Thursday, February 23, 2006

1990 Metal Head - Redux

1990 remains one of my favorite Joe years. It is full of figures who feature design elements from the '80's but with accessory complements that showed the full progression of the line before it devolved into spring loaded madness. The year is a nice mix of Joes and Cobras that features major characters, high quality minor characters and some of the better army builders ever released. The year is also under appreciated by collectors as it marked the end of the collector-favored '80's and was a time by which most modern Joe collectors had left the market. This has left the year full of unheralded gems on both the Joe and Cobra side. One such example is the original version of Metal Head.

How forgotten is Metal Head? Well, he's so obscure that I forgot I originally profiled him in 2002 on my old site. The figure and character of Metal Head is just one that I don't think of whenever I pull out figures for a specific purpose. In fact, I had racked my brain for a new Cobra figure to profile when I found Metal Head in my 1990 drawer when I was in search of a few Rock Vipers. When I pulled him out, I remembered how high quality the figure actually was.

Metal Head is, basically, a walking anti-tank weapon. He carries a backpack that can launch two missiles and then carries spare missiles on his legs. Fully accessorized, the figure is a bit awkward as he almost has too much gear. As such, I tend to only use him with the pack launcher. He also includes a helmet to protect him from the missile blasts that fire so close to his head. But, I prefer the look of the figure without the helmet and use him that way without much thought as to the practicality of forgoing such protection. Metal Head is very much a figure who's look and function can be changed by adding or omitting his accessories. It is a nice touch as it allows different people to use Metal Head in very different ways.

In my collection, Metal Head is exactly as advertised. I don't use this figure as much of a Cobra leader as he is more of a lone operative. Metal Head is a highly trained individual who goes off in support of other Cobra missions or to take out a specific objective. He can be used to simply attack a convoy of Joe armor. Or, he might be called in to blow up a building or other installation that the standard Cobra Infantry simply can't crack. I see Metal Head as a free lance specialist who is only slightly above the highly trained Cobra anti-tank soldiers. He isn't a key member of any decision making factions...yet. At some point, I could see him being picked up by one of the Cobra political factions. But, at this point, Metal Head remains too much a soldier and not enough of a leader for Cobra to take notice of him and make him a part of their internal political machine.

My key memory of Metal Head was from 1991. I was watching some neighborhood kids while their parents went to the Indianapolis 500. At the time, I was not really collecting Joe figures, but was following the comic a little. However, I really had no idea who Metal Head was. While at this house, the kids and I started playing Joe. As I dug through their bins, I found a couple of figures that were pretty cool but was drawn to Metal Head because I could use his leg missile holder as a holster for his gun. For me, this was enough to make the figure a winner. We spent the day playing with the figures and the kids' beat up Imperial Shuttle from the Star Wars line. As this memory lingered, I made Metal Head one of the earliest figures I acquired when I first returned to collecting. Upon acquiring him, though, I found that my recollections of Metal Head's cool leg holster were far greater than it's actual function in that capacity. My disappointment on that point had dropped the figure from my mind. I prefer to keep him as a good memory who is only used occasionally rather than ruin my perception with the reality of the figure.

The Metal Head figure features a slight variation. He is available with either thin or thick tabs on his legs. These tabs were designed to hold his leg missile holders in place. However, the thin tabs proved too brittle and were often broken. As such, Hasbro fixed the figure and later releases (including the Funskool mold) feature the thicker tabs. Finding a thin tab figure with intact pegs can be problematic but it's still a variation that has yet to really take hold in the collecting. But, be careful when you are buying a Metal Head and ensure that both of the leg tabs, whether thick or thin, are intact.

The Metal Head mold was just used the 1 time in the US. Interestingly enough, the character's original Code Name was going to be Salvo. It was changed and Hasbro used the name on a Joe released in the same year. The character was resurrected with a new body and head mold in 1994. In 2002, Funskool dusted off the V1 mold and produced a very interesting version of Metal Head for release in India. The Funskool figure actually has more painted details than the American version. (You can see the Funskool figure in the final picture below.) In 2005, Master Collector brought back the 1994 Metal Head mold as part of their Convention Exclusive set. As Funskool has returned most of their molds to Hasbro, it is conceivable that we could see a new version of Metal Head at some point. I would welcome a repaint of the V1 figure as I think that a lot can be done with the mold that would give collectors a little different take on the Metal Head character. As we seem to be in a time of diminishing ARAH style Joe releases, I don't know how likely a return of Metal Head actually is. But, I know that I would find a decent Metal Head re-release far more interesting that that of another Cobra Commander, Baroness, Viper, Cobra Trooper, Cobra Officer or Alley Viper.

