Thursday, May 11, 2006

1992 Heli-Viper

The Heli-Viper is probably as forgotten a figure as you can find. He is a combination of bad colors and a late release date in an obscure vehicle that makes for a figure most collectors can not identify. However, it is also a figure that features one of the most interesting Frankenstein jobs that Hasbro ever created and, were it in better colors, would probably be among the most sought after army builders of the modern day. As it is a mish-mash of red and purple, though, the Heli-Viper has been doomed to a life of obscurity. As is the case with many figures like this, though, I have found at least a partial role in my collection for one of the greatest examples of good molds ruined by bad colors.

The Heli-Viper combines parts from 3 iconic Cobra figures. The main body and legs are made from the Night Viper mold. The arms are from the Techno Viper and the head is from the original Snow Serpent. Taken as they are, these parts should have combined into one of the best amalgamated figures of the entire line. However, this was not to be as the Heli-Viper was given a terrible purple and red color scheme the obscured the details of the mold and turned the figure into a nightmare. While I have found that the color is appealing somewhat by itself, it does not mix with anything else decent in the Cobra army and leaves this figure as an odd man out. Even his gun, a purple rendition of the Night Viper rifle, is too poorly colored to have any use.

The Heli-Viper was only released with a 1992 Battle Copter. These weren't terribly popular items and you don't see either the Heli-Viper nor his Joe counterpart, Ace, with great frequency on the second hand market. Hasbro Canada offered bagged samples of the Battle Copter figures, though, so you can find complete Heli-Vipers both loose and bagged. These have started to dry up, though, as more collectors have defined holes in their collections as being figures like the Heli-Viper and they have taken many of the existing figures out of the second hand market. Personally, I have never owned a loose version as I haven't wanted to open either of my bagged figs. After having these two for a bit, though, I may reconsider and open at least one of the figures as they are kind of neat filler to toss into a dio background.

In my collection, Heli-Vipers have a minor role. While the Heli-Viper design is cool, my ranks of Cobra helicopter pilots are comprised of the well done Gyro Viper. As such, I don't really need the Heli-Viper. (In fact, the figure's file card really makes me not like the character since it is just so over the top.) However, where he does fit in is as a Techno Viper in training. I've always viewed the Techno Vipers as more of an engineering corps. While they can fix things, their real value is working on Cobra's highest end equipment. As such, there is a level of grunt Techno Vipers who are more likely to see combat who work on the run of the mill Cobra technology. This is the role I've found for the Heli-Viper figure. His colors are similar to those of the Techno Viper but the mold design shows that this character could still appear in combat. As such, I see Heli-Vipers as the guys who get of the tank when a convoy is under fire to change a bogey wheel as Cobra doesn't want to risk a full Techno Viper for such a dangerous duty. They take fire, but long for the day when they are full Technos and are allowed to have safer duties.

These Techno Vipers aren't well respected by the Cobra foot troops as they are not yet fully qualified Technos and they tend to make mistakes. They also view themselves as non-combatants as that is what most Techno Vipers are qualified as. This leads to great animosity on the field as the infantry feel the Techno's in training should fight to make up for their lack of mechanical experience while the Techno's feel the Infantry should cut them some slack since they are the only ones out there capable of putting a damaged Parasite or Maggot back together. Needless to say, this limits the role of that the Heli-Viper plays as Cobra isn't keen on creating more tension on the battlefield between their own troops. As the Heli-Viper is fairly difficult figure to find, though, this dovetails nicely with its role in my collection.

The Heli-Viper is an interesting mix of molds. The Night Viper was used in the US in 1989 and 1990. It then appeared on this figure before it was sent off to India sometime around 1995 where it was used until 2003. Master Collector brought the mold back in 2005 on their Iron Grenadier after Hasbro re-acquired it and will use it again for a new Night Viper in 2006. The Techno Viper mold was used in 1987 and then again in 1994. It has not reappeared since. The V1 Snow Serpent has been MIA even longer as the head's inclusion on the Heli-Viper is the only appearance of any part of the mold since 1986. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing either the Techno Viper or the Snow Serpent reappear in the modern repaint line. Both are solid molds. But, as the Night Viper body will be used twice in about a year, I think that mold is fairly played out and shouldn't be used again for a while.

