Tuesday, January 17, 2017

1993 General Flagg

Over Christmas break in 1992, I spent my lunch hour away from washing dishes in a local deli going to Toys R Us.  It was the first time in a few years I actually went with the intention of buying some G.I. Joe figures.  I had my first semester of college under my belt and didn't really worry about what anyone would think of an 18 year old buying some action figures.  At that time, G.I. Joe still commandeered huge amounts of shelf space for both figures and vehicles.  I was faced with a wall of figures: with whom most of which I was unfamiliar.  In the overwhelming sea of new figures, I chose two recognizable names for my collection: Destro and General Flagg.

The General Flagg figure I picked up, though, was the brown coated 1992 version.  It was not until more than a decade later that I added this 1993 version to my collection.  During my searches for the remnants of the G.I. Joe line at retail in 1995 through 1997, I found a couple of 1992 General Flagg figures.  I never, though, found a 1993 version.  I had found enough of the 1993 repaints to be watchful for any figure variations.  But, certain figures were very hard to find at retail after the line's demise.  This General Flagg was among them.  So, he was a much later, after market acquisition for me.

The only real change to the figure is the black coat.  Frankly, I like the contrast a little better.  The grey details and gloves are a little extra that put the figure over the top.  Surprisingly, grey was not a color that was often utilized in the vintage line.  So, it's appearance on Flagg's upper body gives him a more distinguished look.  The black jacket is very reminiscent of the 1986 Hawk's first appearance in the comic.  He had a black jacket that would have made for a great repaint in the 2000's.  The contrast against the figure's green pants is nicely done and he looks the part of military commander without being either too grounded in realism or too far out there.  The fur lined coat does give him an arctic vibe and would have made for a solid snow Joe amalgamation.  The fur color is well done and you can almost feel the itchy material against your skin when you look at this Flagg.

Flagg's accessories are top notch.  His gun was one the primary reasons I bought the original figure in 1992.  It is heavily detailed and the perfect blend of small and large scale.  He also features a removable hat.  I really like this accessory.  And it's perfect for the 1992 figure.  The downside is that the black coat 1993 figure also includes the same brown hat as the 1992 figure.  The hat is a perfect match for the brown figure.  But, looks out of place on the black coat figure as there is no other brown on the mold to which it can match.  The missile launcher is the standard ridiculousness that was common in 1992.  But, at least it works.  The rubber bands are easy to break and do dry out with age if not stored properly, though.

In my youth, I created a second G.I. Joe team.  They were a competing group with Joe for the top assignments.  The faction was made solely of custom figures that I cobbled together from broken Joe figures that had been replaced.  Joe was given Cobra as an enemy and the other group faded away a bit.  In 1986, though, the group was ambushed in the Rockies and all but a few members were killed.  This character was represented by a custom I put together using Ripcord's head, Duke's chest and various arms and legs that weren't broken.  I gave him an Accessory Pack Ripcord helmet that was painted blue with white trim.  It was also badly chipped, which was part of his character.  This figure worked fine for when I was a kid.  But, I wanted a figure who could adequately represent the character for me that wasn't a Testor's covered amalgamation of badly worn and play damaged parts.

Enter this version of General Flagg.  I never got behind the use of this character as General Flagg's son.  The math just didn't work.  (Flagg was a young general who died in 1983.  Even if "young" meant 50, which is doubtful, it's unlikely that he would have a son who attained the rank of general by 1992.)  For some reason, I can accept pain sharing twins and super powered ninja commandos, but not a slight age discrepancy among some characters.  So, this figure was a prime candidate to be retconned into a different character altogether.

In this capacity, General Flagg saw some use.  I still had an occasional adventure back in 1992 and 1993.  Flagg was paramount to these missions.  He was now in charge of the Joe team with Hawk's retirement.  He lead the team through some rough years where Cobra was able to beat them due to the constraints put on the Joes by bureaucrats.  He was nearly killed on one of the missions and was forced out of active combat duty.  But, he still remained in command of the Joe team and lead them on more international missions using his foreign contacts.  He remains the nominal head of my Joe team.  But, he really only appears in photos with his contemporaries these days.

