Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The Temple at the End of Time
Our book today is “The Temple at the End of Time” by Len Wein, and what is that you say, all you over-privileged egg-headed little ewoks out there? ‘There’s no such book! We’ve skimmed them all and worked up our best ways of bullshitting about them! There just CAN’T be one we missed!’ But your focus is too narrow, you miserable squajes, for our book is a four-issue story-arc from the ‘Mighty Thor’ comic book of the 1970s, a story-arc as full of pathos and drama and glinting moments of humor and insight as novels three times as long.
This particular story-arc will be immortalized and made available to you all in the next volume of Marvel’s ‘Essential’ series (or perhaps the volume after that, depending on how many extra titles the editors pull in), but oh! That subsummation will happen without the gorgeous, thought-provoking coloring talents of Glynis Wein, and that’s a heartfelt shame. Who knows how long it’ll be before Marvel Comics resurrects or freshly creates a full-color reprint series of their great old stuff? And even when that happens, who’s to say the powers that be behind such a series will see where the quality is? The ‘70s at Marvel were a golden age, the last age in which workhorse creators like Len Wein, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Rich Buckler, Joe Kubert, and John’s unjustly underrated brother Sal (as well as such rejuvenated old-timers as the mighty Gene Colan and the mighty Gil Kane) would have the freedom and relative anonymity to craft radically different great storylines in completely different titles. In today’s overpaid fanboy-inflated atmosphere, John Buscema would draw one issue of Conan every other month and periodically miss an entire year for undisclosed personal reasons. In today’s convention-fueled mindframe, Roy Thomas could only write a gut-wrenching storyline about Reed and Sue Richards if the Marvel Comics suits gave him permission to kill Sue Richards, preferably by means of gang-rape.
Thankfully, such was not always the case. Once upon a time, comics creators were long-haired hippies who actually believed in what they were doing, and at Marvel, once Stan Lee finally eased his zombie-fingers off the nominal ‘writing’ and ‘editing’ chores, they were free to spread their wings and really dig into the creative legacies they’d been left.
So Len Wein finally came to Thor and the story-arc we here at Stevereads are choosing to call ‘The Temple at the End of Time’ is the first full fruit of his inspiration (in the first issue - sorry, chapter, of our book, he’s referred to as ‘spanking new’ editor/storywriter).
First, a little big background, for those of you pitiful enough to know nothing about the character Thor in Marvel Comics: he’s the god of thunder out of Norse mythology, only refitted by the genius of Stan Lee with the trappings of a super-hero: a secret identity, a mission to fight injustice, and a big, red cape. He comes from Asgard, where Odin, his father, rules as king of the gods and is portrayed as a cartoon parody of the Old Testament God: bearded, irascible, and murderously omnipotent.
Second, a little small-background, for those of you pitiful enough not to know your 1970s Thor in every page and detail: just prior to our present story-arc, Thor’s mortal girlfriend Jane Foster was dying, and Thor’s immortal girlfriend (yep, Stan Lee’s thunder god was a playah), the goddess Sif, sacrificed her life to ‘fuse her spirit’ with Jane Foster in order to cure her. In a not particularly heroic turn, Thor appears OK with this (one’s better than none, we suppose), and he and Jane hold hands and pledge their love. Then everybody goes off to fight the Egyptian death-god in another dimension.
Our present story-arc begins on their return, when, after a brief spat between Odin and Thor, our hero heads to Jane Foster’s apartment with his gal. Odin leaves for Asgard, where in the following issues he will act even more hysterical and obsessive than usual; this is a nifty sub-plot (it builds to the stunning revelation in issue #250 that this newer, more hissy Odin wasn’t Odin at all but really - gasp! - Mangog in disguise; Mangog is one of Thor’s greatest villains, an ugly-ass monster with, as he endlessly proclaims until you just want to tell him to shut up already, the strength of a billion billion beings), but it need not concern us today.
Our concerns begin in our first ‘chapter, issue #242, which opens with Thor and Jane Foster relaxing in her apartment watching TV with three of Thor’s Asgardian buddies - these three are Fandral the dashing swordsman (think Errol Flynn, only minus the, um, wayward hands), Hogun the grim (grim guy with a mace, who was doing the whole stoic-hardass thing decades before some guy named Wolverine showed up), and Volstagg, an enormous Falstaff character, all bluster and buckling bravery.
