When I was in the first grade, I had difficulty reading. Mother asked me why, and I said, "I don't care about those people." The people in question were Dick and Jane, who, in one memorable episode, run. Run, Dick, run, run! Look! See Dick run! I was more intrigued - not much more - by the drawings. The artist rendered the shadow of Dick's lower lip with a line, and whenever the action in Dick and Jane flagged, I practiced drawing faces with that same line under the lip.
Since Dick and Jane weren't getting the job done, Mother taught me to read using Mad Magazine and Peanuts comics. I later learned to love Peanuts, identifying with hard-beset Linus, but my first love was Mad, especially Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, and Sergio Aragones. I was fascinated by the gorgeous drawings of Mort Drucker's movie parodies, but there was too much writing for me to read, and I wasn't familiar with the movies or the actors. The cartoon I especially loved, because it had no words at all, was Spy vs Spy.
I didn't know the Cold War from a Cold Cut, but what kid doesn't think violence is a laugh-riot? Spy vs Spy was responsible for filling my visual imagination with handguns, daggers and bowling-ball-shaped bombs with little white fuses.
Above all else, the cartoon was about design. Even the name - Spy vs Spy - just look at it typed on the page. The name looks cool. Even if you couldn't read a lick, even if you were a Martian just arrived on earth who had no sense of written communication, you'd somehow know, just from the shapes and contrasts of the letters, this had to do with unceasing conflict between two precisely matched forces.
I thought the bird-like characters were chess pieces; we had a Stanton chess set, and I thought the bishops' mitres were faces, pointing upward with bulbous noses and mouths slightly agape. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Prohias had been inspired by the look of black and white bishops because his point was that the Black Spy and White Spy were completely interchangable. Even as a kid, I got that.
There wasn't one you rooted for, neither was more noble or more evil than the other. And that was what was so fascinating about the strip.
In the top panel, Prohias always had a gag in which one of the spies overcame the other - the White Spy's hand, for example, sticking in Black Spy's kitchen window, upending a skull-and-cross-bone labeled bottle, letting a single teardrop of poison fall into a coffee cup. In the following adventure - which had nothing to do with the top panel, by the way, even if we saw the Black Spy eviscerated in the opening panel, he was fresh and raring to go in the next one, (The spies were more resilent than Indian Rubber. They could be stabbed, shot, blown to bits, and be back in the next issue as good as new.) the White Spy would seem to have the upper hand, hatching a new plan to foil the Black Spy, or practicing his Judo chops, or whatever, but then, in the last panel, the Black Spy would turn it around on him, and - ha, ha! - the White Spy would go down (sometimes quite literally) in flames.
Usually, the expression on the losing spy in the last panel - assuming he wasn't atomized by a bomb or cannonball - was neither shock nor horror, but red-faced embarrassment (the cartoons were in black and white, but you could tell when they were blushing) that he'd been so caught out by his rival. If the White Spy won the encounter in the top panel, he'd lose in the main cartoon, and if the White Spy lost in one issue, he'd be sure to come out on top in the next one.
Prohias signed the strip in a series of dots and dashes spelling his name in Morse Code. I never figured that part out, but I did realize the strip itself was a code, each episode fulfilling a set of rules by which the Spy vs Spy world was governed. This is why I was not so far wrong thinking they were chess pieces; their world was a space strictly, even mathematically, of alternating black and white.
That Black Spy would win in one episode and White Spy in the next, was not a matter of fairness, so much as proportionality. When it comes to writing a musical fugue - I know nothing about writing fugues, but bear with me here - there's a set of notes or a theme that is repeated with variations until the end, a highly logical and rule-bound system of variations. As I've admitted, I don't know anything about writing fugues, but this is what Prohias taught me - not the reversal of fortune essential to narrative, although that too - but the logic of art, the power of a creator to fashion a set of arbitrary rules, and then abide by them, improvising in the details with combinations of daggers, bottles of poison, and round black bombs with little white fuses.
(Originally posted in 2012)