Starting in 1997, Hasbro attempted to cater to the collector market with exclusive repaints of classic figures. Between 1997 and 2006, hundreds of repainted ARAH style figures were put into the market. Looking back at these figures, the majority of them are not well done. Most were inferior repaints to classic figures. And, in some cases, were outright insults to the prior figures with whom they shared a mold. But, now and then, Hasbro did come through. And, when they did, the results were easily on par or better than items that were produced in the vintage era. At the time, many of these gems were obscured by the quantity of low quality figures that simply overpowered them. But, time allows greater perspective and gives the modern collector the opportunity to really appreciate the modern repaints that Hasbro got right. One such figure that was an instant classic appeared right out of the gate in 1997 Stars and Stripes set: Stalker.
As characters go, they don't get much bigger than Stalker. He was easily one of the top characters from the comic and enjoyed a large presence from the first issue through the last. He had figures released in 1982, 1989 and 1994. But, the character transcended those releases. Stalker's connection to Snake Eyes and Stormshadow along with his green beret background brought the figure to life. The fact that his original incarnation was the only original Joe released in a cammo pattern immediately gave street cred to the figure. All of that pressure meant that any repaint of Stalker really had to be special.
In this case, Hasbro delivered on that legacy: big time. The figure is nearly perfect. The base green is deep and inviting. It is very close to Action Force green, but different in a way that makes the figure more usable. But, the complete cammo is the real star of the figure. Black, brown and white stripes are overlaid on the figure's body to give the mold a rich texture without overpowering the base green. On top of this, nearly all the figure's accents are painted. He has a silver knife inserted in brown web gear, black pouches on his arms, deeper green pouches on his shoulders, grey buckles on his boots and a brown belt with black buckle. It is a remarkably detailed figure and shows complex paint applications that were pretty much gone from the repaint line after 1998 unless the figure was a convention release. The one criticism of the figure is the black beret. In 1997, this alone was enough for most collectors to give up on the figure entirely. Today, though, it is just a different look for the character. Personally, I think a green beret would have been too much of that color. But, the black caps the figure off nicely and keeps the overall color contained within the mold. He is not a sea of green, but a perfect contrast of subtle darks and lights that create one of the most visually appealing figures created after the vintage Joe line.
Sadly, Stalker is the exception in the Stars and Stripes set rather than the norm. The Scarlett figure from the set is well done, though in very different colors from her original incarnation. But, Grunt, Zap and Short Fuze are all in colors that don't work nearly as well as Stalker. Snake Eyes is an OK figure. But, there is only so much that can be done to that mold and still remain true to the character. Breaker and Rock and Roll are basically throw away figures from the set as they aren't the classic molds and aren't even good attempts at remaking the characters. One of the things that helps save this set, though, is that most of the figures include their original accessories. The original Joes were all defined, to a degree, by the accessories they included. So, releasing the figures without them really takes away some of the essence of these figures. The 1997's avoided that trap and even went so far as to enhance each figure by including additional accessories that made sense. (In Stalker's case, it was a green Grunt's backpack.) Hasbro abandoned this practice with the comic packs (except for Snake Eyes and Scarlett) and many of those figures are largely ignored by collectors due to their overall banality. It baffles me how Hasbro got it so right in their first attempt to appease collectors and then completely forgot how to do it in just a few years.
This figure is my default Stalker. While the original figure is classic and has a place, it is this figure who represents the character in my collection. He has all the original molding and accessories, but better colors. He fits right in with figures from later years in the line, but also is still true to his original roots. He does go very well with Action Force figures as well as the Zap from the 2007 convention set. As such, this figure got a lot of use in my early dios and profile photos. It is a spot well deserved when you see how well done this figure is.
The Stalker mold has been used around the world. He appeared in the US, Argentina, Brazil, Europe, Mexico and India. The mold has been also released using a Caucasian skin tone in Argentina (as Manleh) and India. But, Hasbro managed to get the mold back from Funskool prior to the 1997 releases. From there, Hasbro released it in the full incarnation just once. But, the figure did get a new head in a comic pack homage in both 2004 and 2005. While it would have been nice to see a classic Stalker in desert colors, I can live with what we have. The 1997 repaint is just so good that any other attempt to remake it would likely have been a flop.
In 1997, the Joe repaints were met with much derision from the collecting community. As such, the Stars and Stripes set didn't sell though all that quickly and was clearanced in many Toys R Us stores around the country. Collectors griped about the plastic quality, paint applications, lower quality accessories and pretty much any other little detail they could glom onto. Amazingly, by 2001, collectors were clamoring for a return to the 1997 standards. These figures, though, do have much more pliable plastic used for their construction than do the vintage releases. This isn't bad as the thumbs don't tend to break. But, it's bad in that the hands are much more flexible. After a short time holding his weapon, Stalker's hand will be stretched out and the gun will fall out on it's own accord. This can be remedied with positioning. But, it is something you notice when dealing with these figures. Quality did improve from 1997 to 1998 and beyond and it's not unheard of for 1997 figures to break right out of the box. I never had any real issues with this, but many other collectors reported quality concerns right from the start.
The Stars and Stripes set was not a huge hit. Despite having some collector favorite molds, it also had a large number of duds. On top of that, the set was sold for $29.99. For a set of 8 figures with a full complement of accessories and base, that's not too bad. But, for the time, was a lot to ask since $30 bought a lot of vintage Joes in 1997. This lead to the sets lingering and, ultimately, being clearanced. But, they must have sold well enough as Toys R Us brought the Joes back in 1998. The success there ultimately lead to the 2000 mass retail releases which were the harbingers of Joe's general return to retail.
In the early 2000's, 1997 Joes got ridiculously pricey. New collectors were flooding the marketplace and were desperate to pick up all the repaint Joes. At that time, loose versions of this figure would routinely top out around $20. But, as time moved on, the interest in this figure and 1997 Joes in general waned. Supply increased as collectors who had bought multiples in 1997 sold off their duplicates and demand dropped as Hasbro kept pumping out other figures that grabbed collector interest. Today, this figure can be purchased for under $10. Rumors abounded that the Stars and Stripes set had a production run of around 30,000 units. Those numbers make this figure very plentiful in the Joe world. So, a $10 or lower price tag is probably appropriate. At this price, the figure is a must buy. The green coloring, intricate cammo and classic accessories all combine into a near perfect repaint of a classic mold. Had all of the comic pack and other repaints been of this quality, the repaint line may have had a different fate. But, at least we got a few figures of this quality. So, it's worth enjoying the successes when you find them.