Thursday, December 1, 2011

Spy vs. Spy

The other day while waiting to get some dental work done I discovered a Mad magazine in the waiting room. It turns out that our dentist believed no waiting room is complete without Mad. Despite the price inflation (one edition today could get you 24 issues in 1964) it sent me back in time, and when I got home Tuesday evening I pulled an old issue out of my garage to share here.

No remembrance of the Sixties is complete without tipping the hat to Mad magazine, of which I will say little except to say the quarter price tag back then was a wonderful way to have my allowance money picked from my pocket on a monthly basis. The magazine contents were a spot-on commentary on the times, and against the backdrop of the Cold War, Mad editors began in 1961 to carry a regular cartoon feature by Antonio Prohias called Spy vs. Spy.

Even with no understanding of the Cold War the wordless Spy vs. Spy comic was entertaining to the very youngest Mad readers. Like many children's stories, new levels of meaning emerge with our maturing life experience. The first Spy vs. Spy appeared during the era of Kruschev and Kennedy and continued right into the latter part of the Reagan years.

The basic story line involves two characters, identical in every respect except that one is black and the other white. At the top of the page Mad's editors identified the various parts of the magazine with clever chapter titles like Berg's-Eye View Dept. (Dave Berg's pointed satire) and Don Martin Dept. (another singular Mad cartoonist.) Spy vs. Spy was in the Joke and Dagger Dept., which if you don't get it then maybe you will when you're older and have a little more life experience.

There would often be two cartoons on a stand alone page with the top being a stand alone story incorporated into the title, below which there are black dots and dashes of Morse Code. It might be interesting to translate this code, something I can't recall doing when I was young and in school. The second cartoon would be like comic strips where there is a story going on. The spies were always trying to outwit one another and blow each other up or do some other kind of permanent damage.

The Mad magazine from which this Spy vs. Spy was extracted appeared in January 1964, the same month that our family moved from Maple Heights, Ohio to New Jersey. I turned twelve later that year, and the event marked a watershed in my life against which all my memories of youth are categorized. Before and after the move. Before the move I remember buying Mad magazine at the Lawson's store when my dad would run out to get milk. (I used to by Famous Monsters of Filmland when I saved up my quarters for two weeks.) After we moved to New Jersey we'd find our Mad magazines at the Farmer's Market in Bound Brook.

Antonio Prohias was a political cartoonist in Cuba who often poked fun of Fidel Castro, until just before Castro came to power at which time he had to flee to the U.S. in May 1960. Two months later he was knocking on the editorial door of Mad headquarters in New York to show a prototype of this cartoon concept. Booby traps and bombs, an ingenious variant on the Roadrunner and Wiley Coyote concept... or parody of the CIA and KGB.

There was a lot of upheaval in that Sixties decade, but it created some great entertainment, too. And gave Mad magazine plenty to talk about.

On another topic, if you're in Duluth, don't miss the Enger Tower Fund Raising Calendar event at Blackwater tonight, 4:30 - 6:30. Be there or be square. Till the morrow.

EdNote: Click images to enlarge


Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

The Portuguese-translated version of MAD was very popular among Brazilian kids. The bulky summer edition made for excellent beach reading. The translation of Reader's Digest was popular among adults. Both MAD and Reader's Digest kept their original English titles on their covers.
Some pop work will cross into other cultures more easily than others. In France and Brazil, Disney comic books were very popular in the past, and in France they are very popular yet today. During my 12-year stay in America I've never put my hands on a Disney comic book, but here in France they are sold in every street corner. They even have a Scrooge McDuck's hefty monthly edition.

ENNYMAN said...

Interesting details. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the paperback books made from many of these Mad writer... whole volumes of Don Martin or Lighter Side of... and even Spy vs Spy. Just goes to show... content is king.