Wednesday, December 28, 2005

1994 Payload - Black & Blue Version

Fortunately for Star Brigade, most collectors still hold the Eco Warriors as the worst subset ever in the Joe line. If there had been no Eco Warriors, though, Star Brigade would surely hold that dubious honor. If you are looking at the Star Brigade figures from 1993, this reputation is probably somewhat justified. However, if you look at the 1994 Star Brigade offerings, you see that while the colors are bright, the figures themselves are appealing in many ways. As a team, they have a cohesiveness that is aesthetically pleasing while using molds that complement each other and that are visually interesting. I have long been an ardent supporter of the Star Brigade concept and think the figures deserve another look from most collectors.

Originally, this mold was not intended for use as Payload. If you look at the back of the earliest 1993 Star Brigade cardbacks, you will see a V1 Payload mold painted in green and black. This was the original intention for the Payload figure and would have made sense in a series of astronauts. However, Hasbro could not locate the V1 Payload mold (most likely because it was in Brazil where Estrela released it as Orbita) so they dusted off the Barbeque mold from the now cancelled Eco Warriors line and used it for Payload.

In the spring of 1995, I purchased my first 1993 green Payload at a KB Toy Liquidators in Indianapolis. Initially, I wanted to use the figure as a pilot as, at that time, I was really interested in pilot figures. After I got him home, though, I found the figure's design was not in line with what I wanted from a pilot. However, it was in line with another specialty that had long been part of my collection.   When I was a kid, I used Joe army builders. I felt that the Joes would need bailing out in certain situations and that they had a highly trained support force that was available to help them on large missions. These "Special Missions Commandos" (Yes, they were named after the Joe comic of the same title. I was 12....) were represented by the 1983 Ace figure as I felt they would wear suits capable of deep sea diving or surviving gaseous environments.

My Ace figure got lots of use due to this assigned role and eventually died from overuse. When I looked at the '93 Payload, though, the similarities between his design and the original Ace became apparent to me. So, I updated my specialty unit to now be only comprised of Payload figures. I give them all various grey or dark blue versions of the weapons that were included with Payload and give them either Torpedo's or Psyche Out's backpack. The resulting look is a specialty unit that is more modern, more militaristic and very useful.   As this figure has 3 distinct coloring variations, I use each paint scheme for a different specialty. The green figures are the most basic combat troops. The white figures are more geared towards rescue or medical operations. This blue figure, though, is somewhat problematic for me. I never really had a role into which he fit. As he is the hardest to find, though, this Payload has ended up being the unit commander for both other colors of figures. Much like the colored clone commanders, this figure uses his color as a designation of rank. It's a somewhat useless designation, but does explain the color differences and allows me to use the rarer figure as someone a bit more prominent than the more common army builders.

The exact origins of this figure are not known. In 6 years of searching and after having viewed hundreds of carded Payload figures, I have come to the conclusion that the black and blue Payload was only released on a 1994 Star Brigade card. He did not appear on the '93 cards as some collectors may suggest. This is puzzling, though, as this figure uses the same paint masks as the '93 Payload yet the '94 Payload card art clearly depicts the red, white and blue Payload that is the more commonly seen '94 figure. It is possible that the blue trimmed figures were either early samples to test the paint mask, or later samples to test the blue paint. Hasbro then made enough of them that they just went ahead and released them in the earliest shipments of '94 Star Brigade Series 1 figures. Of course, that's all speculation as no official information has ever surfaced in regards to this figures origins. The other notable change in the figure, though, is the clear visor. Every green 1993 Payload I have seen has a yellowed visor. However, the blue versions feature clear visors. So, it could have simply been a visor test in an attempt to get clear plastic.

