Wednesday, April 26, 2006

2001 Rock Viper

In late 2000, Hasbro released the 2nd wave of the A Real American Hero Collection figures. This wave had appeared in a toy rag prior to its release and many collectors were anxiously anticipating its arrival. When it appeared at retail, it did not first. Unfortunately, Hasbro vastly overproduced the 2nd wave and they became pegwarmers all over the U.S. The problem was even worse in Canada where the colossal failure of Wave 2 choked future Joe distribution that has caused availability problems that Canadian collectors are still dealing with. Lost in this, though, was the great thought in design that was placed into 5 of the 6 Wave 2 offerings. The figures were fresh and original and offered collectors new ways to enjoy previously obscure molds. While I still hold the Duke from this wave as the best figure of the series, it was the Rock Viper that most captured collector attention at the time.

First off, this figure really isn't a Rock Viper. While he has that name, the reality is that he is a straight repaint of the Range Viper figure. However, this figure really isn't a Range Viper, either. The Cobra colors don't lend themselves to a wilderness trooper and his gear isn't conducive for a Rock Viper. So, how to use him??? What I've found, though, is that this figure meshes well with many of the vintage color schemes of Vipers and other Cobra troopers. As such, he makes an excellent Cobra infantryman. He has some heavier weapons, but his overall look fits that profile. I see him as just a different type of Viper who patrols the Cobra compounds and fights alongside the traditional Vipers.

The Rock Viper does have some nice attributes. Aside from his large complement of accessories (a gun, an ammo clip for the gun, a large backpack, a hose, a grenade launcher, a plunger grenade and one of the coolest combat knives in the entire line) the figure also features an intricate paint mask. While the figure only features 5 colors, they are applied to the smallest details that hearken the mold back to the vintage era. It is amazing that only a year later Hasbro had taken to skimp so badly on paint applications that this figure would be a paragon of their modern retail achievement.

In my collection, the Rock Viper's importance changes. A few years ago when the figure was newer, I used them as the backbone of my Cobra Infantry forces. But, like most of my figures, I tired of them after a while and put them away. In subsequent years, I've used them as urban infantry soldiers as well as specialized hybrids of Vipers who are in training to become Range Vipers. Now, though, they are back to their generic role of infantry. The colors of the figure don't really lend themselves to woodland fighting, so I see these figures as the urban branch of the Range Vipers. They move into bombed out cityscapes and forage among the debris while keeping outsiders away. This utilizes their survival skills while not requiring them to be colored in an appropriate forest manner. It also gives me more chances to use the figure as his coloring and accessories are so far above most of what we've been offered in the years since his release that it seems a waste to leave the figures sitting, unused, in their drawer.

When the A Real American Hero Collection was first released, collectors were very divided over it. While most agreed that many of the repaints were fairly well done, they also were torn over some of the elements that were introduced with the new figures. Now, over 5 years later, though, the figures have taken on a new dimension. Subsequent to the cancellation of the ARAHC, all ARAH-style Joes took a turn for the worse. The began to only be released in multipacks and almost never included any of the mold's original accessories: things taken for granted in the ARAHC. As such, many collectors have grown nostalgic for those simpler days: not realizing how good we actually had it. In the grand scheme of things, the ARAHC only lasted for about 18 months and produced a scant 49 figures. Not much time when you consider it in relation to the line as a whole. While the line was far from perfect, it did produce many high quality figures who surpassed even their vintage versions. Had only that trend continued. Maybe we wouldn't be in the spot Joe collectordom now finds itself.

The Range Viper mold was used in 1990 and 1991. A few Range Vipers were also produced for Asian markets. (Some of these feature unique card art, too.) After that, the mold did not show up again until this Rock Viper release. Hasbro broke the mold out again in 2002 for the Skullbuster figure. In the nearly 4 years since that figure, though, the entire Range Viper mold has been MIA. (Parts including the head were used in 2005 in the Imperial Processional set.) As the mold is decent and we have yet to see a Range Viper repaint that is actually in wilderness colors, I think that the time has come where collectors would welcome another interpretation of the Range Viper mold.

One other item to be on the lookout for when you are in the market for the Rock Vipers is that the figure features slight differences in the paint wipes. The earliest Rock Vipers did not feature any paint wipes on the figure's face. Instead, the skull mask was left all white to showcase that feature. On later figures, though, the paint wipes started to appear all over the figure's face. This gives these a more dirty look. Of my 9 figures, only the first one which was purchased the day after the first reported US sighting back in December of 2000 has a totally clean face. The nature of the paint wipes and marbleized plastic used on the ARAHC releases makes it problematic to call one figure a variation over another who features a slightly different paint wipe or composition of plastic colors. But, as you search for more figures, you may find preferences and will have to ask questions accordingly to ensure you get figures that match the look you desire.

