When two nations go to war, neither one wins. Well, actually, one side usually wins, but that victory is fleeting. In the next encounter, the winner is just as likely to end up the loser, and that cycle of conflict can continue forever. That seems to be the message of Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs. Spy strips: One day you’re clubbing/shooting/poisoning/bombing/dropping a boulder on your foe, the next you’re being clubbed/shot/poisoned/bombed/having a boulder dropped on you.
The late Prohias’ Spy Vs. Spy was, of course, a mainstay in Mad magazine, where it enjoyed a 26 year run under his pen (and where it still continues, currently under Peter Kuper). In that time, it was often the magazine’s most accessible feature: Silent, short and physical-comedy driven, one didn’t need to know anything about politics or pop culture to get it…hell, one didn’t even need to know how to read.
For those whose favorite part of Mad was Spy Vs. Spy, publisher Watson-Guptill has a couple of treats: Republications of three paperback collections, subtitled Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!, Missions of Madness and Masters of Mayhem. Each is in the basic format of a manga digest, making them perfectly constructed to share shelf-space in libraries and book stores, and is around the cost of a manga volume as well ($12 a pop).
The collections aren’t divided into volumes, and it hardly matters what order one reads them in, or if one bothers with more than one—Prohias’ strips are all self-contained, and there’s no larger story that needs to be followed, no state of affairs that isn’t completely re-set with each new strip, beyond the fact that the black spy and the white spy are always trying to get the better of one another.
The simplicity of the concept is, of course, also one of the work’s greatest virtues. One spy builds an elaborate trap, and then the other spy either falls for it, or counters with an even more elaborate trap of his own. Every time. So the traps become more and more elaborate by necessity. And this went on for over 25 years!
The concept may be simple, but the work Prohias must have done thinking of different ways to riff on that concept must have been staggering. After all, he had to do the thinking for two extremely devious characters constantly out-thinking one another, and while the endings are almost always the same, the insanely circuitous route that one spy will go to smash another in the face with a large rock were endlessly inventive.
As a little kid, I was content to see a bird-man in a funny hat get his pointy face crumpled up by a knotted club or blown up with one of those cartoon bombs that looks like a cannon ball with a fuse. Now I look at some of the same strips with awe at how Prohias orchestrated the slapstick violence. He was like the Leopold Stokowski of cartoon violence.