This quintet is basically hanging out, bantering over soft drinks, when suddenly a giant HAND breaks through the wall and seizes Jane Foster. Our heroes leap to the gap in the wall and see a gigantic quasi-robot, the Servitor, with a fleshy red face, holding Jane Foster in one hand and an enormous power-lance in the other. He’s seized Jane in order to force Thor to do as he’s told, and with any other Marvel hero, it would’ve worked, and a tense parlay would have resulted.
With Thor, at least as Wein writes him, not so much. He and his friends hurl themselves straight at the Servitor (well, Volstagg does a prat-fall into some garbage, but the others leap), without seeming to care that it could get Jane Foster squished. What follows is a classic John Buscema battle-sequence, served up like a slice of Heaven. Thor fans will usually attest to three distinct periods where his artwork was at the top of its game: Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Walt Simonson (this was back when an artist stayed with a title for more than the six issues needed to generate a graphic novel - long enough, in other words, to get good at drawing the characters), but we here at Stevereads disagree. Surely for all his genius and wit (his run is probably the single best the character has ever known), Simonson can’t stand as a separate artistic category from Kirby? The one clearly learned everything from the other: big overdone figures, straightforwardly kinetic action sequences, etc. Buscema’s style is entirely different - more sinuous, more detailed (especially when matched with his perfect inker, Joe Sinnott, whose hyper-finished style would have been drastically mis-matched with Kirby’s wild, woolly scratchings) and ultimately more dignified. His Thor LOOKS big and regal, even in small panels.
In any case, Buscema’s action sequences can be grand and thrilling, despite his many static qualities as an artist (the obvious comparison is Curt Swan, but Swan’s action-sequences almost never actually worked), and this long battle with the Servitor displays the fact amply. And in short order, and without any real difficulty, Thor eventually wins and is at the point of pounding the Servitor’s pudgy red face inside out when a ray-blast shoots between him and his victim, causing Thor to pause. He looks up, and there before him is Zarrko, the so-called Man of Tomorrow, a villain from the future who’d plagued Thor a few times in previous issues. At which point long-time fans probably uttered a frustrated sigh - Zarrko is, after all, a lame excuse for a villain.
Fortunately, Len Wein is not a poor excuse for a writer. In his second ‘chapter,’ he starts shattering preconceptions right away, by characterizing Zarrko as something other than a bargain-rate Lex Luthor (they’re both bald as an egg, in case you’re loser enough not to know that). Zarrko apologizes to Thor and his friends - there was a miscommunication, his enormous Servitor was only meant to get their attention, not to attack them. Zarrko is from the 23rd century (clearly, there are some sleazeballs the Legion of Super-Heroes haven’t got around to rooting out yet), and he relates to his listeners how, after his last defeat at the hands of 20th century superheroes, he returned to his own time to lick his wounds and - and here’s the magic Wein touch at work - rethink his life.
That’s of course the thing super-villains never do: they never limp back home and re-evaluate this whole fighting-superheroes thing. The Wingless Wizard developes small, portable anti-gravity devices, but does he negotiate a contract with the DOD? Nope! He opts to keep getting his butt kicked by the Fantastic Four. The Mad Thinker can dream up the most sophisticated android technology on the planet, but does he patent his work and go public? Nope! He, too, elects to get his plush posterior pasted by the Fantastic Four four times a year. The list is endless, and the writers of Stan Lee’s time would have said that’s the whole point - that these villains ARE villains specifically because such worldly, pecuniary rewards aren’t sufficient to satisfy their craven ambitions.
Well, not so Zarrko! He got his futuristic ass kicked one too many times and, under Wein’s careful touch, he decides to do something about it. First, he re-models one of his century’s ‘indestructible mining robots’ into ‘a fitting servitor for one such as I intended to become’ - and he and his Servitor boarded a time-travelling cube and travelled FORWARD, not backward. AWAY from the Avengers and the Fantastic Four (apparently, over at Marvel there are no superheroes in the future). He goes to the 50th century - a fairly peaceful time whose inhabitants don’t stand up long against Zarrko and his enormous Servitor. Zarrko sets himself up as (relatively) benevolent dictator. Virtually any super-villain in Marvel or DC could have opted to do something equivalent, but Len Wein’s Zarrko is the very first to follow through with it.
