Friday, January 25, 2008

2007 Steeler - Convention Exclusive

Much has been made of the demise of the promised convention Mauler tanks. At the time, they were a neat surprise that excited many collectors. Their cancellation prompted anger, disappointment and resentment. But, in their wake, the two figures who were included with the tanks have been largely ignored. Sure, there was the usual chatter around the time of the convention. But, these tank drivers were quickly overshadowed by the Grand Slam/Starduster set and its meteoric aftermarket price rise. However, collectors were quietly given a real gem. The convention Steeler is probably the best version of the character ever released and is a microcosm of the 2007 convention figures as a whole.

As a character, Steeler has been someone that I wanted to use, but never really could as his figures didn't really fit with the others in my collection. Of the original 13 Joes, Steeler and Clutch have the 2 molds that are easiest to integrate with figures from later years. But, neither of them really made the transition into my modern "use" collection. The comic pack Steeler was OK, but just OK. It was oddly proportioned and the colors really didn't do anything for me. This figure, though, solves all those problems. The mold is more natural looking and better fits with figures from all years. The colors are richly textured and the layers of brown, tan, black and green with silver highlights just makes for a figure that blends perfectly with a variety of collector favorites. The helmet lets you know that this is Steeler and the view finder is even in red: a subtle homage to the UK Action Force Steeler. The one downside is the figure's gloves. The hands are not quite flesh colored, but too close to it. As such, they look jaundiced rather than leathery. It's a small complaint, but something to note. The figure also includes 2 weapons: grey versions of Low-Light's uzi and a sub machine gun from the Sgt. Savage line. While the uzi is a throwback to the original figure, the version included is actually a larger version that was cast from the original mold. So, neither of Steeler's gun are all that great as they are a bit large for the figure. But, it's easy to get black uzis these days, so that problem is easily solved.

The 2007 convention figures offered collectors something that had been promised for many years but simply never delivered: great updates to classic characters where the new designs are on par or better than the original figures. This set was not a complete hit (none of them have been except for the Crimson Strike Set and it only had 4 figures....) but it was the most ambitious convention set to date and really upped the ante in terms of future expectations. Of the figures, Grand Slam, Starduster, Clutch and Steeler are the best versions ever released of these characters. Rock and Roll, Grunt, Rip It and Zap are perfect updates that used unique and different parts. While I still like some other versions of these characters better, these figures were all welcome additions and were more innovative than any of the figures we saw in the retail comic packs. Doc and Lt. Claymoore were great new additions and featured distinguishing combinations of parts and colors. In all, the entire set was a fulfillment of the promise that the comic packs failed to deliver: the classics redone in ways that were true to the character but different enough to be more relevant. It's a pity it took this long to see such realization of a concept that seems so simple.

I'll be honest, I really didn't care about the cancellation of the Maulers. Sure, the Mauler is a fan favorite mold that is fairly expensive on the second hand market. So, it's inclusion in the modern releases makes perfect sense. But, to me, the Mauler has never lived up to the hype. It's a neat looking toy, but was never much fun to play with. It only holds 4 figures and 2 of those are hidden in the cockpit and the other two barely fit onto the footholds on the turret. It takes up a lot of space and doesn't have nearly the play value of something much goofier like the Havoc. So, not seeing these new tanks produced didn't really matter to me since I would not have ever integrated them into my collection anyways. However, the manner in which the whole fiasco was handled was rather odd. It is well known that the Hasbro had the Mauler on its radar back in 1997. But, it couldn't happen then due to bad/missing molds. So, how could anyone think that a full decade later, that situation would have improved? Especially when you consider that some of the players involved in 1997 are still around and were involved in this. While fans got excited about the tanks, the resulting disappointment by their cancellation more than offset that. Had just the drivers been available at the con, no one would have really cared. Some might have asked why these two figures were chosen, but most wouldn't have much cared since the figures, in and of themselves, are nicely done. Then, had the tanks been able to come to fruition, they could have been a nice surprise for the collecting world near the end of 2007. If the tanks ended up cancelled, then fandom would be none the wiser and Master Collector would not have taken yet another HUGE public relations and credibility hit.

