Follow TV Tropes


Comic Strip / Spy vs. Spy

Go To
"The Cold War may be over, but the Lukewarm War rages on!"

A recurring cartoon feature in MAD magazine, originally created by the Cuban exile Antonio Prohías. The characters debuted in issue #60 (January, 1961).

As the title implies, it is about two spies, Black and White, who constantly try to outdo (usually read as: "kill") each other with varying levels of success. Sometimes Spy A's plan goes off without a hitch, sometimes Spy B has a hidden countermeasure that makes everything blow up in Spy A's face (literally, whenever possible). Sometimes Spy A anticipated a countermeasure and set up another trap to trick Spy B. Occasionally, a female Grey Spy would show up to do them both in.

After Prohías retired, he passed the strip on to others. Bob Clarke illustrated from 1987 to 1993, then George Woodbridge for two issues, followed by Dave Manak from 1993 to 1997. Clarke's first four installments were still written by Prohías, but Duck Edwing did most of the gag writing under the other artists' tenures and other writers pitched in on occasion (including Michael Gallagher, with whom Manak previously worked on Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog). From 1997 to the present day, the strip is drawn and almost always written by Peter Kuper.


There are a small set of different games based on the series, most notably the 1984 NES title, the most ported of them all, and the 2005 Xbox title.

Spy vs. Spy provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Acme Products: These often pop up in Kuper's strips.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Animated versions of some strips sometimes end up adding bits to the plots.
  • Animated Adaptation
    • For MADtv sketches. They follow the scripts of various strips to the letter most of the time.
    • Also an element of the MAD cartoon, which experienced several Art Shifts, most notably a stop-motion animation style towards the final seasons. A few of the early skits on MAD were remakes of those seen on MADtv.
    • Also for a short time a series of Live-Action Adaptation + CG commercials for Mountain Dew.
    • A quick blackout segment on an episode of Robot Chicken, where the White Spy sets up a spring-loaded boxing glove in a vending machine. The Black Spy just walks up behind him and shoots him in the head to steal his documents.
    • Advertisement:
    • A brief gag in Family Guy, in which both Spies are sitting peacefully on a couch together and bluntly say that they've resolved their differences.
  • Art Evolution: The spies went from looking like this to this. (Note especially that their inverted black eyes with white pupils started out as black sunglasses with white reflections)
    • Peter Kuper makes the Sinister Schnoz angled to look more like their noses than an entire cone for a head. Once the magazine switched back to color, he also gave them realistically colored skin.
  • The Artifact: The morse code message in the title panel, which spells out "By Prohías", was kept after Antonio Prohías retired in 1987. All of the subsequent artists have used it as well.
  • Backwards-Firing Gun: Occurs in one strip drawn for a series of paperbacks.
  • Badass Longcoat: Both worn by both spies.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: The female Grey Spy was never defeated. A self admitted example by Prohías, who eventually found her Immunity To Slapstick rather boring.
  • Behind the Black: Several gags have relied on a Spy not noticing something that should be obvious to his point of view, simply because it's not on panel at the time.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: Initially kept in check by the rules of Bloodless Carnage and cartoon violence, but ever since Peter Kuper took over, many of the gags have become a lot more visceral with small blood splatter and cartoonish gore being commonplace.
  • Bizarrchitecture: Justified by artistic necessity in most cases, but it's still jarring to see houses that seem to exist without an entire wall or are comprised of just one bathroom.
  • Cartoon Bomb: Regularly deployed by both spies.
  • Charlie Brown Baldness: Both Spies sport only a couple strands of hair in the later strips, something that becomes the plot for strips when they try to take care of them.
  • Cheated Angle: The Spies' heads are almost never shown from the front. (Check the page image for This Is Gonna Suck for an aversion.)
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Both Spies whenever they're scheming.
  • Chocolate Baby: Parodied in one of the little Sergio Aragonés mini-comics you'll find permeating the margins of Mad Magazine, where the White Spy arrives home to find his obviously pregnant wife Grey Spy knitting a little black spy suit for the baby.
  • Continuity Nod: Occasionally the spies will reuse previous plans with new twists. Probably the best-known examples are the multiple occurrences of a Spy avoiding death from above by wearing a spring under his hat.
    • The final strip in the first paperback book "The All New MAD Secret File on Spy vs. Spy" featured Black Spy encountering a open cemetery dedicated to him. When he goes over in confusion, he finds that the tombstone lists all the times he won over White Spy in the previous parts of the book, causing him to chuckle. Of course, this was a trap by the White Spy to bury him alive.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Many of the one-panel opening gags involve the Spies coming up with absurd and petty non-lethal ways to torture each other. A typical example shows Black trussed up to a streetlight by White, forced to listen to a band badly performing Christmas carols; White is rushing away with his fingers in his ears.
  • Cool Shades: The Spies unquestionably wore sunglasses in the oldest comics, but now their eyes alternate between appearing naturally dark with white pupils or as sunglasses.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Investigating why the other spy is doing something strange is never, never, a good idea.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The strip's been running in color since 2001, but many depictions and animations of the Spies still portray them in a monochrome world.
