The Marvel Comics character known as the Taskmaster knows a great many things thanks largely to his “photographic reflexes.” This super ability allows him to perfectly mimic any action he observes, from sleight of hand to combat moves. He's observed some of the Marvel's Universe's most dangerous and talented fighters including Captain America, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Elektra, Wolverine, Bullseye, and the Punisher. He's used the talents he's learned from those characters to create a lucrative career for himself as an instructor of super villains, super terrorists, and sometimes super heroes.
The anti-hero is giving his fighting skills a work out just trying to survive in the current "Taskmaster" miniseries by writer Fred Van Lente and artist Jefte Palo. That's because someone put word out to the super terrorist underground that Taskmaster has started working for America's top super powered law enforcement officer, Steve Rogers. A one billion dollar bounty has been placed on Taskmaster's head and all of his former students and employers are coming out of the woodwork to claim it. Taskmaster must deduce the identity of the person who framed him if he hopes to survive, but in order to do that he must also uncover the secrets of another identity - his own. CBR News spoke with Van Lente about the developments of the series' first two issues as well as what he has planned for the second half of the book.
The reason Taskmaster must uncover his own past is because he no longer has any idea who he is. Throughout his career he's suffered from blackouts that have robbed him of his past and forced him to operate by muscle memory alone. “Learning a significant new skill of any kind tends to erase his memories. In the second issue he explains that because of this he's constantly lying,” Van Lente told CBR News. “You're never quite sure in his past appearances if he's actually remembered stuff, been told stuff by the Org, or if he's just making stuff up. So he’s very much in danger of losing any of the information he recovers about himself in this series. He's always in danger of that. You never know when it's going to happen.”
The Org is a mysterious organization that Van Lente introduced in “Taskmaster” #1. They serve as a logistics service to many of the Marvel Universe's secret societies and criminal conspiracies. They’ve also set up most of Taskmaster's jobs as an instructor to those groups. “You'll learn in the third issue they have ties to ODESSA, which is the historical organization that was a network of SS agents. It's an acronym in German, which basically stands for the Organization of Former SS officers,” Van Lente explained. “They helped Nazis get out of Germany after the fall of Berlin in World War II. So next issue, former Captain America Steve Rogers makes an appearance, as well as the town where everyone is Hitler, the reaction to which I'm eagerly anticipating.”
“I don't know what I can say without giving it away,” Van Lente said of the setting for #3. “Everybody in the town thinks that they're Hitler and acts, dresses and looks like Hitler - even the women. If you thought the Don of the Dead was crazy. You ain't seen nothing yet.”
The Org picked up the rumor that Taskmaster had turned government informer and spread it to many of the Marvel U's prominent terrorist groups like HYDRA, A.I.M., and U.LT.I.M.A.T.U.M in the series' first issue. They also divulged this information to several new organizations of Van Lente's own creation like The Inquisition - a group of torture obsessed sadomasochistic fanatics - and The Black Choppers - a motorcycle gang made up entirely of extraterrestrials that work for a secret organization.
“You'll definitely see the Black Choppers play a central role in the series and you'll actually see them in issue #3,” said Van Lente. “As for the other groups, I'm not entirely sure. I do have plans for the Don of the Dead. He'll be popping up in a book I have beginning in January. So you'll definitely be seeing him again. He's too insane to waste”
Van Lente introduced readers to the Don of the Dead in “Taskmaster” #2. In the issue, Taksmaster used a mnemonic device to try and recover a shred of his past. It led him and Mercedes Merced, a waitress he met in the first issue, to the jungles of Mexico where they ran afoul of the skull-faced Don and his army of narco-terrorists. “I believe the idea for the character came when I was looking at some Mexican Day of the Dead figurines and it just occurred to me that it would be awesome to have a super villain who dressed up in that outfit," said Van Lente. "Somehow the pun of Don of the Dead came to me and I laughed like Beavis and/or Butthead. Thus a character was born; a character with the worst Mexican accent in the history of comics. And as it turns out he isn't even Mexican at all.”
Don is not only American, but also a former S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence operative. He claimed that Taskmaster's last name was Masters, and that he too was a former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. In yet another twist, Mercedes Merced was revealed to be a current S.H.I.E.L.D agent when she called the organization's former director, Nick Fury, to inform him of the anti-hero's investigation.
“S.H.I.E.L.D.'s involvement will be touched upon and all of the secrets of the Org will be revealed before the end of the series," Van Lente said. "Some of those secrets will be revealed to Steve Rogers, and they'll make him very mad. The Secret Avengers will be showing up in the last issue once they decide to bring down Taskmaster themselves. Also everything about Taskmaster's origin will be totally explained, and you’ll learn who this mysterious enemy is that's been spreading rumors.”
Not one to take all the credit for himself, Van Lente is immensely grateful for how well his “Taskmaster” collaborator Jefte Palo brings the story's more bizarre ideas to life. “There’s a sequence in #3 that is one of my favorite things I've ever written. You'll know it when you see it, and the way Jefte does it is just perfect," gushed Van Lente. "This series would not be as special to my heart if it weren't for Jefte. He's really been kicking ass.”
Van Lente was drawn to Taskmaster because of his inherent strangeness and the possibility of taking his story places that reflected that. “When [editor] Lauren Sankovitch first said, 'Hey, let's do a Taskmaster mini,' I wasn't immediately interested," said Van Lente. "I was familiar with the character because one of the first ever comics I bought with my own money was the 'Marvel Team-Up' where the new Ant-Man and Spider-Man fight Taskmaster. I wasn't quite sure what to do with him, but then I came up with the idea that his super memory erases his old memories. So basically it's a story about a guy with a super memory, which felt like a really great metaphor that you could drape a story around."
“My initial impulse was to do a fairly straightforward espionage/crime thriller, but the more I realized the implications of him professionally training HYDRA and A.I.M. and these other guys - and the fact that he's dressed the way he is with the skull mask - the bizarre ideas kept creeping in," continued Van Lente. "Certainly Gail Simone used the Taskmaster this way in her ‘Agent X’ and ‘Deadpool’ issues, so it just seemed like a really natural way to do things; to bring out the colorful weirdness that makes superhero comics so wonderful.”
"Taskmaster" by Van Lente and Palo concludes in December, but the character can next be seen in "Avengers Academy."