And there he’d have stayed, happily dictating, if it weren’t for the menace he’s come to the 20th century to discuss with Thor: the Time Twisters. Once he’s got the warriors’ attention, he draws them a story - apparently, these Time Twisters appear to be travelling backward in time, touching down at Earth’s timeline every 30 centuries and bringing planet-wide devastation each time. Zarrko has used his time-travel technology to see the destruction of the 80th century, and he knows his own opportunistically-chosen 50th century is next, so he does what anybody would do if they knew the home century of the god of thunder: hop in your time-cube and go enlist his aid! His case is made all the stronger by the fact that if the 50th century falls, Thor’s beloved 20th century will be next (of course, in Thor’s case Zarrko had backup centuries, like the late 9th, or the 6th - but then, if Zarrko picked those centuries, oddly enough, he’d have had a credibility problem with Thor, who’d be a complete stranger to him).
The arguments work, and Thor and his comrades (including Jane Foster, who makes an impassioned argument for her inclusion on the mission, making blatantly manipulative reference to the fact that the goddess Sif’s life-essence is now inside her) vociferously declare their willingness to fight on Zarrko’s behalf, to save his adopted century and so their own. They all board the time-cube and head into the timestream, where trouble’s a-brewing.
That trouble soon makes itself apparent, as the time-cube runs aground on a temporal eddy and is attacked by ... a Tyrannosaurus Rex! Buscema’s rendering of the famed beast is anatomically accurate (longtime fans will recall what Kirby would have done in drawing a t.Rex - recall, and shudder), and Thor goes out to give battle. The fight is of course inherently one-sided physically, although there’s distinctly more parity mentally - because Thor TALKS through the whole of it. TO the T. Rex. Which has a brain the size of a walnut and is of course as ignorant of the nuances of spoken English as your average blogger. Thor offers the beast a chance to surrender with honor; he repeats his offer; finally he laments that his offer isn’t being accepted and hurls the dinosaur back into the mists of the timestream.
But the creature was just the beginning - from out of the mists now come hordes of enemies plucked from wildly different eras of history, from Greek hoplites to Mongol nomads to futuristic soldiers on anti-gravity sleds. A great battle ensues (Zarrko stays inside the time cube, but the Servitor fights and fights well, further increasing the favorable regard of the Asgardians) - until Thor decides to summon storm and lightning (um, yes, they appear to have weather even in the timestream .... moving on ...) to disperse the enemies. It’s having the desired effect when for just a moment Thor is distracted with thoughts of the lost Sif and is only stopped from accidentally sweeping his own comrades away when they call on him to cease and desist.
The clear import of both the T. Rex encounter and this one is that Wein considers Thor a bit of a lunkhead. But at least his heart’s in the right place.
Finally our travellers reach the century Zarrko has so recently conquered, and when they disembark, they find a squalid, wretched setting quite out of synch with the pride Zarrko takes in it all. Citizens shamble around gaunt and hungry, and when one dares approach Zarrko with a complaint, he’s rudely swept aside by the Servitor. Our heroes are dismayed but inactive - Wein usually writes his Asgardians as a little above temporal politics, perhaps even a little indifferent to them. Thor does point out that Zarrko’s world seems a fairly grim place, and Zarrko’s response has more understated, selfish intelligence to it than can be found in a dozen spittle-flecked rantings of Doctor Doom:
“It’s a simple equation, thunder god. Energy produces mobility ... mobility produces communication ... communication produces dissent ... and dissent produces rebellion. By withholding all sources of energy, I eliminate that rebellious temptation ... and insure my subjects’ safety. All that threatens them now is - the Time Twisters!”
