Though his big screen debut‘s been delayed a bit, eventually the rest of the world will get to know one of Marvel’s unique villains, the Taskmaster. The man with the ridiculous cape and skull facemask who can mimic anyone’s motions looks to be a little streamlined for cinema, though, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll see his danger-eschewing, pseudo-cowardly tendencies.
Publishing to the rescue, with 13+ issues of the hooded thug’s exploits from throughout Marvel’s history, in Taskmaster: Anything You Can Do… Sadly though, despite his ability to do pretty much anything, he does pretty much the same thing, over and over.
The first four issues of Anything, Avengers #195, 196, and 223, and Marvel Team-Up #103, are written by the character’s co-creator, David Micheline. Avengers #195 is a good lead-up to the Taskmaster’s ultimate reveal on the final page, prefaced by a tour through his trademark disposable trainee camp. Throughout this story, the reason for his ostentatious garb, despite his predilection for seclusion, is never explained. Honestly, I find that kind of charming, in a crazy, Silver Age kind of way.
The repetitiveness is less quaint, in hindsight. Every tale is basically the same: Something fishy going on, hero eventually figures out Taskmaster has another training camp, Taskmaster runs away before getting his final comeuppance. Bonus points for heroes getting trapped in the same shackles again. All with a pile of editor’s notes and exposition on his powers. Cary Burkett’s Marvel Team-Up #146 is the worst offender, even hitting the hero misunderstanding and villain-of-the-week tropes. Mike Carlin’s The Thing #26 falls somewhere in between, with some casual misogyny for flavor.
Amazing Spider-Man #308 is a ’90s preview, with Peter getting EXTREME and savaging criminals over Mary Jane’s kidnapping, way back in 1988. Micheline writes and Todd McFarlane’s on art, and you can see why his rise was such a big deal — the dynamism of both Spider-Man’s movements and the characters’ facial expressions are a breath of fresh air compared to the house style of George Perez, Jerry Bingham, Greg LaRocque, Ron Wilson, and Joe Sinott, in the previous issues. Iron Man #254, written and drawn by Bob Layton, is a strange inclusion, featuring a brightly-colored Spymaster who is more electric nunchaku than spying.
The standout of Anything You Can Do … is 1991’s Daredevil #292 and 293, written by D.G. Chichester, who does gritty right. This is Daredevil as you know him: roughing up bad guys, using his powers in creative ways, and coming to blows with the Punisher. The resolution to the contest between Taskmaster and Tombstone is a little campy, but there are some great beats along the way, and the art by Lee Weeks is angular, striking, and tells as much of the story as the words do.
Captain America Annual #11, by Mark Gruenwald and James Brock, centers on Falcon in the ‘hood with a new costume. It tries to shed light on social issues, but the dialogue is painfully sterotyped for the most part. Taskmaster, on the other hand, has the same, unique voice he’s had in every other issue — that imperfect, vernacular-driven speech with personalized insults we’ve come to love.
That changes in Deadpool #2, by Joe Kelly, who should know better. Taskmaster morphs into Generic Villain #34, though his “you can’t beat the master” attitude is kind of nice. As you probably already know, the art is by Ed McGuinness, but don’t expect modern McGuinness here. Everything’s exaggerated, and the red/purple color choices for the iconic Taskmaster garb are bizarre to say the least.
But the nadir of Anything comes in 1998’s Tom DeFalco one-shot, Hawkeye: Earth’s Mightiest Marksman. The idea is fine enough, with Taskmaster taking the next logical step and trying to find a way to duplicate super powers, but the plot meanders and goes off on weird tangents, and the dialogue is way too dated for something that just came out turn of the millennium. Jeff Johnson’s art on the first half is strictly of its time, on the other hand, and even when Mark Bagley takes over on the back end … well, let’s just say it’s not his best work.
Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s underrated run brings some life back with Avengers #26, but things stumble again in Dan Jurgens’ 2001-published Captain America #44, which has a standard supervillain plot and Steve Rogers’ girlfriend deciding whether or not she should stand by her man once she’s discovered his secret identity.
As all collections are, Taskmaster: Anything You Can Do… is uneven, but some of the story choices are downright strange. It’s nice to have the original Micheline stuff, but surely there has to be a better Deadpool/Taskmaster story out there, for instance. This volume suffers from the same malady as M.O.D.O.K.: Head Trips and other villain collections, in that the title character is really just a foil for the heroes. It makes you wonder why more central books like Fred Van Lente’s 2010 Taskmaster mini-series aren’t included (until you realize they saved all that stuff for yet ANOTHER upcoming book).