Spy vs Spy: The Complete Casebook
by Antonio Prohias
(Watson-Guptill, $24.95, 304 pages, trade softback, 2001.)
"Spy vs. Spy" has been a Mad magazine staple for over forty years. Created by the late Cuban expatriate Antonio Prohias in 1960, the pointy-nosed little agents -- one in black and the other in white and each bent on ridding the world of the other through some ingenious though convoluted scheme -- have gone beyond the pop culture scene to become part of the American lexicon. (Indeed, "Spy vs. Spy" is used as a slang reference to any deviously subversive individual or group.)
However, as one spy successfully completes yet another grand scheme to inflict comic devastation on the other in anywhere from one to eight frames, the reader quickly realizes that, although ingeniously thought out and drawn by Prohias, each strip is merely a variation of the same joke. As with bonbons in a movie theatre, one or two strips per month, as rationed by Mad's editors, is the best way to snack on these little guys. Many more than that and one's appreciation of Prohias's creativity dissipates extremely fast. (The spies remind me of another pair of thematically related cartoon characters, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, created by Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers in the late 1940s. Did you ever try and watch more than three or four Road Runner cartoons in a row? Oh, the monotony!)
But here they are, every single "Spy vs. Spy" strip, assembled in a handsome trade paperback from Watson-Guptill. And here's my word of warning to go with it: Don't try and devour them all at once.
Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook is a fortieth anniversary tribute to the strip and its creator, and a must-have for those of all ages who grew up reading Mad magazines each month as they hit the newsstands. This book is more than just a collection of every "Spy vs. Spy" strip drawn by Prohias, though. There are testimonials in various forms, each serving to enlighten the reader on the courage, warmth, humour, generosity and integrity of the man who won awards as a political cartoonist in Cuba in the 1950s before his satirical attacks on Fidel Castro forced him to flee the island for New York as the 1960s began.
An introduction by freelance writer Grant Geissman condenses Prohias's biography into six pages. He writes of how, with daughter Marta at his side to translate, the cartoonist sold his "Spy vs. Spy" concept drawings to Mad in the summer of 1960; and, after the readership enthusiastically voiced its approval of those first strips, he became a fixture in the magazine's Manhattan offices. Miami Herald features columnist Fabiola Santiago tells of Prohias's integrity and artistic courage during the Cuban revolution and the subsequent censorship he faced (and, in many cases, cleverly circumvented) during the early days of the Castro regime. And Marta lovingly writes of her father as a wise, caring man whose acts of kindness earned him many friends. Her eyewitness account of how, merely because of the way in which he held his pencil when he drew, her father was hired on the spot by Mad executives as a freelance illustrator puts you in the room with her as the event occurred.
The book is packed with other valuable and entertaining bits of history. Several of Prohias's most significant political cartoons, each reminding his readership of Castro's communist ties, are included, as is a sampling of "El Hombre Siniestro" ("The Sinister Man"), the forerunner of "Spy vs. Spy." Several family photographs are featured, as are collaborations with fellow Mad cartoonists Sergio Aragones and Don Martin. In addition, the editors have included specific examples of how deeply the spies have been absorbed into the pop culture fabric. There is a security company ad featuring one spy looking at the other through a convoluted telescope followed by the tag line, "Know thy enemy." A New York Times report on the CIA utilizes the spies on its title page. And, of course, you can imagine how much these guys are loved by Wired magazine!
And in between are the strips themselves. Every single one of them.
As I stated earlier, if you try and read more than, say, twenty or thirty at a time, they'll lose their punch fast. The zing was gone for me after about twenty pages. After a few pages more, I was gone too. The editors have tried to break up the strips by inserting informative essays at various points throughout about the spies and their creator written by Mad staff members; but, while these were welcome, there weren't enough of them to break the tedium.
Prohias injected a third spy into the mix early on, a sexy young lady in grey who always got the better of her two male counterparts. Just as "Spy vs. Spy" was getting tedious, along came "Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy" to juice things up. Though it was still the same joke, the variation was unique enough to refresh the premise. In fact, I would say that my favourite strips involve her, whether she is luring black and white into an open manhole or a free but deadly carnival ride. She always wins, too, "out of courtesy to women." Sadly, she disappeared from Mad three years after she debuted. Prohias said that the outcome of those strips became "too predictable".
In all, the book features 218 pages of "Spy vs. Spy" strips. While the majority of them are run one per page, some pages have as many as four strips on them. This was not a good idea. Try reading "Spy vs. Spy" at one-quarter size for more than a couple of minutes and I guarantee some of you will come away with a headache, or itchy eyes at least.
Antonio Prohias died in 1998, six years after contributing his last "Spy vs. Spy" to Mad magazine. The strip was revived by Peter Kuper in 1997, jazzed up with a cutting-edge stencil-and-spray-paint style. To judge by the examples shown in this volume, Kuper appears to have been a worthy choice as keeper of the franchise, and that's a good thing. This strip deserves to be around for quite a while longer.
In small doses, Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook is an enjoyable read. Collectively ... well, it's a valuable collector's item. Either way, if you've ever been a Mad magazine reader, your money will be well spent on this purchase. Just don't be tempted to overdo it at the first sitting.
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 7 August 2002