For fans of no-holds-barred satire, the flash revival of Spy magazine numbers among the few silver linings amidst a nightmarish home stretch to this year’s presidential election.
Beloved by rank-and-file New Yorkers and despised by media-elite blowhards most notably the “short-fingered vulgarian” currently grasping at the country’s nuclear codes the magazine was co-founded by Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter (now editor of Vanity Fair), who delighted in the sort of ego-puncturing they thought the city’s preening glitterati so sorely deserved.
“Like so many bullies, Trump has skin of gossamer,” Carter wrote in a Vanity Fair editor’s note last fall. “He thinks nothing of saying the most hurtful thing about someone else, but when he hears a whisper that runs counter to his own vainglorious self-image, he coils like a caged ferret.”
For the publication’s month-long online reprise, the masthead enlisted artists at Portland-based Wieden+Kennedy, the agency behind campaigns for Nike, Coca-Cola and Old Spice among others, to design spoof ads for its pages as well as four of its covers. All but a few are aimed at the former glossy’s favorite spray-tanned target.
As admirers of the original incarnation’s wit and savagery, W+K’s Colleen DeCourcy, global chief creative officer, and Richard Turley, executive creative director of content and editorial design, jumped at the chance to head the graphics team, which encompassed the agency’s Oregon and New York offices.
“Kurt Andersen is personally one of my heroes both as a critical thinker in America and a voice of unique absurdity,” DeCourcy said. “Spy was sort of what my early humor and political speech was cut on.”
Truly cutting caricatures must shade his venal buffoonery with the more sinister forces underlying his candidacy his tissue-thin skin with the historic havoc it might wreak.
Were it a story pitch in the magazine’s prime, it’s not crazy to wonder whether the current election’s plot with all its phallic taunts and unabashed sex predation would have been written off as an overstuffed mess or praised for its twisted imagination.
Either way, it would have raised eyebrows.
“All gloves are off now. You turn on [CNN] and it’s just people yelling over each other, stepping over each other, saying outrageous things,” DeCourcy says. “That was not the era that Spy punched into. Things were very much more paced. And Spy just came along like, ‘What?'”
That Spy, which folded after a 12-year run in 1998, was a product of a different time in some ways. Its preferred hunting grounds were the media and entertainment industries, but it also liked to poach the occasional political figure especially those with celebrity leanings.
These days, whatever distinction there was between the two appears to have vanished.
Which is why now seems the perfect moment for Spy‘s however brief return, its venom aimed squarely on the Strangest Show on Earth and its ringmaster, the Queens-born real estate boss whose sweaty, gold-plated ambitions it so ably outed.
“It’s been sort of the challenge of the moment to just get yourself to realize that it’s actually happening that we’re in an election with Donald Trump,” Turley said. “But it’s important not to normalize it.”
The artists managed to cover a wide swathe of material encompassing the mogul’s shaky business empire, monstrous sexual past and populist political aspirations. They mock his connection to Vladimir Putin (Trump’s Russian Ties: “Explore them all”), his predatory behavior towards women (Celebrity Mingle: “You can do anything”) and his promise that Mexico will pay for his border wall (PayAmigo: “Make Mexico’s money your money”).
Also under fire are Trump’s conspiratorial global warming theory (Global Warmer: “Made in China”) and tax avoidance boasts (Terrific Tax: “Because you’re too smart to pay income tax.”)
Perhaps the most damning and the most visually revolting is an image of a tank top-clad kid gorging on a dessert made from literal shit.
“Trump pies: ‘Feeding people what they want,'” the tagline reads.
There’s also one broader, less immediately related political statement for good measure: “Babygunz: You don’t have to stand to stand your ground.”
Placed amongst the full pantheon of Trump-related grotesquerie this election has brought forth, the ads are relatively tame. But they’re meticulously well-designed, elegantly worded and pithy enough to etch themselves into a reader’s brain.
Yet their creators’ only real hope is that they live up to their scabrous heritage.
“It was about understanding the legacy of what Spy used to do him and evolving it from that message,” Turley said. “Our approach was just to make sure it felt like Spy.”
Articles and artwork from the new Spy can be found on Esquire‘s website. Esquire‘s parent publisher, Hearst, underwrote the effort.