If you want a Heli-Viper, they currently have gotten quite expensive. Many complete figures are selling in the $15+ range. This is mainly due to the fact that there are many collectors who do not own this figure and, as he is fairly hard to find, they are willing to spend a fair amount to finally cross him off their lists. Long term, I don't know if this will hold up. The figure is certainly difficult to find, but there were also tons of bagged samples that were put into the collecting community with the Hasbro Canada find in 1999. As such, I don't really know if this figure is going to continue to be more expensive or if his popularity will be short lived and, as more and more collectors get a sample, the price will fall precipitously. Either way, this isn't a figure that I'd spend a lot of time tracking down. The mold is great and the colors are bad. As such, he's a guy that I can use when I want to but he's not someone I go out of my way to get into a dio or other scene.

1992 Heli Viper, 1989 Aero Viper, 2002 Convention Exclusive Baroness, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Cobar Officer, Night Raven

1992 Heli Viper, 1989 Aero Viper, 2002 Convention Exclusive Baroness, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Cobar Officer, Night Raven

1992 Heli Viper, 1989 Aero Viper, 2002 Convention Exclusive Baroness, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Cobar Officer, Night Raven

1992 Heli Viper, 1989 Aero Viper, 2002 Convention Exclusive Baroness, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Cobar Officer, Night Raven

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat

In the first half of 2003, Hasbro managed to re-acquire 18 molds from Funskool in India. Rather than letting these molds mature a bit (they were all currently in production by Funskool and were readily available for about $4 each in the U.S.) Hasbro rushed these molds quickly into production. The results were a rather stale crop of figure molds that were both improvements and regressions from the mold's prior American releases. In the case of the Night Force Tunnel Rat, though, the paint job that was released was actually an improvement and is, arguably, the best paint job ever used on the V1 Tunnel Rat mold.

The Night Force set was bad, good and maddening all at once. The accessory complement was terrible. (It would, though, have been decent had it come with the Cobra Infantry Team.) The repainted V1 Roadblock figure was also a waste. The mold is antiquated, highly overused and simply did not look good in the Night Force color scheme. However, the Tunnel Rat, Flint and Beachhead figures were all well done. While they weren't strikingly different enough from their original releases to make them iconic or even useful as a means of diversifying their use, the colors were well done and all three figures are nice additions to a collection. The Short Fuze figure was nothing short of spectacular and is how all of the repaints should have been done. He featured an obscure mold that was poorly colored the first time that was finally repainted in a great color scheme. The maddening part, though, was Action Man.

I have no aversion to the character of Action Man being part of this set. I also have no specific aversion to having an orange clad figure as part of the set. In fact, the Action Man figure is rather cool. My issue, though, is that inclusion of Action Man cost us a chance at a Night Force Tracker figure. Tracker is a great mold that suffered from terrible colors the first time around. When Hasbro finally re-released the mold, instead of giving us the great color scheme every customizer had ever imaged on the Tracker mold, they gave us Action Man whose inclusion required the figure to have a bright orange shirt. Thus, collectors were robbed of the chance to finally get that perfect Tracker they had so long desired. This was made more maddening by the fact that the Tracker shown at the 2003 Convention was in the Night Force color scheme and that full production samples of Night Force Tracker figures showed up on the Asian market indicating that the inclusion of Action Man was a last minute decision. Of course, of the 6 molds in the set, Hasbro has since re-released 4 of them. The two they haven't are Short Fuze and, of course, Tracker. So, we're still waiting for the proper use of the Tracker mold almost 2 1/2 years later....

Tunnel Rat has the distinction of being the only 2 time member of Night Force. The original Night Force figure featured bright, neon details on the figure and, as such, this version is actually the more realistic color scheme. I think that's why the figure succeeds for me on a visual level. It features muted colors, but does not skimp on the painted details. You have shades of green, silver, brown, black, white and a dirty grey that make this figure perfect for use in Night and jungle theatres. The pants are one area where the figure could be better: especially if you removed the gaudy G.I. Joe logo. (Nothing like advertising that you are a member of a highly secretive covert unit right on your uniform.) This figure, though, has all the painted details of the vintage Tunnel Rat figure but has them painted in a darker, more layered color palette.

Lately, I've been very down on Joe in general. I find my interest in the line at an all time low. As such, I've really turned more towards Star Wars collecting in recent months and have found myself much more interested in that than I am in Joe. As I looked at the newer Star Wars figures, I wondered why they have replaced Joe among my toy collecting preferences. (I took a 5 year hiatus from Star Wars collecting and never thought I'd return.) The thing I noticed was that if you are currently buying Star Wars figures, you are able to buy some of the best figures ever made. While there are some gems from years past, the stuff that Hasbro is producing now is the best renditions of major characters, obscure aliens and just all round figures that they've ever done.

