C.A.S.S – Cool Acronyms of Spy Stories

The ability to boil something down to just one word has power. To use that word is impressive but to know the meaning of the word is the key to unlocking a world that exists behind the façade of reality that every man faces. To know the meanings of the true powers of the world is a gentlemen’s club of exclusivity and some degree of intimidation. Casanova knows how to use these acronym as the magic words they are, and it is building on a rich history of spy words always meaning so much more, but being able to say it all in just a handful of syllables.

Casanova Quinn comes from a strong family heritage of working for E.M.P.I.R.E. (Extra-Military Police, Intelligence, Rescue, and Espionage). His father, Cornelius Quinn, is the Director of this department, and his sister, Zephyr Quinn, was their top agent. At least she was in one of the timelines Casanova operates in. E.M.P.I.R.E. is a regal sounding name, it looks official, and it’s perfect for the broad shouldered good guys. The meaning obviously conveys the literal sense of the organisation but it’s the one word that captures the spirit.

How fitting that the natural enemy of E.M.P.I.R.E. is W.A.S.T.E. There is no standard understanding of what W.A.S.T.E. means and that’s what makes this villain so elusive and slippery, they can’t be defined. Their leader, Xeno Newman, says it’s ‘We’re All So Terribly Excited’ when he first meets Cass and later, upon Cass’ tardiness, refers to it being at that very second, ‘We Always Start Things Early’. It seems that as much power as E.M.P.I.R.E. wields by having a clear definition, W.A.S.T.E. is the inverse by not having any clear definition that can be chipped away at or shown to the public as wicked. Perhaps they are pure malevolence in that they are faceless, anonymous, and have the ability to change as the situation suits it. They certainly don’t sound positive but their power just might lie in their definitional malleability.

Matt Fraction uses these acronyms with power and purpose and he fits in with a great tradition of spy acronyms from across the past century of spy stories. It’s by using just the one word to sum up a cause, a crusade, a villain or an immoral quest that the reader is brought within the inner boundaries of the tale. We become complicit and invested in the story as their inside knowledge grows. We see E.M.P.I.R.E for the strong military presence they are, and W.A.S.T.E. is run by a guy all in bandages doing his best Invisible Man impression, his right hand girl is a sick and twisted sex fiend with painful pseudo-incestuous desires. You could probably tell all that just by reading the acronyms, though, couldn’t you?

These spy acronistic tropes date all the way back to James Bond, the master proto-spy if ever there was one. Ian Fleming created Bond in his novels and had him fight against the criminal organisation SPECTRE. This devious group is led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and it stands for SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. It contained individuals from Fleming’s other bad organisation SMERSH, but SPECTRE is a much more intimidating title for a corporation that lives purely to create chaos in the world. The one word holds such enmity and emotes the cause perfectly. This was a great introduction of making the acronym work towards the meaning of the group, even if it was a backronym.

Within the realm of television, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted in 1964 and introduced the world to the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. The show was even worked on by Bond scribe Fleming. The show looked at two spies working for U.N.C.L.E. in their quest to right global wrongs and fight the good fight against the main enemy with an unknown and quite unfortunate acronym, THRUSH. The show never expounded on the meaning of this title but the novels did state that it was the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, which is pretty awesome. The show ran for four seasons and introduced many people to the idea of spies and global organisations. THRUSH was also originally known as WASP, arguably a better acronym but one changed right from the start.

Directly after U.N.C.L.E., Mel Brooks of all people decided to enter the spy business but add a slapstick bent to it. Get Smart became even more iconic than its more serious predecessors and gave the world the battling acronyms of CONTROL and KAOS. I doubt you even need to know the meanings to know which one is good and which one is evil, and that’s exactly why spy acronyms work, they are directly tied to their intentions. The show may have had its laughs but it also served as a great entry into the spy genre and the creation of iconic spy acronyms.

Perhaps one of the greatest co-opted uses of the spy acronyms is in Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. The show took chimpanzees in as the main actors and then dubbed over human voices. The eponymous hero was an agent for APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) and he tirelessly smoked cigars and rollerskated to battle CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan). The show became a hilarious treat as the voice actors would ad-lib just to make the dialogue somewhat match the moving lips of the ‘actors’. What resulted was a visual portmanteau as if The Monkees had become their name sake, doused themselves in flower humour, and set light to their brain waves with the flames of underwater sulphurous vents. The costuming is completely stuck on in any way imaginable and the adventures are either hilarious or very, very scary. Your mileage may vary.

