“I’m still breathin’. That means as students you’re all a huge disappointment to me.”
On the face of it, fans probably aren’t clamoring for a Taskmaster solo series. He’s never had the highest of profiles; as a villain, he’s not terribly villainous, and his power isn’t terribly powerful. While his stock has risen recently, appearing in the Initiative and Siege crossovers, the skull-faced mercenary isn’t really a heavy hitter.
But maybe the character deserves a push. He has one power, but it is an imaginative one. Taskmaster possesses a photographic memory coupled with photographic reflexes. He can watch anyone fight and immediately copy their moves and fighting style. Not so useful when you’re ogling Galactus, but there’s enough brawlers littering the Marvel Universe to allow Taskmaster quite the varied skill set. As a villain, Taskmaster has always been more concerned with profit over power. While his main gig has usually been training villains in the art of hand-to-hand fighting, he’s more recently been used by the good guys for the same role in the pages of Avengers: The Initiative. Clearly Taskmaster can fill a tweener role. It doesn’t matter if he’s totally bad or totally good, just so long as he’s interesting. That’s where his new miniseries comes in.
The plot is a fairly stock action movie set-up: man with a mysterious past chased by assassins inadvertently ropes an innocent bystander into his drama. This saddles the protagonist with having to protect a reluctant sidekick who probably isn’t all that enthusiastic about having his or her everyday life interrupted by psychopaths with guns. The major wrinkle is that Taskmaster, a man whose stock and trade is his photographic memory, has amnesia. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to him, every terrorist group in the Marvel Universe, from AIM to Hydra, is out to collect a billion (a billion!) dollar bounty on his head. It’s a boilerplate kind of plot, but Van Lente exhibits awareness of that fact and his writing shows evidence that he might elevate the book beyond standard action clichés.
Even if the book ends up as nothing more than a genre exercise, it’s still worth a read. It has all the hallmarks of a good action movie. The scripting is tight, balancing copious amounts of action with plotting, character moments and humor, and Van Lente isn’t afraid to go over the top. The dialogue is peppered with in-jokes ranging from Monty Python to The Professional in a way that’s rarely forced. Taskmaster gets a lot of great lines throughout the book, and the supporting characters, even the throw-away ones, have their moments (my favorite being when a team of AIM assassins shout “Death!! By!! Science!!” then tear a poor Hydra drone limb from limb). Van Lente writes good, goofy, pulpy fun. I’m also intrigued by where he’s going with Taskmaster. Taskmaster’s power relies on his eidetic memory, but in this story, he’s been stripped of most of his recollection. It’s a neat MacGuffin – while trying to stay alive, Taskmaster has to reconstruct his own memories.
Jeftè Palo’s art is all scratchy pencils and nervous tension. He draws a great fight scene, but his depiction of Taskmaster’s mask looks less like a skull and more like a pale dude with his lips stitched together. The coloring of Jean-Francois Beaulieu is muted and grainy, giving the book a noirish feel visually, but never obfuscating the action. But sometimes it’s a little too grainy; it looks like someone took a pepper shaker to Taskmaster’s white costume. The darkness of the art is sometimes a little too dark for the fun atmosphere set up by the writing, but on the whole it meshes well with the story.
The writing and art really come together in a nice sequence outlining how Taskmaster fights using styles derived from his memories. Brief snippets of physical memory are matched to Taskmaster’s present scrap, with the neat visual trick of depicting whoever he’s imitating superimposed on his form. It’s like Remembrance of Things Past for the super-powered set. There’s also a neatly done montage that shows the increasingly ridiculous villainous groups coming to assault Taskmaster that actually made me laugh out loud. In a thoughtful touch, there’s a back-up section that actually explains each group (some obscure, some new) for the uninitiated.
BOTTOM LINE: CHECK IT OUT
Taskmaster #1 contains four headshots, three inquisitorial dwarves, one decapitation, one exploding Lord of the Living Lightning, one smartphone for villains and one very weird alien biker gang. We got 4 kraks 3 booms, 2 bwamms, 1 skllorrtchh, and 1 absolutely fantastic brakshrakathooooom. I’m excited for where this miniseries is going. Four out of five stars. Check it out.