Monday, November 26, 2012

Lettering: Claire Szep, Hidden in Plain Sight

Claire Szep was the first wife of Al Feldstein, the artist, writer and editor of numerous EC Comics titles and the editor Mad Magazine. I stumbled upon her name in Jumbo Comics #56, October 1943, while researching the work of Chu Hing, who was thought to have inked one of the stories. Szep’s name appeared in the third story, featuring secret agent ZX-5, and was “hidden” on two signs in the first panel of page eight.

I checked the Grand Comics Database for additional information on this story and the indexer said: “Note that Oriental lettering on sign [panel 1, page 8] clearly spells out ‘CLAIRE.’ Is it possible that this is by Claire Moe?” I knew nothing about Szep so I turned to Google and found two references. She was married to Feldstein, according to his entry in Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors & Poets (1989):
Feldstein, Albert R., b. Bklyn., Oct. 24, 1925; s. Max and Beatrice (Segal) F.; 
m. Claire Szep, Sept. 2, 1944 (div. Jan. 13, 1967); m. Natalie (Lee) Sigler, 
Jan. 27, 1967 (dec. Sept. 11, 1986:) children: Leslie, Susan (dec). Jamie, Alan 
Weiss, Mark. Free-lance artist-writer comic book industry. NYC. 1945-47; 
freelance artist-writer, editor, E.C. publs. Inc., NYC.. 1947-55; editor MAD 
Mag., 1955-85; supr.: MAD TV Spcl, 1974; Author TV scripts; illustrator 
children’s record album covers. Student, Bklyn. Coll., 1942-43; League scholar. 
Art Students League, 1943-43. Served with USAAF. 1943-45. Home: Wellers 
Bridge Rd Roxbury CT 06783
At his website, Steve Stiles wrote: “…When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force, taking time out during basic training to wire a proposal to his high school and college sweetheart, Claire….”

September 2, 1944, Buille, Mississippi, Arkansas

December 9, 1944, Brooklyn, New York

Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. was one of the indexers of the ZX-5 story, so I emailed my findings to him and asked if he thought Feldstein inked the story. Here is his reply:
Based on your observations of the signage and the biographical info, Alex, it 
would seem safe to say that he had a hand in it, to be sure. Based on the date, 
he would have been 17 years old when this was drawn. I think it’s unlikely 
that he was involved with the tasks we customarily associate with “pencils” or 
“inks”. Given his age, this would be at the VERY beginning of his career in 
comics and long before he had a recognizable style. I would hesitate to assign 
a specific contribution, but given the ornateness of the backgrounds, it seems 
likely (and historically sound) that he was providing “assists” to the major 
artists in this Iger Shop-produced effort. That might include filling in blacks, 
inking of secondary figures, inking of backgrounds, etc. I’d speculate this might 
be one of his first jobs and that he, a young kid fresh out of high school, was 
trying his best to impress.

VERY good catch on the “SZEP”. Hames [Ware] and I saw it, but had no idea
of what it meant. There are several other fake oriental characters that MIGHT 
be read as “AF”. Again, good catch and thanks for sharing.
I turned to to learn more about Szep and Feldstein. According to the Social Security Death Index, she was born August 14, 1926, in New York state. In the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, she was the only child of Edward, a restaurant waiter, and Margaret and lived in New Haven, Connecticut at 91 Bishop Street. The 1940 census recorded them in Brooklyn, New York at 10 Ocean Parkway, where they had lived since 1935. 

Szep and Feldstein met at the High School of Music and Art. Szep graduated in January 1944. Also in her class was illustrator James Bama and composer Morton Feldman.

Feldstein enlisted in the Army Air Corps on March 24, 1944, and later that year, he married Szep on September 2 and December 9. 

In a Google search, I learned about Szep’s profession in a snippet from Who’s Who Among Human Services Professionals (1992): “Feldstein, Claire Szep, psychotherapist; d Edward and Margaret (Schiffer) Szep, children: Leslie Tory, Jamie Bisignano, Susan…” She was a psychotherapist, so I think it’s safe to say she talked about her work and shared some of her patient’s stories with her husband. Maybe she was responsible, in some way, for the creation of the comic book, Psychoanalysis, which was published in 1955 by EC Comics. (Each issue was discussed at Polite Dissent: 1 2 3 4.) Szep passed away July 9, 2011, according to the Social Security Death Index, so she can’t be asked about her influence on the comic book. Feldstein’s forthcoming autobiography may shed some light on it.

An amusing story about Szep at the Museum of Modern Art can be read in George J. Leonard’s book, Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage (1995). In the endnote she was erroneously credited with writing comic books; the writer had confused her with her husband’s profession.

Lastly, the back cover of Mad Magazine #70, April 1962, has a sampler, “God Bless Our Fallout Shelter”, by MSZEP (lower right-hand corner). The embroiderer was Margaret Szep, Feldstein’s mother-in-law; maybe he designed the sampler. Her identity was revelaed in an Associated Press article about Mad Magazine; it was published in the Lima News (Ohio) January 23, 1972 and said:
New York (AP)—Right away you know your headed for the Mad Magazine 
offices because the elevator stops at the 13th floor.

Then you practically crash into a life-sized cardboard cutout of Alfred E. Neuman 
in lederhosen, following which:

...—You find the next cubicle decorated with a sampler saying “God Bless Our 
Fallout Shelter” embroidered by editor Al Feldstein’s ex-mother-in-law.

Other examples of “hidden” images and words can be seen here

(Updated April 17, 2023; Nex
t post on Monday: John Alcorn’s Books!)