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Required Reading: Taskmaster: Unthinkable

"If more comics were this smart, funny and action-packed, we wouldn’t need movies."

By / Posted on 06 May 2011

Taskmaster: UnthinkableYou can do anything better than anybody. The only thing you can’t do is remember your own life. Sounds like a kickass take on The Bourne Identity or Memento, right? This simple setup is the basis of Taskmaster, the four-issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 2010 and collected this week as Taskmaster: Unthinkable.

A longtime B-level supervillain, Taskmaster has a special form of muscle memory that allows him to recreate any action he sees performed. Think photographic memory, only the information he retains is physical. This unique skill has made him one of the most formidable foes in the Marvel Universe, as he is capable of utilizing the agility of Spider-Man, the melee skills of Captain America, the accuracy of Hawkeye and so many more. It’s no surprise that with all of this skill Taskmaster has been especially useful in training new generations of warriors on both sides of the endless super-human war. Frequently employed by the likes of Hydra and AIM (two of the most prominent organizations of bad guys in the Marvel Universe), Taskmaster is responsible for the armies of nameless grunts that somehow manage to pose a threat to Iron Man and the Fantastic Four. He’s even recently been hired by SHIELD (the good guys) to train the incoming classes of Avengers students. Primarily, though, Taskmaster is a mercenary, taking on jobs with no concern for the ramifications and following through with surgical precision.

Those reflex memories come at a price, though, as every new movement he learns overwrites his own memories of life beyond fighting. So when word spreads that Taskmaster narc’d enemy intel to Steve Rogers (former Captain America, current head of U.S. counterterrorism) a bounty of one billion dollars goes on his head, dead or alive. Loyalties are out the window. Everybody wants that money. More importantly, everyone wants to snuff out the snitch. Everyone. The hooded villain doesn’t remember any of this, though. He doesn’t even remember his own students who have come to kill him. The book follows Taskmaster as he tries to remember his past while on the run from every organized crime syndicate in the Marvel Universe.

This is where the most surprising and endearing element of Taskmaster: Unthinkable kicks in – this book is hilarious. In addition to the aforementioned AIM and Hydra, writer Fred Van Lente brings in obscure gangs Cyber Ninjas and Lords of the Living Lightning but also introduces 18th-century survivalists Militiamen, technopunk Trenchcoat Mafia and obvious Monty Python nod The Inquisition. Most amazingly, though, is the new organization of former henchmen, the Minions’ International Liberation Front, led by Redshirt the Über-Henchman. No sooner are these two names revealed than we are treated to the following exchange:

Redshirt & MILF

Jefte Palo’s art is gritty and dynamic, perfectly balancing the shadows of the criminal underworld with the tension-breaking humor. There’s a lingering sense of dirt and impurity, as nobody in this story is truly clean and nearly everyone has an ulterior motive. In terms of sheer storytelling flare, there are few elements in the book that play off as perfectly as overlaying art of superheroes performing actions over Taskmaster recreating their movements. The visual trick is used sparingly throughout the book, but to magnificent effect.

Taskmaster as Captain America

The protagonist runs into a series of zany characters that make him seem well-adjusted on his journey to uncover the secret of his past and clear his name. It’s an espionage thrill ride that surpasses any Matt Damon film. The self-contained tale filled with personal drama and bombastic action is perfect for new readers, but there are plenty of references to current and past Marvel continuity to elate longtime Marvel nerds.

If more comics were this smart, funny and action-packed, we wouldn’t need movies. Our favorite “superhero” comic of 2010, now available in bookstores nationwide. Highest possible recommendation.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.