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  • 10.28.15

The Enduring Satire of Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy

Mad Magazine’s new Spy vs. Spy book is an homage to its cartoonist creator, and a look at how so little of human nature has changed.

The three constants in life are death, taxes, and human stupidity. We have the last of these to thank for the enduring relevance of Mad Magazine’s iconic cartoon, Spy vs. Spy, a never-ending battle between black and white-clad, but otherwise identical spies.

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Antonio ProhiaPhoto: courtesy of Mad Magazine

The cartoon, created by Antonio Prohia, began as a satirical commentary on the absurdity of the Cold War, but given how the U.S. always seems to be fighting someone, applies just as easily today. Now, Mad is showing its appreciation with the coffee table book, Spy vs. Spy: An Explosive Celebration.

Along with this appreciation, however, there’s also a great deal of inside history.

“Prohias fled to the United States from Cuba, where he was working as a political cartoonist,” says Mad editor John Ficarra. “When his cartoons criticized the new Castro regime, the Cuban dictator immediately put Prohias’ name on a death list. (We have a similar policy at Mad regarding artists who speak ill of us, but probably the less said about that, the better.)”

The book, with a forward by comedian Lewis Black, includes 150 of Prohia’s strips from 1961 to 1987, as well as those by current Spy artist/writer Peter Kuper. Ficarra, art director Sam Viviano, associate art director Ryan Flanders, and artist Sergio Aragones weigh in with historical context and remembrances of an artist known for his warmth, gregariousness and generosity.

Peter KuperPhoto: Holly Kuper

“Once on a Mad trip to Miami, Antonio took several contributors out for an authentic Cuban dinner,” says Ficarra. “The restaurant walls were filled with his sketches and drawings and its staff treated him like a rock star.”

There are also exclusive posters of Spy interpretations from 15 artists, including DC Comics co-publisher Jim Lee, Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, Bill Sienkiewicz, Andre Carrilho, and Darwyn Cooke.

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Prohias passed away in 1998, two years before Mad converted to color, so Prohias’ strips have been specially colorized for the book.

“The thing I really love about Prohias’ Spy strips is the elegant chaos,” says Ficarra. “Each panel of a strip has a brilliantly designed, surreal quality. But when you pull back and view the entire page, it all comes together in this wonderful piece of art. The addition of color really brings the strip to a whole new level.”

When Antonio could no longer do the strip because of health reasons, Ficarra and co-editor Nick Meglin appointed Kuper to take over.

“We could tell from his work that he and Prohias were kindred spirits, communicating with few words and bold images,” says Ficarra. “But Peter had his own distinctive style. We didn’t want the strip to look like someone aping Prohias, but instead using his great foundation and then making it his own. Peter did just that, with his black and white, then color air-brush stencil techniques, before morphing into today’s bold line with color and a monochromatic secondary strip.”

While the characters don’t look exactly the same as they always have, their essential satirical utility has survived intact. Have a look through some images from the book in the slides above.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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