Metal Head figure's aren't too hard to find. While finding one with intact tabs or the correct leg launchers might take a little time if you are trying to do it on your own, dealers with any stocks can do it easily. Unfortunately, as the figure is fairly high quality and includes many easily lost or broken accessories, he can set you back more than $10. Currently, many of the figures from the '90's are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Many collectors originally passed them by in favor of the '80's figures they remembered from their youth. Now that they have finished those years, though, they are starting to spend more and more time focusing on the figures from the '90's. As they do this, many collectors are discovering that lower production numbers and a high number of accessories makes some of these figures more challenging than they may have originally realized. As such, you see some price inflation on a few of these figures. In time, I think that prices on some of these figures will come down as more collectors have filled these gaps in their collections. Traditionally, regular release Cobra and Joe non-major, named characters haven't been able to sustain high price levels for long periods of time. As such, I'd be inclined to put off adding this Metal Head to your collection unless you can find one for a good deal. I know he is a nice figure and does add some depth to the Cobra ranks. But, did I not already own one, I doubt I would actively go out to purchase one now.

1990 Metal Head, 2005 Comic Pack Firefly, Scrap Iron, 1994 Star Brigade Techno Viper

1990 Metal Head, Funskool Metal Head

1990 Metal Head, Funskool Metal Head

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

2004 Red Ninja Viper

In the time I have been profiling figures, I have actually examined very few ninjas. Sure, I've reviewed a few versions of Snake Eyes and Stormshadow and even went to far to dust off T'gin-Zu. But, for as strong a role as ninjas play in the Joe mythos, I have not really explored their overall role in my collection. In the past, this has been primarily due to the fact that most of the ninja figures from 1992-1994 were very poor molds who were saddled with action features, different construction methods and poor color choices. In recent years, though, Hasbro has offered collectors some better ninja alternatives: especially if you are collector of the new sculpt figures. One such ninja uses a good mold in collector demanded colors. Even though it is a blatant rip off of an obscure South American figure, the 2004 Red Ninja Viper has filled an important niche in the Joe collecting world.

First and foremost, this figure is just a rip-off of the Argentine Satan figure. Only, Satan was a vibrant shade of blood red and is actually superior in design to this figure. When I first saw the early pics of the Ninja Strike set, the only thing I could see was two unimaginative attempts to capitalize on superior foreign designs from 16 years earlier. As such, I didn't have a lot of enthusiasm for the set. While I do not personally own a Satan or Ninja Ku figure, they are both very common and easy to get. Granted, they will cost you a lot, but it's not like they aren't available. As such, I would have rather seen this figure in Cobra blue, a deep green, or a shadowy grey. Those would have been colors that fit the nature of the set and offered collectors something they could not get anywhere else. I am the type of collector who would rather see something completely new than see a cheaper version of something already done. I think that's why the more recent comic packs have been such disappointments to me. Basically, they are the same molds in the same colors as what was previously released. The one or two new parts aren't enough to get me interested in those figures over their original versions. Whereas, figures like Clutch and Steeler were somewhat interesting because they were completely new takes on the character. That's they way I think all the figures Hasbro releases should be done. But, I digress....

After I actually acquired a few of the sets, though, I did find myself warming up the Red Ninja. I had long wanted an army of red ninja figures and figured that, some day, I would be able to make a foray into Argentina and build my ninja forces that way. Now, though, I don't have to wait. This set did offer the best way for ARAH figure collectors to quickly accumulate the nameless, faceless Red Ninjas in army building numbers. So, I took advantage of that and built up a decent little force of the Red Ninjas with the thought that they would likely not ever be as cheap or easy to get as they were in this set.   The figure itself is decent enough. The deep red hues and long sleeves make them different enough from Satan that they can stand apart from him. The figure does suffer from an overabundance of paint wipes, though. The entire figure is washed in dark paint that gives the uniforms a more worn look. Paint wipes are always an issue of strong opinion in the collecting world. In this case, I think they neither enhance nor hinder the figure. It would be a good figure without them and a is a good figure with them. The figure definitely has the look of the Red Ninja (even if the uniform is a deviation from their comic appearances) and is useful either as a stand alone character or an army builder.

