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Gyasi Hall | Longreads | September 12, 2023 | 21 minutes (5,698 words)

The seventy-first issue of MAD Magazine, cover dated June 1962, contains a noteworthy entry in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy, a comic strip depicting Looney Tunes-style espionage between two pointy-headed, monochromatic secret agents. This particular installment isn’t the series’ best strip: it’s not the one with the most elaborate explosions, the most clever ending, or the one that’s most exemplary of Prohías’ precise and peerless art style. But it is, for me, the most Spy vs. Spy strip ever, the one that best distills the already simplified distillate and sums up the whole enterprise.

One spy, sporting a trenchcoat, a wide-brimmed G-Man fedora, and secret service shades—a collection of clichéd noir signifiers, all in stark black—stands out in a field with a bucket of water. The moon is full and beautiful. The other spy, identical except in blinding white, peeks out from behind a tree, trying to suss out what his rival is up to. Black Spy stares at the moon through an elaborate sextant, adjusting various settings and making mental calculations, finally drawing an X on the ground with a compass before setting the bucket down. As he leaves, White Spy sneaks up to it, peers inside, trying to figure out what this could all mean. In the last panel, Black Spy has snuck back around to give White Spy a swift kick in the ass, grinning triumphantly as his enemy falls headfirst into the bucket, soaked and seeing stars. 

This is the essence of Spy vs. Spy: delightfully stupid without ever being mean, delightfully simple without ever being dumb. Prohías’ comics are as perfect an example of the medium as you’re ever likely to find—even more so, I’d argue, than other all-time strips like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, since its wordless pantomime operates so effortlessly using the mechanics of graphic narrative as its sole language. The above strip works so well because it forgoes high-concept gadgetry to make the petty, low-stakes reality of the spies’ eternal struggle that much clearer. It’s a perfect way to frame the proceeding complexities of the franchise as a whole.

This is the essence of Spy vs. Spy: delightfully stupid without ever being mean, delightfully simple without ever being dumb.

And make no mistake: Spy vs. Spy is a franchise, a bona fide phenomenon, as ubiquitous as comic strips get without the nostalgic momentum of the above GOATs, the “who the hell thinks this is funny?” anti-spectacle of something like Dilbert, or the dearth of basic premise that makes Garfield so ripe for memery. Decades and decades of comics, sure, but also video games, segments on TV shows, T-shirts, trading cards, a board game, action figures, plush toys, Halloween masks, NASCAR promotions, fucking Mountain Dew commercials. The famous image of the spies, shaking hands while holding explosives behind their backs with the tenderness you’d afford fresh fruit, is famous for a reason.

But like the spies themselves, the image we have of something is often what gets us in trouble. As consumers and customers, we are often trained not to see art (or tools or people) as complex things with a story, or the evolving context that informs their continued existence. This not-seeing is often a foundational ingredient of success. The image—the idea of an idea—is what everyone will know, what everyone will buy. I would like to look at Spy vs. Spy in chronological order to tell you the story of a simple, stupid thing. Knowing, after all, is half the battle.

Antonio Prohías was brilliant. He was an unmatched artist whose simple style belied his immense talents, and his mastery of cartoon logic and physical comedy puts him up there as one of the greatest cartoonists ever. As already mentioned, comic readers are encouraged as consumers to ignore the writers and artists who actually make the things they love—and with comic strips specifically, you also have to contend with the bespoke illusion created by syndication. Readers who open the funny pages of their local newspaper are taught to encounter their handful of daily panels as appearing out of thin air. The presentation is, of course, the point: exhaling slightly out of your nose at whatever the family from Baby Blues is up to is designed to feel inevitable. Can you, without looking it up, name the original creators of famous but not omnipresent strips like The Family Circus, Hägar the Horrible, Dennis the Menace, or Beetle Bailey, let alone the people who work on them now? I can’t either. No one made the strips; they captured them. It’s all just reportage. 