And just that easy, the subject changes. The OTHER prodigiously powerful red-caped super-guy would have set about immediately improving the lot of Zarrko’s hapless subjects, but Thor and his buddies take it in their stride - and they’re helped to do so by the fact that just as Zarrko mentions the malevolent Time-Twisters, they appear smack dab in the middle of the street! And we’re on to ‘chapter’ 3!
This is issue #244, and its cover embodies the height of ‘70s overkill: there’s dialogue, for instance (it’s all but unknown nowadays, at Marvel or DC), and it’s emblazoned with the issue’s title, “This is the Way the World Ends,” and it includes the oddly masochistic advertisement, “AT LAST! The battle the Thunder God cannot hope to WIN!” (as though fans had been waiting for the event).
The issue itself finally brings our heroes into contact with the fabled Time-Twisters, but not before Zarrko tries to deal with them in his own inimitable style: he broadcasts his scowling visage to his poor downtrodden people, warning them about the appearance of the Time-Twisters in their midst and offering them one entire month of energy if they successfully defeat the intruders. The crowds rush to take him up on his offer, mobbing the tall, etoliated Time-Twisters with clubs and pitchforks. Again, Thor only wanly objects: he tells Zarrko he mislikes using mortals as pawns, but he doesn’t exactly fly out a window to interfere, and the crowds get decimated by the Time-Twisters, whose eye-beams work temporal havoc on their victims, reducing them to old crones or little babies in an instant.
He does go, however - they all do, walking to confront the Time-Twisters while Jane Foster urges Thor to try talking with the intruders before he starts brawling with them: “Look at their clothing, their faces - look into their eyes, Thor! These are creatures of vast intelligence! Speak to them, darling - reason with them! Try to make them understand what they’re doing!” Thor responds predictably, telling her “Such is not the warrior’s way,” but he agrees to try nonetheless, boisterously hailing the Time-Twisters, verbosely and somewhat unhelpfully:
“Aliens! Thou who dost tread the myriad pathways of time! In the name of reason - in the name of peace - the prince of golden Asgard doth bid thee halt!”
Needless to say (especially in comic book land), such stuff does no good - the Time-Twisters keep stalking along. Thor berates them and finally stoops to asking them “What manner of creatures ARE these?”
This gets a response: “A question. At our inception it was decreed all questions must be answered ... for in answers alone may the quest for knowledge be fulfilled.” Thor asks them what their purpose is, where they come from, why they plunge planets into ruin in their wake. The Time-Twisters (Buscema’s design is brilliantly counter-intuitive - they look too frail to stand, much less wreak havoc, whereas Kirby would have decked them in elaborate muscles and armor) explain that they come from time’s end to seek out time’s beginning, and when Thor reminds them that they haven’t yet answered his question about leaving ruin in their wake. They respond with complete denial - as far as they’re concerned, they bring enlightenment to the worlds they leave behind (they think this mainly because they don’t bother to turn around and look, but we’ll refrain from all potential political commentary). When Thor assures them otherwise and insists they abandon their quest, they ignore him, saying they’d rather die than abandon what they’re doing.
Well, with Len Wein’s Thor you really don’t need to say more than that. Thor and his friends yell out ‘For Odin! For Asgaaaaaaard!’ and leap to the fray with weapons drawn.
The Time-Twisters respond as they always have: they bathe our heroes in the eerie eye-beams that only moments before reduced an entire crowd to extreme old age or mewling infancy. But nothing happens, and when Fandral mentions this to Thor, he gets a refreshingly laconic answer: “What matter the ravages of time to we who are immortal?”
(Back in the ‘70s, one persnickety fan wrote in reminding Wein that the Norse gods didn’t come by their immortality genetically; they need to feast on the golden apples of immortality to keep eternally young - but it doesn’t really matter; that fan’s objections went unnoticed, as they always would, until the bright day dawned when he had a log of his own and could exact his REVENGE on ALL of those who once scorned him!!!)
Still, it doesn’t help with final victory; the Time-Twisters summon a timestream-like army of warriors from all time periods to fight the Asgardians. It’s a blatant distraction, and the Asgardians know it, but when Mongol hordes run at you screaming, what can you do but raise your weapon and dig in? Even Volstagg’s on board with such a choice, as is Jane Foster.
