Tuesday, January 27, 2004

2003 Venom Cycle

When I first saw the Venom Cycle, I was underwhelmed. It looked like an OK vehicle, but nothing that really warranted any special attention. It looked, to me, a way for Hasbro to further push Viper repaints on collectors. After some time, though, I discovered that this small vehicle actually does have some redeeming features and is fun to have around.

In the past, I haven't been too high on motorcycles that were released in the Joe line. The RAM was cool, but I always found it a little too confining as it could really only hold one figure. The Silver Mirage was a cool concept, but the toy sucked. Mine fell apart every time you tried to use it. The whole thing was just brittle and not fun to play with. The one "motorcycle" I did like was the Dreadnok Cycle. While it's colors were awful, the bulkier sculpt with the mounted turret gun were great fun to use. I adopted this vehicle as a full-fledged Cobra weapon and had it manned by a Motor Viper and, oddly enough, a V1 Viper. This was my Cobra patrol vehicle for years.

When I first opened a Venom Cycle, it hearkened back to both the Silver Mirage and the Dreadnok Cycle. It has the sidecar mounted gun pod like the Silver Mirage, but has a bit more bulk to it like the Dreadnok Cycle. While not a perfect mesh of the two, it had more redeeming qualities than I had at first anticipated. My main problem with the design is that it is a bit too large. The Venom Cycle would be a better fit for the new sculpt figures as their larger proportions are better suited to the cycle's size. However, the size issue is not enough to render the Venom Cycle useless. ARAH-style figures still work on it without too much of a stretch. (I just use the slightly larger proportion as a side-effect of Cobra's reinforcing the cycle to make it withstand the harsh beach terrain it was designed to patrol.) The other problem I have with the Venom Cycle is that the gun in the sidecar is a spring loaded missile launcher. Instead of a cool sculpt gun, we are left with a monstrosity that is hard to reconcile. With the missile in place, the gun can work, but it takes away from the look of the vehicle and makes it a bit less useful to me. Finally, the Venom Cycle is a Sound Attack vehicle and has the built in sound chip and speaker. It isn't something that gets in the way too much, but adds unnecessary weight to the Cycle and is probably responsible for the cycle's larger size.

While these problems prevent this cycle from being a true classic in the Joe line, it does have some really neat features as well. One of the things I like most about the Venom Cycle is that it is heavily armoured. This gives it a bit more credibility in its purpose as the driver is not too exposed to enemy fire. (Granted, it's still a motorcycle, so there is always a lot of exposure on the part of any rider.) The cycle also has little storage baskets built onto the back. While not as useful as they might be, they are a nice touch that gives this cycle a little more detail than most of the other new, smaller vehicles that have been released since 2002. The one area where the Venom Cycle is really neat, though, is the side car. This can detach and be transformed into a stand alone gun station. This feature gives the Venom Cycle another purpose in my collection as it can now also be used to transport mobile gun stations on the battlefield. These can be used as coastal defenders, outpost watch stations, or strategic, mobile emplacements.

Another area where the Venom Cycle does succeed is in the area of the driver. While I tend to like uniformity in my vehicle driver ranks, I can accept the inclusion of a Viper with this vehicle. It makes sense, to me, that Cobra would utilize its basic infantry troops as motorcycle patrolmen on the shores of Cobra Island. As such, I can see this brown and blue Viper as someone who aspires to the Motor Viper corps and is using the role of patrolman as a stepping stone to promotion. This version of the Viper is basically the 2002 Forest Viper with brown highlights instead of green. I call him the Funskool Viper since he is the same color as the Funskool Law figure. While he is unspectacular in color, he does work as a more muted member of the Cobra Viper Corps. He looks decent in desert of even forest settings and melds well with the forest Vipers from the prior year.

Overall, the Venom Cycle is not up to par with classic Joe vehicles like the Ferret. It is, though, a step in the right direction as it seems that it shows a bit more thought than the first round of Alpha vehicles. Unfortunately, it seems that vehicles like the Venom Cycle aren't all that popular. They hang around at retail for long periods of time and, even when they include army builders, get rather stale in stores. I think the price point on these is a bit much. A small vehicle with one figure for $10 isn't that much of a better deal when you can get 2 figures with accessories for $8. I have a feeling that Hasbro's rationale behind changing Alpha Vehicles packaging to window boxes instead of carded toys is to give the consumer a better concept of value. Carded, these things competed with figures and were easily lost in the shuffle. Boxed, these vehicles are easier to see and stand out on the shelves. So far, it appears to be working as the first assortment of 2004 Alpha vehicles seems to be moving a little better than those from last year. We'll see how the rest of the year goes, though.

