I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Dynamic Duels and Embattled Bromances: Spy Vs Spy

by David Colosi
June 21, 2011

In The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, the Joker’s catch phrase to try to convince Batman not to kill him is “we complete one another.” Batman can’t morally bring himself to kill the joker because that would make him a villain too, but as he says, he doesn’t have to save him. Presumably, he lets the Joker die. We’ll see what the sequels say. So ends the Joker’s theory that if one dies, so too does the other. The fact is that once the Joker goes, many other villains will fill his shoes. This narrative trope has been repeated recently in the non-comic world by talking heads debating the death of Osama Bin Laden, the closest person we’ve had to an evil villain with a vision for world domination. Jokers come and Riddlers go, but there is always Batman. The hero perseveres. Well, unless you’re Captain America who was killed by one of his own on a simple walk into a courthouse – so much for the resilience of superpowers.

I’m driving at a point – the Joker does not complete Batman, just as Elmer Fudd does not complete Bugs Bunny, or Melamid complete Komar, or Garfunkel complete Simon, or Ulay complete Marina Abramovic (though for a time becoming a united self was the couple’s goal). Pairs such as these, whether combative or collaborative can split up and each individual can attempt a solo career or, in the case of superheroes, find new villains to rascal around with. Bugs had that construction worker, Yosemite Sam, and the Tasmanian Devil. Since 2003 Vitaly Komar has been making art independently, and - well - I don’t quite know what Alexander Melamid is up to. Marina Abramovic, since her collaborative’s poetic end on the Great Wall of China, went on to much success culminating in the first ever retrospective by a performance artist at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, and Ulay - well - I don’t quite know what he is up to either (though, in a touching moment, he did appear in the chair opposite Abramovic in The Artist Is Present). Paul Simon went on to a fully blossomed solo career, and Art Garfunkel’s career has continued as well, but not to the same commercial success. The pair, though battling over business issues for decades, has revived their friendship on occasion to continue touring as a duo. In some cases a star is born and a superhero grows out of the collaborative and, unfortunately, the other can never step out of their shadow, remaining the perpetual sidekick.

But I have yet to get to my point. Unlike the pairs I’ve mentioned, thre are some dynamic duos that are absolutely co-dependent. Without the one, the other would simply not function. These seem to occur best in dynamic duels where the relationship is uniquely tied to one’s need to destroy the other. There are several compelling examples: Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, Tom and Jerry, and Sylvester and Tweety. Imagine the lameness of the narrative if the predator succeeded in killing his one and only prey. But even in these cases, the relationship is not born from equality. These are predator/prey relationships; there is a chaser and a chased. The cat chases the mouse and the bird, and the coyote chases the bird. If Tom, Sylvester, and Wile E. stop chasing, or go vegetarian or vegan, not only do the narratives crash and burn and the collaboratives split, but the bonds between these frenemies dissolves. A vegan Coyote and a Road Runner would have nothing in common as friends except to reminisce about old times. Though embattled, there is a bromance in place here, a tight bond void of sexual tension that unites them and makes them friends (I’m assuming that these characters are male only to take advantage of the economy of the term. In a recent conversation with fellow artists we came to the conclusion that the female equivalent to the “bromance” is simply “girlfriends”, a less economic term for the same point). The friendship is built on the battle. Take the battle away and nothing of interest remains. The same is true for Itchy and Scratchy even though their existence is based on satire and role reversal. These are all unidirectional relationships.

The one exception, the example that I’m shining the light on, which from this point forward we shall call “my point”, is Spy Vs. Spy. The comic that first appeared in Mad Magazine in 1961 and evolved into episodes on Mad TV and finally made its way into Mountain Dew commercials in 1985. It featured two spies, one dressed in black and the other in white, equally invested in destroying his counterpart. Antonio Prohias, the creator of the characters, fled an active position in the Cuban press only days before Castro’s government took it over. The characters became a satire of competitive spying organizations like the CIA and KGB and grew out of the artist’s familiarity with the gaze that organizations such as these had on Cubans. Spy Vs. Spy is the ultimate dynamic duo. Their relationship is pure, equal, and codependent. Though the black and white disguises might lead an overambitious PhD candidate to draw racial conclusions, the black one succeeds and fails with equal frequency to the white one. One is blown to bits, squashed, stabbed, sliced, disintegrated, run over, flayed, and beaten as often as the other. They share an equal bit of wit, creativity, cunning, clumsiness and vulnerability. They are both chaser and chased. To eliminate one would unquestionably eliminate the dynamism. If one were to die, the other would die also, kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But there is no hero and sidekick in this relationship, nor is there a good guy and a bad guy. The spies are the same, equally good and equally bad. They share the same pseudonym. No solo effort could spin off of this. Mad Magazine was also famous for a series called “Scenes We’d Like To See”, where the good guy is run through with a sword, the jumper from the flaming building misses the fireman’s catch, and the beautiful princess rejects the prince in favor of the Ogre. (Oh, Shrek, do you know from whence you’ve come?) Here we could make a meta-strip showing the daily activities of one Spy watering plants, reading by the pool, or shopping in a grocery store. Boring indeed.

Who would Tweedledee be without Tweedledum? Shem without Shaun? When Oliver Hardy died, so too did Laurel and Hardy. When Bud Abbott retired, so too did Abbott and Costello. Sadly, other collaboratives like Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Van Halen didn’t read this page in the collaborator’s playbook, and they attempted to carry the name into sloppy sequels without the superheroes Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters, and David Lee Roth. These bands continued with the old name for many years and continue today like pitiful Robin spinoffs, living in the shadows of partnerships that gave value to the name they cling to. I don’t mean to completely disrespect the music they make today or did make, but like those that left, they could have respected the collaborative enough to reinvent themselves rather than hang on to audiences attending the wakes they perform in the present. While we like our dynamic duels, catastrophic collaborations, and embattled bromances, they are much more dynamic when both factions are destroyed in the same moment. Spy Vs. Spy is an example to live by.

Deleuze and Guattari had independent careers before they began and after they finished collaborating, but Penn and Teller, and Gilbert and George, what do their futures hold?

David Colosi is an artist, writer, and recent saxophone player. His collection of poems, Laughing Blood, was published by Left Hand Books in 2004, and he has been anthologized in From Totems To Hip-Hop: A Multi-Cultural Anthology Of Poetry Across The Americas, 1900-2002. Cueto Project published his exhibition catalog Imaginary Numbers And Other Calculated Fictions in 2010, and a theoretical book, On Becoming An Ass: Jimmy Raskin's Poetics Of The Misfire is forthcoming through Sequence Press, a publishing imprint of Miguel Abreu Gallery. His art is represented by Galerie Catherine Bastide in Brussels and Cueto Project in NYC. The magic happens at The Center For Three-Dimensional Literature - http://www.3dlit.org.