As a mold, this figure works well. It uses the body from the 1989 Dogfight figure and the head from the comic pack Steeler. (Only with blonde hair this time.) Neither of these molds have been used previously on any figure other than their original releases. As such, the figure appears fresh and is a great update to the Steeler character. The Dogfight jacket is reminiscent of the jacket that Heavy Metal wears and it adds a level of consistency to the classic Joe tank drivers. This Steeler also shows that it is still possible to create great figures from ARAH molds...figures that are the best representations of a character in 25 years. As such, it's hard to really accept the rhetoric that the original molds are "wearing out" or "there isn't much left" when you see figures like Steeler, Grand Slam, Clutch, Doc and Starduster from the 2007 convention season. It shows there is still a wealth of untapped potential in the hundreds of vintage molds and shows that just a little ingenuity can still create some iconic looks for our classic characters.

For whatever reason, the 2007 convention attendee exclusive figures have captured the attention of collectors like never before. The Grand Slam and Starduster exclusives are still selling for nearly $100 per figure. At first, this Steeler and the Rip It figure weren't all that popular. They didn't sell out at the convention, but at $80 for the figure and the tank, I could see how collectors would be a bit hesitant. However, after the tanks were cancelled, collectors got a bit nervous, especially as Master Collector hinted that stock was running low. As such, panic set in and the remaining Steelers and Rip Its sold out quickly. But, it seems that these figures aren't as popular as the jet pack troopers as Steelers are currently selling for around $25 each. (Rip Its, though, are at least double that!) That's about what they cost originally, so this figure isn't seeing the aftermarket interest that the JUMP figures have. With only 500 of these figures made, though, I don't see that remaining the case. Long term, these figures will dry up and become rather hard to find. As this is the best version of Steeler, I think there will continue to be demand for the figure for a long time so now really is the best time to add one to your collection.

2007 Convention Exclusive Steeler, Tanks for the Memories, Mauler, 1985, Rip It, Unproduced Wal Mart Hiss Driver, Sky Patrol, 2003, Law

2007 Convention Exclusive Steeler, Tanks for the Memories, Mauler, 1985, Heavy metal

2007 Convention Exclusive Steeler, Tanks for the Memories, Mauler, Funskool General Flagg, Chief Torpedo

2007 Convention Exclusive Steeler, Tanks for the Memories, Mauler, Havoc, Spirit, 1984, Flint, Wild Card, 1988

2007 Convention Exclusive Steeler, Tanks for the Memories, Mauler, 1984 Spirit, 1987 Outback

Thursday, January 10, 2008

1984 Wild Weasel

As the Joe line progressed, Hasbro realized the need to create villains that would be offsets of Joe specialists. The reality was that they couldn't have Ace always flying against nameless pilots as that would quickly grow stale. The only way to keep many of the characters from fading too far into the background was go give them a nemesis. This allowed for expanded play patterns since kids could then work out their stories with two, more evenly matched adversaries. The result was an expansion of the Cobra roster well beyond the original old blue Cobras and a more diverse set of villains from which kids could choose. Among these new specialists was Cobra's first pilot: Wild Weasel.

When I first saw Wild Weasel in the comic book, I simply loved his design. He looked like one of the coolest figures that was going to be released in 1984. The Rattler didn't start showing up for sale until the fall of that year, so I had several months of anticipation for the Wild Weasel figure. My brother finally got the Rattler for his birthday in October. As soon as I help Wild Weasel in my hand, I was taken aback. This wasn't the awesome design that was seen in the comics. It had its similarities, but it was drastically different. I went and pulled out my comic to ensure I wasn't mis-remembering Wild Weasel's design. But, sure enough, I wasn't. The figure simply didn't live up to that original comic rendition. The head was too large and the figure, overall, was too red. It lacked the great grey details that really offset the comic version. This was a tremendous disappointment and Wild Weasel was never able to recover. I simply never used the figure. He wasn't interesting to me so he was largely ignored. He flew the Rattler for a time. But, as my brother broke the canopy on the Rattler within a week or two of his acquisition, that plane also quickly faded from my childhood collection.