The other source of contention in regards to the Rock Viper is his official release year. The first ARAHC Joes were released in October of 2000. As such, it was difficult for the second wave to hit retail during the same year. I've already mentioned that I found my 1st Rock Viper in 2000. But, as it was in the last week of the year, that is more an anomaly than his actual release year. It was in 2001 that the Rock Viper was really shipped. As such, you will see various guides that list the Rock Viper as a 2000 release while others list him as a 2001 release. Solid arguments can be made on both sides. (The figure didn't really get out until 2001 yet it was shipped in cases that were, basically, carry overs from Wave 1.) Personally, I list the figure as a 2001 release as I consider the 1st wave of the ARAHC to be more of a preview wave with 2001 being the first full year that the line was actually pushed to retailers. (Which is why all but the largest retailers never carried Wave 1 of the ARAHC.) It doesn't really matter when you get down to it, but is another slight discrepancy you may notice when you are in the market for Rock Vipers.

These days, Rock Vipers aren't as easy to find as I would have thought back in 2001. While this figure warmed the pegs for a good long time and was available in sufficient quantities to satisfy even the most ambitious army builder, it has not appeared with my expected frequency on the second hand market. However, this has not translated into an expensive figure. You can still buy mint, complete Rock Vipers for ~$4 each with little trouble (though it is easier to find them in the $9 range!). While there aren't too many out there, not too many people are actually looking for the figures. So, the lack of demand trumps the sparse availability. This is not a bad thing, though, as the Rock Viper is a well done Cobra Trooper who meshes well with lots of vintage and many newer army builders. If you're looking for a cheap way to increase your Cobra forces, I'd highly recommend looking the Rock Viper's way.

2001 Rock Viper, Range Viper, ARAHC

2001 Rock Viper, Range Viper, ARAHC, 1992 Parasite

2001 Rock Viper, Range Viper, ARAHC, 1992 Parasite

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

1990 Rampart

1990 was really the beginning of the end of the Joe line. For some reason, the first batch of collectors really cut the line off at 1989 and tended to lump all figures not made in the '80's into meaningless categories. As more younger collectors have come aboard, more of the later figures have begun to at least get a little respect. This has lead to some longer time collectors to relent their position and start to explore some of the great features that later Joe years had to offer. 1990 is easily on par with many of the line's "classic" years in terms of figure quality, coloring and accessories. Many of the 1990 figures have play features that I wished for back in 1985 and 1986. Among these figures was the oddly designed Coastal Defender: Rampart.

Rampart features a solid color scheme of basic brown with a greyish/brown jacket. His most distinguishing element, though, is the bizarre head gear that he wears. It could be a combination of sun protection and blast protection from his gear. The overall result, though, is that the figure's head is misshapen and stands out among other Joe figures. The mold's biggest problem, though, is that the torso is rather scrawny. Rampart is supposed to carry this big machine gun and portable missile launcher. Yet, he is among the slightest built figures since 1982. Yet, his legs are more bulky like those of his contemporary releases. This makes him appear disproportionate and takes away from the overall aesthetics of the figure.

Rampart's accessories are decent if unspectacular. While many of the 1990 figures had amazing complements of accessories, Rampart's are somewhat drab in comparison. He does include a large gun that features a hole that can be doubly utilized for the bipod that is included as well a mount that fits on the peg molded onto the figure's waist. Rampart also includes a second bipod for his gun that I've always used to support the back. But, there may be other ways to configure the weapon. He also includes a missile launcher with two missiles. (One of which snaps onto a peg on Rampart's leg.) This device was the forerunner of the spring loaded launchers that appeared the next year. The missile itself had a small peg that fit through a hole on the back end of the launcher. The idea was that if you flicked this protruding peg with your finger, it would simulate a firing missile launcher. (The 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal featured the same idea.) It wasn't much of a gimmick, but it all the more appreciated now after Hasbro went the spring loaded route the following year.

It isn't much of a commentary on a figure when the most memorable aspect of it was a custom figure that utilized its parts. However, this is the case with Rampart. My most lasting impression of the Rampart mold was Evilface's use of his head on an Alley Viper custom figure. Aside from that, I can't remember any significant uses of Rampart in the fan community. (I'm sure someone will send me one, but my point is that I don't recall any. :) ) He is just a figure who isn't strong enough to carry a scene. That isn't a fatal flaw, though, as the Joe line's hallmark is the quality of its supporting cast. It's just that Rampart isn't up to par with figures like Alpine, Barbeque, Mainframe or Fastdraw who fill similar niche roles on the team. That is his problem. When picking figures, Rampart is just too far down the list: even when the situation calls for his specialty.

