The Strange Origin Story of ‘Spy vs. Spy’

Atlas Obscura

One of the greatest rivalries of all time has been raging since 1961 between two figures who don’t even have real names.

The pro/antagonists of the long-running gag strip Spy vs. Spy have been trying to one-up each other for decades, and it’s all thanks to a Cuban expatriate who was once accused of being a spy himself.

The creator of Spy vs Spy, Antonio Prohías, had already enjoyed a successful career as an illustrator in his native Cuba before he created the legendary strip. Born in Cienfuego, Cuba in 1921, Prohías picked up illustration at an early age thanks to a sympathetic teacher, then went on to study briefly at Havana’s San Alejandro Academy before leaving after a year to become a full-time newspaper illustrator. After working his way up through some smaller publications, and receiving a number of awards for his editorial cartoons— including Cuba’s highest newspaper honor, the  Juan Gualberto Gomez medal—Prohías achieved national fame while working for Cuba’s (at the time) largest newspaper, El Mundo, beginning at the end of the 1940s.

His style was defined by clear, bold lines, and exaggerated comic forms which would eventually evolve into the characters of Spy vs. Spy. Award-winning artist Peter Kuper, who currently creates Spy vs. Spy for MAD Magazine described the spies, saying, “They have this very strange look to them, that I’m now used to, but their shape is so odd.” Kuper, a lifelong political illustrator and author, whose latest book, Ruins, recently won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album, took over Spy vs. Spy duties in 1997. “Which is kind of wonderful because they create this surreal universe just by their appearance.”

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