Ah, Jane Foster! The problem with her whole sub-plot, a problem we perhaps haven’t made clear as of yet: the choice to ‘kill’ Sif in favor of Jane Foster went down very poorly with about half of all the Thor fans out there. This half thought something like, Thor’s been in love with Sif for thousands of years, whereas Jane Foster’s been a girl-hostage simp for about a minute of Thor’s conscious life. These fans argued that if anybody should have survived a soul-infusion, it should have been Sif, not Jane Foster. Letters were written, stamped, and mailed. Letters appeared in something once called letter columns. And that faith was unbelievably taunted by one great panel-sequence right at this point in our story: Buscema draws it perfectly - one instant, Jane Foster, dressed drably in Earth-ware, has her sword raised; in the next instant, illuminated by a flash of lightning, readers are treated to a glimpse of Sif, sword raised, black hair flying; then the final panel of the triptych shows us Jane Foster completing the swing. It’s a neat little feat of visual trickery, done with a restraint that would be unthinkable to young comic book artists today.
But the battle ends up being meaningless - the distraction works. The Time-Twisters leave Zarrko’s Earth, and the planet is engulfed in flames. The ‘chapter’ ends with our heroes miraculously untouched (Zarrko and his Servitor have already chosen the better part of valor and boarded their time-cube) but despairing, because they’re alone on a ruined world.
The final ‘chapter’ necessarily opens with an explanation: how the heck did Thor & Co. survive the destruction of 50th century Earth? Thor has a theory: the goddess Sif possessed the ability to ‘transcend time and space’ (i.e. she could mystically teleport herself and passengers), and it’s possible Jane Foster was able to tap into that ability in their hour of need. It’s a dumb explanation (why don’t any of them remember being teleported? Where did they go while Earth was being destroyed? Scranton?), but it’s quickly put behind us as Zarrko’s time-cube materializes and the disposed dictator starts yelling at Thor about how he failed in his set task of saving Zarrko’s century. “We do not deny our guilt, Zarrko,” Thor answers. “Shouldst thou not do the same? Where wert thou when the moment of truth arrived?”
Irked by this impudence, the Servitor smacks Thor upside his winged helmet, which prompts a response stalled only by the making of a speech: “Thou hadst no call to do that, Servitor! I had looked on thee as an able comrade-in-arms ... mayhap even as a friend! But if thou dost choose to set thyself against me, so be it! Thou didst strike from behind, without qualm, without warning! Thus so shall mine enchanted hammer Mjolnir strike - without mercy!”
What follows is an extremely abbreviated version of the fight these two had in the first ‘chapter’ - but it’s long enough for us to see that young Derek, a downtrodden peasant under Zarrko, had secretly boarded the time-cube before his world’s destruction. He slips away to find his young wife:
“Derek shambles aimlessly thru the misshapen slag that had once been the city he called home. Granted, a city without energy, without hope, but his city nonetheless - for Derek’s wife had lived here.”
We leave him crumpled over the remains of his destroyed home, and we return to our brawling heroes, who’ve been separated by Jane Foster, who’s pointing out that while they stand around fighting, the Time-Twisters are moving on to 20th century Earth. Thor suggests they travel not backwards to the 20th but forward to, say, the 80th century, to fight the Time-Twisters there and perhaps save both Zarrko’s century and their own. The Tomorrow-Man does them one better, suggesting they travel to the end of time itself and stop the Time-Twisters before they even start, and our heroes agree.
There’s turbulence along the way (it causes Thor to let loose one of Wein’s favorite archaic outbursts, ‘Zounds!’ ... sadly, all his Asgardians blurt this out at the drop of a hat, which they certainly wouldn’t, it being a medieval contraction for ‘Christ’s wounds’), but eventually the end of time itself is reached, a solitary temple on a crumbling shelf of rock, a barren place with three Kirby-style stone statues outside its entrance.