The satirical tone of MAD Magazine helped mitigate these issues somewhat, but only because Prohías’ life story (which we’ll get to shortly) helped to sell the brand as equal parts mischievous, politically profound, and genuinely rebellious. Early Spy strips appeared with the following prelude: “Antonio Prohías is a famous Cuban artist who defied the censorship of the Castro regime with anti-communist cartoons—until he was forced to flee Havana with his life. Now, he graces the pages of MAD with his cartoon sequence of friendly rivalry called—Spy vs Spy.” While it’s cool to see that context for a strip about convoluted traps and Acme explosions, merely acknowledging something isn’t enough to legitimately combat the racism that creates America’s apathy toward all things international. Besides, these blurbs were clearly designed to gain MAD clout via association with Prohías’ politics.

In many ways, by the time he got to MAD, he had enjoyed a more successful and influential career than the vast majority of his co-workers. Despite Fulgencio Batista and his proxies’ oppressive tenures, Cuba had a robust media landscape during the mid-twentieth century, including an ecosystem of local and state newspapers and magazines. It was the perfect proving ground for a tenacious young artist to demonstrate his keen-eyed understanding of the nation’s cultural and political landscape. Prohías’ first professional publication was a cartoon in the newspaper Alerta in 1938, at just 17. Steady gigs soon followed: at one point, Prohías was working for five periodicals at once. In 1946, at 25, he became the first recipient of the Juan Gualberto Gómez gold medal and purse, a prestigious prize for Cuban journalism he would go on to win five more times. Add to that his three Ricardo de la Torriente prizes for best cartoon of the year (’48, ’49, and ’52), the Salon de Humoristico Publication first prize for best advertising cartoon (’55), and the International American Society of Journalists award for best cartoonist of the year selected from more than 20 Latin American countries (’60), and it’s clear that Prohías was nothing to fuck with long before he left Cuba. 

Some of Prohías’ pre-Spy work sits in the realm of traditional political cartoons, single-panel visual gags like a peace sign as the blade of a guillotine, but the best of his early cartoons are the ones that begin to merge his political insights with the absurd lingua franca of cartoons themselves: exaggeration, slapstick, etc. These cartoons are full-on comic strips, usually starring recurring satirical characters. One character, El Hombre Siniestro, was a sadistic villain Prohías said was “born out of the national psychosis of the Cuban people,” as he felt “an element of fatality in the air, right before and after revolution.” In my favorite strip he stars in, El Hombre Siniestro is troubled by a dream of a man stranded on a desert island, so he wakes up, chugs multiple bottles of water, and goes back to bed, smiling contentedly now that the tide has risen and the man has drowned. Another character, Tovarich, was an evil communist, an obvious stand-in for Castro. He’s a scheming government agent, an antecedent to the spies: in one strip, he gives a man a present that, when opened, releases a spring-loaded hammer and sickle that simultaneously decapitates him and stamps his foot. 

The contents of these strips, combined with the ubiquity of Prohías’ work in the late ’50s, angered many revolutionaries, including Castro himself. The Tovarich strips were “set” in Russia to maintain a level of plausible deniability—you could typically see the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the corner of at least one panel per strip—but the message was obvious. At one point, while Castro was giving a speech, he whipped a crowd of his supporters into a frenzy, accusing Prohías of being a counterrevolutionary who was working for the CIA. The crowd called for his execution, chanting Paredón para Prohías! Paredón para Prohías!

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Between his tainted reputation and the regime shutting down independent news outlets, work dried up fast. Prohías was forced to take up odd jobs to supplement his cartooning, and what work he did get published was often followed by lengthy coletillas, extended addenda added by government censors that undermined his points and accused him of treason. He lived in this hostile atmosphere for a year as opportunities evaporated, colleagues turned on him, and people spat at him on the street. Because he was one of the earliest public figures to question the fervor around Castro, escape was relatively easy: In May 1960, Prohías boarded a commercial flight to New York City, his family following soon after. He worked in a clothing factory, publishing cartoons criticizing the Cuban government in a few Spanish-language American dailies. He would never return to his home country.

Looking to break into American comics proper, Prohías spent whatever down time he had studying various periodicals, even before he made his escape. He correctly assumed the work that had made him (in)famous in Cuba wouldn’t translate well in the States. U.S. comics culture was, at this point, largely defined by A) increasingly meta reinventions of DC’s golden age superheroes, and B) the academic vulgarity of underground “comix.” Both of these subgenres were radically different expressions of the same nostalgic impulse, a reexamination of what comics had meant/could mean to a generation of kids who had grown up with the lethally flawed self-importance of American exceptionalism, as well as the earliest version of what we now think of as the “comic book industry.” Both were in full swing, and while seismic shifts in each industry were still a few years away, self-reflection had begun: these people were now teenagers, college kids, young adults, people who were starting to see beyond the figures they’d grown up with and the simple messages they carried, people who were beginning to imagine what the future could look like. If Prohías was going to make it in the U.S. the way he had in Cuba, he had to find a way to use his art to speak to this phenomenon. 

