In 1989, I was out of buying Joe toys. As I had been out since the beginning of 1988, even my younger brothers' interest in the Joe line had pretty much ended. A figure or two showed up at various points that year, but it was more of a one off rather than any effort on their part to actually collect the line. In the summer of 1989, though, I went with my parents to visit some of their friends in Vermont. These people had children who were about one year younger than each of the three boys in my family. So, the ages matched up well. While there, though, I found that they were very much into the 1989 Joe figures. They had a large selection of new characters I had never before seen. I spent many of the bored hours I was there rummaging through their boxes and baskets of toys to find all the G.I. Joe figures and accessories I could. Not having cardbacks or catalogs as reference material, I managed to put the figures together as best I could. In the end, the figures that stick out to me were the Annihiltor and the HEAT Viper. Those two were found with most of their gear, so their impression upon me was much more memorable. However, they had two other Cobras that I recall: the Alley Viper and the subject of this profile: the 1989 Frag Viper.
The Frag Viper is odd. He's odd in that he's cast in a base brown color with light blue highlights. He's odd in that he includes a Jai Alai basket that is used to toss grenades. And, finally, he is odd because he has a bug inspired helmet that is such a bizarre design that it stands out even among Cobra as being extraordinarily creepy. But, all that does not add up to a bad figure. The general sculpting and proportions of the body are well done. The figure is muscular, but not so much as to be noticeable. But, the greater bulk helps to offset the large head and keeps the figure in a general scale that works quite well. His jumpsuit is well detailed and the brown coloring actually works with the light blue that is used as the primary accent color. In all, he's an oddball that's put together in a way that works as a toy.
But, as I never owned a Frag Viper as a child, seeing him as a toy was always difficult. In my early collecting years, I focused heavily on lots of figures from 1989 through 1991. Those were the years that were new to me so I spent a great deal of time tracking them down. Through these purchases, the first few Frag Vipers entered my collection. At the time, I thought they were a decent addition to my Cobra Urban Assault forces. While Annihilators flew into the center of a location and fought their way out, Alley Vipers surrounded the location on the ground and fought their way in. The Frag Vipers were teamed with HEAT Vipers and Range Vipers as the specialized units that were called in when something slowed down one of the teams. They carried heavier ordinance and would be used to pry open an artery that was blocked during the attack. This was great in theory. But, the practicality was that why would Alley Vipers (who had their own grenades) need to call in a grenade specialist? At least the HEAT Vipers made sense in case the Alleys ran into a tank. But, in very short order, the Frag Viper simply fell out of favor.
The figure's color certainly didn't help. I have long held brown to the sole domain of Major Bludd within the Cobra hierarchy. (Few Cobras in the vintage line used this color.) And, Bludd was always a loner. He had no need for troops. (Even the Convention Skull Squad Troopers, which are pretty good figures, simply don't really work for me with Bludd.) So, having a Cobra in brown didn't really match. Plus, the Annihilators and Alley Vipers were complementary orange and the HEAT Viper's yellow wasn't too far from that. The brown Frag Viper simply didn't fit with those figures that formed the core of my armies. The brown does look decent when posed on a classic HISS. But, that's a small use for a figure like this. Even the Frag Viper's overall quality wasn't enough to save him from obscurity and the figure has languished at the bottom of my collection ever since.
Upon closer inspection, though, this figure is very well done. The metal rivets on the helmet combined with the stitch like look of the jumpsuit fasteners give the figure a bit of a "Frankenstein's Monster" vibe. Had the figure been decked out with black accents in lieu of baby blue and had the stitching been white, this figure would have had quite a monstrous appearance. Little changes like this can go a long way towards making a good figure great. But, 1989 was when Hasbro was in the dead center of what I call the "Yeah, but" phase of the line. The first few years all had nearly perfect figures with a few less than stellar ones thrown in. By 1988 and 1989, though, that changed. Pretty much every figure was good with one "yeah, but" detail. For the Alley Viper, it was the bright orange. For Recoil, it was the baby blue weapons. For Downtown, it was the red highlights. Pretty much every figure had some little detail that was big enough to keep that figure from eclipsing the classics from the line's first few years. (In time, Hasbro moved out of the "Yeah, but" phase and into the "If only" phase where figures needed much more work than one small detail.) For the Frag Viper, the blue highlights are the "yeah, but" item. They aren't terrible and certainly don't destroy the figure. But, were they black, or silver or even olive drab, they would have made a world of difference and this figure might be more popular today.
The Frag Viper's accessories really help to make the figure special, though. 1989 was a great year for weapon and equipment complements and the Frag Viper is right up there with the best of the figures from that year. The cesta for throwing grenades is well detailed and unique, even if the practicality is suspect. The figure's small machine gun is perfect as a secondary weapon and is small enough that it can be used with the figure even when he is fully loaded down with his pack and launcher. The figure includes 2 hoses: one the standard black plastic hose of vintage Joes. But, the other is a unique, flexible, thick, detailed hose to connect the launcher to the backpack. It is a great way to enhance the figure. The real greatness of the accessory complement is the backpack, though. This pack is detailed with tons of small grenades (the filecard indicates the number is 50.) that feed into the cesta for manual launch. If that weren't enough, there are pegs on the top of the pack to hold either 2 of the loose grenades that are also included with the figure, or three grenades if you choose to not attach the hose from the figure's head to the pack. The whole complement screams that this is a grenade launching specialist and is on part with gear from the contemporary Alley Viper or Annihilator in terms of design and functionality.
The Frag Viper mold was used just this one time in the U.S. Around 1992 or 1993, though, it was sent to Brazil. There, Estrela used the mold to produce the collector favorite Letal figure. Letal used the entire Frag Viper mold, but in a bright, lime green. The figure is relatively hard to find and tends to sell for substantial sums of money. At that point, most collectors assumed the mold was dead. Hasbro all but confirmed that most of the Brazilian molds were gone. Some of Letal's contemporaries, like the Toxo-Viper, had shown up in India. But, there was no real trail to track. Then, out of the blue, in 2006, Master Collector found the mold and used it in their Operation Flaming Moth series. The figure was colored in a darker green and was meant to be both a Letal homage and upgrade to the original Frag Viper. That was the last use of the mold. It would have been nice to see this figure in a more traditional Cobra color. But, those are the desires unfulfilled that keep collectors around.
During the army building craze, the Frag Vipers were mostly ignored by collectors. While Alley Vipers rose to prices of $20+ and Night Vipers were breaking $30 for mint, complete with filecard versions, Frag Vipers stayed under $10. While collectors would get a few of them, they were so specialized and oddball that very few collectors would seek them out, even as other army builders from their time rose in price precipitously. Today, the figure is relatively unchanged in price. Mint and complete with filecard versions tend to sell in the $9 - $11 range. Sacrificing the grenades or the unique hose, though, tends to drop the price quickly. You can also get them cheaper in lots of less popular army builders. So, there are options: all of which are fairly palatable. Personally, though, despite the relative availability of the figure, I've found that I have few of them in my collection. They just aren't a figure that's really high on my list to track down. They are a great scene filler and do bring a lot to an army. But, after acquiring three or four, the returns of each subsequent figure diminish. So, I find myself with few Frag Vipers. That doesn't take away from the fact that this is a decent figure. It just shows that even quality can have limits when the figure's speciality is too obscure.