Spy acronyms have taken over much of modern entertainment and can be found anywhere from Inspector Gadget to Kevin Smith movies, by way of Doctor Who and all the way up to character names in the Golden Girls. The ability to sum up more and make it so commonly available in just a name is a great ability, but the classic spy acronym, especially within the comics world, came from the pen of Stan Lee in 1965.

Shortly after SPECTRE made the big time in the Bond novels, Stan Lee decided his comic Strange Tales needed a super spy character. He took Nick Fury, a previous Sgt with the Howling Commandos backing him up through WWII, and threw him into a great spy organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D., which is one of the largest influences on Fraction’s E.M.P.I.R.E. The acronym originally stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division but was later changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage Logistics Directorate; either way it was the acronym that mattered, S.H.I.E.L.D. This group is the great protector of the world, they are the shield that evil shall bounce off. It’s a great title with a deeper meaning that works.

Lee then decided to juxtapose S.H.I.E.L.D. against HYDRA. Not only is HYDRA just a great name for an evil faction of terrorists but it also offers up an excellent logo for them and just a delightful set of sayings like; “Hail HYDRA!” and “Cut off one limb and two more will take its place.” The icing on the cake has to be that though spelled in all capitals the title isn’t actually an acronym. HYDRA just appropriates the term for menace, but lack the organisation to at least backronym some lame meaning for it. The relevant reading for these two groups would probably be the original run of Strange Tales issues (from #135 up) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby where they introduce the world and parameters of spies in the Marvel U, as well as introduce the fantastic Helicarrier.

Marvel has more recently expanded their acronistic world by introducing S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department) which is a space spy department protecting Earth against any alien threats. Relevant reading would be extremely short lived S.W.O.R.D. by Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders. The group was introduced by Joss Whedon in his Astonishing X-Men run but Gillen writes it like a Grant/Russell dramedy with gender roles reversed and 137% more Beta Ray Bill.

We also got A.R.M.O.U.R. from Fred Van Lente’s run on Marvel Zombies as they are the Altered-Reality Monitoring and Operational Response that has to deal with the Marvel Zombie plague coming across from one dimension to another. Captain Britain had already introduced S.T.R.I.K.E. (Special Tactical Response for International Key Emergencies) in his title and during Dark Reign Norman Osborn sets up H.A.M.M.E.R. which has absolutely no meaning, but it makes a hell of an impact as a title. It, like HYDRA, doesn’t even need a meaning as the power of the word says more than any explanation could ever offer.

Recently, Jonathan Hickman has created the title S.H.I.E.L.D. which is the wholistic history of The Brotherhood of the Shield and their counterpart the Spear. It’s an interesting retcon and I like the idea of the Spear in that a shield protects but a spear is more of an aggressive force, they attack. This is definite use of acronyms to enforce structure and organisational modus operandi.

When you’re on the run across the globe bedding women and downing alcohol like it’s a life-preserving fluid, you need to be able to say who you are, who you work for, and who you are after succinctly and gracefully. No one wants to stumble across a title like a mouthful of marbles so it’s easier to go the acronym route. You drop one word and instantly the room knows what you’re talking about. It’s all you need to say and everyone else works out the rest from your one word.

When you think about good spy fiction you nearly always come away with a word that describes good, evil, cool, sexiness, etc. Casanova is great spy-fu because it knows how to work acronyms and it progresses the history of spy acronyms forward. You mention W.A.S.T.E. in the right room and you’ll get the appreciate nods and understanding. It’s just one word, but it’s so much more. It’s everything, if you’re on the inside and you know. That’s power. That’s cool.

Ryan K Lindsay is an Australian writer who finds time in nearly every day to get words of some description down. He was published by Marvel once, in a back matter essay in Criminal, but he can more regularly be found penning reviews and op/ed pieces on comic news website The Weekly Crisis. His favourites are; character, Matt Murdock; story, Y: The Last Man; novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; movie, Chasing Amy; and woman, his wife.