Covert comic craziness


POSTED: Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro didn't much like cartoonists, perhaps because he was so easy to lampoon himself. By the time the communists had seized Cuba, what remained of established newspaper cartoonists had to flee for their lives.

Antonio Prohias was one of these. Born in Cienfuegos, by his late 20s Prohias was a fixture at El Mundo, Cuba's largest daily, and by the 1950s he headed up various Cuban cartoonist associations.

Then, Castro. Prohias gathered up his family and brushes and fled to New York in 1960. There, knowing no English and dragging his daughter along as translator, he simply showed up in the offices of Mad magazine one July day.

It must have been quite an encounter. Gabbing in Spanish, Prohias waved around sketches of two pointy-nosed characters locked in eternal—and absurdly over-the-top—conflict. The characters were exactly the same; trilby hat, sack suit, dense eyes that looked like negatives, an endless supply of ridiculous weapons, both of an indeterminate species of creature, except that one was dressed in all black, the other in white. Their only goal was to destroy the other.

Mad editors Nick Meglin and Jerry DeFuccio immediately recognized Prohias' hidden agenda, satirizing the excesses of the Cold War as well as the budding '60s mania for spy stories. They marched Prohias through the office, showing off his sketches, eventually winding up in the suites of publisher Bill Gaines and editor Al Feldstein.

Prohias left Mad with a check for $800 for three pieces, and a standing offer to contribute more. Called “;Spy vs. Spy,”; Prohias' creation was in every issue of Mad until he retired in 1990, and even then it was carried on by other cartoonists. “;Spy vs. Spy”; became one of the most recognized comic series of all time, and the title has become a modern metaphor for meaningless mayhem.

Take that, Fidel!

Some of Prohias' early work for Mad has been recollected in three volumes by Watson-Guptil Publications—”;Missions of Madness,”; “;Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!”; and ”;Masters of Mayhem”; (each $11.99 retail price)—and it's a pleasure seeing Prohias' masterly brush work blown up. The detail and inventiveness of Prohias' universe, however, is a bit clutterly and breathless. The books are best read in short bursts.

As for what kind of creature the Spys are, ya got me. They look like medieval plague doctors. The long, birdlike nose is clearly a metaphor as well, as they're always sticking it into each others' business. And it's a handy prop for accordianing when schemes go sour.

By the way, the series of dots and dashes at the top of the Mad title pages of “;Spy vs. Spy”;? It's Morse code for “;Antonio Prohias.”;