If malicious pathogens hadn’t intervened, the long-awaited Black Widow movie would have been out by now. And her cinematic antagonist, the surly man with the photographic reflexes and Brooklyn accent (we hope?), would have been a household name. Hence the smartly opportunistic, pre-pandemic flood of newly-collected Taskmaster trades from Marvel’s publishing division.
First came an assortment of Silver Age stories that may have left modern readers wanting. Taskmaster: The Right Price, while still lacking in some hallmark material, may help to bridge the gap.
Or maybe not. Instead of choosing “prime” modern Taskmaster material (and it’s out there; check Christos Gage’s work on Avengers: The Initiative), Marvel instead includes here the infamous four-issue UDON mini-series from 2002, and the well-written but retcon-rich 2010 Fred Van Lente mini of the same length. I’m honestly shocked either of these ever saw print again, but for very different reasons.
Firstly, the 2002 series just wasn’t received that well. It put Taskmaster in completely new armor, took away his accent, and made him ostensibly a heroic super spy with James Bond-like tech (as if the guy who can copy any fighting move just by seeing it needs any extra advantages).
Like many books of the time, it’s a deliberate deviation in both tone and origin. Nearly the whole creative team is billed as being from UDON Studios (hence the colloquial term for Taskmaster’s “UDON armor”), who were bringing manga-esque style into more mainstream areas. Ken Siu-Chong is credited as writer, and among the suite of artists listed is Alvin Lee, who did similar art with his brother Pat (at the time under the now-defunct Dreamwave Studios banner) for 1999’s Wolverine/Punisher: Revelation. Yes, the second half of the angel Punisher story.
Of course none of that is necessarily bad, but it seems like time has decided people want their superheroes to be superheroes and their manga to be manga, and never the twain shall meet. Two great tastes that don’t mix together, I guess. It’s probably no accident the one cover that UDON Studios didn’t do, a Joe Madureira, is the one that graces the back of The Right Price.
And the front cover of Taskmaster: The Right Price is by Greg Tocchini, from the final issue of Van Lente’s series, which definitely nails Taskmaster’s affectations and personality. It also aims to solve some of the mystery behind the man’s chosen (admittedly outlandish) costume and history, but much like when Marvel “revealed” the true origin of Wolverine, a lot of fans might not be down with it. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say you reeallly have to stretch to have much of the character’s past continuity make sense, and every Taskmaster writer since seems to have pretty much ignored what we learn here.
Oh, and Hitler Town. A village in South America where fleeing Nazis populated a community of men, women, and children entirely with partial clones of Adolf Hitler. That’s why I thought this would never be reprinted.
Jefte Palo handles the art, which is grainy and angular, giving unique looks to Van Lente’s original characters, like the Don of the Dead and the Black Choppers, a gray alien motorcycle gang. Jean-Francois Beaulieu’s colors are understated and contained, as they should be for this kind of story.
The volume is rounded out with Van Lente and Palo’s two pages from Age of Heroes #3, so you’ll have everything they did with the character in one place. There’s also a random M. Zachary Sherman and Koi Pham story from 2007’s Marvel Comics Presents #2, which is good fun, but completely unrelated to either of the two main minis.
It’s good that Taskmaster: The Right Price exists, because otherwise it might be hard to get your hands on these two maligned and/or forgotten stories. But … did you really want them? There’s really not much to the UDON series besides a basic spy tale, and while Van Lente’s writing is always crisp, entertaining, and funny (especially in the dialogue of his story’s main antagonist), the special pleading needed to ignore or modify all past Taskmaster continuity takes you out of the story, and it’s more or less the last we ever hear about it.