Prohías saw something of a kindred spirit in MAD and its editors, the self-described “usual gang of idiots.” Their work was crude and juvenile, yes, but it was smart, too—playful, stylistically diverse, and overtly political. MAD’s publisher, William Gaines, knew a thing or two about censorship, in his own way. His company, EC Comics, had made its bones on the extreme violence and sexuality of crime and horror titles like Tales from the Crypt and Shock SuspenStories. But after the Comics Code Authority formed in 1954 to fight against the moral panic surrounding the medium, a list of rules for opt-in regulation so strict that publishers who agreed to it couldn’t even put “terror” or “horror” in the titles of their books, distributors had balked at EC’s more scandalous titles. Series were canceled; creators were let go. MAD was the last title left standing, having switched to a magazine format early on. 

While Prohías’ and Gaines’ experiences are obviously not comparable, Gaines’ sense of anti-authoritarianism went a long way in shaping MAD’s ethos—and making it attractive to Prohías. On July 12th, 1960, two months and change after he came to the U.S., Prohías visited MAD HQ on Lafayette Street. He brought his daughter Marta with him because her English was better than his. It happened to be her 14th birthday. 

The so-called “MAD-men,” in their recollections of this initial meeting, stress instant infatuation with Prohías’ work; Marta tells a slightly different story. According to her, the editors first told her father to take the strip elsewhere, since they didn’t have any openings at the moment. He explained that he had created Spy vs. Spy specifically for MAD and “would not have them published anywhere else,” theatrically beginning to tear up his handiwork in front of them. (They stopped him.) She also says that they asked him to sketch something for them in the room; apparently, it wasn’t the quality of the doodle that convinced them of his talent, but the posture of his hand, two decades of skillful practice revealed in how he held the pencil. Ultimately, Prohías and his daughter walked back out onto the New York City streets having sold three strips for $800—an amount that today would be worth a little more than 10 times that. 

Later, Nick Meglin, a former editor at MAD, would recall how Prohías had returned to the office a week later with 10 more strips. “The staff’s initial reaction was ambivalent,” Meglin said. “Didn’t this guy understand the magazine wanted only the few pages we’d bought from his first visit?” After seeing how “diabolically clever” these new installments were, he said, the editors knew they had “stumbled into an ongoing feature.” 

Stumbled indeed.

A lot of people don’t really know how to talk about comics. In their readings, content takes priority over context. Even those who understand comics as a unique literary genre see a plotless, virtually wordless screwball strip like Spy vs. Spy and see nothing but clever fireworks. It’s a mindset that’s corrosive to a comic’s integrity. Within this kind of reading, style and storyline are the only things worth taking away from any graphic narrative. 

At this point, the usual line would be something like “Spy vs. Spy is a commentary on the meaningless violence and espionage of the Cold War.” Which, like, yeah. But there’s a lot more going on than that, a lot more to the world Prohías has created, even though it’s a world where a phone receiver can be replaced with pistol so a prank call leads to an unplanned suicide. To describe the strip’s virtues in terms of narrative cohesion is to ignore any nuance stemming from the artist’s lived experience. 

To talk thoroughly about Spy vs. Spy is to interrogate the anatomy of metaphor. Posited: the power of a good metaphor doesn’t stem from the fact that the metaphorical comparison (eyes as bright as diamonds, a road that winds like a snake, whatever) creates a relationship, but how it transforms that relationship, bringing new richness to both sides of the metaphor. To borrow I.A. Richards’ terminology from The Philosophy of Rhetoric, those sides are the vehicle (the figurative comparison that’s being invoked) and the tenor (the subject that’s being described by said comparison). Ideally, the former wouldn’t merely act as a conduit for the latter. A truly dynamic metaphor becomes smarter and more interesting once you consider each arm of the connection and how they interact. This is why so many political cartoons are boring and stupid regardless of the politics behind them, why they have to label everything so you know what the hell they’re talking about. They focus so much on The Point that they don’t bother making that point in a way that’s engaging for the reader.

