The internet is reverberating this week with the sad news of the changes coming for MAD Magazine. I’m one of the mourners; when I was growing up, we always had MAD in the house, and I’m one of those people who got more pop culture knowledge from the movie and TV satires than from actual movies and TV.
When I saw the news, I remembered an interview I did with Peter Kuper and then MAD editor John Ficarra back in 2013, when Kuper took over the venerable Spy vs. Spy feature. As sometimes happens, the interview slid to the bottom of the pile and never got published. Until now.
How did you get this gig, and what in your background prepared you for it?
Peter: I was doing a lot of wordless comics. I did a comic called Eye of the Beholder that appeared in the New York Times, and I had just finished doing a book called The System for Vertigo, and John and Nick Meglin had seen that work around the time they were looking to revamp Spy vs. Spy. When they asked me, I almost said “No” immediately. I was on a different track, where I was a kind of underground cartoonist, and I was doing my own things, but I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. I’ll do something they are guaranteed to say no to. So I did it in stencils and spray paint figuring it will be just a quick in and out, they’ll say “Thank you very much, mister whatever your name is,” and for some crazy reason they liked it and then I was totally stuck. But I thought “I’ll do it for a year and see how it goes.”
John: I’ll tell you exactly why. We had been farming it out to a lot of different artists, saying “Show us what you can do with the strip.” We realized Prohias left some pretty big shoes to fill. Everybody was doing second rate Prohias work. Peter came in and he made it his own. He kept what Spy was and the spirit of Prohias, but he made it his own with the stencil work, and that’s what we were looking for. The fact that he was visual and a writer-artist was all prized—that really makes it a nice, tight package, where he has a vision for it.
Peter: The other thing was when I sat down to draw the first time, I realized to what an extent Prohias’s work had influenced my work. I was always a big MAD reader, of course. MAD had influenced my whole sensibility, in terms of politics and humor and cartooning all merging together. Spy vs Spy was one of my favorites. The idea of doing wordless comics came from Sergio’s work and from Prohias. So I was on that trajectory, so that was part of the source material for me. It locked in immediately, and I thought, “I can do this because it’s part of my DNA.”
John: Peter writes wonderfully about how MAD influenced him in Inside MAD [which came out later in 2013]. We asked all the writers and artists to pick a favorite article and then write about their own piece of it, and he writes more in depth about what he was saying, how MAD influenced him and the subversiveness of MAD.
Spy vs Spy is almost as old as I am, and it has been running pretty much the same gag for over 50 years. How do you keep it fresh?
Peter: The parameters Prohias set up were so wide that when I looked at them—he’d have them as babies, he’d throw them into all these situations and even physically change them. I sometimes just hold up the image of spies and turn it around a few times and with different angles they are the shape of cones like you see on the street and I could do something with that and they make a great helicopter shape or even a nuclear explosion that puts mushrooms out into their faces. So there’s a lot of wiggle room for what I can do with them. The other thing is there is all this new technology that keeps coming in, and all I have to do is start with anything that happened after 1990—cell phones, drones, the NSA. Those are possible new scenarios.
What particular challenges do wordless comics present, and how do you handle that?
Peter: To me it’s a real natural way to express things. I love the freedom it gives me to not have the image cluttered with word balloons. When it becomes totally visual, then it really is a process of figuring out how the eye is going to move, without the aid of this balloon and that balloon, but visually pointing you in a certain direction. That puzzle is really exciting to me. I teach courses on comics, and I have sections of them that include wordless comics, including some of the old woodcut books—Franz Mazereel, Lynd Ward—it’s very interesting how one can tell stories without words. I have subsequently done other books like that; one is called Sticks and Stones, and that’s all wordless.
Have you ever been tempted to introduce a word balloon, just once?
Peter: We were just discussing that possibility. It’s slipped in. There are things with signposts, there’s bits and pieces.
So there are words in there.
John: If we ever did do it, maybe everybody else in the strip would speak, but not the spies.
Antonio Prohias was a political cartoonist in Cuba who had to leave because of his criticism of Fidel Castro. You have also done some political comics. Is there a line that you are walking with Spy vs. Spy, or is it just slapstick humor?
Peter: There’s definitely a line. One of the things that appeals to me about Spy vs Spy is that it has the option for commentary, so that periodically you can have something thrown in there that is referring to a political situation and then the whole thing, the total concept, is about the futility of war. Even within the same page, they both lose. That is a message in there. If you take something like the old Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon, the Road Runner is always winning, so the message there is “Go quickly.” With Spy vs. Spy they are clearly both destroying themselves, and that’s a subtext. But a lot of it is nothing more than just slapstick, which is really fun to do.
What sort of constraints do you work under? Are there things you would never have the spies do?
Peter: The key is probably to not think that way and to try things out and then take the chance that the editors won’t like that. There was a piece I did that involved them fighting the symbols from comics as physical objects, like the stars that indicate pain, using them as throwing stars. That was right on the edge, and when I did that I remember thinking, “OK, that’s one that may not work, maybe it’s getting too far over,” but ultimately it did fly.
John: Not at first. He pushed back on us, and we went back and forth on it.
Peter: I think it’s important not to self censor with ideas like that, because you might hit on something that will fly. What tends to happen as we grow up anyway is that you start to cut yourself off from ideas—oh, that will never go, nobody’s interested in that. It’s like that children’s book, Go the F— to Sleep. No one would have thought that would be a best seller. Someone said I had this idea and just hit something and there it was.
When you start out every other month to do the comic, John, do you tell Peter what to write about? Is there a theme for the issue?
John: Every once in a while we have a theme. When the new Star Wars movie came out, we said, “We are going to be on stands just as the new Star Wars movie come out. What if the spies went to see Star Wars and then take something from that to try to trap someone?” That’s really the exception. Most of the time it’s just “Peter, where the hell is the strip?”
Peter:[laughs] It’s amazing what an impetus that is, like OK, you have one week to come up with an idea and execute it. Seriously, any number of times I will submit an idea that needs a tweak, and John has got a really sharp eye for, like, that part there wasn’t as clear as it might have been, and I’ll be inside the story to such an extent that I’m making this leap, and it’s not going to be made by everybody. It’s almost perfect, but we make it more perfect.