The General Flagg mold got a good amount of use.  Aside from the original figure in 1992 and this 1993 repaint, the chest and arms were used for the exceptional Chinese Major Bludd around 1994.  The mold then reappeared around 1999 or 2000 in India where Funskool released their amazing General Flagg figure.  There are three versions of General Flagg for collectors to track down and all are well done.  He is a character of whom there is no bad version.  His mold's reuse for Major Bludd showed it's potential for repaints, though that angle was unexplored.  Flagg was not among the figures that Funskool produced in their final run of figures in 2009 or 2010.  So, it's possible they returned the mold to Hasbro who then, likely, destroyed it without ever using it.  I can't say, though, that the character didn't get his due.  So, this is a rare case where I think that collectors really got the best of a later mold.

For years, this figure was actually kind of hard to find.  A few of the 1993 repaints (Mutt, Wild Bill and this Flagg) didn't appear with much regularity.  And, lo and behold, this figure is still somewhat tough to find and rather pricey for a 1993.  Mint, complete with filecard figures sell in the $15 range.  But, carded figures sell at the same pricepoint and and even cheaper if the card is damaged.  They are also slightly easier to find.  So, if you want this figure, carded is probably the way to go.  Still, I was shocked to see what prices this figure fetched since he's not an army builder, mail away or vehicle driver.  But, he is a solidly colored figure with top notch gear.  All that adds up to a figure that's worth owning.  Apparently, the collecting community agrees with me, even if it's a silent affirmation.

1993 General Flagg, Battle Corps, Mudbuster, Duke, Beach Head, Bazooka, Spirit, International Action Team, Mail Away

1993 General Flagg, Battle Corps, Mudbuster, Duke, Beach Head, Bazooka, Spirit, International Action Team, Mail Away

Saturday, January 14, 2017

G.I. Joe #123 - Shots in the Dark

The Joe comic is filled with keystone issues that drive the story.  #2, #10, #21, #26, #33, #40, #155 etc. are all key stories that either lay the groundwork for many future adventures or fill in major story gaps for the reader.  But, the Joe title was a monthly book that ran for over 13 years.  While there are stand alone stories throughout the run, there are many just random issues that carry on a story.  They aren't key issues.  They aren't beginnings or endings and they are not, on their own, all that memorable.  #123 falls into this category.  There is really nothing in it that you can't pick up from some other, earlier or later issues.  But, that is magnificence of the issue.  You have classic Joes, new recruits, the Headhunters, Eco Warriors and Ninja Force all interspersed into 22 or so pages.  I read this issue for the first time in 2017.  Yet, there was nothing in it that I didn't already know from the surrounding issues.  It's a good issue with lots of action, but also not important at all in the overall scheme of things.

The comic's cover is a kneeling classic Hooded Cobra Commander with the title of "Secret of the Sludge".  This alone implies that Cesspool and his Plasmatox ilk are going to be a focal point of the issue.  Only, they're not.  They're here.  But, they aren't the focal point of the story at all.  Instead, that goes to Cobra Commander leading a group of Paralyzer tanks after a squad of Joes manning the Badger and Battle Wagon as the Joes try to reach a safe border.

Marvel Comics #123, Cobra Commander
G.I. Joe #123 Cover

The cover date for the issue is April of 1992: meaning it appeared on newsstands in January of 1992, basically 25 years ago exactly.  This accounts for the odd assortment of characters appearing in the issue.  You have the Hama classic staples of  1983 Wild Bill, 1986 Hawk, 1984 Duke and 1985 Flint and Lady Jaye.  Joining them are the 1986 Roadblock, 1991 Dusty, 1989 Rock and Roll and Big Ben.  At the time, it was conceivable to really only find two of those figures on retail shelves.  But, Cobra was worse.  You have the '84 Cobra Commander, 1985 Tele Vipers, 1986 Vipers, Saw Viper and Frag Viper manning the Paralyzer tanks.

