Different kind of superhero gets her due in graphic novel

Trina Robbins knows a thing or two about going it alone.

As a pioneer in San Francisco’s underground comics scene in the 1960s, Robbins, 73, spoke out against misogyny and sexism in comic books. In 1972, she founded the anthology Wimmen’s Comix to showcase the work of female artists — a group she felt needed to carve out its own place in a male-dominated industry.

Trina Robbins (left) and Lily Renée Phillips

Forty years later, her commitment to highlighting remarkable women is as strong as ever, evidenced by the San Francisco resident’s latest work: a biography of Holocaust survivor and comic book artist Lily Renée Phillips, told in the form of a graphic novel.

“Lily Renée, Escape Artist,” illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh, follows its subject from her upper-middle-class childhood in Vienna, to her Kindertransport journey to England, to her reunion with her parents in New York. Phillips went on to become another pioneer in the comic book industry as one of its first female artists.

The book is a gripping — and in places frightening — account of a real-life adventure. Robbins wrote it after interviewing Phillips in New York.

“I’ve been writing histories of the women who wrote and drew comics for a long time now, because when the guys write their histories of comics they leave out the women,” Robbins says matter-of-factly. “And if you’re not written about, you’re forgotten.”

Robbins had included mention of Phillips (who often goes by Lily Renée) in a number of collections she’d put together about female comic book writers and artists, but she was unaware Phillips was alive — until one day in 2010, when an email came from Phillips’ granddaughter. “She had Googled her grandmother to learn about her past, and my name kept coming up,” Robbins explains.

Soon after, Robbins spoke with Phillips and arranged a visit to New York to hear her life story in person. “And the first thing I thought was, ‘This needs to be a graphic novel.’ Her life was like a real-life ‘Kavalier and Clay,’ ” says the artist, referring to Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, in which two comic book writers fight evil through a series of great escapes against the backdrop of New York City in the 1940s.

Born around 1925 in Vienna, Lily Renée Wilheim was raised in an upper-middle-class family. As part of her English-language studies, she had a pen-pal in England. When the Nazis took power in Austria in 1938, Renée’s mother appealed to the British girl’s family to take in her daughter. When young Lily arrived on a Kindertransport, however, she was put to work as an unpaid servant in the family’s home in Leeds.

She took on a number of other jobs, including mother’s helper, caretaker and candy striper, all the while trying to find work and sponsors in England for her parents. About a year and a half after she left Austria, she received word from her parents that they had made safe passage to the United States, and she began a harrowing but successful journey to leave England and join them.

As a young adult in New York, Phillips found work as a penciller, one of the most important positions in the process of illustrating a comic book. She was the only woman at the publisher Fiction House (best known for “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”) and endured almost constant harassment from her co-workers and superiors. Her artistic skills flourished, however, and she went on to become one of the most respected women in the industry, known for her signature “L. Renée” in the corners of her pages.

Despite the heavier themes in “Lily Renée,” Robbins says she thinks it’s perfect for young people, especially girls, who are learning about World War II.

“I never have an age range in mind when I’m writing, and I don’t believe in writing down for kids,” says the author. “A lot of mainstream publishers think you have to dumb things down — which isn’t true at all.” Furthermore, the book — which contains a German-to-English glossary — has tremendous potential in educational settings, says Robbins.

“I think it would be nice if it were used in schools alongside the ‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ which is also about a teenage girl but is such a tragedy. It would be nice if they could read one with a happy ending.”

Robbins says her book has received nothing but praise — including, most important, kind words from Lily Renée Phillips herself.

“It was so important that Lily like it, and I was a bit of a nervous wreck about it,” admits Robbins. “When it came out, she was visiting her kids in Southern California, and she phoned me to say they liked it so much they had just bought a bunch of copies. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was the first time I had ever written a biography of someone who was still alive!”

Reactions from readers have been meaningful for the author as well. At book signings with Phillips by her side, “People would come up to Lily afterward and say, ‘My mother was a Holocaust survivor’ and just start talking,” Robbins says. “And you realize how important it is just to keep talking about it. We just have to keep telling these stories.”

“Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer” (96 pages, Graphic Universe, $7.95)

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.