The real question is, what role does Rampart play? While his filecard makes him out to be a video gamer who likes to shoot down missiles, I think that role is too limited for a Joe. He is technically classified as a Coastal Defender. However, the vast nature of a coast pretty much makes it impossible for one man to defend it himself. I see Rampart as two things: a coordinator of coastal defense and a stationary infantryman whose purpose is to hold a position. He is armed with light anti-armour weapons and a heavy machine gun that combine to give him enough firepower to delay an oncoming assault. He is not the end all defense against an attack. Instead, he is the just the first line. He carries weapons capable of slowing the enemy down enough for his team to arrive in support. As such, his role requires a person with a slightly "different" personality. Rampart has to be brave to the point nearing stupid in order to effectively perform his duty. That isn't to say that he's dumb, he just lacks a rational comprehension of what, exactly he's required to do. This leads to my portrayal of Rampart the character as a guy who simply doesn't care about his personal safety. He very much feels he is indestructible and is the type of person who wouldn't realize his life was in jeopardy until he was already dead. It isn't a very deep characterization, but Rampart's specialty is such that he isn't used enough for me to develop his personality any further.

The Rampart mold saw a number of releases around the world. Aside from being released in the US and Asia, the mold was also sent down to Brazil where it was released in a color scheme similar to the American figure around 1993. (You can see a comparison of the 2 in the last picture.) From there, the Rampart mold has disappeared. It is unknown whether it is still rotting in South America, sitting on a shelf in India or is back under Hasbro's control. Rampart's Brazilian contemporaries have not turned up anywhere else in the world, either. So, it is difficult to surmise the fate of the mold. This isn't, necessarily, a bad thing. Rampart's mold might be able to be used in some interesting Frankensteins. But, I don't think a Rampart repaint would be the best thing Hasbro could churn out when there are so many other 1990-1993 molds that are in dire need of a repaint.

Ramparts are not too tough to find. As he was a Joe, no one really spends too much time looking for one. However, as he was released in 1990, he is a bit harder to find than many other figures. As such, you now see complete figures in the $8-$11 range as opposed to half that for equally obscure figures from more common years. At the low end of that range, Rampart is a decent buy. The figure mold is cool enough and the colors blend nicely with many other figures. He isn't a figure that most people have on display so he adds a touch of uniqueness in that regard. Personally, I like the figure for what it is but certainly would not have gone out of my way to acquire one did I not have a few samples already. Rampart is just one of those transitional figures who is almost a must have but was produced in such a way that he just misses the mark.

1990 Rampart

1990 Rampart, PYthon Patrol Lamprey, 2003, 2004 Zanzibar, Convention Exclusive, Ambush, Anti Venom Roadblock

1990 Rampart, Brazil, Estrela, Variant

Thursday, April 13, 2006

1997 Destro

Destro is, arguably, the most complex character in the Joe world. While Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander both have their issues, Destro was always portrayed as being stuck in a morally ambiguous morass: unable to allow his penchant for evil to be overridden by his honor nor able to allow his desire to be good to be overruled by his inbred greed. The conflict created a character that most collectors have latched on to and enjoyed since his first appearance in 1983. Through the years there have been classic Destro figures, great Destro figures, bizarre Destro figures and terrible Destro figures. Unfortunately, this version falls closer to the terrible category than most. But, he also fits squarely in the bizarre. As such, I felt the 1997 version of Destro was worth profiling.

In December of 1992 I went to a Toys R Us during my lunch hour. I checked over the Joe section for the first time in 2 years and was amazed at what I found. I bought a few new figures that day but was most excited about my new Destro. I had long liked the Destro character and the chance to get a new figure of him that was in the classic colors (I didn't much care for the gold Iron Grenadier look at the time.) was too much to pass up. I bought the figure, opened him up and started to realize that, while nice in the sense that the character had a new look, the mold had certain limitations that really knocked it down a few notches from my initial impression.

While this mold has some nice features, it is also overly stylized for most collector's tastes. It features an incredibly high collar, an ostentatious necklace and shoulder and knee pads that make the figure look like parts of his outfit came from the wardrobe trucks of the worst Medieval genre movie in Hollywood. The entire figure is bulky...except for the head. As such, Destro looks like a cartoon character whose body is blown up to be out of proportion with the head. For a guy who wears a steel mask, that doesn't quite work and really takes away from the entire figure. The head, though, is decent enough and can be used on other bodies to build more creative Destro figures. As parts, the mold works much better than it does as a whole.

