Some of the best comic book narratives are created by using ideas already established in current pop culture and expanding upon them. M.A.C.H 1 was one of the original comic strips in 2000AD, a heady mixture of the Six Million Dollar Man, James Bond, Science Fiction and real-world espionage all wrapped up in hard hitting action, this is one collection I was excited to get my hands on. Often touted as a ‘rip off’ I would instead suggest that the adventures of Secret Agent John Probe had a far ‘grittier’ feel to the plotlines as well as aspects of the narrative actively questioning the integrity of the British government, something his American TV counterpart would never dare to do.
John Probe is a secret agent who is selected by shadowy government sources to undergo an advanced surgical procedure dubbed ‘compu-puncture’, an injection of electro needles into his body which will give him the strength of fifty men. This is a process which takes many months to achieve and is finalised with imprinting computer circuits directly onto his skull to aid him in decision making capabilities.
I mentioned the homage which the narrative pays to the popular Six Million Dollar man, but as a modern reader who is recently discovering these stories from the 2000AD archive, it’s difficult not to see the then fledging genre of cyberpunk in this origin story. Pat Mills and Robert Flynn craft a character in the first few pages who is directly influenced by technology and as we see later in the successive strips, effectively begin to add greater detail and dimension to Probe, at times questioning the nature of his humanity and forcing Probe to reassert his sense of morality over the prospective decisions of the computer.
In this initial story, Jesus Redondo captures the high-octane nature of the action sequences perfectly, portraying Probe (now dubbed M.A.C.H 1) running towards a nuclear blast proof door at an incredible 70 mph with a true sense of speed and power. This opening story cemented the potential of the series and the subsequent narratives didn’t disappoint.
One of the strengths of the early 2000AD strips was the ethos of injecting a character with motivations, personality and depth, attempting to ensure that the action based characters were more than just ‘killing machines’. In this collection there are a few stand-out stories which really round out the character leading to satisfying development of not just John Probe but also of the shadowy world in which he lives and works in.
To Kill a President sees Probe being sent into the heart of the fictional state of Irania and walking right up to security, wearing fashionable, casual attire, complete with shades and with a smile states that he has come to kill the president. He does so in order to stop a war breaking out between Irania and a neighbouring state, in the series of pages that follows, he is captured and interrogated and in typical fashion, the strip segues into some fantastic action sequences crafted by the artist Enio. It was from this story onwards that I began to see some of the subtle insinuations regarding the character. He is essentially being used as an assassin to take care of British interests, there’s no deep discussion regarding this fact, but it’s there and it brings up some incredibly mature themes regarding the nature of ‘forceful diplomacy’ in our modern world.
Throughout these stories, Probe also contents with the incessant presence of the computer in his brain, at times helpful – giving him situation reports and helping him access threats, at times attempting to circumnavigate Probe’s humanity by prompting him to take a more ‘efficient route’ to the objective rather than the most moral. He has been asked and cajoled by the computer to eliminate a target without thought to the innocent casualties surrounding him or complaining when Probe stops pursuit of a target in favour of saving a child. This adds a beautiful sense of conflict to the character, bringing to the fore the philosophical arguments regarding the mind/body dichotomy as well as a take on the Deus ex Machina concept which was popularised by cyberpunk classics such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell.
This collection has a superb consistency of writing featuring the talents of creator Pat Mills, John Wagner (who is a master of the thriller genre as well as one of the creators of Judge Dredd) and Steve McManus (one time editor of 2000AD). There were no stories which left me cold or feeling that they were incomplete, it’s a marvel to see how masters of the craft can bring forth a fully fledged narrative in just a few pages. The art styles throughout the collection contrast, which some artists placing an emphasis on the speed of the action and others focusing on the detail of the characters.
M.A.C.H. 1 was one of the most important strips in 2000AD’s illustrious history, it was the most popular, long before Judge Dredd gained the status that he and his universe still enjoy today, John Probe brought fast paced action to the readership and developed the character throughout the progs in interesting and politically challenging ways. This volume is an important edition for any fan of British comics or good Science Fiction / Political thrillers to own.