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Rethinking Spy vs. Spy: A Hand From One Page, A Bomb From Another

Like the spies themselves, the image we have of something is often what gets us in trouble.

A lot of people don’t really know how to talk about comics. In their readings, content takes priority over context. Even those who understand comics as a unique literary genre see a plotless, virtually wordless screwball strip like Spy vs. Spy and see nothing but clever fireworks. It’s a mindset that’s corrosive to a comic’s integrity. Within this kind of reading, style and storyline are the only things worth taking away from any graphic narrative.

At this point, the usual line would be something like “Spy vs. Spy is a commentary on the meaningless violence and espionage of the Cold War.” Which, like, yeah. But there’s a lot more going on than that, a lot more to the world Prohías has created, even though it’s a world where a phone receiver can be replaced with pistol so a prank call leads to an unplanned suicide. To describe the strip’s virtues in terms of narrative cohesion is to ignore any nuance stemming from the artist’s lived experience. 

To talk thoroughly about Spy vs. Spy is to interrogate the anatomy of metaphor. Posited: the power of a good metaphor doesn’t stem from the fact that the metaphorical comparison (eyes as bright as diamonds, a road that winds like a snake, whatever) creates a relationship, but how it transforms that relationship, bringing new richness to both sides of the metaphor. To borrow I.A. Richards’ terminology from The Philosophy of Rhetoric, those sides are the vehicle (the figurative comparison that’s being invoked) and the tenor (the subject that’s being described by said comparison). Ideally, the former wouldn’t merely act as a conduit for the latter. A truly dynamic metaphor becomes smarter and more interesting once you consider each arm of the connection and how they interact. This is why so many political cartoons are boring and stupid regardless of the politics behind them, why they have to label everything so you know what the hell they’re talking about. They focus so much on The Point that they don’t bother making that point in a way that’s engaging for the reader.

Prohías never lost sight of this. Spy vs. Spy is a political cartoon, but it’s not a Political Cartoon. The strip stakes its claim immediately via a single thematic masterstroke—overlaying the blind jingoism and deranged paranoia of Cold War politics onto the endlessly resilient slapstick framework of classic cartoons—and then spends the rest of its existence exploring every facet of that premise by remixing the established formula.