When collectors think of Destro, they usually think of the V1 mold followed by the version 2. These are the 2 distinctly classic looks of Destro. This mold originally was used to pay homage to the V1 and mark Destro's return into the Cobra fold. In my collection, I tend to use this coloration of the mold just for the fact that it is so distinctly different from his other incarnations. However, even that use is limited. These days, I see Destro as mostly retired from active combat duty. Instead, he remains a political force within Cobra. Being too controversial to ever lead Cobra, Destro, instead, makes his mark as a senior advisor to just about all of the Cobra hierarchy. While he will help out the current Cobra Commander, he spends most of his efforts helping the younger generals who are in charge of South American operations. In this advisory role, Destro has become an icon to the next generation of Cobra and has probably secured a legacy within the organization that is greater than that of the original Commander.

And now we come to the most interesting part of this figure's history: the Pimp Daddy version. In 1997, Hasbro originally painted this Destro in leopard spots. This figure was actually photographed for a Toys R Us advertisement and has lead many collectors to have "Rocket Firing Fett Syndrome" where they swear they saw the Pimp Daddy Version at retail. It is highly unlikely that any PDD's were released at retail in the US. The only carded samples that exist have come from Asia. But, some were carded. The fact that only a few of the PDD's have shown up, though, suggests they were not mass released. While most collectors would be astounded at the number of PDD's that were produced, it is still a small number in comparison with regular release retail or even convention figures. The mystique of the PDD, though, is such that is has become the most famous unreleased Joe figure and that has lead it to price points that are probably unrealistic were the true production numbers known by the general collecting base. As such, I keep my eyes open for PDD's as they do show up for very nice prices from time to time. You just have to be ready to pounce when they do.

After 1997, this mold was used again in 2001 and 2005. Also, in 2005, the head was plated in gold and used for the convention Destro. None of the body releases have done anything to really elevate the mold in collector eyes. The more versions of it that are released, the more collectors realize the limitations of the mold. While, in 1992, this was a decent update to Destro, by 2006, collectors are left wanting more when they know there were better Destro molds available that Hasbro could have chosen for release over this version. This figure, though, does feature decent colors. He is one of the few version of Destro where the good laird is decent enough to cover his bare chest. That alone makes the figure worth owning. The deep maroon hues set against the black highlights make the figure more imposing than other colorations of this mold. The crowning achievement, though, is the chromed head. This was the first time this mold was released with a head that wasn't painted and the bright, shiny chrome sets the figure apart. (Though, most collectors agree that the head is vastly undersized for the body.) The overall effect achieved with this figure is a nice update to Destro's classic look. You know this is Destro the second you lay your eyes on him. For a character who is as visually powerful as Destro, that is a hallmark of some success.

In 1997, this figure was a HUGE pegwarmer along with the rest of the Joes. By 2001 and 2002, though, collectors had forgotten this and mint, complete versions of Destro were fetching close to $20 on the second hand market. Now, though, demand for the figure has sated and they can be routinely purchased in the $7-$10 range. At that price, the figure is worth owning just for the chromed head and non-traditional coloring. When I'm looking for a different take on the Destro character, this if the figure I use. That is rare, though, so this isn't a figure that's become vital to my collection. I think that is doomed to be his fate. Collectors will get one of these but I think the heyday of this figure has passed. That's not really a bad thing, though, as most of the subsequent Destro releases have surpassed this one. Those that haven't, though, are real stinkers. For me, this will remain my odd Destro for when I want to add depth to a dio. Other than that, though, he isn't a figure who holds great importance in my collection.

1997 Destro, TRU Exclusive, 2005 Comic Pack Serpentor, 1983 Hiss Tank

Friday, April 7, 2006

1984 Blowtorch

Blowtorch is one of those early Joes who has kind of fallen to the wayside. Most people own his figure, but the character did not reappear in any form in the U.S. for 18 years after his initial release. Blowtorch is a specialty that is somewhat difficult to use in the modern military world and often feels like a throwback of sorts. Plus, his bright colors really turn many collectors off to the quality of the mold. He is, though, a figure who is well done and has earned his place among the early Joes. It's not a figure I use all that often but is a mold I enjoy.

My first encounter with Blowtorch was early in 1984. A schoolmate of mine had returned from California after Spring Break with a treasure trove of the new 1984 Joes. This initial brush with the figures lead to a months long quest to fill the gaps in my collection. Through the year I acquired more and more of the figures. I don't, specifically, remember when my youngest brother picked up his version of Blowtorch, but I do remember a friend of mine and I finding a wallful of new Joes at the Children's Palace at the Castleton mall in Indianapolis. While I don't remember which figure I got that day, I do remember my friend getting the Blowtorch. He used the figure as a diver in his pool since Blowtorch had the airmask. My brother acquired the figure some time later but quickly destroyed the figure's accessories and I learned that without his flamethrower or mask, Blowtorch wasn't that interesting a figure.

