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3X Spy Vs. Spy
posted August 20, 2009


Titles: Spy Vs. Spy: Missions of Madness, Spy Vs. Spy: Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!, Spy Vs. Spy: Masters of Mayhem
Creator: Antonio Prohias
Publishing Information: Watson-Guptill, paperback, 192 pages, August 2009, $11.99 each
Ordering Numbers: 9780823050505 (Missions Of Madness), 9780823050529 (Danger! Intrigue! Stupidity!), 9780823050512 (Masters of Mayhem)

I consider myself a fan of the sharp, energetic cartooning of the late, great Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias, and like most people of a certain age in comics and out I certainly admire the life story of someone who was forced to American shores (and its cartoon markets) via direct threat by Fidel Castro. I am also a comics publishing enthusiast who believes in multiple formats for single works. I want as many comics in as many ways as can sustain an audience, a readership served that might engage different entry points to find the one that works best for them. This isn't even a philosophy that flatters comics of massive popularity, as Los Bros Hernandez have done well from a variety of platforms serving their relatively modest audience. Yet for the life of me I can't imagine the necessity for three new paperbacks of classic Spy Vs. Spy material.

Here's the thing. Not only was a complete book published in this decade that seems would serve both an audience of outright enthusiasts and anyone that may want this material for its historical import, not only are the original paperbacks readily available in used bookstores around the nation, Prohias is a cartoonist mostly ill-served by paperback collection in the first place. Smaller pages limit Prohias to a one-per-page rhythm that makes his cartoons seem much more formulaic than they felt on initial publication. Reading a bunch of these comics in a row -- save perhaps when researching the work, as is more easily accomplished with the one-volume -- presents problems, too. The feature was never so tightly conceived one gets a thrill out of slight tweaks in approach. It hits reasonably simple narrative notes in a variety of ways, and always getting that one image per page makes the feature appear much more plodding than it ever was in the magazine format. You also rob it of its place in context of the magazine itself. Reading a long series of Spy Vs. Spy cartoons is like listening to three hours of Fibber McGee's closet exploding open, or watching 60 minutes of Michael Richards plunging through Jerry's door on Seinfeld. A moment of energetic, silent cartooning in the midst of MAD's verbal gymnastics was a wonderful change of pace; you don't get that in a collection. You also trade the constant, gentle, insistent reminder that was the feature's criticism of the futility of the Cold War over years and years for a 45-minute lecture that the Cold War was stupid. I think the former was much more effective.

The saving grace, of course, is that many of the cartoons are inventive and weird, far stranger in some cases than one might remember -- Mort Weisinger-era Superman weird at times. They certainly look wonderful, with a greater variety in design choices and ways of depicting action and cruelty than you might remember, especially had you come to the feature later in Prohias' admirable quarter-century run. I'm glad for these books, but I'm unconvinced they're necessary. There are better ways to experience this work, and none as effective as how they were first encountered.

Updated: It's been suggested to me that these aren't reprints of the MAD strips, but reprints of books where that material was originally created for those paperbacks. My apologies for any error. I did check to see if any books had come out under these names, but I hadn't considered that this might be all original work under a different title as opposed to overlapping reprints of the magazine material under different titles. I can't find the answer in the books themselves although there are ways the presentational copy is written that suggest either might be the case. If that's the case, the construction of my review is a lost cause as are the specifics of my indictment of the publisher in reprinting the work. I would instead have to put forward much harsher appraisal of Prohias' comics here. If these were intended for this format, the fact that they're plodding, don't flow very well in several instances as page to page progressions and that they end up being repetitive and dull and lacking in cumulative effect is all on him. In either case, Prohias' considerable talent as expressed in this showcase was much, much better served to the serial MAD publications.