Marvel Comics #123, Cobra Commander, Paralyzer Tanks, SAW Viper, Frag Viper
G.I. Joe #123 Paralyzer Tanks
But, in addition to these more classic characters, you have three other story arcs rolling through the issue.  In the first, you have the Cesspool showcase that brings his character to the forefront.  You see 1991 Toxo Vipers and Sludge Vipers in the background.  Cobra Commander's toady is, of course, Zarana.  But, she pulls up to Cesspool's headquarters in a brand new Hammerhead.

Marvel Comics #123, Cesspool, Sludge Viper, Toxo Viper, Zarana, Eco Warriors
Cesspool being himself
The second story arc features the Ninja Force.  You see the entire 1992 Ninja Force figure contingent as well as never produced Red Ninjas.  This is a quick interlude to set up more story later.  But, it ws also the requisite appearance of Snake Eyes that seemed to be required in every issue of the G.I. Joe in the '90's.  The final arc introduces Headman and the Headhunters in Broca Beach.  It's really kind of a mess.

Marvel Comics #123, Snake Eyes, Red Ninja, Ninja Force
Snake Eyes Captures the Red Ninja Leader
At the time, G.I. Joe toys were moving away from their standard, yearly release schedule and subsets were becoming more and more important to the line as a whole.  But, seeing recent introductions that spanned three years of toy releases in one comic speaks to Hasbro's influence and demands that new toys remain part of the comic, despite their sometimes absurdity.  This point is driven home when Flint meets Clean Sweep and Ozone.  He notes their garish outfits and states they must not be covert.  Ozone replies they are made from recycled action figures.  Ouch.

One of the other great things about re-reading a 25 year old comic are the ads.  The inside cover features an ad for the BeetleJuice Game Boy game.  The next is a full page for 1992 Score baseball cards.  (One of the cards shown commemorates Dennis Martinez's 1991 perfect game and I remember working a table at a baseball card show the day that occurred.  Fun memories.)  Fleer outdoes them a few pages later with a 2 page advertisement for their new cards.  One full page is Roger Clemens and Fleer's 1992 promotion built around him.  Anyone who thinks Roger wasn't considered a future Hall of Fame player prior to his late 1990's stint in Toronto should see this as a reminder of how fans saw Clemens in 1991 and 1992.  You then get the requisite ads for Marvel T Shirts.  (Remember when the only super hero merchandise you could get was special order?)  There's then a full page ad for a series of James Bond Jr. books with a chance to win a Super Nintendo Gaming System and James Bond Jr. game pack.  Somehow, I think the SNES was the plum of that prize.  You then have the requisite role playing games advertisements in the book and on the back cover.  Not to be outdone, though, you have two more ads for trading cards: one for Marvel trading cards and another for Series II of NBA Hoops cards.

Marvel Comics #123, Cobra Commander
G.I. Joe #123 Ads

Marvel Comics #123, Cobra Commander
G.I. Joe #123 Ads

The trading card heavy content shows how that hobby had grown in popularity during that time period.  1992 was pretty much the begging of the end for that industry, too.  High end cards, endless streams of new product, difficult adults and the 1994 baseball strike pretty much killed the hobby and have left the vast quantities of merchandise produced during this time as basically worthless.  But, looking back at the ads in these old comics provides good insight into what kids of the time were buying.  Unsurprisingly, there's lots of failed merchandise in there.  But, that's almost more interesting than finding ads for popular items that have collecting value today.

I missed this issue at retail.  I was a senior in high school when this was released.  And, while I still visited my local comic shop a couple of times a month, that was down from the multiple times per week of just a year or two before.  It wasn't cool to collector or read G.I. Joe.  But, it wasn't cool to collect sports cards or any other comics, either.  So, there's that.  But, at the time, I had other distractions.  Music was starting to get interesting and I bought Nirvana's Nevermind for the first ever CD I purchased.  I stopped buying around #120 as the ninja plotline didn't do much for me.   I did come back when I saw the cover for #125 with the Eco Warriors Flint hanging over the pit of sludge with the flesh eaten hand protruding from the ooze.  Comic Carnival had #124 at the same time for retail price so I bought those and then maybe missed one or two other issues between then and the end of the series in 1995.

