Castro's anger paved the way for the iconic 'Spy vs. Spy' cartoons

By SARAH MORENO | The Miami Herald | Published: January 19, 2021

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Some years back, when Madonna used a white pant suit for the Oscars and later that night changed into the same outfit in black, adding a hat that gave her an air of mystery, the memes followed quickly.

One showed Madonna next to the well-known cartoon spies and arch-enemies dressed in black and white, the characters in the famed Spy vs Spy strip created by Cuba-born Antonio Prohías in 1960 for Mad Magazine, the U.S. satire publication.

The use of Prohías' spies to make fun of a pop icon like Madonna proved not just how deeply the characters were carved into U.S. culture, with the spies also appearing in video games and animated cartoons. It was also another sign of the universal success of a Cuban exile.

Prohías arrived in New York in May of 1960 with just $5 in his pocket, pressured to leave Cuba after Fidel Castro accused him of being a CIA agent.

"The sweetest revenge has been to turn Fidel's accusation of me as a spy into a money-making venture," Prohías said in a 1983 interview with the Miami Herald. "One of these days I am going to have to make a sign saying, 'Thank You, Fidel.'"

On the 100th anniversary of his birth last Sunday — the Cienfuegos native died in Miami in 1998 — Prohías is still spreading laughter with his Cold War spies, who pummeled each other brutally with whatever sophisticated weapons they could grab from the black humor bag of their creator.

But he was always careful that neither spy ever defeated the other because of the limits placed on his work by Mad, according to his daughter Marta Pizarro, who accompanied Prohías to his first interview with the magazine as an interpreter because he did not speak English.

That was July 12, 1960, Pizarro told the Nuevo Herald, a date she will never forget because it was her birthday.

"They were crazy, the most incredible people I ever knew. They opened the door and sang an opera," Pizarro said of the creative atmosphere at Mad.

The magazine editors just needed to ask the Cuban who was trying to sell them his cartoons to draw a few images, to make sure he was the author. Luckily, art director John Putnam spoke Spanish. Prohías had wisely drawn his spies without words.

The cartoonist left the interview with an $800 check and a one-year contract — no doubt a huge boost at the time because Prohías was working in a factory and selling a few cartoons to Hispanic publications to support his wife and children Marta and Antonio.

Pizarro said one of her father's strengths was his intuition, which helped him to create the Sinister Man and Sinister Woman characters in Cuba, before Castro seized power in 1959, for Cuban publications like El Mundo, Bohemia and Zig-Zag, which became popular because they reflected the fears and hopes of Cubans at the time.

When Castro entered Havana in early 1959, at the head of an armed column of his guerrillas, Prohías watched on television and is said to have declared, "This is so bad. Mussolini entering Rome!"

A student who got into trouble with his Marist priest teachers in primary school for doodling in class, Prohías had started to cast a critical eye on island governments long before 1959.

One of his cartoons from that time criticized corruption, Pizarro recalled. A cabinet minister had been fired for stealing, and Prohías drew an empty room over the text, "You could have left the nails."

With the same sense for what his audience wanted, Prohías created a new character in 1959 for Prensa Libre: Tovarich — Russian for comrade —who wore a Russian hat and often appeared before the Kremlin. Everyone knew Tovarich was a reference to Cuba, already by then experiencing a shortage of food and a surplus of censorship.

The cartoon that really angered Castro showed a skeleton sitting at a table with an empty plate, trying to use a hammer and sickle as fork and knife. To see it is to hear Cubans, from then until today, repeat the common phrase "You can't eat ideology."

"He was a visionary on politics. He was one of the first to denounce the political censorship of Fidel Castro," said journalist José Antonio Evora, who has studied Cuban humor and wrote a book on another famed island cartoonist, Juan David.

Prohías quickly became the target of censorship and persecution. A government agent watched from a corner near his house, and another with a pistol on his belt made sure he was seen near his office, the cartoonist recalled during the 1983 interview with the Herald.

Like independent journalists in Cuba today, his freedom of movement was limited. He was then president of the Association of Cartoonists and had won several awards for journalists and cartoonists. But he had been marked by Castro in a lengthy speech that attacked him and served as a warning to other humorists.

He was forced to resign from the newspaper El Mundo, where he had started working in the 1940s and had become the official cartoonist. He created no more covers for the magazine Bohemia and no more strips of Sinister Man — a cartoon born out of a lie.

After Castro's unsuccessful attack on the Moncada army barracks in 1953, a "collective hysteria" erupted in Cuba, Prohías told the Herald in the interview. Somebody claimed the rebels also had blown up a key bridge in Havana, so Prohías went to check it out. The bridge was intact, but he went home and drew the first Sinister Man strip.

Without words, bare stylized strokes and a hat, that was the character that became unforgettable for many generations of Cubans, whether Prohías was living in the winter of New York or the heat of Miami.

"With a modern drawing style, very succinct, which he went on polishing and removing excess to go directly to the heart," as film and culture critic Alejandro Ríos put it, Prohías triumphed in the United States. He stood out because of his singular eye for the breadth of Cuban humor, and that's what the editors at Mad noticed, added Evora.

Prohías retired in 1987 and came to Miami to live with his family. His youngest child, Susana, was born here and Marta and Antonio still live in the area. He spent his final years listening to radio, said Pizarro.

Like his characters, Prohías preferred action over words. One of his best anecdotes was about winning his first Juan Gualberto Gómez Prize in journalism when he was just 24 years old. He was so proud that he stared continually at the framed prize, he told The Herald.

"I am so smart," he would tell himself. But he was paralyzed. He was not drawing. After a few days he realized that his best work was yet to come and he had to start drawing again. That was his legacy.

He died at the age of 77 in Miami and is buried in Caballero Rivero Woodlawn North Park.

Despite decades of fighting, Prohías' spies have not managed to destroy each other, and Warner Bros. is planning a movie version of Spy vs Spy.

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