The same, though, can not be said for Joe. If you look back at the past 5 years of Joedom, there are few, if any, iconic figures that have been created. For the most part, we've seen uninspired repaints of classic molds, terrible accessories, a constantly evolving new sculpt formula and never-ending themes that have been more important than the toy line itself. The bottom line is that there have been few must buy figures that are integral to every collection that were created between 2001 and 2006. Again, that isn't to say that all the figures are bad. Far from it. But, when you consider that Hasbro has released 559 figures since 2001 (and 586 between 1982 and 2000) there really should have been more great figures since they released about the same number as they had in the vintage run. As such, you really start to see why the vast multitude of modern releases that have been of lower quality has started to finally drain away my enthusiasm for the hobby. In time, this may ebb. But, history has shown that Hasbro isn't too interested in doing new, exciting things with the Joe line. As such, I expect more of the same these days rather than anything innovative.

The Tunnel Rat mold features a facial sculpt that was based on Larry Hama, the writer of the Joe comic book. After it's original run in the US, it was re-released again in 1988 as the Night Force exclusive and again in 1990 as part of the Super Sonic Fighters line. From there, it was then used in Europe around 1991 for the Euro exclusive Tiger Force Tunnel Rat. (Which has gotten quite popular and fairly expensive in recent months.) After that, the molds arms were used on the 1994 Dial Tone figure before the mold was shipped off to India. There, Funskool released a figure in colors reminiscent of the Super Sonic Fighters version for many years. (They also used the upper arms on some versions of their take on the 1994 Dial Tone.) Funksool returned the mold to Hasbro in early 2003 and Hasbro has since used it in the Night Force set, the Desert Strike set and a recent comic pack. As such, the mold has seen probably too many uses at this point as there really is a Tunnel Rat for every occasion...almost.

Night Force Tunnel Rats are cheap and easy to find. Lost in the hype of the Cobra Infantry Team, the Night Force sets languished on the pegs at Toys R Us stores for almost a year. They didn't disappear from most places until the holidays. Even today, boxed sets can be purchased on the second hand market for under the retail price of $20. Some individual figures may be priced a bit higher, but the multitude of subsequent Tunnel Rat releases really killed any demand for this figure and has left him readily acquirable for about $5. At that price, he's a good pick up. But, you will have to spend some decent money to add adequate vintage accessories to the figure, so what you save on the figure you'll more than make up for when you go to accessorize him. Personally, I like this figure, but he isn't a figure that I would miss were he never released. Really, that's the attitude I've taken with most of the modern ARAH style repaints. A few are great. But, most of them are just kind of there. They offer nothing new to a collection that wasn't offered by the original figure. Some aren't bad figures, but many are. I guess I just expected more from a modern take on vintage molds. Perhaps that's what I get for having too lofty of expectations.

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, 2003 Convention Exclusive Falcon, VAMP, Roadblock, Unproduced Big Brawler, Midnight Chinese

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, 2003 Convention Exclusive Falcon, VAMP, Roadblock, Unproduced Big Brawler, Midnight Chinese

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, 2002 Dial Tone, Lt. Gorky, Oktober Guard

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, Unproduced Night Force Tracker

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1994 Stalker, 2001 Rock and Roll, Flint

2004 Night Force Tunnel Rat, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1991 Super Sonic Fighters Falcon, 1988 Night Force Crazylegs

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

1988 Tiger Force Dusty

Certain figures and characters have always been more popular among the collecting community than others. This is simply a given. In many cases, the collector favorites make sense. But, though the years, there have been instances where a rather lame figure gains prominence either through some new exposure or newly discovered rarity. These are nice as they give the community something to talk about for a while before the figure fades back into obscurity. The converse of this, though, is that collectors often neglect some very well done figures. Again, this makes sense in the case of a figure like Updraft who had no exposure and is a figure that is rare enough that many collectors don't have him as part of their collection. But, in other cases, it simply makes no sense. Many of these cases feature characters who were repainted in some way subsequent to their original release. While collectors may hold the original in high regard, the repaint is forgotten and neglected, even though it may be of high quality. Such is the case with the subject of today's profile: the 1988 Tiger Force Dusty.