The 1994 Star Brigade figures were split into 2 series. The first series is more common, though you are starting to hear some complaining among collectors at how it is somewhat difficult to track down a few of Series 1 figures like the orange Star Brigade Roadblock. Series 2, though, was the short produced wave that featured the 3 Lunartix aliens. Supposedly, these figures were limited to a production run of only 10,000 figures. While the aliens themselves aren't too hard to find, the three Joes who shared a case with them: Countdown, Ozone and Effects, have become rather difficult to find. As such, you don't see too many complete 1994 Star Brigade Joe displays. You will see a figure here or there, but it's rare to find a collector who has taken the time to assemble the complete team, loose. This is nice as it allows you a way to distinguish your collection a bit if you do have the full array of Star Brigade figures. (I know that when I view pictures of other's collections, my personal measuring stick is how many obscure 1993-1994 figures they have out on display.) It can also be frustrating, though, to track down all the figures and then find a place to display them if you do not own the Defiant.

All of the 1994 Star Brigade figures are somewhat hard to find. None were produced in great quantities and many collectors were long gone by that time so they are figures that are often absent from modern collections. The fact that this was a paint variant that was quickly replaced with white version of Payload leaves the black and blue figure as one of the harder figures to find in the entire line. That isn't to say he's rare or anything, though. If you go looking for this figure, you'll find him soon enough and he will likely be cheap. If you just hope for one to show up as part of random purchases over the years, though, that is less likely to happen as this isn't a figure you see too often. Since Payload is Star Brigade, though, he is always cheap. While I've seen MOC versions of this figure sell for over $20, I've also bought loose samples for $1. The price at any given time will reflect who is in the market. If only a few people are actively searching for this figure, you will probably find him MOC (which is still the easiest way to acquire him) for rather cheap. If you are at a time when a more than a few collectors are looking for this version, then you might see the MOC price closer to the $20. But, those prices are usually short lived. As Star Brigade will never be considered a must have subset by the collecting community as a whole, you will never see the figures priced in accordance with their rarity in relation to figures from the rest of the line. The demand will simply never be there. If you are like me, though, and find the redeeming qualities in the Star Brigade line, the cheap prices make it easy to start, finish and multiply your astronaut collection. I know that I have done so for years now.

1994 Star Brigade Payload, Variant, Viper, Rare G.I. Joe Figures

1994 Star Brigade Payload, Variant, Viper, Rare G.I. Joe Figures

1994 Star Brigade Payload, Variant, Carded, MOC, Rare G.I. Joe Figures

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

2003 Air Viper - Convention Exclusive

Previously, I have profiled a few other convention exclusive figures. At this point, the convention exclusives are one of the few bright spots for collectors of ARAH-style figures in the past few years. The convention figures have shown an attention to detail and character that is appreciated by collectors. It remains a mystery to me as to why this level of thought has not translated over to the retail ARAH-style releases as you would think they would have a large budget with which to work. That aside, though, the convention figures have offered collectors a wide variety of offerings that have fallen outside the conventional retail releases and have allowed collectors an opportunity to grow their collections in some different ways. While the pricing of these figures have been prohibitive to many collectors, there are few who could argue that the figures themselves are not among the best examples of re-released figures we have seen. Yet another example of this is the 2003 Air Viper.

The Air Viper is just a repainted Vapor. However, the Vapor figure himself is not terribly common and is a figure that many collectors are still missing. While that figure enjoyed a short time in the collector spotlight as loose samples climbed over $20, he has since fallen back into obscurity. This is good, though, as it makes the Air Viper just that much more useful. Instead of appearing as a repainted Vapor, the Air Viper is easy to adopt as a completely new figure in a collection. The best part is that the Air Viper's color scheme of Cobra blue, black and red is a perfect update over the original figure. He does not tread on Vapor's colors so as to cause easy confusion and stands alone as a well done repaint who utilizes traditional Cobra colors in a specialty that has not normally seen those paint schemes.

The Air Viper is a long neglected part of Cobra. While they were mentioned in various comics, we never saw them in any toy form. The 1986 AVAC was as close as we got as it was an Air Viper Advanced Class. The basic airmen, though, were left as a gaping hole in the toyline. As such, the release of an Air Viper is welcome. I use the Air Vipers as the most basic of Cobra pilots. They are the rookies who will eventually become Strato, Gyro, Aero and Star Vipers but who need the experience and seasoning before they are ready to assume that additional responsibility. The use of the Vapor mold in the colors in this capacity is a perfect fit. The mold is unique enough to differentiate the Air Viper from other pilots but the colors are basic in the same vein as the Infantry troopers uniform. It is just basic Cobra blue and black. After the Air Viper gains more experience, then he might be ready to join the more gaudily uniformed corps of Cobra advanced pilots.