  • Disguised in Drag: One early strip featured the Spies independently coming up with the idea to disguise themselves as women and attack the other Spy when they least expect it. The strip ended with both Spies en femme, standing in the same street corner waiting for the other Spy to turn up.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sometimes the losing spy dies from falling.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Whenever the Grey Spy is around.
  • Double Subversion/Crazy-Prepared: How every single strip plays out.
  • Dreadful Musician: One strip had both Spies run into each on the street with violin cases, and both hurrying to open theirs. White Spy pulled a gun out of his case - Black Spy pulled a regular violin out of his and began chasing White while playing it very poorly.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The early comics were more prone to either spy winning in a non-lethal way. The very first gag, for example, had both spies trying to poison each other. Neither one died!
  • Establishing Character Moment: The above-mentioned first gag, in which the spies have a friendly drink of tea - feeding their cups to nearby cats, who die from the poison. Unusually for an Establishing Character Moment, as mentioned above, something happened that has never happened since: a tie.
  • Evil Is Petty: One of the MAD skits has the White Spy apparently breaking into the Black Spy's house on Christmas just to put coal in his stocking. The attempt doesn't pay off for him.
    • Another strip had the Black Spy sculpting a bust of the White Spy's head and hat in front of his fan club - which turned out to be toilet.
  • Femme Fatale: The Grey spy.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The title strips at the top of early-to-mid era comics would depict another instance of the two fighting each other, but with a clear victor. Smart readers eventually noticed that the spy who won the title strip would lose the main comic.
    • The Grey Spy would always win out over both spies. Prohías realized this (see Wouldn't Hit a Girl below), and instead of having her continue to show up and predictably kill both Black and White spies, he quietly phased her out of the strip entirely, though future writers brought her back.
  • Friendly Enemy: The Spies would often hang out together, even though they are setting traps for each other. Early strips for the comic even described them as 'friendly rivals'.
  • Gambit Pileup: A staple of the series. At least one strip will have one spy's plan completely turned on its head by an unexpected decoy... and quite a few strips play everything straight just to specifically subvert this.
  • Gambit Roulette: A particularly notable example is the black spy staging his own decommissioning from his embassy in an elaborate scheme to kill the white spy.
  • Giggling Villain: In the animated adaptations, either spy would chuckle after killing the other. MADtv gives them suppressed snickering not unlike Ernie's laugh from Sesame Street, while MAD gives them high pitched chipmunk-like giggling.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: Particularly when the Gray Spy was involved, both spies would actually be seen hanging out with each other before she defeats both of them, such as while they're working together to build a large puzzle (which was a bullseye for a bomb to be dropped on them).
  • Gorn: As much can be expected from cartoon characters, with body parts flying.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Neither spy is portrayed as good or evil, since both of them are equally ruthless towards each other. Their moral alignments are a matter of fan interpretation.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Happens routinely, usually thanks to one of the spies tinkering with the other's trap.
  • Identical Grandson: They've got ancestors who've kept the rivalry up ever since they were pre-historic cavemen, Roman soldiers, newborn babies and up to the present as secret agents.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Too many times to count.
  • Instrument of Murder: Weapons disguised as musical instruments occur a few times.
  • Invincible Villain: If you can call the Grey Spy a villain, she’s this because she never loses to the other two.
  • Invisible Streaker: Inverted — see the entry in The Nudifier.
  • Ludicrous Gibs: Prohias wasn't shy about drawing shoes, hats, and dentures flying all over the place after an explosion. Later comics began to graphically illustrate heavy wounds, once Peter Kuper took over.
  • MacGuffin: Oftentimes, a briefcase labeled "Top Secret" will provide the motivation for the spies' feud.
  • Maximum Capacity Overload: Deliberately done in one comic, with White tricking Black into carrying several 1000-pound weights on an elevator (he thinks they are White's secret plans).
    • Another strip had the Black Spy carrying a missile that kept falling apart behind him as the White Spy collects the pieces to assemble and steal it himself. The White Spy builds the entire missile and falls to his death when he crosses a wooden bridge that breaks under his weight.
  • Minimalist Cast: Aside from the leaders and the Grey Spy, all of whom are used very sparingly, the Black Spy and the White Spy are practically the only people in their universe.
  • Murder by Cremation: In the last strip in the short-lived Sunday strip, Black Spy becomes a victim of this.
  • Nice Hat: All three spies wear them.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
    • Mild example. In one particular strip, Black sees a girl trapped in a cage on top of a wooden pole. He climbs up, intending to help her only for the cage to fall down and trap him at the bottom of the pole. It was a trap from White and he's seen taking his disguise off and laughing at a shocked Black.