Marvel Comics #123, Eco Warriors, Flint, Ozone, Clean Sweep
G.I. Joe #123 Eco Warrior Introduction
The 1990's Joe comics are not as good as their 1980's predecessors.  Some of that is the nostalgia filter.  But, reading some of them critically still gives the edge to the earlier issues.  However, I also think that this was because the toy line and character library was smaller and Hama probably didn't have enough characters to use rather than too many.  By 1991, the line was huge and there were tons of Joes and Cobras.  Many of whom were nothing more than carbon copies or updates of already used characters.  So, instead of having focused plots, you got things like this issue where there are four stories crammed into the pages.  The others are setup for future issues.  But, the only way to get the characters that matched the toys on the shelf into the comic pages was to sacrifice some of the linear story telling and go with the packed story you see in this issue and its contemporaries.

Of course, this comic is worthless.  It's not late enough in the run to have had a truncated production run and there is nothing of note that occurs within its pages.  (I'm probably one of about 6 collectors who would consider the introduction of Headman and the Headhunters as noteworthy.)  But, it's still a good issue.  There's a lot in here that could have made for cool comic pack figures in the 2000's.  The white Headhunters alone would have sold a ton of 3 packs.  Seeing how Hama had to weave his tales together to appease Hasbro and comic buyers is a lesson in balanced artistry.

Marvel Comics #123, Headhunters, DEF, Headman, Siegie, Crimson Guard, Broca Beach
G.I. Joe #123 Headhunters Introduction
I don't follow the Joe comics at all these days.  The whole early 2000's comic mess pretty much turned me off to them permanently.  I've always felt that the majority of the vintage Joe line was controlled by the relatively steady hand of a few, key, creative people.  They were the brand's shepherds who kept in on course.  As others gained influence in the line, it lost its way.  The late issue comic stories and the odd figure releases of 1993 and 1994 are good benchmarks of this.  But, anything produced after 1994 for Joe just seems like an imitation of the prior good.  No matter how good a comic writer is, they will never escape Hama's shadow, even if it's well earned.  No matter how realistic the anniversary figures are, they are still treading on the blueprint laid out by the line's founders.  This prevents the brand from moving forward and is why it will never even get close to the success enjoyed in the '80's.  But, that's OK.  There's enough to keep interest alive until Hasbro figures out the next big iteration of the G.I. Joe theme.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

2003 Scalpel - Around the Web

The new sculpt era Joes have become the wayward stepchild of the collecting world.  They are too new to have any real nostalgia attached to them.   But, they are too old to fit into the modern style of action figure that has dominated the toy aisles for the last decade or so.  There was a lot of junk in the Joe vs. Cobra era figures.  But, themes like Spy Troops did bring some cool new additions to the line.  One such character is the Cobra medic Scalpel.  Below is the best of the web on the character.

Scalpel Profile

Scalpel at GeneralsJoes.com

Scalpel at JoeBattleLines

Scalpel at HalftheBattle

Scalpel at OAFE

Scalpel Review

Scalpel at Joepedia

Scalpel at JoeDios.com

2003 Scalpel, Spy Troops, 2002 Dart

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

2004 Whirlwind

In a way, Joe really returned to retail in 1997 with the 15th Anniversary sets.  But, the triumphant return began in 2000 with the launch of the A Real American Hero Collection.  This series was released to mass retail and was supplemented with vehicles to bring it in line with a vintage type release year.  The death of that line in 2001 and the subsequent new sculpts era that began in 2002 somewhat ushered the vintage Joe sculpts out the door and into history.  At least, that was the intent.  Collector backlash, though, kept Hasbro in the vintage Joe game: even when it was the clear desire of the Hasbro employees at the time to move onto something new that could benefit their resumes.  While there were some vintage style Joes released in general retail waves in 2003, 2004 saw vintage style Joes become the sole domain of retailer exclusives.  The emphasis was on re-imaginings of classic subsets and army builders.  As 2004 progressed, though, the sets got a little more distant from established Joe themes and began to stand on their own as original concepts.  Some were good.  Others were not.  But, the toys were fairly solid.