Prohías never lost sight of this. Spy vs. Spy is a political cartoon, but it’s not a Political Cartoon. The strip stakes its claim immediately via a single thematic masterstroke—overlaying the blind jingoism and deranged paranoia of Cold War politics onto the endlessly resilient slapstick framework of classic cartoons—and then spends the rest of its existence exploring every facet of that premise by remixing the established formula. 

All the elaborate Rube Goldberg-style explosions are an extension of the strip’s central conceit of war and espionage not just as inherently flawed concepts, but inherently flawed subjects of entire interconnected systems of people and places that profit (whether in money or mythmaking or both) from the petty skirmishes of fiendishly devoted underlings. Hollow victories for hollow ideologies.

Think about how many satirical pitfalls Spy vs. Spy avoids simply by the nature of its setup. The spies are obvious stand-ins, but despite the loaded nature of their black and white designations, they aren’t direct send-ups of any particular country or regime. They’re both treacherous and stupid, because the two of them being on the same level better develops the metaphor and subverts the classic Tom/Jerry, Elmer/Bugs, Coyote/Roadrunner dynamic. (Prohías and the editors went so far as to “keep score” of who won and lost in every strip so neither would ever pull ahead.) There’s no overarching plot or story, including even the most basic details of the strip’s presumed “wartime” setting, and whatever lore can be said to exist is thin and deliberately vague.

Spy vs. Spy is truly timeless in a way few things are: while the strip often obsesses over the minutiae of its goofy gadgets, the tech is appropriately farcical, never feeling bogged down in time or place. The whole thing feels as contemporary in the 2020s as it did in the 1960s. The spies can be chasing each other in embassy offices and military bases, sure, but they can also be at sea, in space, walking down the street, chilling at home, engaging in trench warfare, cozy in bed. They can be pilots and cowboys and mad scientists, can be aristocrats and jailbirds and lazy beachgoers. The strip is also a prime example of all-ages content that actually works. The appeal of these original strips isn’t based on watering itself down for the tykes or shoehorning in dirty jokes for the adults, but rather the kind of dynamic storytelling that can be appreciated in pretty much the same way by everyone, regardless of age or perspective. 

This flexibility extends beyond the surface-level setup: it’s the idea at the core of the metaphor, and thus at the core of the strip’s wacky mechanics. The typical structure of a Spy vs. Spy strip involves Spy A noticing Spy B’s plan of attack, Spy A developing a counterattack, only for Spy B to have planned for this new plan, revealing the original scheme as a ruse designed to foil Spy A’s predictable response. They aren’t just similar, alike and in constant conflict, but literally identical, twisted inversions of each other that remain one and the same. In my favorite of Prohías’ original strips, both spies decide to paint themselves the same color as their enemy in order to infiltrate the other’s operation. When they meet each other on a street corner, they’re faced only with their own unholy doppelgänger. The last panel shows the spies side by side in therapy, panicked and unsure of who they really are. 

It’s not just that their plans only make sense if each knows what the other is going to do at all times because ha ha recognizable cartoon logic—it’s that it only makes sense if each knows what the other is going to do at all times because oh shit, that’s the recognizable self-fulfilling logic of political coercion. All the elaborate Rube Goldberg-style explosions are an extension of the strip’s central conceit of war and espionage not just as inherently flawed concepts, but inherently flawed subjects of entire interconnected systems of people and places that profit (whether in money or mythmaking or both) from the petty skirmishes of fiendishly devoted underlings. Hollow victories for hollow ideologies. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the stupidity is the message. 

The spies in Spy vs. Spy are patriots without countries, cursed forever to play out the violent gestures of war without any of the context that distracts from (or justifies) the carnage. In a 2020 Instagram Story, writer Ocean Vuong highlighted two other key components of a good metaphor—namely, that the tenor and vehicle of a metaphorical comparison should have both a sensory connection and a logical/emotional connection. In this way, Spy vs. Spy shows us that war is its own perfect reflection, bombs and guns and missiles as both the tactile and logical endpoint of a country’s self-image, death as the only way to define a nation. It’s not an accident that all the TOP SECRET intel the spies try to steal from each other are blueprints for more weapons. 

