Antonio Prohías, an exiled Cuban cartoonist who ended up at MAD magazine, has finally caught the eye of some culture ministers at the Smithsonian magazine.
Never mind the fact that much of their story is lifted from another publication, or that they fail to mention the artists’s first name in their article.
Never mind the slightly condescending tone and all the Cold War claptrap.
Never mind the fact that they link this story to an earlier Smithsonian article that parrots all of the worst myths about gangster-infested hedonistic pre-Castro Cuba (“Cubans grew accustomed to the luxuries of American life. They drove American cars, owned TVs, watched Hollywood movies and shopped at Woolworth’s department store. The youth listened to rock and roll, learned English in school, adopted American baseball and sported American fashions…. In return, Cuba got hedonistic tourists, organized crime and General Fulgencio Batista.”)
Prohías deserves all the attention… and much more. He was wonderfully unique.
His “Spy versus Spy” characters live on, nearly twenty years after his death, as seemingly immortal as Mickey Mouse or Alfred E. Newman.
And his anti-Fidel cartoons are among the best ever drawn by any exile in the early years of the Castronoid nightmare.
It took a Cuban illustrator to really capture the essence of Cold War intelligence and counter-intelligence for the MAD-reading public.
After penning one too many cartoons that were critical of Fidel Castro, Prohías — who was a prominent cartoonist and illustrator in his home country — headed for New York, writes Eric Grundhauser for Atlas Obscura. At the time, he didn’t speak a word of English.
“In New York, Prohías took work in a factory during the day, while working up his illustration portfolio at night,” Grundhauser writes. He changed the appearance of one of his characters from the strip he published in Cuba, El Hombre Siniestro, and gave him a counterpart: Spy vs. Spy was born.
“In 1960, just months after moving to the city, Prohías, along with his daughter Marta who acted as an intepreter, walked unannounced into the offices of MAD Magazine,” Grundhauser writes. “The editors were skeptical of the artist, but his silly spy gags won them over, and he had sold three of the strips to the magazine before leaving that day.”
His reason for going to MAD with his idea, writes scholar Teodora Carabas: he liked the magazine’s name. The Black Spy and White Spy have been a fixture in MAD ever since, appearing in the magazine’s Joke and Dagger Department. The strip’s appeal, which was one of the artist’s signature strengths, was partly its silence, writes Grundhausen. Like El Hombre Siniestro (“The Sinister Man”), the spies’ adventures were wordless, violent and hilarious, drawn in a dramatic style. Many of the jokes aren’t outwardly political, he writes, but Prohías said El Hombre was inspired by “the national psychosis of the Cuban people.”
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