Hasbro and Toys R Us had a quid pro quo relationship at the time, too.  TRU was happy to take collector dollars by offering items that were aimed at them.  They especially liked vintage style Joes and were about the only outlet willing to take on vintage style Joe vehicles.  Hasbro had a need to appease their collector base without sacrificing the integrity of their fledgling retail line.  While the partnership started off with a bang with the excellent Night Rhino and Hiss III, TRU exclusive vehicles stumbled into poor repaints of the Snow Cat, AWE Striker and Conquest.  They took a bath on a poorly conceived MCC re-release that was so close to the vintage version that many collectors passed it by.  As such, their 2004 focus was more on figures than vehicles.  They did release the underappreciated BAT Transport.  But, it was their final vehicle set of 2004 that, to me, has best stood the test of time: the VAMP and Whirlwind set.

Hasbro struck a cord with the idea of a small vehicle, towable playset and 3 figures for a $20 retail price.  In short order at the tail end of 2004, they created this VAMP set and the Operation Crimson Sabotage set with a Hiss Tank, ASP and three Crimson Guard figures.  Retailers felt the "battle in a box" idea would attract parents to the items as gifts.  Hasbro also felt that collectors would really like getting a small army for a decent price.  It turns out, they were both right.  Collectors went nuts over the Operation Crimson Sabotage and built impressive armies.  While this was happening, though, parents found the TRU VAMP set a decent value and pretty much cleared out TRU stores of the sets, even as collectors were banking on them being clearance fodder in 2005.  Despite the apparent success of the sets, though, Hasbro never revisited the idea.  It's likely that 2005 brought the death of the line too quickly and retailers lost faith in the brand.  (Surprisingly, the Operation Crimson Sabotage sets actually hit KB clearance centers and collected dust for a while.)  So, we were left with just the two sets.

The VAMP/Whirlwind set was the lesser of the two.  While I would argue that the VAMP is generally as popular as the Hiss Tank, the version released in this Toys R Us set was only based on the vintage design and was a full on repaint of the 2001 Desert Striker jeep.  It included a new, larger roll bar, opening hood and mounted machine gun on the dashboard.  The upside of the machine gun is offset by the hood detracting from the sleekness that defined the original VAMP.  But, the colors were good.  While the military green of the early 2000's had been far too overused on figures, it hadn't really been used on vintage Joe vehicles.  Getting a darker green VAMP was nice, even if the design wasn't as strong as the originals.  The Whirlwind was a surprising throw in.  It hadn't been seen in many years and was a toy that many appreciated.

As a kid, my mother didn't let my brothers or I have toy guns.  This rule really wasn't much of a rule.  We had at least three Han Solo blasters between 1977 and 1983.  We played with Star Wars figures: most of whom included a weapon: usually a blaster.  And, of course, we had mountains of G.I. Joe toys which were all built around military conflict.  My friends brought their toy guns over and we played with them all the time.  (I carried a very real looking pistol in a holster inside my jacket as my "character" in these adventures.  I'd go to the local drug store and buy candy with it and my friends and I would run around the neighborhood, in and out of people's yards brandishing toy guns that looked very legitimate.  I shudder to think of the response if kids today tried that with the toy weapons we had in the '80's.)  When my friends weren't around, though, and I wanted to play guns, I had to get inventive.  One of the more creative ways to get a gun was to co-opt a G.I. Joe toy.  The FLAK was the first victim.  By removing the base, you had a decent enough toy gun to shoot with your brothers.  The next year, the Whirlwind also proved useful.  Taking the gun bracket off left you with something small enough to fit in your hand.  The double barrels kind of reminded me of the guns from The Black Hole.  We had two or three Whirlwinds at the time, so it was easy to have two of the weapons available.  That really is my main childhood memory of the Whirlwind, though.

