Since 1961, readers of Mad magazine have taken pleasure in the suffering of two strange, bird-like figures, one wearing a white trench coat and matching hat, the other sporting a similar ensemble in all black. In each wordless installment of Spy Vs. Spy, the two unnamed characters don elaborate disguises and construct ingenious death traps in order to kill one another. Each has succeeded and failed many dozens of times. These iconic, constantly regenerating characters have been double- and triple-crossing each other for decades, not only in the pages of Mad but in video games and books, too—not to mention animated shorts on Fox and Cartoon Network. As part of its “Rivals Week,” Atlas Obscura presents the history of this seminal comic feature and the brilliant cartoonist behind it in an article by Eric Grundhauser called “How Cuba’s Greatest Cartoonist Fled From Castro And Created ‘Spy Vs. Spy.’”
As the article reveals, the creator of Spy Vs. Spy was a Cuban-born cartoonist named Antonio Prohías (1921-1998), whose sly, satirical work had won him his country’s top accolades. Prohías’ cartoons had often poked fun at the regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, so the artist initially earned the praise of Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro, when the latter took power in 1959. But soon, Castro began suspecting that Prohías was a spy and began getting him fired or banned from various publications. Fed up with this treatment, Prohías headed for New York, despite the fact that he knew not a word of English. Fortunately, the cartoonist’s portfolio earned him a place in the pages of Mad on the very first day he visited the magazine’s office. “The editors were skeptical of the artist,” Grundhauser writes, “but his silly spy gags won them over, and he had sold three of the strips to the magazine before leaving that day.”
Health problems forced Prohías to retire in the late 1980s, but Spy Vs. Spy has proven to be as death-proof as its two title characters. Currently, the feature is carried on by artist Peter Kuper, who believes that the secret of the strip’s success is that it remains wordless. “You can be preliterate and get them,” he says.