'Spy vs. Spy'.

Antonio Prohías was a Cuban-American comic artist and one of the "usual gang of idiots" in Mad. He is best known for his signature series 'Spy vs. Spy' (1961-2021), which he drew personally until 1987. The pantomime comic featured the never-ending rivalry between a black and white spy. While a straightforward gag series, its surreal situations reflected the Cold War in all its paranoia and absurdity. Even outside this context 'Spy vs. Spy' has remained remarkably timeless. One of the longest-running features in Mad Magazine, it was continued by other cartoonists up until 2021. 

Early life and career
Antonio Prohías was born in 1921 in Cienfuegos, Cuba. A sympathetic teacher noticed his drawing talent and encouraged him to keep drawing. Prohías studied briefly at the San Alejandro Academy in Havana but left after a year to become a full-time newspaper cartoonist. Right from the start all his comics used pantomime comedy.


Early comics
His political gag comic 'Liborito' (1948) debuted in Diario de la Marina. The comic starred a little man, Liborito, who was a take-off of Liborio (1905-1931), the national representation of Cuba as created by Cuban cartoonist Ricardo de la Torriente in La Politica Cómica. In Prohías' version, however, Liborito is a little man who interacts with caricatures of real-life politicians. Prohías also made a gag comic, 'Erizo' (1948), which ran in Carteles, while his comic 'Oveja Negra' ("Black Sheep", 1949) about a young boy, appeared in Información. Soon the cartoonist worked himself up as the house cartoonist of El Mundo, the newspaper with the largest circulation on Cuba.

El Hombre Siniestro
In El Mundo Prohías created the best known series from his early years: 'El Hombre Siniestro' ("The Sinister Man", 1956-1959), which ran in the magazines Bohemia and Zig-Zag Libre too. Like his name implies, the Sinister Man is a shady character. He attacks and tortures people, not being above hurting children and dogs either. His pointy nose and sadistic tendencies already bring 'Spy vs. Spy' in mind. Prohías described El Hombre Siniestro as being born out of the "national psychosis of the Cuban people". He also drew a female spin-off, 'La Mujer Siniestra', whose acts of sadism are mostly a result of jealousy towards other women.


Many of Prohías' cartoons were highly critical of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who ruled the island between 1940-1944 and seized power again in 1952. On 1 January 1959 he was deposed by Fidel Castro. At first Prohías was glad about the political changes, particularly since Castro praised his anti-Batista stance. The new leader even personally awarded him a medal. But it soon became clear that the new regime was just as repressive. Prohías created a gag comic 'Tovarich' (1959) for Prensea Libra, which starred a Communist tyrant in the Soviet Union. Yet the character looked like Castro and much of the comedy obviously referred to Cuba, rather than Russia. During this period Prohías also made more straightforward critical cartoons against Castro. Years later, reprints of 'Tovarich' would appear in issue #68 of Mad Magazine (January 1962).

Translation: "Comrade Nikita, Some guy called Castro is asking if we have already erected a statue of him next to Lenin on the Red Square, as you promised."

Move to the United States
Predictably, Prohías was now accused of being a C.I.A. infiltrant. Most magazines refused to publish his cartoons any longer. With his life in serious danger, Prohías decided to move to the United States. On 1 May 1960 he immigrated to Florida, with other subversive Cuban cartoonists like Miguel Fernandez-Callejas, Silvio Fontanillas, David P. Garcia, Idilio Gonzalez, Niko Luhrsen and Antonio Rubio following in his wake.

Mad Magazine
In his new home country Prohías had to work in a factory to make ends meet. Looking for a job as a cartoonist he heard about Mad Magazine. Since he barely spoke English, he had no idea what the magazine was about: he just liked the sound of it. On 12 July 1960 he simply walked into their offices in New York City and took his daughter Marta with him as an interpreter. He presented a gag comic about two spies. Just like his Cuban cartoons it was all done in pantomime. At first chief editor Al Feldstein and publisher William M. Gaines weren't sure about this job application by someone without an appointment who only spoke Spanish. At the time, Cold War paranoia was so high that merely hiring a Cuban refugee was extremely suspicious to the outside world. Especially considering the fact that F.B.I. boss J. Edgar Hoover already kept files about Mad Magazine and had even threatened them to tone down jokes at his expense. In terms of content, Prohías' cartoons also seemed somewhat out of place. His gag comic lacked the wacky and satirical comedy Mad was known for. But in the end they gave him a chance and bought three of his cartoons for publication.

First episode of 'Spy vs. Spy', published in Mad #60 (1961).