You might say I’m thinking way too hard about this. Black Spy once fed gunpowder to a chicken and White Spy’s house blew up when he tried to make breakfast with the egg it laid, chill out. But it’s worth noting that Prohías’ work was always thoroughly researched despite its simplicity: in Cuba, on top of devouring newspapers and radio broadcasts everyday to stay up-to-date on current events, he maintained contacts at the American embassy who gave him info about various political dealings. He kept archives on many figures, including Castro, in order to weave what he learned into his comics. The message of his work was never just “war bad.” Sergio Aragonés, a fellow Spanish-speaking cartoonist and one of his closest friends at MAD, says that Prohías would read entire books about specific military operations to get ideas for Spy vs. Spy, refining them and refining them until they “would arrive at a sublime simplification.” Aragonés also notes that Prohías would regularly present “a half dozen” strips for “every one the editors accepted,” strips he says were “equally researched” and “equally good.” “Presenting” these strips involved Prohías drawing highly detailed 8.5-x-11-inch sketches that, barring ink, were basically finished, ensuring his ideas would come across to the editors without use of his limited English. Once he got the go-ahead, he’d redraw the entire strip in MAD’s extra large 13.5-x-18.25-inch format before inking it. Prohías’ process was thoughtful and rigorous, is what I’m saying. The simple, unpretentious presentation belied all the intricate work that went into its development. 

The spies in Spy vs. Spy are patriots without countries, cursed forever to play out the violent gestures of war without any of the context that distracts from (or justifies) the carnage.

The central metaphor wouldn’t work if the mechanics of the comics itself weren’t up to par. Luckily, the strips are engaging as hell: frenetic yet fluid, complicated without being overly complex, punchy and relatively easy to follow while also rewarding multiple close reads. It’s amazing how much detail is in these original strips, the way lines vary in thickness to add dimension to even the simplest objects, how much the designs of the batshit weaponry are steeped in plausible engineering consistent enough to foreshadow twists for particularly keen readers. As involved as the spies’ schemes got, the strips always maintained a level of sparseness: the comics never have more than eight panels, and oftentimes the stand-alone title gags that begin the strips’ section (the so-called “Joke and Dagger Dept.”) are more complex than the strips themselves. Prohías knew exactly what to include in every panel to convey all the proper information to keep the reader on their toes. And to do this all with no dialogue, virtually no words save for the occasional label or sound effect? Unreal.

What his work reminds me of the most, weirdly enough, is certain examples of post-punk manga. Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame, Taiyō Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet, even dudes like Junji Ito or Tite Kubo. Vastly different tones, cultures, and genre expectations aside, they all deal in masterful, hyper-detailed black and white art that remains next to impossible to replicate or adapt in a one-to-one capacity. This is why the various animated adaptations of Spy vs. Spy are so disappointing. The detailed staging of Prohías’ work is perfect for telling his stories in four to eight “frames,” but having to render the moments between panels only highlights how flat the rest of the short is by comparison. It might only take 30 seconds to diligently read any given strip, but seeing that same strip play out in 30 seconds of real time feels unnatural. 

Shockingly, my preferred adaptation is a Mountain Dew TV ad campaign that ran in 2004. As depressing as the whole enterprise is, the fact that the five shorts are live action, the fact that they combine 2D facial animation and practical effects, forces the creators to completely restructure the ideas behind Prohías’ strips. They shot a black and white set in color, and the spies were played by talented performers, one of which was a former Cirque du Soleil member. They move with exaggerated conspiratorial energy, speaking dubbed-in French gibberish as they navigate a vacant, not-quite-cartoon world. Throw in the clanking quasi-industrial soundtrack, the obvious soda cameos, and the fact that the editors would pull frames from the footage to lend a heightened jerkiness to the actors’ movements, and the effect is surreal and fascinating, lighthearted but also dark and vaguely sinister. It captures the spirit of Prohías’ work while also doing its own thing.

Prohías wrote and drew 241 installments of Spy vs. Spy over the span of 26 years. In 1987, with his health declining due to emphysema, he retired from the strip. His family, his children and their children, lived in Miami; he started visiting more and more often until, one day, he simply never returned to New York. Though he and the mother of his children had gotten divorced in the early ’60s, daughter Marta says that “they became good friends and it was she who cared for him the last ten years of his life.” Prohías died on February 24, 1998. 