Venom Cycles, despite their inclusion of a Viper as the driver, were very easy to find at retail. Most stores had them hanging on the shelves through Christmas of 2003 and some people were lucky enough to get them for deeply discounted prices in post-holiday clearance sales. This means that a lot of collectors got their fill of this vehicle and I don't foresee a strong long term demand for them. (That's not true, at this point, for the repainted Crimson Venom Cycle which was rather hard to find at retail.) This is good, though, as it allows collectors to acquire a Venom Cycle or two for affordable prices. (And, if you don't want the Viper, you can probably find people willing to sell you just the cycle for almost nothing.) I've found that this cycle goes well with both new and classic sculpt figures and adds a nice element to a Cobra arsenal. The Venom Cycle is surely not a classic when compared to everything released in the Joe line, but it is one of the better offerings we've seen since Joe returned to retail.

Were you able to find the Crimson Venom Cycle? Let me know.

2003 Venom Cycle, Spy Troops, Viper

2003 Venom Cycle, Spy Troops, Viper

2003 Venom Cycle, Spy Troops, Viper

2003 Venom Cycle, Spy Troops, Viper

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

1990 Sky Patrol Skydive

It's been a long time since I've profiled another member of the Sky Patrol subset. The main reason is that, of the six figures that comprised this subset, I only have three of them in my collection. (In fact, I also have three of the Brazilian Sky Patrol figures which means they match my American numbers!) As Sky Patrol isn't a large part of my collection, I haven't been compelled to profile another member. All the figures in the set are, basically, repaints. However, I've recently only had access to a small number of my Joes. This has taken me back to the earliest days of my collecting when I only had a small numbers from which to choose and I was much more creative with what I had. Among the small number of figures I can get to right now is the 1990 Skydive.

Skydive is just a repainted Gyro-Viper with a new head. (All of the Sky Patrol figures used recolored existing bodies and newly sculpted heads. However, the dark blue color of his flight suit really makes this figure stand apart from the Cobra with whom he shares a mold. This really allows Skydive to take on a characterization beyond that of many simple repaints and makes him the type of figure that I have found a use for in my collection.

I see Skydive as the type of character that other Joes have a problem getting along with. I see him as prick who is very confident in his abilities and makes no hesitations about letting everyone else know that. As such, he is difficult to befriend and is often ridiculed behind his back. However, the brashness that makes him so unlikable as a person is exactly what makes him a great soldier. I see Skydive as a man of unparalleled bravery and ability. In the field, he always gets his job done and those who serve with him find him a real asset when in combat. This leads to a problematic approach with this character. He is great to be around in situations of intense danger, but is almost despicable in any other setting. Those Joes who have served with him and seen him in action will gladly do so again, but those who have never been in combat with Skydive are hesitant to undertake a mission with him. His social presence starts to override his professional demeanor. I use this dichotomy to delve a bit deeper into the characterizations of both Skydive and those he comes into contact with. It is just another small element that gives my Joes a little more depth than just some happy-go-lucky team who always gets along.

One area where Sky Patrol really excelled was in their accessories. Just about all of the figures came with a nicely done contingent of guns, helmets and other items that really made these figures stand out. Of course, they all also included a working silver parachute pack. The final expectation was that these figures had tons of play value and would be quite popular at retail. That did not, though, turn out to be the case. As Sky Patrol figures were higher priced than regular Joes, they sat around a bit. Once a child had one of the figures, there was little incentive for a parent to buy them another. This scenario replayed itself every time Hasbro tried a gimmick that raised the price point of a figure. (In fact, it still plays out today as the Alpha vehicle assortment sits, unsold, in stores around the country. In comparison to 2 figures for $8, a small vehicle and 1 figure aren't a deal at $10. Maybe the new packaging will help.) The unfortunate side effect of this is that Sky Patrol figures really don't get the credit they deserve. The helmets and weapons that were included with Sky Patrol figures were among the most original and well conceived in the entire line. It's just that no one seems to know that.

