Taskmaster: The Rubicon Trigger (#1 – 5) – Jed MacKay

3 out of 5

If you’re enjoying writer Jed MacKay’s run on Black Cat – and I very much am – then the first issue of Taskmaster would seem to be an easy sell: another on-again / off-again bad guy, set forth (due to circumstance) on a string of especially difficult heists. Here the circumstance is that Tasky is being framed for the murder of Maria Hill, and the heists are suited to his skills – “stealing” behaviors from three targets which will help him unlock a project Hill had been working on and dot dot dot clear his name – but the high-level DNA is there. Give it some of MacKay’s wit and pair him with a great artist – Alessandro Vitti, colored by Guru-eFX – and we should be off to the races.

That phrasing likely has you expecting some exceptions. Indeed.

Before getting into that, first and foremost: Taskmaster is a fun series. I think it was intended as an ongoing and instead comes to an end after five issues, which cuts off some of the themes Jed may have been intending to explore – definitely one of the problems with the book, as it definitely doesn’t get into character the way Black Cat has and does – but the story in those five issues is very much complete, and it doesn’t necessarily read as a sudden conclusion; it fits with what’s come before it. And the structure is great – setup and conclusion on the bookends; one full heist’s ins and outs in the three issues between. The series moves on its feet, and doesn’t play with nonsense cliffhangers, and definitely elicits a good balance of actionry thrills with laughs, Taskmaster’s appreciably unique solutions to these puzzles often humorously involving him allowing himself to get beaten up. Vitti’s art maybe has some tonal blips I’ll also address, but in general, it’s fantastic stuff – very dense but also light on its feet, blending Taskmaster’s ridiculous outfit with the humans with which he interacts without, somehow, looking off. Vitti also doesn’t go overly cinematic to try to spice up dialogue as a lot of Marvel / DC artists aim to do, instead choosing key emotions to display and mostly nailing them; meanwhile the action is plenty ramped up but also very readable. Guru’s colors add to this, opting for a cool (temperature-wise) color scheme that’s very clean while still allowing for the meatiness of Vitti’s work to show through.

So to the exceptions: I don’t feel like we ever really get a sense of who MacKay’s Taskmaster “is.” One of the things that stood out about Black Cat from the get-go was how human Felicia comes across, and that her crew – while used as different types of comedy relief, essentially – also feel like real people. And I just don’t get that here. Taskmaster’s (aka Tony Masters) narration is definitely well written – Jed is good at juggling quips with thoughts so that not everyone is just another one-line slinger, and the same is true for the other characters we meet, who come across as distinctly voiced, but our lead should offer us a bit more so that we’re invested in their plight, and that’s not here. There’s a degree of Tony wanting to prove himself as an elite thug-for-hire while also fighting smart – i.e. knowing when to run away – but this is where the tone gets muddled, and it’s something Vitti struggle with as well: it’s not clear if The Rubicon Trigger is meant to be harmless fun, or something with more serious stakes. Some of the writing and art is pure comedy, with the way Taskmaster reacts to things, his eyes going all big and bug-eyed, but then the fight sequences will go pretty brutal and moody. You can have both, but I think there needs to be some throughline threading those Boths together, which is what’s lacking here. Because at its very core, the series feels a little “Why are we doing this?” slapdash, something that Jed tries to lampshade a bit after the first issue’s exciting rush to set things up, but the compact nature of the book (whether intended from the start or not) doesn’t allow us to ever really get into it.

Knowing its limitations, though, The Rubicon Trigger’s fun-factor and overall visual quality still make it an enjoyable read – and reread, as I went through it a couple of times, pleasingly, to try to zero in on where I felt like it dropped the ball. Also: damn are Valerio Giangiordano’s / Arif Prianto’s covers amazing.