Monday, 18 August 2014

Taskmaster: Udon Series Review

This review is spoiler-free.

Taskmaster is, I believe, one of the most under-rated characters in the Marvel Universe. A mercenary, frequent enemy of Deadpool and The Avengers alike, the character has taken on a very interesting role in recent years. Taskmaster is no longer a villain, but whatever he needs to be. Most recently this has been seen in his role as a teacher in Avengers: The Initiative, a potential father-figure in Avengers Academy, and even an Avenger himself in Nick Spencer's recent Secret Avengers series.

My interest for the character spiked upon reading Fred Van Lente's excellent mini-series Taskmaster: Unthinkable in 2011, leading me to splash out on eBay and pick-up the four-issue series printed back in 2002 simply titled, Taskmaster. This series was the result of a collaboration between Marvel and Asian-influenced studio Udon, and tells a relatively simple story of Taskmaster being hired, Taskmaster being betrayed, and Taskmaster seeking revenge. It's safe to say that those of you looking for some real development of Taskmaster as a character would be better served in the 2011 series. But while Van Lente's mini-series is far superior to this one, both in terms of writing and information about the character, there is fun to be had in this series too - just so long as you can make it through the first issue.

Why do I say that? Well, the first issue of this series really doesn't deliver a fantastic first impression, mainly due to the abundance of exposition which is really quite tedious to read through. In fact, I would go as far to say that most of issue one is very flawed. Not only is the dialogue shamelessly expository, but the story is very by the numbers and the action feels lifeless. The big finale of the first issue is a fight between Taskmaster and Iron Man - a fight which has potential to be amazing, but in the end is just quite boring. The problem is mainly due to the fact that there's never any sense of struggle. Taskmaster puts Tony Stark in his place very easily, which may have been done as a way to show Taskmaster's skill as a fighter, but ultimately relieves the fight of any sense of tension. Meanwhile, Taskmaster's narration throughout the fight also removes it of any real fluidity.

However, what issue one does manage to do is set up the premise of the rest of the series and I'm happy to say that after issue one ends, things definitely start looking up for the book. Come issue two, the action is far superior to what is found in the first installment, the exposition is much less frequent and the whole book ends up with a more quality feel. While I don't want to delve into any further story details so not to ruin the book for anyone reading, I can say that there is a real rivalry built between Taskmaster and his antagonist, which certainly got me on Taskmaster's side rooting for the character to get his revenge.

Never has a series turned around so quickly for me in terms of quality. While the final three issues are still far from perfect they are a huge improvement on what came before, offering many fun and exciting moments with the series closing out with a real bang. Perhaps another contributing factor to this series improving as it progresses is the artwork which could take a while to grow on you. As I mentioned above, this series is a joint effort between Marvel and Udon, and as Udon are an Asian-influenced group the artwork on display here is very reminiscent of Manga. Reminiscent, but not totally the same. Indeed while the art here is very obviously influenced by Japanese artwork, it is more a fusion of Japanese and American styles than outright Manga art. Still, it is very different to what you see in most Marvel comics and did take a little while for me to get used to. If you're one of those people who loathes the Manga art style - and there are people like that out there - then perhaps you should be warned that elements of that style are on display here.

Taskmaster's classic costume
But however you feel about Manga, there's no denying that the costume design here is to be applauded. The suit incorporates Taskmaster's classic skull mask, sword and shield, but modernizes it into something futuristic and very stylish indeed. Although, personally I did feel that the Udon costume removes his humanity somewhat - as his actual face is never shown, instead the suit produces holograms of other people for him to pretend to be. While this high-tech suit is far better for Taskmaster in terms of stealthily breaking in to places that he shouldn't be, at times it seemed a little too futuristic when you think how Taskmaster's traditional costume is quite a charming medieval suit. Nonetheless, the Udon gear does look cool and has some great features - but I'm just glad Taskmaster was reverted to his old costume once the series finished.

So should you buy this series? The decision is one you should think on before going ahead, especially if you're on a budget as some eBay sellers put the complete series up for much more than you would pay for a standard Marvel trade paperback. Ultimately I think you would be wise to pick up Taskmaster: Unthinkable, the other Taskmaster series, before this one as it is the superior series of the two and also more affordable as it is still in print. After you've read that series, if you're craving some more Taskmaster action, then the 2002 Udon series is a solid second choice. While it does have a rocky start, the series goes on to blossom into something exciting, fun and wholly entertaining which is well worth a look if you can get your hands on an affordable copy.


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