Spy vs. Spy
The first episode of 'Spy vs. Spy' appeared in Mad issue #60 (January 1961). The two protagonists are identical-looking, pointy-nosed spies with large trilby hats, face masks and long overcoats. They look a bit like medieval plague doctors. The only way to tell them apart is the colour of their clothing. One is dressed in white, the other in black. Since they never received a name, fans always refer to them by their colours. In each episode the spies try to outwit each other. They put on disguises, set up traps and ambushes. Invariably one of them loses, sometimes in a violent way. But in the best cartoon tradition they always return alive and well for their next confrontation. All episodes have traditionally been featured in the magazine's 'Joke and Dagger Department' (a pun on the term "cloak and dagger").

Despite the formulaic set-up, 'Spy vs. Spy' did offer clever variations on the characters' never-ending rivalry. Readers could never predict which one would win? Prohías enjoyed using twist endings. Sometimes one of them appears to know what the other is up to, but is still defeated because he didn't see another trap coming. In other episodes he still manages to come out on top, because he had another trick up his sleeve. Sometimes both spies lose. The series had no other characters, though in issue #73 (September 1962) a female spy dressed in grey made her debut. Prohías used her for a few episodes, but since she usually defeats them both, she made the series too predictable and was written out again.

'Spy vs. Spy'.

'Spy vs. Spy' remained a staple of Mad for decades. It was one of the few comics to actually have recurring characters, along with Don Martin's 'Captain Klutz' (who only appeared in Mad's paperbacks), Kaputnik and the doctor in Dave Berg's 'The Lighter Side of...' and later Anthony Barbieri and Bill Wray's 'Monroe'. Prohías was also the first Hispanic contributor to Mad, paving the way for later regulars such as Sergio Aragonés and Angelo Torres. In fact, he personally helped Aragonés during his job interview, even though his attempts to act as an interpreter were so bad that Feldstein and Gaines thought Aragonés was Prohías' brother! Indeed Prohías never mastered English and therefore kept 'Spy vs. Spy' as visual as possible. This made it easily translatable in foreign editions of Mad and especially towards children who couldn't read yet. Together with Aragonés' work it was Mad's most well known pantomime comic.

Media adaptations
Of all features in Mad, 'Spy vs. Spy' lend itself most easily to merchandising spin-offs, such as trading cards, action figures, a 1986 board game and 1984 and 2005 video games. Already cartoony in itself, the duo was also adapted into a series of animated shorts. The first attempt was made in 1974, when Mad made a TV special which unfortunately never aired because it was deemed too family unfriendly for prime time viewers. Between 1995 and 2009 the magazine broadcast its own satirical live-action sketch show, MADtv, which during its first three seasons often featured animated intermezzos featuring the two spies, produced by Rough Draft Korea. Between 2010 and 2013 the animated series 'Mad' on Cartoon Network also featured 'Spy vs. Spy' cartoons, produced by Warner Bros. Animation. In 2004, in perhaps the most controversial move for die-hard Mad fans, 'Spy vs. Spy' appeared in a series of TV commercials for Mountain Dew soda.

'Spy vs. Spy' header from Mad #91, with credit byline in Morse code.

In an interview with the Miami Herald (1983), Prohías noticed the irony that Castro once accused him of being a spy and that he now earned money with a comic satirizing espionage. To bring his point even more across, the credit byline was never in normal alphabet, but always used Morse Code spelling. While 'Spy vs. Spy' is an apolitical comic, it is still a typical product of the Cold War era. Around the time of its debut, espionage scandals dominated international headlines. In 1962 the C.I.A. discovered Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. Diplomatic tensions about its removal led to the Cuba Crisis between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., which nearly plummited the world into a nuclear war. Even when the crisis was resolved, it didn't diminish the paranoia between capitalist and communist countries by an inch. On a lighter note, spy fiction grew in popularity during the 1960s, thanks to films like 'James Bond' and TV shows such as 'Get Smart', 'I Spy' and 'The Saint'. In that regard 'Spy vs. Spy' held its finger on an era. The two spies usually spend more time trying to eliminate each other than do actual useful work. The fact that they regard each other as enemies - while looking and acting exactly the same - is also a fitting metaphor. It's somewhat symbolic that Prohías ended 'Spy vs. Spy' in 1987, when the Cold War was thawing. Two years later the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall would be dismantled too.

Spy vs. Spy after Prohías' departure
When Prohías retired, he had created over 241 episodes of 'Spy vs. Spy', the last one appearing in issue #269 (March 1987). Since it was now such an iconic feature, the series was continued by other cartoonists. Few other recurring comics in Mad received this honour, except of course their movie, TV and other satirical comic strips which weren't tied to one specific writer or artist, anyway. Duck Edwing became the main writer between 1987 and 2002, while Bob Clarke illustrated the series until 1993. After two gags by George Woodbridge the same year, Dave Manak continued the comic strip until 1997. John Schneider scripted a few gags between 1994 and 1995, while Jonathan Bresman and Michael Gallagher each contributed one in respectively 1994 and 1996. Edwing and Manak also created a Sunday comic version of 'Spy vs. Spy', which ran between 7 April and 29 December 2002, syndicated by Tribune Media Services. From 1997 until 2021 Peter Kuper was the fifth and final cartoonist to continue 'Spy vs. Spy', while Michael Gallagher, Bill Janocha and Dave Croatto sometimes acted as scriptwriters during this period. As a long-time fan, Kuper was able to mimick the feel of Prohías' artwork while still doing his own thing, like making the slapstick more gruesomely violent. On the other side of the spectrum, Mad's short-lived spin-off magazine for grade school audiences, Mad Kids (2005-2009), featured a junior spin-off of the two spies, playing mere practical jokes on each other. This children's version was drawn by Nate Neal.