Today, much has changed. A few years ago, I had little interest in Wild Weasel. Even after I acquired a mint Rattler, I had it manned by Strato Vipers rather than its intended pilot. But, in recent years, I've begun to appreciate the Wild Weasel mold much more. The figure is a deep red and has some amazing detail. It really meshes well with other Cobras from 1984 and before. But, it also has the bulk that allows it to still stand among Cobras from later years and not look out of place. As such, it offers a nice range and versatility that I often look for in figures that take places of importance in my collection.

Now, Wild Weasel proudly calls the cockpit of my vintage Rattler home. He simply looks right as the pilot of his intended vehicle. As the Rattler is one of the few vintage vehicles that I keep around these days, that is an honor. Aside from that, the character may pop up from time to time. But, in looking through my old pictures to see if I had any old photos where Wild Weasel was used, I found that the figure really doesn't get much use outside of his intended specialty. I doubt that will change much. But, 2008 is going to see a re-focusing of my collecting efforts on the years of 1982 through 1984. Really, those are the years of my childhood (though I was collecting through 1987) and are the toys that bring back the most innocent memories. As such, one of my goals is to get a display case finally done and showcase only the best pieces from those years as well as 1985. (I'm not focusing on '85 this year as the only mint, complete figure I need from that year is Heavy Metal and I'm not at the point where I'm going to drop $175 for a microscopic plastic microphone when that money could fill so many other holes in the earlier years.) Once that is done, Wild Weasel will join his classic brethren as the centerpiece of my Joe room.

While Hasbro always put out a full catalog of the year's toys during the first months of year during the vintage line, it is likely that many of those toys pictured were not fully finalized at the time the catalog photos were taken. If you look at the vintage Joe catalogs they are full of pre-production and prototype pieces that, in some cases, drastically differ from the actually released toys. It is hard to see the Wild Weasel figure that was used for the pictures in the '84 catalog, but the Rattler itself has some obvious differences. The most glaring is the fact that the turret guns are substantially longer and more pronounced. It is a fun diversion to look through some of the old Joe photography since it's full of such interesting first takes on many toys and gives an informed glimpse into what might have been.

Several of the early Joe filecards contained imagery that simply stuck into my brain as a child. Clutch's filecard was probably the most vivid. But several of these characterizations contained lines that conjured up an image of the character that was hard to shake. Wild Weasel's was among those. Being 10 years old when I first read his filecard, I didn't understand that "cut his teeth" was an expression. As such, I took it that someone physically cut wild Weasel's teeth and that was the mouth injury he suffered. Just imagining someone taking a knife across my teeth is still enough to make me shudder. So, I always viewed this as an insight into the toughness of Wild Weasel. The characteristic speech pattern that is referred to on the filecard, though, never really came across in the vintage comic book and it remains one of the great unexplored nuances of the Wild Weasel character.

The Wild Weasel mold was used by Hasbro for this figure. (It was also released in Europe in the Action Force line as Red Wolf: the driver of the grim Roboskull.) It was used for many years as mail away fodder and likely went through several production runs. (Wild Weasel figures exist with either 1984 or 1988 date stamps.) The entire body mold was used in 1988 for the Tiger Force Skystriker figure. Aside from that, though, the mold had no other vintage uses. However, in 2002, the Wild Weasel mold showed up India and was used by Funskool. This figure features unique card art, brighter colors, neon accessories and a working parachute. It is a fun figure, but one that is definitely inferior to the American figure in terms of collection integration. However, as this mold was used to recently by Funskool, it is likely that is available to Hasbro. As the Wild Weasel character was used by Hasbro several times in the new sculpt figure line and he has been shown in a planned Anniversary sculpt comic pack scheduled for 2008, it's possible that the character could come back at some point. I would welcome that as a new take on this mold would be a figure well received. The modern ARAH-style Joe line has been light on Cobra pilots so seeing Wild Weasel return would be a welcome sight.

