What is it about George Perez and the 1980s? In 1981, he drew one of my favorite comic arcs of all, the battle between the JLA, the JSA, and the Secret Society of Super-Villains. That went down in “Justice League America” #195-197. The year prior, he did another story that I recall fondly, one that introduced a villain that’s still making an impact in the Marvel Universe today. That was the Taskmaster, and he showed up for a tale that spanned “Avengers” #194-196, April to June of 1980.
So, then . . . 1980 . . .
1980: Is there any doubt what the biggest movie of the year was? That was, indeed, “The Empire Strikes Back”, banking over twice the gap of its closest competitor, “9 to 5”. Other hit films included “Stir Crazy” and “Airplane!” I also note with some bemusement that “Xanadu” made more money than “Fame” and only about half-a-million less than “Raging Bull”. The top two shows, as they were in the ‘80s more or less till the advent of “The Cosby Show”, were “Dallas” and “60 Minutes”. Number 3? “Dukes of Hazzard”, y’all. Your biggest songs were by Blondie (“Call Me”), Pink Floyd (“Another Brick in the Wall”), Olivia Newton-John (“Magic”, from “Xanadu”), Michael Jackson (“Rock with You”) and The Captain and Tenille (“Do That To Me One More Time”). I also report with glee that #11 was “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes, mainly because the entire operant premise and resolution of the lyrical narrative is so friggin’ .
Back to the Avengers . . .
Issue #194 is mainly a character interaction issue. In fact, it was called “Interlude”. A lot of staple Avengers behavior is going on here, courtesy of David Micheline. Jocasta robotically pines for Vision while he blows off some steam in a training exercise. Falcon splits. And Wasp helps out a man that’s escaped from an asylum. This man, Selbe, tries to convince here that bad stuff is going down, but the rest of the team or less insists on turning him back over to those authorities. The Wasp follows and gets herself in trouble.
The Avengers decide to check things out, and they also call in Yellowjacket (Hank Pym at the time), who brings Ant-Man (Scott Lang). The shrinking boys get in to help Wasp, and discover a rather clever scheme: the asylum is basically a farm for providing henchmen to super-villains. Selbe is a cloning attempt so that the aging director can take his heart. As our insectoid heroes are preparing to bust up the operation, they get taken down by the guy REALLY running the joint: The Taskmaster.
By issue #196, we get a solid breakdown of what Taskmaster can do. He’s got “photographic reflexes”, which means that he can replicate any action after watching it. He figured out how to be a top-class athlete, and then took it further by studying the fighting styles of super-heroes ranging from Cap to Spidey to Iron Fist. Having taken in the talents of fencers, marksmen, martial artists and heroes, Taskmaster comes on like a badass.
Eventually, the Avengers bust in and start wrecking the place. Taskmaster holds his own for a minute, but, after being thrown off-guard by Jocasta, has to rely on a blinding phosphorus flare to make his escape, reasoning that even he couldn’t take on Cap, Iron Man, Wonder Man, Ms. Marvel, and the rest at once. He gets away, knowing that he’s going to face the heroes again before too long.
Recently, Taskmaster found a home in “Avengers: The Initiative”, used as both a trainer and an agent of Norman Osborn. The sardonic humor and lethal skills are still in place from his original appearance, and his costume is largely unchanged. I’ve always liked the of Taskmaster; he was a guy with a gift that decided to profit from it, the opposite of your traditional altruistic hero. He also operated on the capitalism front in terms of providing a service that others didn’t offer, that is, the training and out-sourcing of thugs and henchmen for criminal masterminds. It was, and is, a clever conceit. I think that you can see the DNA of Taskmaster in a number of later characters, including Deathstroke the Terminator (also co-created by Perez) and Midnighter (he of the tactically enhanced mind).
While it’s not necessarily an immortal story, “Avengers” #194-196 remains a fun one. It involves a lot of characters, maintains a smaller focus, and builds intra-team dynamics through conflict and communication. The art was your typical rock-solid Perez, and, of course, it gave us Taskmaster. And that’s your Friday Flashback.