This version of the Whirlwind is pretty good.  It's a dark green, but so was the original Whirlwind toy.  So, it' doesn't bring much new to the table.  But, this was a great way to re-appreciate the Whirlwind mold.  It's incredibly detailed and has a few play features that are kind of fun.  (I once took a Whirlwind seat and affixed it to the back of the VAMP to have a gunner's chair.  The VAMP cannon doesn't really have enough clearance between it and the base, though.  So, it looked better with the chair empty than with it filled.)  The opening ammo panels are still there and the entire toy is already covered with factory applied decals.  You have the excellent 1983 design with the folding wheels to form a base, 360 degree swivel, front blast shield, and control display for the operator to sight his targets.  There's just a lot going on in a very small package.  But, that the joy of using 20 year old molds at the time.  You got the benefits of '80's budgets without having to reinvent the wheel.

The overall boxed set was nice, but not spectacular.  The VAMP and Whirlwind complement each other nicely and look decent in the packaging.  The set included three figures.  Pathfinder, the first, was pretty much the exact same figure that was released with the AWE Striker in 2001.  The only differences is that the VAMP figure's belt buckles aren't painted and the VAMP version included a full set of his vintage accessories in black.  The figure is worth getting for these alone.  Big Brawler was the second figure.  All Brawler figures are lame and this is no exception.  Had it been Salvo or Outback who saw release, collectors would have been more interested.  Brawler was just a figure to ignore.  The final figure, Chief Torpedo, was a nicely done amalgamation of Muskrat and Wet Suit.  It's the highlight of the set for sure.  For a collector, the boxed set displays nicely.  Generally, it's just a good value for three figures, a jeep and a playset.  Had this idea been tried a year earlier, we might have been able to see a couple more concepts put into production.  There were so many small vehicles that never saw re-release in the 2000's that we know Hasbro had access to.  It would have been worth it to see a couple of these, even if meant reprises of the ASP or Whirlwind.

In the fall of 2004, this VAMP set sold slowly.  Collectors were mostly interested in both the Operation Crimson Sabotage set that was being offered by KB as well as the Cobra Ninja 6 figure set from Toys R Us.  Many collectors, figuring this set would linger forever, passed it by in order to acquire more of the popular army building sets.  When the dust settled from the 2004 Christmas season, though, these sets had pretty much sold out throughout the country.  Many collectors were then left to turn to the sparse secondary market to get a set.  As such, this set has actually appreciated on the market and will cost quite a bit more, today.  MIB sets sell in the $55 to $65 range with loose sets with the figures selling for a little less.  If you can find a loose set with no figures, it will be cheaper.  But, those are few and far between these days.

But, there really is no reason to have this version of the Whirlwind in lieu of the vintage version unless you are a completist.  The colors are close enough and the vintage one meshes with more vehicles than does the modern interpretation.  This version is also more expensive and harder to find than the original.  It would have been cool to have gotten a grey or all black version rather than something that is so close to the easily found vintage version.  But, it was also nice to see a vehicle that hadn't seen a retail release in the U.S. since 1988.  These two vehicle/three figure combos were a great concept.  At the time, collectors really didn't appreciate this VAMP and Whirlwind as army builders were their focus.  13 years later, though, the value we were given was tremendous and seeing a vehicle or two in this format, with three figures, is not something we'll likely ever see again at a price point close to $20.

2004 Whirlwind, Toys R Us Exclusive, TRU, 1987 Fast Draw, Dodger, 1992 DEF Mutt

2004 Whirlwind, Toys R Us Exclusive, TRU, 1987 Fast Draw, Dodger, 1992 DEF Mutt

2004 Whirlwind, TRU Exclusive, 1985 Bazooka, Tollbooth

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Diorama - Swamp Base

At my old house in Indiana, there was a ditch behind the fence that would pool water after rainstorms.  In the early spring, one of the rains left a nice puddle of clear water.  It was there for a couple of days, so the grass got waterlogged and the leftover fall leaves gave the whole scene a swampy look.  I went out for a pretty elaborate set up.  But, it was very cold that day.  My fingers froze in the cold water as I set up the figures.