Wild Weasel figures are easy to find. Aside from being shipped in the very popular Rattler jet, he was also available as a mail away figure for many years. Still, the figure does feature some easily damaged silver paint and he also tends to discolor. So, it may take a few samples before you find a perfectly mint version. Either way, though, the figure won't cost you. While some places may try to get $10-$12 for the figure, you can usually find them for half that. And, if you're looking for lots of figures, Wild Weasel is usually easy to find in those as well and you can get him even cheaper that way. For me, this is a figure who is necessary for completion but has never really gotten any real use. He stands as a figure that would be perfect had the head just been slightly smaller. But, these days, I'm growing to appreciate the figure more and more and find him a more useful addition to my collection than I ever have previously. But, for the price to get one, that's all really moot as this figure is really an addition that is too cheap to pass by.

1984 Wild Weasel, Rattler, 1986 Strato Viper, AVAC, 1994 Techno Viper

1984 Wild Weasel, Rattler, 1986 Strato Viper, AVAC, 1994 Techno Viper, Baroness, 1983 Destro, Cobra Commander, Cobra Trooper, 2004

1984 Wild Weasel, Rattler, 1986 Strato Viper, AVAC, 1994 Techno Viper, Baroness, 1983 Destro, Cobra Commander, Cobra Trooper, 2004

1984 Wild Weasel, Rattler, 2004 Cobra Trooper, Night Watch Officer, 2005

Friday, January 4, 2008

2006 Comic Pack Stalker (Lonzo R. Wilkinson)

Since the earliest days of online Joe collecting there have been a few staple customs that just about every collector has attempted. They were almost always cartoon or comic book inspired figures. The earliest custom sites were heavily populated with various takes on Dr. Venom, Kwinn, the Oktober Guard and renditions of Snake Eyes' Vietnam era LRRP. When Hasbro announced the comic book inspired figure packs, collectors were quickly overwhelmed by ideas of these long awaited figures finally coming to life. And, most of them did. In some cases, though, the culmination of years of anticipation was a figure that was a fairly lazy and boring repaint. In other cases, though, the product was highly inspired and easily up to snuff of the expectations many collectors had set. The long awaited Vietnam comic pack was a mixed bag. The Stormshadow figure didn't do anything for me. The Snake Eyes was cool, but the mold is still too ingrained in my mind as Gung Ho. Stalker, though, is actually one of the highlights of the entire comic pack run for me: even though, on the surface, the figure isn't that different from many that we'd already seen.

In 2004, Hasbro retooled a new Stalker head for use in the first wave of comic packs. To be honest, I didn't really like it in conjunction with the original Stalker body mold. The head was highly detailed and slightly larger. While it wasn't really out of proportion for the original body, the reality was that the original Stalker was so iconic that anything other than the original head looked out of place on that body mold. With this figure, that problem is solved. This version of Stalker uses the V1 Duke chest mold. The result is a completely new look for Stalker that allows his new head to escape the shadow of the original figure. What didn't work for me on the first attempt at an updated Stalker figure ended up being a welcome respite once it was paired with another body mold.

It is that body mold that was an interesting choice. If you had told me back in 2005 that one of my favorite comic pack figures was going to be a Stalker that used a Duke chest mold, I wouldn't have believed it. But, the body mold really does work. Typically, I'm not a fan of the original Duke. But, colored green, the chest does give off a Vietnam era military vibe. We have never seen these parts colored in this way, so this use of the parts, even though they were close on the heels of several Duke figures that also used them, didn't seem as stale as many of the other comic pack figures who also reused common parts did. Stalker was also given the standard V2 Roadblock waist and Sonic Hawk legs. While these parts are also overused, they do help give this Stalker figure a little girth. As such, he doesn't appear as small as many figures that use solely '82-'84 parts tend to be. It allows the figure to stand among its brethren from any year of the line and look less out of place than, say, the V1 Stalker mold normally would.