Where the Air Viper goes wrong is in availability. As he was a convention exclusive release, it is difficult for many collectors to acquire them in multiples without spending an inordinate amount of money. The Air Viper is a perfect candidate, then, for some type of re-release. Of all the Cobra themed 6 packs that Hasbro produced between 2003 and 2005, they never offered any air force themed Cobras. We got plenty of infantry and WAY too many Crimson Guards but the Cobra air force was neglected. Most collectors would have enjoyed a 6 pack featuring some basic Cobra pilots, HALO troopers and ground support personnel. As this did not happen, though, it remains a possibility for the future. If the 6 pack idea can be sustained through the acquisition of a key retail partner, a Cobra air force pack makes perfect sense. If that is not to be, though, then maybe someone will be able to put together an exclusive Cobra pilot or Air Viper at some point that will give collectors another shot at this character.

The use of an obscure and previously not repainted mold seems like such an easy concept. Yet, for whatever reasons, Hasbro has yet to fully grasp the idea that re-using the same molds ad naseum leads to banality in the line and probably has to do with the dwindling number of collectors who get excited about each new subsequent product that is released. In the new sculpt arena, Hasbro has been more creative. But, that is only more maddening as it appears a deliberate slight when you see well thought out new sculpt repaints while the ARAH-style figures continue to suffer from the same overused molds time after time.   The Air Viper is pretty hard to find. He's not as tough as the 2002 Paratrooper Dusty, but you still don't see too many of them floating around. In '02, the Paratrooper Dusty caught the collecting world by surprise. In '03, though, collectors were ready for whatever parachute figure they were offered. Master Collector went one better by displaying the figure prior to the convention so that attendees were well prepared for when the figures were dropped and many con goers were able to pick up a few Air Vipers.

For the majority of collectors who did not attend the convention, though, getting the Air Viper was more problematic. While Master Collector did send you one bagged Air Viper for every boxed convention set you purchased, it was nearly impossible for collectors to acquire multiple Air Vipers for decent prices if they were not in attendance at the convention. This has left the Air Viper as a higher priced figure. As he uses an obscure mold in its best colors and was re-characterized as an army builder, the Air Viper is highly desired among collectors and we have yet to see after-convention deflation in the figure's price. As such, if you can get a loose one for $20, you are doing fairly well. Bagged and mint, complete with filecard figures can be had for around $30 if that's your game, too. To me, this is a figure that, were it more readily available for cheap prices, would be my de facto basic Cobra pilot. The colors and mold are that good. But, as the figure is priced at a point where buying multiples isn't feasible for me, I use this figure as a display piece and nothing more. It is an unfortunate fate for a figure of this quality but is a direct result of what happens when figures are created specifically for the collector market.

2003 Convention Exclusive Air Viper, Vapor, Strato Viper, 1986, 1987, Mamba, Motor Viper, 1994 Viper, Major Bludd

2003 Convention Exclusive Air Viper, Vapor, Strato Viper, 1986, 1987, Mamba, Motor Viper, 1994 Viper, Major Bludd

Thursday, December 8, 2005

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Stalker

In my years of collecting Joes, I have found that many collectors have small niches inside their main collection. Usually, these are some small little part of an overall collection which can vary from incredibly rare items to common, run of the mill figures that no one else seems to like. My niche is race changing figures. Worldwide, there are a few distinct samples of race changing figures. Some, like the Funskool Iceberg or Stalker figures, are simply an alternate race for an established character. Others, like the Brazilian Flying Scorpion, are completely different characters who used a race change to distinguish the mold. In the US, the 1997 Rock and Roll had a race change that has yet to be adequately explained. In recent years, though, a few pre-production figures have appeared in Asia that have featured racial changes. The two most notable are the comic pack Stalker who appeared with a Caucasian head and the comic pack Hawk who had a black head. Another version of Stalker also appeared with a Caucasian skin tone. This time, both the head and arms were an alternate race. This alternate Desert Stalker is the subject of my latest profile.