'The Tourist', from Mad #150, April 1972. 

Other work for Mad
While Prohías remains best known for 'Spy vs. Spy' he created other work for Mad too. He drew various one-shot pantomime gag comics, such as 'A Portfolio of Mad Blooming Idiosyncrasies' (issue #115, December 1967), 'Vengeance' (issue #66, October 1961), 'The Tourist' (issue #150, April 1972), 'The Treasure Map' (issue #159, June 1973), 'The Old Ball Game' (issue #161, September 1973), 'A Witch's Tale' (issue #163, December 1973) and 'On a Safari' (issue #167, June 1974). He also contributed the gag comic 'The Diplomat' to the first Mad Special in the fall of 1970 and 'The Irony of Fate' to the second special (Spring 1971). In the 11th special (Winter 1973) one could read his 'The Photo Contest', while 'The Pearl' appeared in the 16th special (Fall, 1975).

Prohías wrote gags for some of Mad's covers, all illustrated by Norman Mingo. Among them are Mad's mascot Alfred E. Neuman using a tooth brush lacking a few hairs (issue #109, March 1967) and a similar joke with him eating a corn cob, only leaving space where his gap teeth are (issue #154, October 1972). He also came up with the cover where Alfred uses a magnet to attract money in a sewer hole, only to find someone from below doing the same thing (issue #110, April 1967). Prohías furthermore wrote the gag where Alfred sits in a tire-swing while he holds the very same branch that carries him (issue #134, April 1970), the one where Mad paint is rolled on a wall (issue #148, January 1972) and Alfred is surrounded by umbrella's despite lack of rain (issue #175, June 1975). Interestingly enough Prohías never designed a cover himself, though in the Mad logo of issue #101 (March 1966) he hid his signature spies inside. Last but not least Prohías also wrote one gag for Don Martin, 'One Special Day in the Dungeon' (issue #277, March 1988), which also happened to be the final comic strip Martin ever drew for Mad.

Spy vs. Spy, by Antonio Prohias

In 1946 Prohías won the Juan Gualberto Award.

Final years and death
By the late 1980s Prohías was already in ill health due to a muscular disease, which left him unable to continue drawing. He died in 1998 from lung cancer. His daughter Susana is active as a pop singer, Suzi Queen Moon, who recorded a song, 'I Spy on You' (2019), in tribute to her father's signature comic strip. She produces a documentary about her father's life and career.

Legacy and influence
National Lampoon once spoofed Mad Magazine in their 147th issue (November 1971), complete with a 'Spy vs. Spy' parody drawn by Babi Jery. The song 'Havana Affair' (1976) by The Ramones, from their debut album 'Ramones' (1976) was inspired by 'Spy vs. Spy', just like the title of John Zorn's album 'Spy vs. Spy' (1989) - of which the cover was designed by Mark Beyer. The same year Mort Drucker added a character wearing a 'Spy vs. Spy' shirt on the cover of Anthrax' album 'State of Euphoria'. The white spy also briefly appeared in Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' episode 'The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson', when Bart Simpson visits Mad's headquarters. In Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' the spies has a cameo in the episode 'Spies Reminiscent of Us' (2009), while they were also parodied in Seth Green's 'Robot Chicken'. Film director John Woo (famous for 'Hard Boiled' and 'Face/Off') said in his book 'John Woo: Interviews' (2006) that 'Spy vs. Spy' was his favorite comic strip. A 1980s Australian ska/rock band named themselves Spy vs. Spy. 

In 2015 'Spy vs. Spy: An Explosive Celebration' (2015) was published, a compilation book with a foreword by Lewis Black, featuring 'Spy vs. Spy' episodes by both Prohías and his successors. The book also presents tribute illustrations by Orlando Arocena, Peter Bagge, Tom Bunk, André Carrilho, Darwyn Cooke, Evan Dorkin, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Jim Lee, Hermann Mejia, Tony Millionaire, Nathan Sawaya, Yuko Shimizu, Bill Sienkiewicz, Bob Staake and Rich Webber. Sergio Aragonés also made a comic strip story about how he first met Prohías.

Self-portrait from 1969.

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