The green used for most of the comic pack Joe figures is very green. It is deep, vibrant and not the type of thing that you'd likely see real military operatives wearing. But, for an action figure, it does moderation. As such, when taken on his own, this Stalker is a great addition to any scene as the green color is still believable, but it is striking enough that it accentuates other colors on other figures. Unfortunately, since Hasbro cast pretty much all the comic pack Joes in this color, it tends to get somewhat stale if you have all the comic pack figures on display together. Fortunately, for me, I don't find many of the comic pack figures to be better than the originals. As such, you only see fleeting figures from the comic packs around my collection. Most are packed away since they didn't really offer anything that was a substantial enough upgrade over other, existing versions of the character.

In my collection, this figure has become my default Stalker. As a kid, I went on a hunt for a Stalker figure in 1985 so he could paired with my new Snake Eyes figure. Once I found one hidden in a Kroger store in Dayton, Ohio, I quickly gave him the brown version or Airborne's backpack from the Accessory Gear pack and a V1 Frostbite gun. With this, I had a figure that I used as Stalker from the Vietnam era. While my Joe team had progressed beyond that rendition of the figure, I liked the look so much that it became the way I viewed Stalker as a character. That permeates my collection today. Even though I'm fond of the '94 Stalker mold, I don't use that as Stalker. It is a new character. I used the '97 Stalker for a time, but this Vietnam era figure has replaced it as my default version. Given a V1 Frostbite gun, or left with the M-16, this figure fits the vision I've always had of the Stalker character. I see him as a younger soldier, full of promise: but not yet jaded by the politics of war.

In this role, Stalker remains more of a combatant in my collection. To remain true to the character who fought in Vietnam, Stalker would be pushing his 50's at the youngest. But, I can't put the character in that role. Instead, I see him as a younger soldier, though still hardened and still one of the toughest members of the Joe team. This figure allows me to retain that vision for the character and keep him relevant to my collection. Since I only have one version of him, though, I don't foresee him getting the use that some other versions might get. But, I do see this figure earning a place of prominence in a display case even while the Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes figures that were shipped with him remain tucked away in a box in the closet.

A funny thing happened on the way to this comic pack joining most of the rest of the comic packs as peg warmers. For some reason, this assortment of comic packs didn't saturate the market. Don't get me wrong, they were easy to find for a longer time than the Oktober Guard comic packs were. But, the market quickly absorbed both this Vietnam pack as well as the Devil's Due comic pack. This was the first wave of comic packs that was produced after the DTC experiment had failed and Toys R Us had stepped in to sell Joes at their retail stores. With the mountain of unsold comic packs from Wave 1 clogging the Hasbro warehouses, it is likely that this wave of comic packs saw a much lower production run. As such, this pack: still MOC, will run you about $30 or so today. The individual figures can be had for less, but it takes some time and patience to find them. It's likely that these Vietnam figures are as rare as the Oktober Guard figures. But, individually, they aren't quite as desirable as some of the OG. While I like this figure, I'd be hard pressed to drop $10 for one. There are too many other Stalker figures that are good enough for half that price.

2006 Comic Pack Stalker, #26, Lonzo R. Wilkinson, Bronze Bombers Crazeblaze, Darklon, 1985 Mauler, Chief Torpedo, 2004

2006 Comic Pack Stalker, #26, Lonzo R. Wilkinson, Classified, Snake Eyes, Rock and Roll, Chief Torpedo, 2004, 2005, 1986 Tomahawk

2006 Comic Pack Stalker, #26, Lonzo R. Wilkinson, Classified, Snake Eyes, Heavy Metal, Mauler, 1985, Footloose

2006 Comic Pack Stalker, #26, Lonzo R. Wilkinson,

2006 Comic Pack Stalker, #26, Lonzo R. Wilkinson,