Sky Patrol (or at least a Sky Patrol inspired concept) was set to return to retail in 2003. The set of six figures (Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Duke, Lowlight, Alley Viper and Hiss Driver) were to a be a Wal Mart exclusive. However, Hasbro could not get the parachutes that would have been the selling point of the figures to pass safety standards. (This is also why the 2003 Sgt. Airborne does not include a parachute even though his backpack still has the handle where the strings would have been attached.) This lead to the cancellation of the Sky Patrol figures and Wal Mart's release of their new sculpt repaints. However, the 6 "cancelled" figures have shown up (as full production level samples) in a number of areas. This leads me to believe that we will see this subset at some point in 2004. I am guessing that it will end up as a Toys R Us exclusive after the Night Force and Cobra Troop Builder sets are released. I think it would be nice to see Sky Patrol again. Even if the parachutes that were the hallmark of the original figures can not be released to retail, having the subset updated with some new blood would be a good way to give modern collectors another nod to the line's past.

Time was that Sky Patrol figures were hard to find mint and complete. When you did find them, the competition for them was heavy and the prices reflected the demand. Now, though, a lot of that has changed. While the Sky Patrol figures are still rarer than other 1990 releases, you can find them, even in good condition, for decent prices. As most of the figures are rather well done, come with nice accessories and are different in appearance from other Joes, they are a nice way to fill out even the largest Joe roster. I'm hoping that the next few months will allow me an opportunity to finish off my Sky Patrol set. I think they are a great subset and the type of figures that bring greater depth to dioramas and a collection in general.

I'm really hoping that we see a Sky Patrol redux. If it does happen, would you rather have it be all Joes, all Cobras or a combination of both? Let me know.

1990 Skydive, Sky Patrol, Updraft, Freefall, 1986 Tomahawk

1990 Skydive, Bullhorn, Range Viper, 1984 Spirit

1990 Skydive, Range Viper, 2002 Viper, Static Line, Sky Patrol, Big Ben

1990 Skydive, Range Viper, 2002 Viper, Static Line, Sky Patrol, Big Ben

1990 Skydive, Range Viper, 2002 Viper, Static Line, Sky Patrol, Big Ben

1990 Skydive, Range Viper, 2002 Viper, Static Line, Sky Patrol, Big Ben

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Spirit (European Exclusive!)

A while ago, I posted a profile of the Brazilian exclusive Urzor figure. In that profile, I posted a picture or Urzor meeting in the jungle with some other Cobras. In the background, though, was a slightly out of focus figure that most people recognized as the Spirit mold. I got a lot of inquiries, though, as to the nature of the figure. Was it a custom? Another Brazilian exclusive? My answer spurred several people to track down this seldom seen figure and add this European exclusive version of Spirit to their collections.

This Spirit is very different from his American releases. While both the '84 Spirit and the Slaughter's Marauders version are nicely colored and decent figures, this European version brings out a different element of the Spirit character. The dark black and blood red combine to communicate a more powerful characterization. This is not an exploitation figure, it is, instead, a look that shows a darker, deeper side to Spirit and, for me, gives the character even greater depth. I liken this design to a change in Spirit's demeanor. Gone is the naive tracker. When he dons this outfit, Spirit is capable of accomplishing more dangerous tasks. This is a uniform where Spirit means business. Usually, he is a lone infiltrate into a Cobra installation who must act completely without support. Other times, he is sent after a particular target: often with that target's total annihilation the only acceptable outcome.

One of the themes that I like to explore in my collection is the exploitation of the Joes by their superiors. I basically have the Joe team viewed as an organization that is called in to every situation that has gone hopelessly awry. The Joes are then sent in against almost impossible odds and expected to succeed. In most cases they do. However, one of the ideas that permeates my Joe ranks is the notion that their duty will never be done until each person is dead. The Joes feel that their skills are such that the military honchos will never let them retire. Instead, they will be sent on mission after mission, even long after their physical abilities have diminished. The eventual outcome of this is that, at some point, each team member's abilities will fail them at a critical time and they will end up dead. I have had this happen to a few different characters over the course of time and this has lead to the revelation among the existing team members that the same fate will, eventually, befall them. It is a dark secret among the Joes that, in some ways, makes them tighter as a unit. However, that type of pressure also weighs heavily upon a mind. At some point, I hope to explore this more fully with the character of Footloose after he, Flint and Duke infiltrate Dr. Mindbender's lab. I like the idea of fallible Joes moreso than what we see in mainstream Joe cannon. This notion of eventual death during duty provides the type of element that makes every Joe character a little more human and less detached from what they do.