1988 was the last year that I bought Joes as a kid. I picked up a few random figures early in the year and was pretty much out of the hobby by the summertime. Among the figures I did acquire, though, was the Tiger Force Roadblock. I didn't pick this figure up because he was such an improvement over the original. I bought him because it gave me a chance to get Roadblock's accessories as replacements for my long broken originals. I looked at Flint the same way, though I was never able to add him to my collection. My point is that for older collectors, the Tiger Force repaints didn't really offer them anything unless their earlier figures were broken or lost. This lead to misinterpretations of the Tiger Force figures' rarity early in the days of the collecting market. The guys who first got back into the hobby were kids who had the original Dusty, Flint, Roadblock, etc. As such, they had no need for the Tiger Force figures, didn't buy them and later extrapolated that out to say the figures were rarer than they really were. The reality was that for the generation of Joe fans who had come of age between 1986 and 1988, the Tiger Force figures were pretty much new figures that they had never had the chance to own. As such, they bought them and, years later, assimilated them back into the collecting market in more than ample supply.

The real question left is how to use this version of Dusty. The original figure is the consummate desert trooper with the mold and colors that have left him the pinnacle of that genre even when taken against the line as a whole. This figure shares the mold, but not the colors. However, unlike many of the more gaudy Tiger Force members, Dusty's cammo and colors can actually work. There are actually many deserts around the world that are full of vibrant plant life. In these environments, Dusty's greens and yellows blend into the natural background even though Dusty is still working in his field of specialty. As such, this figure offers a way to use Dusty in the same role as his original figure, but within different geographical and climatic variances of deserts. Plus, the greens also allow him to be used more effectively in non-desert settings. For me, the Dusty mold is an old favorite.

The character is strong and highly popular. Yet, Hasbro has been unable (or unwilling) to produce an adequate desert version of Dusty in ARAH form since they returned to Joes in 1997. There was, at one time, a desert repaint of the 1991 Dusty figure that appeared with the Desert Striker at various toy conventions. The figure also appeared in one of the Hasbro sponsored convention dioramas a few years ago. Yet, this figure was never released. In its place, Hasbro offered the truly terrible Desert Squad Dusty in 2004. As such, Dusty fans have been left with only new sculpt releases as an avenue to acquire a nicely done, non-vintage version of a desert Dusty.

Dusty's mold is probably gone. After it was used for this figure, the mold was shipped down to Brazil. There, the mold was used for a new character named Felino. This figure is obviously based on the Tiger Force Dusty color and paint scheme, though he is a little darker than the American version. Felino is also missing the trademark head cloth that was used on both American Dusty figures. Felino was released in the same series as both Marujo (Tiger Force Shipwreck) and Ar Puro (Tiger Force Airtight). As both of these molds subsequently appeared in India, it is possible that Dusty was, for a time at least, in the possession of Funskool. As he was not used there, though, it would stand to reason that the mold might have already been damaged by the time it arrived in India or it never got there at all. Unfortunately, it is pretty much impossible to track these down as the information collectors can glean is only superficial and isn't enough to firmly track any given mold.

Tiger Force Dusties are actually kind of hard to find. When I first joined the collecting community in the late '90's, repainted subsets like Tiger Force, Python Patrol and Night Force were considered to be somewhat rare. In time, that proved to not be the case with most of the figures as figures from Tiger Force and Python Patrol have proven to be more common that many early collectors originally thought. Of the Tiger Force figures, though, Dusty is one of the tougher one to find...especially if you want him mint and complete. Dusty features a design flaw that makes it very easy for his legs to break his crotch. As such, you will find many otherwise mint figures with broken crotches. Dusty's bi-pod can also be problematic to find. While not as rare or desirable as many other accessories, it is still tough to find and is most often missing from loose samples. These days, though, this figure still shouldn't set you back more than $10-$12 mint and complete. That's more than you'll pay for a lot of Joes, but is in line with the figure's character and desirability. I know that I've found more uses for this version of Dusty than I have for the original. I am probably in the minority in that, though. But, with a little exposure, perhaps more collectors will discover this figure and realize that it is a great way to enhance a collection.

1988 Tiger Force Dusty, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Cobra Night Watch Trooper

1988 Tiger Force Dusty, 1993 Duke, Gung Ho, 2004 Desert Patrol Tunnel Rat