Maria Hill is dead - and Taskmaster appears to be responsible. But did he really commit the crime? That's the question at the heart of writer Jed MacKay and artist Alessandro Vitti's upcoming Taskmaster limited series that pits the skull-faced mercenary against Marvel's espionage community with life-or-death stakes.
But Taskmaster has his work cut out for him, with Coulson and the Squadron Supreme, White Fox, and more gunning for him as he tries to solve the mystery of a murder he may or may not have committed. Are Taskmaster's skills and photographic reflexes enough when taking on threats of that magnitude?
According to MacKay, they may not be, as he says this mission will "more than likely see Taskmaster dead."
Newsarama spoke with MacKay about Taskmaster #1 ahead of the issue's November release to discover what's in store for Taskmaster as he takes on a mission that may be bigger than he's capable of handling - and tries to come out on top anyway.
Newsarama: Jed, Taskmaster is one of Marvel's most mysterious characters. Even his allegiances aren't always clear. We know there's a heinous crime at the heart of this story, but what's Taskmaster's status quo going in?
Jed MacKay: I'd argue that Taskmaster's allegiances are some of the clearest in the Marvel Universe, as they're always the same: to himself. That is what I think separates him from his colleagues in the world of supervillainy - at the end of the day, he's looking out for #1, and that #1 is invariably Taskmaster.
Going in, Taskmaster is doing what he does best - working. He's out there, using his skills to make some cash, not knowing that his world is going to come crashing down around his bony ears.
Nrama: Speaking of that crime, the solicitation for Taskmaster #1 mentions the murder of Maria Hill, but also raises some questions about what's actually going on. Should we be prepping our black S.H.I.E.L.D. armbands for Maria Hill?
MacKay: Taskmaster sums that up best himself in issue #4: "Spies die. That's what they're there for, so their bosses can get things done without risking their own skins." Maria Hill was an exceptional spy, doing whatever was required for the mission, even if it put her own skin on the line.
She may have made decisions that were unpopular, may have been hated for her actions, but everything she did was in service of the mission. That mindset is something that sets her in stark (posthumous) relief with Taskmaster, as his philosophy is quite the opposite - no mission has more value for him than his own skin.
However, Hill's death catapults him into the mission nonetheless, as it's the only way to keep himself from being unceremoniously murdered for a crime he has no memory of and yet stands accused of.
Nrama: For that matter, the solicitation for Taskmaster #2 mentions Agent Coulson in his sights – though Coulson has cheated death before. How deep will Taskmaster go into the Marvel Espionage bench? Who's next?
MacKay: It's all right there on the cover to issue #1! Phil Coulson, of the Squadron Supreme of America Project; Ami Han (aka the White Fox), of South Korea's National Intelligence Service (and director of their superhuman response team, the Horang-i Buseo); Okoye, director of the Agents of Wakanda... all of these top agents are pieces in the game Taskmaster finds himself in - a game in which he only has a partial inkling of the rules and the stakes of which are deadly serious.
Nrama: Taskmaster will also take on Coulson's allies in the new Squadron Supreme – a fun challenge for Taskmaster given his powers and the Squadron Supreme's meta origins. How does that clash go down? Seems like a good opportunity for some dream matchups.
MacKay: Coulson is a target, and Taskmaster's been waiting to put the boot in ever since Coulson and one Marcus Johnson (later known as Nick Fury Jr.) clashed with our bony pal. However, Coulson runs with some very dangerous people - and Taskmaster's going to run into their most dangerous. Taskmaster's a great fighter, a resourceful mercenary, and a snappy dresser.
But what good is all that when you're going up against the human nuclear reactor, a god in the shape of a man?
Nrama: To that end, you're working with Alessandro Vitti. What makes him the perfect collaborator for a story like this?
MacKay: Alessandro has been a thrilling artist to collaborate with on this story, as he draws the best Taskmaster I've ever seen. His characters have the weight and physicality that such a fight-heavy story cries out for, but without sacrificing the acting that is called for in a story starring such an idiosyncratic weirdo.
He makes Taskmaster creepy, charming, hilarious, and brutal all at once, and the expressiveness he gives that skull-face is something that I think Taskmaster fans are really going to love. Add to that general lushness with which he renders the world that these characters live in, and you're in for a real treat of a comic book.
Nrama: What's your favorite thing he's drawn for Taskmaster so far?
MacKay: It's hard to choose. Anytime Alessandro draws Taskmaster with a knife, there's such a sense of menace and competency about him that you believe that this is a character who can give Captain America a run for his money (provided that he's getting paid to do so).
But what I keep coming back to is a sequence in Issue #1 where Taskmaster is in a car with his mystery partner for the series, talking about the mess that he's in. Alessandro makes a sequence of two people talking in a car look fascinating, and that's where I think you can really see what a talented artist he is, taking such a mundane (if necessary) part of a book and making it look as cool and expressive as the action bits.
Nrama: Taskmaster is something of an unknown quantity, but he's taking the spotlight in a big way thanks in part to his upcoming appearance in Black Widow. What are the core themes you're dialing in on as you take this chance to define his place in the Marvel Universe?
MacKay: What we've been trying to do in this series is on two levels - the first is, of course, an action-packed, bone-crunching, blood-and-blades rampage through the world of super-spies, ramping up the action and adventure as much as we can. On another level though, we're getting into Taskmaster's head, spilling his metaphorical guts and putting them out there for the world to see.
How does one of the world's most deadly mercenaries approach the world? What does he think of his peers? How does he square a career of such brutality without seeing himself as a total monster?
Nrama: When Taskmaster is involved, anything can happen. What's coming as this limited series gets underway? How will Taskmaster's mission reshape what we think about Marvel's espionage community?
MacKay: We're shining a light on some unknown corners of the superspy world - what's going on with Coulson? What is the superhero situation in South Korea? And how exactly does one get close to a woman who represents one of the most secure places in the entire world? And ultimately, how did Taskmaster end up wrapped up in this situation that will more than likely see him dead?
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran in March 2020, but has been updated since with the series new release date.]