Once our heroes breach the temple’s force field (the Servitor helps accomplish this, as he helped quell the time-stream turbulence, both times insisting he was only acting out of loyalty to his master, not out of comradeship, although Buscema’s sly renderings of his doughy face clue the reader in otherwise), they’re shocked to see the statues come alive - they’re the Protectroids, and they immediately commence firing force-beams that disperse our time-travelers. At one point Zarrko is trapped before one of these Protectroids, who raises a hand to fire (“No, you mustn’t” Zarrko yells “I can’t have come this far only to die!”), but the Servitor steps in front of the blast, lumbers forward as the energy destroys him, and falls onto the Protectroid, destroying them both. The battle is over a moment later, and Fandral urges Zarrko to come away: “There is nothing more we can do here. Thy servant hath passed beyond our power to attend him.” “He was more than just my servant, Asgardian,” Zarrko says, and Buscema has drawn touching grief in the character’s face, “He was my friend.”
Thor tells him to honor his fallen friend by completing their mission, and they all enter the temple, where they find an eerie sight: three pulsing embryos, clearly the Time-Twisters at the moment of their birth. In an act that would be unthinkable in today’s comics, Thor raises his hammer to squash these helpless enemies-in-waiting, but he’s stayed by a shriveled figure who steps out of the shadows. This impossibly old man is He Who Remains, and he first urges Thor to step back and then bathes him in a paralyzing energy-beam that leaves him helpless on the floor. He Who Remains tries to explain:
“You see, stripling, time is but a circle. From the ashes of the final holocaust, the universe will begin anew. Those who sleep are our gift to the future - three beings who are knowledge incarnate - and will teach those of the next cycle to avoid the errors we made.”
But Thor’s still recovering, so Jane Foster steps up to maintain the philosophical debate:
“But that’s the problem, don’t you understand? Armageddon is final! It cannot be breached! Your sleepers will survive the cataclysm - but somehow they’ll be twisted in time! Seeking time’s beginning, they’ll move back thru the ages - and every world they touch they’ll destroy!”
(Presumably Thor’s still too weak to point out to Jane that the very mythological world he lives in and comes from is entirely predicated on Armageddon NOT being final - as far as he’s concerned, Ragnarok will have survivors, including his two sons Magni and Modi)
Naturally, He Who Remains doesn’t believe this. “But all our hopes,” he says, “our dreams of a universal utopia...” “Are you willing to murder countless trillions of living beings to make those dreams come true?” Jane Foster asks him. “That’s what it comes down to, you know. Can you be that selfish?”
Before he can answer, the planet’s final upheavals begin, and Zarrko and the others run to the time-cube. Thor offers safe passage to He Who Remains - “Comest thou with us, old one. Thou hast discharge thy duty most nobly. Leave thy sleepers to the spinning fates and flee!” “There are things left to be done here that only I can do,” the old man responds. “Save yourselves while you can, and know that you take with you an old man’s gratitude - for more than you could ever realize.”
Our heroes bolt the scene, with only Thor pausing long enough to “bid farewell to one far nobler than we,” and then they’re off, back into the past. They don’t see He Who Remains shuffle around his tottering sanctuary, they don’t see the solitary tear slip down his withered face, and they don’t see him abort the unborn Time-Twisters.
What they do see, when they return to Zarrko’s 50th century, is a flourishing wonderland of flying craft and gleaming towers, a place bursting with wealth and vitality. Zarrko is more stunned than anybody, especially when he’s taken before the first citizen of this utopia: Derek, who’s been elevated to benevolent supremacy by the whims of reconstructed time! Zarrko sputters and sputs at this comeuppance, but our Asgardian heroes don’t seem particularly eager to help him - especially since they themselves are fading, disappearing back into an altered timeline in which they never came forward at all.
Our ‘book’ ends as it began: a calm afternoon in Jane Foster’s apartment, everybody settled in and chatting happily. No gleaming metal hand bursts through the wall, no wild time-straddling adventures ensue. All is as it was before, but Wein and Buscema’s readers have been taken on an exotic and fascinating ride. Thor’s comic title would shortly after this fall on some hard times and a fallow period of creativity, but that doesn’t change the wonder and wit of this particular run. When it comes available in a mass-market format, we here at Stevereads will cheerfully recommend it to you all - and in the meantime, if you’re desperate, those four wonderful issues are probably available online from some mouth-breathing virgin living in his mother’s rumpus room. You’ll be glad you went to the effort.