Alas, in my collection, though, this version of Spirit is used more as a display model than a "use" figure. My '93 Spirit gets most of the action. The reason for that, though, has less to do with the fact that I like the '93 more than it does with the fact that I'm a bit worried about damaging my Euro Spirit. You can see in the photos below that Spirit is always holding his gun a certain way. This is because I'm afraid that the large handled weapon that is intended for the figure will break his thumb should I force it into place. This concern has lead me to use the Euro Spirit less than I would like as I don't want to break him. I have less problems with the '93 (though that, in its own right, is a tougher figure to find) and use it more often as I feel that replacing him would be easier than finding another Euro Spirit. This isn't to say the figure is brittle. Mine just feels like the gun would cause damage. Rather than risk it, I just don't use this mold very often.

I've always felt it odd that Europe got an exclusive Spirit figure. His is a mold that really is unique to the United States. Painting him in this manner seems somewhat out of place for a European release. Spirit's, and Mutt's, release timing is also somewhat peculiar. They were released in the early '90's, at a time when all other European releases were the new construction ball joint heads. Adding these two figures to the assortment was a odd combination and does not fit with the release schedules that were the norm in every other country. (Well, except for India, though that didn't really take hold until the late '90's and early '00's.) Why these two figures were chosen for an exclusive release will probably remain a mystery.

As this figure is a European release, he is of the same quality as American release figures. As such, you don't have to worry about brittle crotches and thumbs nor sloppy paint applications when you track one down. He includes 4 accessories, though only his loin cloth is unique to this version. His pack and gun are the same as the easily acquired Slaughter's Marauders Spirit and his eagle is the same as the original figure's. (Though just about all Freedoms out there are missing the claw. That's just one brittle feature of the animal mold.) This allows a collector to acquire a hopefully cheaper, non-complete version of this figure without the worry of tracking down too many exclusive accessories.

Like a few other figures, Spirit's mold has had an interesting journey. After his initial release in the U.S. in 1984-1985, he was sent to Brazil. There, Spirit was among the earlier Brazilian figures released. In 1989, the Spirit mold was again released in the U.S., this time under the Slaughter's Marauders banner. This figure, though, was not produced by Hasbro. Hasbro outsourced the production of these figures to Estrela in Brazil. As such, Estrela used molds they had on hand to produce that batch of figures. (All of the Slaughter's Marauders figures were released in Brazil in colors similar to their original American release.) At some point in the next few years, though, the Spirit and Mutt molds migrated out of Estrela's hands and into Europe. Here, the European division of Hasbro produced two exclusive figure repaints of those characters. These were released some time in the early '90's around the same time that the European exclusive Tiger Force figures were released. (An interesting note is that Blizzard also appears to have gone from Brazil to Europe around the same time.) What is not clear is whether the actual molds used by Euro Hasbro and Estrela were one and the same or if these early figures actually had two molds produced for them and they were then strewn around the world after Hasbro was through with their American releases. At any rate, the trail of these molds left quite a legacy and proves an interesting study on different countries' uses of specific figure molds.

A few years ago, when I was in the market for this figure, you could get mint and mostly complete Spirits for around $20. As I haven't looked for one of these guys in a while, I'm not sure if the current pricing is still similar or not. I do know, though, that there are a lot of these Euro Spirits around and many of them are in good condition. As such, if you want one, it usually does not take too much time to track one down. I've found this to be my favorite coloring of this mold. Unfortunately, his scarcer nature still precludes me from using this figure all that often. As a display piece, I can not recommend this figure enough. As a play piece, though...well...I leave that to your discretion. I've found that this figure is a welcome part of a collection, regardless of his purpose. The solid colors and classic mold make for a truly unique foreign figure who belongs in any American collection.

Spirit is still a great character. It appears, though, he has been replaced in new Joe cannon by Dart. Would you like to see Spirit return? Let me know.

European Exclusive Spirit, Mutt, Plastirama Backstop, Alado, Sokerk, Quick Kick, Brazil, Estrela, Abutre Negro, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Escorpiao Voador

European Exclusive Spirit, 2003 Viper

European Exclusive Spirit,

European Exclusive Spirit, 2003 Viper, 1989 Night Force Repeater, Recoil

European Exclusive Spirit, Cobra Officer, Cobra Trooper, 1983, Viper Pilot, Bootleg, Black Major, 1984 Stinger