    • Same could be said for the White Spy in "Defection". When he thought the Black spy lost his job and was down on his luck, he felt sorry for him and decided to help him... only for the Black spy to turn on him and blow him up with dynamite.
  • The Nudifier: In one strip, one spy creates an invisibility potion. While scheming about what he'll do to the other spy, the other spy pours a chemical into the potion. Then the first spy drinks the potion out in public, and freaks out when only his clothes disappear or turn invisible. He then gets arrested.
  • Oh, Crap!: The losing spy sometimes realizes too late that he's been had, resulting in either this trope or This Is Gonna Suck.
  • One-Person Birthday Party: In one strip, the White Spy is forlornly celebrating his birthday alone when he receives a birthday cake from the Black Spy in the mail. After checking for traps and realizing it's real, he cheerfully thanks the Black Spy and lights the candles. The Black Spy then fires a heat-seeking missile that homes in on the cakes candles.
  • Out-Gambitted: Provides the page image.
  • Palette Swap: The two spies, other than the colors of their clothing, look identical. And the 2005 Xbox game featured a Red spy and a Blue spy. Lampshaded in one strip where the spies paint themselves in each other's colors without the other's knowledge to pull a trick... and then run into the other spy, who now looks like themselves. This either confuses them so badly or causes a big enough existential crisis that they both have to go see a psychiatrist. The same one. At the same time.
  • Pie in the Face: Every Episode Ending in the much Lighter and Softer Spy vs Spy Jr., which ran for a short time in Mad Kids.
  • Sadist Show: Neither Spy are particularly good people, and they rarely take pleasure in anything other than brutalizing their rival. It's entertaining to watch and read through with how creative the plans get.
  • Satchel Switcheroo: The Spies regularly pull this on each other.
  • Shoe Phone: There are several examples of this, as the two spies use these to kill each other. Examples include special shells that disguise their firearms as certain props like hairdryers and cameras. They disguise bombs as harmless items from time to time as well, like books, teeth, and credit cards.
  • Silence Is Golden: No-one in the entire comic's run has spoken an understandable word (although a Spy uses a recording of himself saying "Stick 'em Up" in one strip); Prohías spoke almost no English when he began drawing the strip, but his earlier Spanish-language comics like El Hombre Siniestro contained precious little Spanish. It was simply his style.
  • Sinister Schnoz: Their most distinguishing feature would be their heads, which are shaped like elongated cones.
  • Spinoff Babies: Spy vs. Spy Jr., which ran in MAD Kids magazine.
  • Spy Versus Spy: Why else would we call it that?
  • Statuesque Stunner: The Gray Spy, who is much taller than either spy and who both fawn after (frequently getting killed by her over it).
  • Strictly Formula: Sort of. While the comics themselves were always wacky in the various ways the different spies would beat each other, there was always header art of a Spy vs Spy battle. Whoever won the header art would lose the main strip. Unless Grey Spy was involved, anyway.
  • Stuff Blowing Up
  • Straw Loser: Both spies, to the Woman in Grey.
  • Sunday Strip: A very short-lived version in 2002, drawn by Manak and written by Edwing.
  • Symbol Swearing: White Spy once tricked Black Spy into swallowing a miniature speaker, then spoke profanities through the speaker once Black Spy's superior came in. The superior then had Black Spy executed for cursing him.
  • Take That!/Everyone Knows Morse: Antonio Prohías wrote the comic as a coded "Screw you" to Fidel Castro for attempting to arrest him as a spy for the CIA, by writing "By Prohías" in Morse code.
  • The Television Talks Back
    • In one strip, White Spy climbs into Black Spy's television to shoot him through it. Turns out Black Spy's remote holds a machine gun.
    • In an earlier strip, the White Spy set up a camera to see if the Black Spy would show up. He appeared to be on his front door, but he was actually inside the TV.
  • They Killed Kenny Again: Black and White repeatedly kill each other, but never fail to return to the pages.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Provides the page image. Generally, if a Spy finds out too late he's been had, it'll be either this trope or Oh, Crap!.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The losing spy, on certain occasions. Also, when the Grey Spy shows up, if the two spies wouldn't drool over her and try to win her, they wouldn't end up in her traps.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Both spies are unpleasant people who constantly murder each other in hilarious ways for seemingly no good reason.
  • V-Sign: The winning spy would usually do this by the last panel so it's clear who won that episode. Made even more frequent in Kuper's run of the comic.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Meta-example — Prohías couldn't bring himself to let the Grey Spy lose because he felt too squeamish about drawing a woman suffering the usual fates of the loser in the comic. Eventually he phased her out because she came across as an Invincible Hero. Bob Clarke and Duck Edwing brought her back for two strips in 1988-89, and Peter Kuper made her into a recurring character.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Related to the above. While the Grey Spy always won she was eventually phased out of the comic entirely. Considering how the Black and White spies can't perma-kill each other maybe they lost on purpose.
  • Xylophone Gag: In a rare example of the trope working, White Spy rigs a piano to squirt nitro glycerin into Black Spy's mouth when he pushes certain keys. Boom.
  • Zany Scheme Chicken: The premise.