For a decade after Prohías retired, the strip was taken up by a slew of artists and writers, most notably Don “Duck” Edwing and David Manak—a move Prohías was enthusiastic about, even initially offering feedback on the new comics. And yet, his absence is felt: this period of Spy vs. Spy is middling at best. Manak is a great artist; he would go on to do the pencils for a big chunk of Archie Comics’ Sonic The Hedgehog series in the ’90s, becoming, to a certain generation, yet another unsung comics legend. While his style was much looser and rougher than Prohías’, achieving a kind of hectic complexity that feels like a kid doodling in the compact margins of their school worksheets, Edwing’s concepts were often much more straightforward and boring than past strips. No one could ever really emulate the breezy, clever reversals that had become Prohías’ signature (though one strip involving a Bride of Frankenstein knockoff whose huge cartoon boobs turn out to be bombs is pretty inspired). 

In April 1997, Peter Kuper took over the strip to coincide with MAD’s “edgy” rebranding. He worked primarily in layered, spray-painted scenes, drawing out the blocky comics before using an X-ACTO knife to turn them into stencils. We’re back in “anything goes” territory, so the spies appear as old men and tennis players and Roman chariot racers, babies and cavemen and the subject of Hollywood movies. There’s even one strip revolving around White Spy drawing Spy vs. Spy strips. There’s some fun to be had, but Kuper’s work, visually dynamic as it is, relies on a methodical art style that doesn’t really mesh well with the strip’s fast pace. And although they’re ultimately aesthetic nitpicks, I never liked how gory the deaths are in Kuper’s comics, nor how the strips transitioned to being in color. In practice, both these moves wind up feeling antithetical to what makes Spy vs. Spy so interesting: seeing eyeballs and bloody brain matter after one of the now-Caucasian spies gets cut in half by an elevator door makes the whole thing feel wrong. 

Later, a few ill-fated spin offs in the early aughts proved that editors and audiences alike had lost track of what made Prohías’ original work so incredible, focusing instead on marketable aesthetics and surface-level narrative. There was Spy vs. Spy Jr., featured in the short-lived publication MAD Kids, a segment that failed to realize that making the spies prank-obsessed grade schoolers was pointless because Spy vs. Spy is already the kid-friendly version of itself, a convenient microcosm of the backward logic that doomed the whole magazine. There was also the Spy vs. Spy Sunday newspaper strip, the apotheosis of Edwing and Manak’s take on the property and a fitting full-circle moment for Prohías’ artistic legacy. It was decent, all things considered, though it was pulled after 39 strips; in 2002, papers got skittish about military violence in the comics section. Already enough on the front page, I suppose.

To highlight the deeper realities of Spy vs. Spy is to mourn not just Prohías’ passing, but the eventual transformation of his creations into marketable grist for the isolating machinery of branded IP. This is what mega-success often looks like within the world of comics: something reaches such a ubiquitous level of notoriety that the “graphic” and the “narrative” become all but divorced. Combine that with the usual death throes of late capitalism, along with technologically sophisticated ways of cutting the artist out of the art-making process, and it becomes obvious why American entertainment has become so steeped in comics and comic book culture while the traditional, single-issue print periodical side of the comic industry is only becoming more and more niche. If an image is the idea of an idea, then a franchise is that second idea in perpetuity, because the image is the thing you can sand down and actually sell. You can’t profit off of history unless you rewrite it. 

All of which is to say that Spy vs. Spy is only part of the larger picture. What I’m lamenting isn’t just what became of Prohías and his work, but what became of the entire ecosystem that allowed him and his work to thrive the way it once did. As much of an undeniable institution as it is, MAD hasn’t been culturally relevant since MAD TV. How many years ago was that? The magazine itself transitioned to being a subscription-based collection of reprints, a move that’s as inevitable as it is disappointing. As for Spy vs. Spy itself, what original work Kuper does no longer incorporates his signature spray-paint style, making everything feel that much more flat and obvious. In addition, many of Prohías’ strips have been reprinted in color, a move that has all the urgent necessity of reprinting Beloved in Comic Sans.

