Revisitor: Defining the Undefined in Fred Van Lente and Jefte Palo’s Taskmaster

Revisitor is a regular column in which I look back on personal favorites from comic history, whether they’re a single issue, graphic novel, comic strip, webcomic or basically any form of sequential art you can think of, ideally with insight from one of the title’s key players, like I did with the debut edition about Mike Mignola’s Hellboy story, “Pancakes.” This edition delivers on that promise, although as per usual, I should note there are extreme spoilers for 2010’s Taskmaster mini-series within, so beware.

Read any list of the best comics from Marvel’s history and odds are you’ll come across pretty similar collections no matter where you look. There will be variations within, but your Born Agains and your Dark Phoenix Sagas are constants throughout. 8 That’s the same on the flip side, as the worst of the worst tends to generate a Usual Suspects-esque collection of misfits. Like any company with decades and decades of stories, some of Marvel’s product is good, and some of it is bad.

If I’m being honest, though, the most interesting ones are often those that get lost in the mix. The ones that fall in-between the cracks, having their ardent supporters but never reaching the critical mass necessary to make either of the aforementioned lists. The same is true for the publisher’s characters. I know this is no surprise coming from a guy who reps hard for Stilt-Man, but I genuinely believe that trapped within each B-lister or below is a great story, just waiting to be told.

Before he became the apparent villain of the upcoming Black Widow movie, the villainous-ish Taskmaster was one of them. The character’s appearances ranged wildly from “relatively forgettable secondary villain” to “surprisingly effective trainer for Avengers cadets.” But for the most part, he was window dressing, the character behind the character you really cared about.

That’s because he was effectively a blank slate. He was the comic book equivalent of the NBA’s Trevor Ariza, someone who changed allegiances constantly depending on who was willing to pay him at the time. 9 Sometimes he was on the side of the angels. Other times he was a straight baddie. Maybe he’s aligned with the Avengers in some capacity for a minute, but more often than not he was with A.I.M. or one of Marvel’s many other acronym-filled villain groups. For the most part, he was a guy with a cool costume who had very little to him beyond his genuinely amazing power set, making him a skeleton key for writers looking for a fly to throw in the ointment.

You see, he has “photographic reflexes,” a gift that allows him to effectively copy any physical movement someone does so long as it doesn’t require superhuman powers. 10 That made him an incredibly flexible punching bag — the comic villain equivalent of tofu — but little else.

Taskmaster #1 cover by Alex Garner

That is until one of those lost comics I talked about earlier arrived. In 2010, an unsuspecting mini-series dropped in comic shops from writer Fred Van Lente and artist Jefte Palo, and it changed everything for the character. This pair looked at the blank slate that Taskmaster was and, for once, saw opportunity rather than a mildly compelling sparring partner for a more well-known character.

This title, a four-issue Taskmaster mini-series that has since been subtitled “Unthinkable,” 11 took the character on a world tour as Marvel’s villainous organizations chased him in pursuit of a billion-dollar bounty on his head. Word was Taskmaster made a face turn, teaming up with super cop Steve Rogers in the process. These villains could not abide that betrayal. 12 While that was the premise, the real story came from that structure. The pair used that set up as an opportunity to reframe that tabula rasa personality of Tasky — which is what I affectionally call him — as a feature, not a bug, connecting his power set to his non-existent memory in a quartet of issues that were equal parts amusing and poignant. From that moment on, this B-lister became an A-lister for yours truly, even if I did rep for him before then.

The wild thing is it very nearly didn’t happen. Van Lente almost passed on the project altogether. After years of writing well-liked titles starring secondary characters, at best — including his beloved run on Incredible Hercules with co-writer Greg Pak — Van Lente wanted to avoid being typecast in that role. 13

“I didn’t really want to do it at first,” Van Lente told me. “I felt pretty pigeonholed at Marvel as ‘The Obscure Character Guy’ and I started wondering if I should start turning down these B-listers 14 when they were offered to me.”

You see, taking Taskmaster to task in his own title wasn’t Van Lente’s idea at all. It originated with Marvel editor Lauren Sankovitch. Sankovitch had edited the character on Avengers: The Initiative, a title that showcased his potential, even in a typically secondary role. With the larger Dark Reign storyline nearing its conclusion, the editor thought it’d be a good idea for Taskmaster to get his own mini-series. Van Lente was approached, and as noted before, he wasn’t sure about it…until an idea struck him that he couldn’t resist.

“When she approached me to do it I was lukewarm,” the writer said. “But then that night as I fell asleep I got the idea that Taskmaster’s personal memories got overwritten by all the superhero moves he copied, like a computer’s hard drive. Once I came up with the idea that Taskmaster had to reclaim his own memories, explore the mystery of himself, I found it really appealing.

“The next morning I told Lauren I’d do it.”

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  1. Understandably.

  2. I mean this with no disrespect to Ariza, who has been traded more often than actually signing with other teams. I bet he’s tired of getting traded!

  3. i.e. He can’t fly and set himself on fire just because the Human Torch can. That said, I suppose he could set himself on fire. It just wouldn’t be advisable and wouldn’t be a power, per se.

  4. Does this make this Taskmaster mini the Edge of Tomorrow of Marvel comics? Was it the name that gave it a sales ceiling?!

  5. Despite the fact he was literally just training Avengers cadets in Avengers: The Initiative. Where was your anger then, villains?! That’s easy: it didn’t come with a financial reward, thus it was less interesting.

  6. Van Lente, I should note, is doing very well for himself in comics outside the Big Two since then, with his currently being Kickstarted Action Philosophers collection wrapping in the next day. So get on it!

  7. ”B-minus listers?” the scribe actively wondered.

  8. Understandably.

  9. I mean this with no disrespect to Ariza, who has been traded more often than actually signing with other teams. I bet he’s tired of getting traded!

  10. i.e. He can’t fly and set himself on fire just because the Human Torch can. That said, I suppose he could set himself on fire. It just wouldn’t be advisable and wouldn’t be a power, per se.

  11. Does this make this Taskmaster mini the Edge of Tomorrow of Marvel comics? Was it the name that gave it a sales ceiling?!

  12. Despite the fact he was literally just training Avengers cadets in Avengers: The Initiative. Where was your anger then, villains?! That’s easy: it didn’t come with a financial reward, thus it was less interesting.

  13. Van Lente, I should note, is doing very well for himself in comics outside the Big Two since then, with his currently being Kickstarted Action Philosophers collection wrapping in the next day. So get on it!

  14. ”B-minus listers?” the scribe actively wondered.