The games provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Artificial Stupidity: It is exceptionally easy to bait the A.I. into your traps. Even on hard and/or the last level(s) of the game.
    • Most notably, the time bomb trap placed in a room with a pickup will almost always get them in any port of the first game. They never learn that going out and back in would save them the trouble of having to try and stop you from running straight for the exit.
    • A.I. Breaker: Operation: Booby Trap has numerous field hazards, which the AI knows not to stand in. The AI also knows it can jump through most (but not all) of these. However, the AI has the following quirk: When the AI retreats from you without moving up or down, it will stay just off the edge of the screen and wait a second to recover some health. HOWEVER, if you so much as inch towards the computer, he will approach you regardless of health and attempt (briefly) to stand next to you so that he can punch you. You should see where this is going: stand at the edge of a damage hazard, repeatedly bait the computer into said hazard fast enough to where he doesn't recover health, and let the computer DIE FROM THE HAZARD.
  • The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard: The computer will never lose the knife (first game and all ports except the Game Boy Color) and knows EXACTLY where each item is (Extremely apparent on Operation: Booby Trap, where the first two items the computer picks up will invariably end up being Attache Case and Key Item in that order)
  • Death Is a Slap on the Wrist: The key items you lose in the first game get hidden in the room you died in, and you just lose 30 seconds on your clock (and have to wait 5 seconds to respawn). Operation: Booby Trap dumps your items into a random chest (even booby trapped ones) without decreasing your timer, but the respawn time is 10 seconds. However, the respawn timer is MORE than enough for most competent players — and the A.I. — to bolt for the exit if they have everything, and on Operation: Booby Trap, dying when your opponent has all the items is almost a guaranteed loss.
  • Fan Remake: SPYvsSPYvsSPYvsSPY. Thinking of two spies can't satisfy you? We have FOUR!
  • Life Meter: Operation: Booby Trap actually has a visible one, and traps in that game do not instant-kill. It does, however, slow you down after taking so much damage.
  • One-Hit Point Wonder: Traps effectively turn the victim into this on everything except Operation: Booby Trap.
  • Timed Mission
  • Too Dumb to Live: You shouldn't get killed by the same trap you set 5 seconds ago. Especially if you've got EVERY key item on you.
  • X-Ray Sparks


Video Example(s):


Spy Vs. Spy

How well does it match the trope?

4.87 (15 votes)

Example of:

Main / OutGambitted

Media sources:

Main / OutGambitted