The seventy-first issue of MAD Magazine, cover dated June 1962, contains a noteworthy entry in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy, a comic strip depicting Looney Tunes-style espionage between two pointy-headed, monochromatic secret agents. This particular installment isn’t the series’ best strip: it’s not the one with the most elaborate explosions, the most clever ending, or the one that’s most exemplary of Prohías’ precise and peerless art style. But it is, for me, the most Spy vs. Spy strip ever, the one that best distills the already simplified distillate and sums up the whole enterprise.
One spy, sporting a trenchcoat, a wide-brimmed G-Man fedora, and secret service shades—a collection of clichéd noir signifiers, all in stark black—stands out in a field with a bucket of water. The moon is full and beautiful. The other spy, identical except in blinding white, peeks out from behind a tree, trying to suss out what his rival is up to. Black Spy stares at the moon through an elaborate sextant, adjusting various settings and making mental calculations, finally drawing an X on the ground with a compass before setting the bucket down. As he leaves, White Spy sneaks up to it, peers inside, trying to figure out what this could all mean. In the last panel, Black Spy has snuck back around to give White Spy a swift kick in the ass, grinning triumphantly as his enemy falls headfirst into the bucket, soaked and seeing stars.
This is the essence of Spy vs. Spy: delightfully stupid without ever being mean, delightfully simple without ever being dumb. Prohías’ comics are as perfect an example of the medium as you’re ever likely to find—even more so, I’d argue, than other all-time strips like Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, since its wordless pantomime operates so effortlessly using the mechanics of graphic narrative as its sole language. The above strip works so well because it forgoes high-concept gadgetry to make the petty, low-stakes reality of the spies’ eternal struggle that much clearer. It’s a perfect way to frame the proceeding complexities of the franchise as a whole.