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s paper (or to tempt fate with DC Comics’ lawyers). Most often depicted in a stylish red suit and hat with long blonde hair, Joan Mason suddenly had a mid-1940’s makeover in a new (and much better) artist’s hands, briefly sporting a black bob, though still sticking with the bright red suit.

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The Joan Mason Reporter Treasury shown at the top is another Gwandanaland Comics POD book (they seem to be pumping them out nearby in Monee, Illinois), 126 pages with 18 stories, most from 1944 – 1950 Blue Beetle comics. Writers? Artists? You got me — nothing’s credited, and the book’s intro is only a brief paragraph. But, some online sources list Charles Nicholas as Joan’s creator. Actually, most of the writing and art aren’t exactly the best, and only one story in this book, “Joan Mason Reporter In The Wandering Atomic Bomb” is done by someone who can really wield a pencil and sable brush, with a style somewhere between a Bill Ward and a Matt Baker’s look.

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Mason’s usually assigned to look into (or just stumbles upon) a corny mystery, gets caught by the crooks, rescued by the cops and solves the crime in the last panel or two. Many are only six-pagers. Still, for someone determined to poke around mid-twentieth century pulps, PBO’s and comics to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’ (few as there may have been), these Joan Mason stories are interesting artifacts.

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Dakota North

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No surprise that Marvel’s Dakota North, created by activist, essayist and writer Martha Thomases along with artist Tony Salmons, was eclipsed by Jessica Jones. Thomases’ groundbreaking much-more-than-a-detective simply appeared 15 years too early, in a marketplace that hadn’t matured enough to embrace smart, accomplished and utterly lethal female characters. Mind you, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty already paved the way five years earlier with their memorable Ms. Tree. Today? Indie comics and the majors alike are teeming with Dakota North, Ms. Tree and Jessica Jones clones.

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Former fashion model, daughter of a CIA agent and now owner of her own private investigations firm headquartered in New York, with satellite offices in Paris, Rome and Tokyo, Dakota North only had a five issue mini series in 1986-87, then made numerous appearances in various other Marvel titles. Dakota North was slated for another series in 2006, but that never materialized.

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Nonetheless, Thomases’ creation was an important character, and finally available in a trade pb compilation, Dakota North – Design For Dying released this time last year, which includes those first Dakota North issues plus a number of (though not all) her appearances in other titles.

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The terrific B&W illustrations included at the top and below are by Michael Lark. And, in keeping with ‘great minds think alike’: I scheduled this post in the middle of the week of the 23rd-29th (most of my posts are pre-scheduled days ahead of appearing), and when I scrolled through posts at my blog aggregator (Bloglovin…very handy tool!) I see the venerable Not Pulp Covers at Tumblr posted a Tony Salmon Dakota North page.  Mind you, Not Pulp Covers is clearly run by a much greater mind than mine!

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The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.

 

We’ll All Be Jones-ing For Some Jessica Jones.

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A lot of people will be furious (or already are) over the news that Netflix just cancelled its remaining Marvel series, including Jessica Jones. Lets be clear: To me, the Jessica Jones character may be one of the comics world’s best-ever non-costumed-superhero female detective/crime fighting characters. The Netflix series has rightly been showered with awards and nominations, and lead actor Krysten Ritter has done a consistently spectacular job of bringing that complex, dark, flawed yet heroic character to life on screen. Disappointed that it’ll be over soon? You bet.

But surprised? Strangely, not at all.

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Even before the media landscape morphed and fragmented into the multi-platform world that it is today (and this evolution continues, till we won’t recognize ‘television’ in a few short years) I learned the hard way not to become too invested in any series. Enjoy them when they’re around, but be prepared for sudden and disappointing cancellations that often have nothing at all to do with a show’s popularity, critical acclaim or ratings. I think ABC cancelling Agent Carter really did it for me. I really loved that show, and was heartbroken when it ended prematurely. Now, I know better.

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In Jessica Jones’ case, Marvel’s owned by Disney, which will be launching its own platform soon. So, of course they’re pulling valuable properties from what will very soon be their competition.

So it’s just not healthy to let yourself become emotionally invested in a television series, or worse, turn into hardcore fanboys and fangirls, blurring the lines between the actors and the characters they play, writing fanfic and starting blogs destined for obsolescence. I’ll bet there are legions of former WB/CW Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel fans still hoping for a renewal with original cast members, even though the Sunnydale teens are all in their 40’s now (just checked, and Charisma ‘Cordelia’ Carpenter is nearing 50).

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So we’ll enjoy the last of Jessica Jones, cross our collective fingers that Disney’s new platform finds space for a continuation, re-start or spinoff, and if so, that Krysten Ritter is available if that happens.

And keep in mind, there are always the comics where it all began.

 

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