The first question most people have when they see this figure is, "what is that?". The reality is that it's not really clear. Since 2002, pre-production Joe figures have been coming out of Asia. At first, they were unpainted samples that might feature minor mold changes or odd color choices versus the actually released versions. In time, though, some other figures began to appear. These were fully painted samples that were done in color schemes that were never released at retail. The first of these to appear were the Wal Mart exclusive paratrooper figures that were planned for a 2003 release. These figures were cancelled, but a substantial production run of them was completed. They began to appear from Asian sellers and the frenzy began. In the coming months, many more oddly colored figures appeared, including a completely alternate paint scheme for the Cobra Urban Assault set and 2 unique paint schemes for the Anti-Venom set.

There is a catchy terms out in the collecting community that I despise. (No, it isn't Argen Seven, though that term is also inappropriately misleading....) It is the term "Midnight Chinese". Usually, collectors use this to refer to all the alternate color figures that appeared in Asia. But, this is a misnomer. Midnight Chinese actually refers to test shots of figures that probably were run with whatever plastic was in the machine at the time. These aren't production figures by any means. These figures that are closer to production are items of a different nature. As such, they should be referred to by a name that doesn't mislead about the figure's origins. I call them Alternate Asian figures. It doesn't have the cachet of Midnight Chinese, but is more accurate for what these figures truly are.

Naturally, this began widespread speculation as to the origins of these figures. While it was certain that the Wal Mart figures were actual unproduced items, others lacked any official evidence as their creations. Quickly, stories circulated of Asian factory workers producing these figures after hours. In some cases, these stories may have been true. But, they were most likely in reference to the unpainted pre-production pieces that had been circulating for a while. The painted figures often featured paint masks that were completely different from any produced figure. The sheer complexity and expense of creating a paint mask is a strong indicator that many of these figures were actually intended for production but were then changed at the last minute to the versions that actually appeared at retail.

Currently, these figures are the source of much debate in the Joe community. There is a small faction of people who swallow every word Hasbro says as pure gospel and cry that these figures are "stolen" or "illegal". There is another contingent of the community who spends time and effort to track these figures down as they find them the most interesting part of the hobby. Then, there is the majority of collectors who really don't care one way or the other. If you want to start buying these figures, I'll just suggest that you do your research. If you follow the trail of evidence it points to a conclusion that is very clear and will ease any objections you may have had to buying some of the figures. I would still advise against spending lavishly for any one piece, though. History has shown that most of these "one-of-a-kind" figures are actually produced in decent numbers and prices usually stabilize rather quickly after a new figure appears.

As for the figure itself, it is nicely done. Most of these alternate Asian figures are not quite "finished". They can have loose limbs and the paint jobs feel like they are not fully "sealed". So, the figures are not quite full production quality (though some are) and should be expected to live up to the same quality of a retail purchased figure. The paint is easily worn with only minimal effort and the plastic feels more brittle than on the production pieces. This Stalker is no exception. He is not quite the same quality as the retail Desert Stalker, but he is close enough that he still can be used along with my full complement of regularly released figures.

Aside from the skin color, this figure also has some other variances from the full production version of Stalker. Most notable is the differently colored belt, straps and chest holster. These are a grey color on the production figure while they are a leathery brown on the pre-production piece. This is significant because the other 5 figures from this set also have pre-production variants that feature this leather color on their details in lieu of the grey. It is likely that the leather color was the original choice but it was changed as it left too much brown on the figures. The grey, while not hugely different, was at least a break from the browns and tans that dominate these figures overall. The other major difference is that the Caucasian Stalker does not have the tattoo or patch on his right arm. It could be simply that this was not applied until later and this pre-production figure didn't go through that paint application. Or, the patch might have been a later addition to the figure. Either way, its absence makes the figure stronger. You can see a side by side comparison of the production and pre-production figure in the photos below.

