This week's Sunday Long Read comes to us from Gyasi Hall at Longreads, who takes a fresh look at the six-decade history of Antonio Prohias's iconic, subversive, and surreal masterpiece Cold War comic, MAD Magazine's Spy vs. Spy.
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.
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.
Me, I had all three Spy vs. Spy video games on the C64 (but not the bad 2005 PS2 game, they did the spies dirty on that one) and enjoyed them very much. I also remember the animated Spy vs. Spy cartoons as part of MADtv back in the 90's.
Without a word of dialogue, Spy vs. Spy was arguably one of the best examples of showing a story rather than telling it.
Really do need a 2023 remake of those C64 titles though.