There is no denying that Duke is one of the top three to five most important characters in the Joe mythos. He was iconic in the comic and cartoon and, as the line progressed, he became more prominent in the toy line as well. By the end of the line, Duke was basically ubiquitous. He had releases in 1992, 1993, 1994 and was planned for different releases in 1995. The character had grown and was becoming more and more important to the line as a whole. In 1993, Hasbro added Duke to Star Brigade in the ill fated Armor Tech subset. In 1994, they kept Duke in the astronaut theme. The result is a decent rendition of the famous first Sergeant, even if he is a bit out of his element.
Star Brigade as a concept is difficult for many Joe fans to accept: especially as it branched off into armor-wearing cyborgs and space aliens. However, Star Brigade is a logical progression for the line. As early as 1987, Joe had a space presence. So, there was a precedent. But, even as early as 1982 with Flash and the HAL, G.I. Joe had a sci-fi element that was melded with the traditional military. Because of this, I haven't had any issues accepting Star Brigade into the Joe mythos. (Honestly, I'm more forgiving of Star Brigade than I am of Ninja Force if only for the reason that the Ninja Force figures don't follow the standard vintage Joe construction standards.) Taken at face value, many of the Star Brigade molds are well done. They may be a bit out there in some cases. But, many of the "realistic" Joes are a bit out there in terms of what the military would have allowed its members to wear.
The Star Brigade group did make an appearance at the tail end of the G.I. Joe Marvel comic run. Here, a group a Joes had to battle Soviet robots that were directing an asteroid towards earth. This storyline was a few years before the asteroid hits earth disaster movies of the late 1990's. So, it was either ahead of its time, prescient, or a faster to market rip off by someone who had access to movies in development in Hollywood at the time. Regardless, the comic story is fairly straightforward. But, it does feature an odd twist. The Oktober Guard aid the Joes in their mission. Among the Guard at the time was Dragonsky. So, maybe the choice of a Star Brigade figure to create the convention Dragonsky was more than kismet. But, it is something to note.
The 1994 Star Brigade series was split into two parts: Series 1 and Series 2. Series 1 featured this Duke, Roadblock, Sci Fi, Payload, Space Shot, Cobra Blackstar and Cobra Commander. Of these, Roadblock and Payload were straight repaints while the rest of the figures featured either all or majoratively new parts. (It should be noted there are two Payload variants in the first Series which takes it to eight total figures. But, the Payloads are distinct variants rather than individual figures.) Series 2 featured Countdown, Ozone, Effects and the three Lunartix aliens: Predacon, Lobotomaxx and Carcass. Interspersed were the Star Brigade Mechs with the V2 Techno Viper and Gears. This leaves a total of 15 unique figures in the line, with a 16th major variant. The reality, though, is that none of the 1994 Star Brigade series were shipped in large quantities. By 1995, these figures were all but gone from retail. The aliens sold out even quicker as the budding action figure resale market of the time hoped to cash in on their unique nature and low production run. The result is that the entirety of the 1994 Star Brigade is rather difficult to find. Many of them were consumed by collectors at the time and never opened. For many years in the late 1990's and early 2000's, it was virtually unheard of to find loose, complete specimens on the market. Most collectors had to resort to opening carded versions of the figures if they wanted to complete their loose collections.
The mold for this figure is actually quite well done. However, it suffers from a fatal flow common to many of the figures from 1994: there are basically no paint details. The only paint on the figure's body are the green legs and gloves painted over the silver plastic. There are no details highlighted with a little splash of color. This leaves the figure rather washed out since there is no depth to the mold. Looking at the chest, it is chock full of little details that, if painted, would have made the mold really shine. But, the lack of paint applications really causes the mold to suffer. The true gem of the mold, is the head. The final years of the line really featured some amazing head sculpts. The design process had progressed to the point where the faces could show more detail and expression. This Duke has hair texture, the lined forehead and the grim expression of a career soldier. It is light years ahead of the original Duke headsculpt and is a perfect example of the year to year progression in sculpting and design techniques that were employed in the vintage line. The changes are subtle from year to year. But, over time, you can see how greatly certain aspects of the design process improved. This figure is a perfect showcase of those progressions...even if they are obscured by lack of paint accentuation.
Duke's accessories are interesting. His helmet is all new. Here, Hasbro didn't skimp on the paint applications and used black details to obscure some of the faceplate to add realism. Rather than affix directly to Duke's head, though, the helmet attaches to the backpack and then fits over the figure's head. His backpack and helmet combination are all new and well engineered. It was a different approach for an astronaut to have his helmet attached to his pack. (Which would, ostensibly, hold his life support gear.) The idea didn't really work, though. The result is that the pegs on the pack are very brittle and prone to breakage and the helmet doesn't fit onto the head all that well. The launcher fitting into the rest of the pack allows the modern collector to remove that piece. But, it is something relatively uncommon from the launcher era. Duke's gun is the horrid 1987 Blaster weapon. While it fits with the sci-fi theme, it isn't anything that is visually interesting and doesn't really add much to the figure.
This Duke mold was typical of the era. He featured the waist and legs from an existing figure (The 1991 Skycreeper) but also featured newly molded parts for the head, arms and chest. This was a common cost cutting move that was featured on many 1994 figures and would have extended into 1995. After the figure's lone release in 1994, the mold did not appear again for 11 years. In 2005, Master Collector used the torso on the under appreciated and really quite impressive Dragonsky figure. But, that was the end of it. It is likely that more figures could have been squeezed out of the mold. But, leaving it at just two basic figures helps keep the original mold somewhat relevant rather than be overused into oblivion.
This Duke is somewhat problematic from a use standpoint. The only way to put him into space combat is with his bright orange pack. Without it, he has no helmet. He does work as a crew member of the Defiant or Crusader shuttles. But, that is about it. Despite the realistic green and silver color palette, the figure's design doesn't really work as a re purposed figure for earth bound missions. He could be incorporated into the Eco Warriors or Mega Marines. But, again, the lack of helmet without the pack holds him back. As a display piece, the figure meshes perfectly with the other 1994 Star Brigade figures. But, that is about the extent of his uses. As such, you rarely see the figure showcased in any online photos or dioramas. But, for that reason, when he is used, the figure tends to stand out.
One of the things that has always kept my collecting attention with the 1994 Star Brigade series is the variety of colors used to create them. While there are bright figures like Payload and Roadblock, even they use the color appropriately. As such, the series isn't a visual nightmare like the 1993 series can be. Instead, it is a blend of colors that, when displayed together, mesh well without being overly redundant. The same is true of the carded figures. The 1994 Star Brigade cards are some of my favorites in the line. They feature subtle colors that showcase the artwork and allow the figure to still be a focal point of the overall display. It is this aesthetic that makes these figures some of my favorites in my entire collection. The fact that they are the bookend to the line just adds a little more importance to them, as well.
The 1994 Star Brigade figures have gotten somewhat more popular in the past few years. Collectors have come to appreciate the coloring a bit. But, really, it is more a function of the fact that many collectors are just now realizing how difficult it can be to track down a complete set. As such, prices on these figures have risen steadily in recent years. Carded figures will run $25 or so and loose figures are typically selling around half that amount. Really, it's a lot to pay for a figure like this. But, it's within acceptable limits when you consider the figure's rarity. The headsculpt is worth tracking down, even if it's only for customs. But, the general obscurity of the figure combined with the importance of the character creates a juxtaposition that is worth the price.