The Desert Set was actually really bad. While a few of the mold choices were good, the rest were either repetitive or were simply so poorly contrived that there was no real way to justify them. While the desert camo portions of the figures were well done, they were not evenly applied. Stalker is the only figure in the set to feature a full body camo application. The other figures all feature half camo with the other part cast in an agave desert blue. While this color might appear in the desert, it does not do so in enough quantity to justify a person wearing it over 50% of their body. This approach left many of the figures in the set as less useful than they would otherwise be. (At the Convention, the desert Ambush figure was also shown in full body camo. Yet, all the production pieces were the two-tone versions.) As such, Stalker is the highlight of the set, even if both the retail piece and this pre-production version lack paint on his mustache.

Since there was really only one decent figure in the set, many collectors passed it by for Ninja or Operation Crimson Sabotage sets in hopes they would be able to pick up a discounted Desert set after the holidays. This was not to be, though, as most stores around the country sold out of these sets in the days after Christmas. This left many collectors shut out of the sets and you now see them actually selling for over retail on the second hand market. My opinion is that the only figures worth anything in the set were Stalker and Snake Eyes. And, now that the HAS set features the same Snake Eyes but in a non-desert version of the cammo, even Snake Eyes is less useful. So, it's not really worth dropping $30 on the set unless you're a completist. The Stalker is an amalgamation of the 1992 Duke with the 1989 Stalker's head. While the Duke body has been used multiple times since 2000, this is the first time it has been done in a nice desert scheme. This is also the first time this Stalker head has been brought back. While the head lacks the iconic Stalker beret, the stocking cap is a look that appeared on an equal number of vintage Stalker molds and is true to the character. The result is a nice update to a figure who works well in his specified environment. I don't mind repaints of major characters if they are done to fit within a theme. Having a Night, Arctic, Desert and Jungle/Forest version of a character allows me some range in their use. It's when they issue the same version in similar colors time and time again that the repetitiveness really starts to wear on me and my interest in a figure or mold wanes.

Of course, what is one to do with a Caucasian Stalker figure? In most cases, it's nothing more than a novelty. However, as this mold is just Duke's body with Stalker's head, there a few more possibilities. A quick headswap gives me a desert Duke. But, as this Stalker head is not as iconic as some of his other incarnations, I think this figure will ultimately end up as a new character. The blond hair is a nice touch as it opens this figure up to many more possibilities. I could even see me using this figure as Dusty at some point as the Dusty who was released in the desert set was so poor. Regardless, this figure works as both a novelty and as a practical addition to a collection. I'm just not fully sure of what that practical use for the figure will be yet....   If you know where to look, this figure can be available. While he isn't as ubiquitous as many of the other odd repaints we see from Asia, he is out there.

While it is an almost certainty that some of these unproduced figures saw production runs in the 1,000s (the Wal Mart parachute figures) and most probably saw runs in the high 100s, it seems this figure might be a bit more scarce than that. There are probably less than 100 of these currently out there. That isn't to say that more won't show up, though. But, at this time, this figure is probably one of the more expensive alternate Asian figures you can buy. My strategy with figures like this is to acquire them for a price that I find fair. I don't really worry about rarity as these are figures I'm adding to my collection: not my portfolio. So, I don't spend money on these figures like they are potentially valuable collectibles. It is a viewpoint that neophytes to the unproduced figure game should follow as there are many people out there who will take advantage of you and get you to overpay for what is, essentially, a common figure. In time, experience will lead you to better decisions, but the nature of these items is such that spending big bucks for figures like this is never a great idea. I spend an amount I'm comfortable with. If the figure turns out to be rare, cool. If not, I still have a neat addition to my collection that allows me to distinguish my Joe world from many other collectors'.

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Patrol Stalker, TRU Exclusive, Midnight Chinese, Sokerk, Argentina, Plastirama, European Exclusive Tiger Force Sneek Peek

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Patrol Stalker, TRU Exclusive, Midnight Chinese,

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Patrol Stalker, TRU Exclusive, Midnight Chinese, Chinese Exclusive Flint, Tiger Force Falcon, Snake Eyes, Tunnel Rat

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Patrol Stalker, TRU Exclusive, Midnight Chinese, Chinese Exclusive Flint, Tiger Force Falcon

2004 Unproduced Caucasian Desert Patrol Stalker, TRU Exclusive, Midnight Chinese,