These days, what do you do with a flamethower? Really, they don't have much place in my Joe world as Blowtorch's equipment just seems antiquated. Someone walking around a battlefield with 2 easily punctured tanks full of pressurized, highly explosive liquids does not seem like a sound idea. As such, I now use Blowtorch in a more supporting role. Being in an area where wildfires are common, I see Blowtorch more as a civilian Joe who helps with backburns and things like that. He consults with police and fire departments on procedures and protocols for their encounters with explosive and highly flammable materials. And, he, occasionally, might still see some combat duty when he is called in to create a fiery diversion that will allow his overwhelmed comrades to escape a bad situation. But, Blowtorch's days as a full fledged combat soldier in my collection are done.

The Blowtorch mold is actually very well done and features an incredible amount of detail. The bright orange and yellow colors somewhat detract from them as the little details are lost under the strong hues. The figure is more bulky than most of his contemporaries and that is to be expected due to his wearing of the fire suit. The overall mold is well thought out except for the fact that Blowtorch has a patch of bare skin under his neck. Had this been painted white or yellow, it would make more sense. But a character who wears such protective gear would hardly go out with some of his skin exposed. Where the figure really shines is his accessories. 1984 really brought the accessory complements of the Joes to new levels. The line was flush with development money from its retail success and the designers took pride in topping themselves. As such, Blowtorch features a helmet, mask, pack and flamethrower that all interlock with each other. The mask plugs into the figure's chest while it also fits snugly around the helmet. The helmet features grooves that hold the mask in place. The flamethrower plugs into the backpack and the figure just looks well put together.

If you look at the photo of Blowtorch in the 1984 product catalog, you notice a major difference with the figure's mask. In the picture, you can see that the mask has a black hose as well as open eye slits. Every production level figure that I've ever seen has just a solid molded mask that is all yellow. It is likely that the early photos were still kitbashed mock ups rather than full blown production pieces. (You'll note some other accessory (Ripcord's mask) and figure differences (Cutter) in that catalog as well.) But, the inclusion of these items provides an insight into the vision the designers had for the figure, even if the technological constraints of the time precluded them from being realized.

The Blowtorch mold has a long history outside the U.S. After his release in the U.S. and Europe, the mold was sent down to South America. There, Blowtorch was released in Brazil and Argentina. Plastirama, though, took the mold a step further when they used it twice more. Once on the carded TNT figure and then again on the vehicle driver Backstop. From there, the trail of the Blowtorch mold ends. He was never released anywhere else in the world again and it is likely that his mold continues to rot away in a South American warehouse. This isn't terribly unfortunate as the mold has some limitations and isn't really the type of thing that lends itself to a repaint. I would have liked to have seen a newer take on Blowtorch through a new mold. The two subsequent Joe flamethrowers, Charbroil and Ice Cream Soldier, were decent but would have been preferable were at least one of them an homage to the Blowtorch character. We have seen Blowtorch in the new sculpt figures, but he was done in the oddly proportioned Wave 3 and hasn't become a figure that most collectors consider to be well done.

These days, Blowtorches aren't too expensive. Despite his being over 20 years old and having some brittle accessories, complete Blowtorches are quite common on the second hand market. Usually, you can get them under $8 or so and you can often find them cheaper in lots. He's a figure that most collectors are content to only have a single version of in their collections. His price reflects this. When I first returned to collecting, I wanted to get a complete Blowtorch rather quickly. Once I did so, though, I kept on getting them in more and more lots. At one time, I had 8 of the figure with at least 5 complete. He's just that common of a figure that he really isn't difficult to acquire, even if you're not trying to! These days, Blowtorch is pretty much an afterthought in my collection. It would have been nice had the Anti-Venom Charbroil been named Blowtorch, but, even then, he would not have been a figure that would have gotten any more use. He's just a character and figure that are difficult for me to find a purpose for these days. His lack of dio appearances suggests that I am not the only collector who feels this way. It doesn't make the figure any less interesting or well done, Blowtorch is just a specialty that isn't in much demand these days.

1984 Blowtorch, Flamethrower, Ice Cream Soldier, 1994, Gears, Star Brigade, Mainframe, 1986

1984 Blowtorch, Flamethrower,

1984 Blowtorch, Flamethrower, 1983 Ace, Skystriker