And this is all before you get to the real brass tacks: the fact that MAD was first published in 1952, over 70 years ago, and virtually everyone involved with it during the era that made it a cultural force to begin with (save for, at time of writing, Aragonés) has since passed. William Gaines is dead. Harvey Kurtzman is dead. Al Feldstein is dead. Al Jaffee is dead. Wally Wood is dead. Will Elder is Dead. Jack Davis is dead. John Severin is dead. Don Martin is dead. Frank Jacobs is dead. Mort Drucker is dead. Dave Berg is dead. Nick Meglin is dead. Duck Edwing is dead. Antonio Prohías is dead. This isn’t so much a retrospective as it is a kind of elegy. 

If an image is the idea of an idea, then a franchise is that second idea in perpetuity, because the image is the thing you can sand down and actually sell. You can’t profit off of history unless you rewrite it. 

Though I’m too young to be part of the generation of comic readers who received MAD magazine in its heyday as a revelation, brought into the know as I was by Cartoon Network’s 2010 Robot-Chicken-but-even-more-for-kids-with-the-not-at-all-confusing-title MAD and a particularly dorky father, it can become difficult to convince myself that anyone actually cares. Most of the info that’s publicly available regarding Prohías and his work is contained in two books, Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook and Spy vs. Spy 2: The Joke and Dagger Files, omnibus volumes that collect Prohías’ original run and a sizable chunk of the interstitial strips respectively. 

The comics are all well preserved, as is all the behind-the-scenes production info, but the collections themselves are startlingly haphazard. Though released some years apart, they both feel like they were thrown together in a weekend, compelled not to restore Prohías to “the folk hero status he so justly deserves,” as the first book’s intro claims, but to take advantage of the timing of the aforementioned “edgy” relaunch. It’s everywhere you look, this weird, half-assed disconnect. J.J. Abrams of all people wrote the forward for the second book, a piece that’s about the same length as his bio in which he hand-wrings about being a braggart before bragging about owning the original artwork of the first Spy vs. Spy strip. The first book doesn’t even have a table of contents, despite having several essays sprinkled throughout to break up the comics. The pieces that aren’t written by Aragonés or Prohías’ daughter contain little emotional weight. They all read like everyone was told their piece would be the introduction, so the same stories and information get shared and re-shared over and over. In the second book, Kuper seems bent on revealing how little he considers the strip’s larger concepts, like when he says that a joke idea for a strip involves Black Spy being “forced to close his military industrial complex” as if it’s a car door or a pizza place at the local mall. Outside of the comics themselves, both books feel lifeless, propped up, almost vaguely disrespectful. In the first book’s acknowledgments, editor Charles Kochman reveals that the collection’s cover was “cobbled together from bits and pieces of Prohías’ panels — a hand from one page, a bomb from another.”

The collections and their lackluster historical perspective highlight the dark irony of Prohías’ success, the way the idea of an idea can come to grow well beyond intimate, personal context in which the original work is created. A 1983 interview with Prohías in The Miami Herald contains what is probably the most well-known quote about the originals of Spy vs. Spy: “The sweetest revenge has been turning Fidel’s accusation of me as a spy into a money making venture.”

In one of Kuper’s strips, White Spy can’t sleep. He’s haunted by nightmares of Black Spy stabbing him in the back. He visits a psychiatrist, an obvious Freud stand-in, and explains everything, at which point the psychiatrist explains the various facets of his dream: the knife represents his dysfunctional parents: the door both spies come out of represents repressed sexuality: Black Spy is his inner child’s alter ego: and the city itself represents social, religious, and economic stress. White Spy is healed! Trauma fully processed, he’s giddy and vibrant as he disposes of his bombs and his guns and his grenades, Freud looking on, approval hovering on the edges of his bearded lips. White Spy shakes his hand and leaves the office, whistling and—perhaps for the first time—filled with hope. Freud then takes off his face, revealing himself to be Black Spy in disguise. He stabs White Spy in the back. 

I guess some things never change.

Gyasi Hall is a writer and critic from Columbus, Ohio. Their essays “Alas, Poor Fhoul” and “Eminem Drop-Kicked Me in This Dream I Had” were both nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and their debut poetry chapbook, Flight of the Mothman: An Autobiography, was published by The Operating System in Spring 2019. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Guernica, Lit Hub, The Iowa Review, and The Black Warrior Review, among others. They received their MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, and they are currently working on a book about Black people and comics.

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