In the early days of Joe collecting, there were a few staples among the customizers of the day. Everyone had their own take on the Oktober Guard, Dr. Venom, Kwinn and, the red ninja. The idea of the red ninja was ingrained from issue #21 and was one of the easiest repaints to do, especially when you consider that in the mid '90's you could easily find non-mint, discolored V1 Storm Shadow figures for ridiculously cheap prices. As such, there has long been fan demand for this figure and even the large supply of overstock Argentine Satan figures did little to sate it. As such, after some reflection, it is difficult to fault Hasbro too much for this choice. If anything, they should be faulted for the absolutely TERRIBLE Vypra figures that were forced into the set.

For some reason, the Ninja Strike sets suffered from spotty quality. Many sets featured brittle figures and poor paint masks. The Red Ninja Viper was especially susceptible to this and is the figure who is most often cited as breaking right out of the package. I can feel a noticeable difference in quality between the ninjas and the Desert Patrol which was released at the same time. It is unknown if the poor quality was the result of a cost cutting attempt or if the V1 Storm Shadow mold is just finally wearing out. But, if you do purchase after market Red Ninja Vipers, be aware their original quality was poor and you need to be on the lookout for the better samples.

The other area where the Ninja Strike set failed was with the accessories. While it did include a few swords and knives, it also included an M-16, a front bar and an arrow for a crossbow (without the actual crossbow) and a duffel bag. In an of themselves, some of the superfluous weapons aren't bad. But, most really didn't fit with the Ninja theme. Plus, when you see a V1 Storm Shadow mold, you expect V1 Storm Shadow accessories to accompany it. As this set did not include any of the original Storm Shadow's accessories, there was no way that any accessory complement could be anything other than a disappointment. The Red Ninja Vipers themselves included swords that at least made sense with the figures. But, they are very large sword molds that don't really seem to fit the scale of the V1 Storm Shadow mold. Unfortunately, V1 Storm Shadow accessories aren't exactly common or cheap on today's second hand market. So, if you army built this set at all, you are going to be hard pressed to find cheaply available quality accessories to re-outfit your figures with. What is especially infuriating, though, is that the reason for the lame accessories was the depth of paint masks used on the Vypra figures. Had the set included only one Vypra (rather than ruining her characterization by making her an army builder) and another Red Ninja Viper, then we might have actually seen quality accessories in the set as well. But, the design money was wasted on the Vypra paint masks and the entire set suffered for it.

While the Ninja Strike sets hung on the pegs during their release period: their overall time on the shelves was very short. The set was released just before Christmas and very few of them were left after the holiday shopping season was finished. As such, if you took a few months off, it's likely you missed the set at retail. However, as collectors had plenty of advance notice on the set and it wasn't the type of set that was hoarded by army builders, if you went looking for it in November and December of 2004, you were going to find it. Hasbro produced roughly 20,000 of these sets (compared to about 16,000 Desert sets) and that number, except in the case of the Cobra Infantry, has historically proven to sell out without being scarce at retail. This pretty much sated collector demand for the set and now you can buy sets on the second hand market for just slightly above the original retail price. Of the figures in the set, though, the Red Ninjas are the most popular. Individually, they will set you back about $8 each. As such, if you are looking to army build then, I'd just buy full sets, keep the red and black ninjas and sell off the Vypras and Stormshadow. You'll save a little money in the long run. Personally, I have found the idea of having an army of Red Ninjas to have been more exciting than actually having one. The lack of decent accessories and the frantic number of other figure releases that were sandwiched around this figure has pretty much dropped these guys from my collection. They are cool to have around and do come in handy once in a while. But, for the most part, they stay packed away. I have a feeling that, in a few years, I might have more appreciation for this figure. Until then, I'll just sit on my small army of ninjas and use them in the rare cases where their specialty is required.

2004 Red Ninja Viper, Stormshadow, TRU Exclusive, 1991 Snake Eyes

2004 Red Ninja Viper, Stormshadow, TRU Exclusive, 1991 Snake Eyes

2004 Red Ninja Viper, Stormshadow, TRU Exclusive, 2005 Snake Eyes

2004 Red Ninja Viper, Stormshadow, TRU Exclusive, 2005 Snake Eyes