‘Taskmaster: Unthinkable': One of Marvel’s Best Books of 2010 [Review]
Taskmaster had previously been a character who drifted through the backgrounds of larger Marvel Universe stories, a supporting player in adventures that weren’t his own, but developed a cult fanbase largely thanks to his knack for kicking ass and being enigmatic. Of course, there’s a risk inherent in telling a story that expands on the background of an enigma. Just ask Boba Fett, and then cringe in horror as every word he speaks makes him less cool. Thankfully writer Fred Van Lente, artist Jefté Palo and color artist Jean-François Beaulieu rose to the challenge and created a fascinating origin story for Taskmaster, a character with more than thirty years of comics history behind him.
Released this week as a trade paperback collection, Taskmaster: Unthinkable follows a down-on-his-luck supervillain as he faces a global organization of affiliated evil henchmen groups, a town full of Hitlers, and, perhaps worst of all, the secrets of his own past. Able to gracefully segue from moments of laughter to action pieces to scenes that are genuinely touching, Taskmaster was one of the best things Marvel published in 2010.
A supervillain with the ability to perfectly mimic any physical movements he closely observes, Taskmaster has often sold his services as a mercenary, primarily working to train the underlings of many nefarious groups the world over. But because Taskmaster’s unique ability takes up so much of his memory, it’s wiped away any personal details of his life. He can remember how to speak eight languages and fight in a hundred different styles, but Taskmaster can’t hold onto the names and faces of his friends or any details of his past missions. To keep track of it all he’s created a massive memory palace, a mental construct that links specific memories to locations or sensory stimuli like the taste of a certain food or a specific song.
When he’s wrongfully accused of turning state’s evidence, Taskmaster ends up with a bounty placed on his head. One large enough to bring every group of henchmen he every trained looking for him. He needs to find their leaders to prove his innocence, but because he doesn’t remember who they are, Taskmaster’s forced to follow the trail of his memory palace in the hopes of rediscovering his own past and the information that’ll save his life.
Van Lente, Palo and Beaulieu all do remarkable work here. The story’s finely crafted from start to finish, able to keep to its central narrative of a man trying to make sense of his past and his feelings of guilt for deeds he can’t remember while brining in such bizarre elements as the flamboyant Don of the Dead and his Dia de los Muertos-themed Mexican drug cartel — complete with its own narcocorrido band. There’s also the town high in the Bolivian Andes where everyone is Hitler and every family is out to violently expand their living space into their neighbor’s dining room. The insanity helps keep the pace fast and provide plenty of laughs, and yet manages to not get in the way when Taskmaster’s tragic past is revealed.
Taskmaster makes a strong case for being both one of the funniest and one of the most emotionally powerful mainstream superhero books of the last few years. And it’s because it’s able to keep readers off-guard with its jokes that the more poignant moments hit all that much harder. It’s no small task to be able to capture the wide range of action and emotion the story calls for, and Palo’s art excels at it. The range of expressions he’s able to get out of a huge cast of often masked characters is astounding, the dynamic energy he brings to Taskmaster’s fight scenes is thrilling, and Beaulieu’s colors add to it, playing off the stark white of Taskmaster’s uniform and the often brightly-colored jumpsuits of his pursuers with more subdued backgrounds. It’s a beautifully written and beautifully drawn series.
Taskmaster: Unthinkable is both accessible to new readers and rewarding to Marvel die-hards. If you’ve never read anything about the character or the setting before, then it’s a great mystery-adventure with off-the-wall characters rooted in a story with an emotional core. But if you’re a lover of Marvel’s deep lore, there’s appearances by the Lords of the Living Lightning and the Sons of the Serpent and connections to Marvel history going as far back as the Fantastic Four’s fight against the Hatemonger.
If you missed Taskmaster: Unthinkable in single issues, be sure to check out the collected edition now. And if you’ve already read the series it’s still worth another look. The story’s built in such a way that its events take on a different shape when you see them again already knowing the secrets that’ll later be revealed. Taskmaster: Unthinkable is the perfect example of how a series like this should be done. It takes a character who doesn’t often get a turn in the spotlight, elevates him to an entirely new level and ensures readers won’t look at him the same way again.