Wednesday, July 19, 2006

1989 Alley Viper

1989 is pretty much the last year in which the "old guard" Joe collectors enjoyed their childhood. As such, it is seen as line of demarcation in the line that divides the generations of collectors. It is an unfair line as I maintain that 1990 was a better year for figures than 1989, but that is not the subject of this profile. That honor belongs to the highly popular Alley Viper. The Alley Viper is a long time favorite among the Joe collecting circuit. He is one of the few brightly colored figures that is pretty much universally enjoyed by collectors and he appears in most collection photos you see around. His release year forgives his odd colors and his specialty and accessories have made him the most popular neon Cobra army builder in the entire line.

Alley Vipers are a sentimental favorite of mine. Back in early 1997, I had just graduated from college and was living in Indiana awaiting that summer's move to Arizona. During that time, I really had nothing to do other than work. One boring Saturday, I went to the old comic shop in my neighborhood and found some Joes for sale. Among them were an Alley Viper and a Range Viper. I bought these two figures and took them home. In the ensuing boring weeks I formulated the basis for what is my Cobra army of today. As such, I consider Alley Vipers to be a fundamental keystone of my collection. As Hasbro has released better colored versions of the figure, I have constantly added them to my growing Cobra Urban forces and I have now specialized each coloration into specific purposes. But, more on that later....

The single area where this Alley Viper version succeeds over it's subsequent brethren is in the accessories. Hasbro was still really working hard on unique accessories for every figure in 1989 and it shows on the Alley Viper. Aside from the working visor on the helmet, the figure features an incredibly unique and remarkably cool gun. It is also of interest as it's design is such that the Alley Viper holds it better left handed. It is, as far as I can remember, the only left handed weapon in the line. Along with the gun, the Alley Viper also includes an greatly detailed backpack which features a grappling hook gun, rope and other urban accouterments. The hook on the top of the pack can also be removed and many enterprising kids and collectors have tied strings to the removable stems and wrapped the rope around the pack to make a functional version of the sculpted accessory. (It is also important to note that the 1993 Alley Viper includes different accessories. The '93 gun features a thick front handle rather than the thin '89 handle. The '93 pack also does not feature the removable hook on the backpack. Most collectors won't care one way or another about this when they are army building. But, it is something to look out for should you just be looking to add a complete '89 Alley Viper to your collection.) Finally, the figure includes a huge, menacing shield. It has sharp edges and could serve not only as protection but also a weapon in close quarters, urban combat. No subsequent version of the Alley Viper has had accessories quite as good as these and I think that had the '02-'04 releases featured the original gun and backpack, collectors would not be so quick to condemn them.

Where the Alley Viper fails, though, is his glaring color scheme. The bright orange and baby blue would have created one of the most ridiculed figures in the entire line had it been released in 1993. As it was released in 1989, though, collectors tend to forgive the colors. Besides, the figure's mold more than makes up for colors. The other downside to V1 Alley Vipers is that they are brittle. The figure features two tabs on the head that are designed to hold the visor. These are easily broken. As are the figure's thumbs as his gun does have a larger handle as well as his crotch. The most maddening part, though, is the brittle elbow joints on the figure. For some reason, certain 1989 figures (most notably the Night Viper, the Night Force figures and the Alley Viper) have very brittle elbows that tend to crack. The worst part, though, is that they will break even if you don't use the figure. It is a flaw in the plastic. While it doesn't ruin the figure, it is something to look out for. It seems that excessive heat tends to exacerbate this problem so it is a good idea to store Alley Vipers in a cooler, drier climate to help prevent this defect from appearing. (Says the guy who has four of them stored in his 120+ degree garage....)

Where in the world is the V1 Alley Viper mold? This is the question collectors have been asking themselves for nearly a decade now. The mold was used in the U.S. in 1989 and 1990 but then never appeared in it's entirety again. (Just a note, on the back of the box for the 1997 Rage, there is a repainted V1 Alley Viper pictured. Some collectors have taken this to mean that Hasbro had the mold but didn't release it. This is not the case. The Alley Viper pictured on the box was a hand painted '89 release. Hasbro would have used that mold, but they could not find it back then and, apparently, still can't find it today.) The waist piece and legs were used on the '93 and '94 Alley Viper figures. The waist piece alone has been used on all subsequent versions of the Alley Viper as well as the Brazilian Mortifero.

In looking at the empirical evidence, it is still difficult to speculate as to this mold's whereabouts. Of his contemporaries, the Annihilator, HEAT Viper, Frag Viper, Copperhead, Crimson Guard and Cobra Trooper all appeared in Brazil. The Night Viper and TARGAT appeared in India. The bit of evidence we do have is that the Alley Viper's gun appears in Brazil some time around 1992 or 1993. This could be that the entire figure went down there and was never used or the gun mold was just shipped off. In all likelihood, the mold was broken up back in 1993 so that the legs could be used for the second Alley Viper version. Much like the case of the missing legs from the V1 Falcon after they were used on the 1993 Leatherneck, it is probable that the head, arm and torso molds for the Alley Viper were lost or rendered unusable after Hasbro separated the legs. As such, I don't hold out much hope for a straight repaint of the '89 Alley Viper unless Hasbro were to recreate the mold.

However, I really have to ask myself if this is a bad thing. While most collectors will pontificate about how great this V1 mold, I really don't think it's that great an upgrade over the version of Alley Viper that Hasbro has been releasing since 1997. While there are obvious differences, the later version of the figure features a more frightening face mask, equal detail on the chest and arms and a larger physique. Even the most lamented part of the later Alley Viper: the use of Duke's legs, isn't as bad as people make it out to be. If you look carefully at the legs of the '89 Alley Viper, they are rather undetailed and quite skinny. In fact, it appears that most Alley Vipers would probably suffer from frequent sprained ankles due to the bulk of their torso being supported only by small, fragile legs. The Duke legs also offer more details on the boots as well as a sidearm and an additional combat knife. My end opinion of the original and later molds is that they are pretty much a wash. While I would still love to see the original Alley Viper repainted in all his glory, I don't think that it is a gaping hole in my collection as the better painted later molds of the character are on equal footing in terms of mold to the original figure.

As I alluded to above, the Alley Viper is the cornerstone of my Cobra forces. For the past 12 years, my Cobras have been largely a more specialized group. They don't have the resources to partake in prolonged infantry sieges. Instead, they want to get in, complete their objective and get out as quickly as possible. This lead to the formation of the Urban Death Squads: highly trained, sickly ruthless teams of Cobras who simply kill everything and everyone that stands in their line of sight. They strike small, unaware towns and simply leave no survivors behind. This lead to the story of their gaudy colors. As these troops are trained to kill first and not ponder the consequences, they had an unacceptably high ratio of friendly fire killings during training. In order to prevent this from becoming a problem in actual field situations, a young Cobra general put the troops in orange so that they could quickly recognize each other. He reasoned that these soldiers would only be fighting in areas where they were unlikely to meet any organized resistance beyond some over matched and under trained yokel police. As such, the had no need for the standard urban camo patterns that would make them harder to find. They were then able to train the Alley Vipers to watch for flashes of orange that denoted their comrades.

As Alley Vipers completed more missions, though, certain members of the units were able to distinguish themselves. In time, these men were taken into more elite Alley Viper units that were denoted by the better, later color schemes. These units served more in real combat areas where their seek and destroy skills were needed but they also had to be cognizant of the other Cobra troops in the area. These more skilled fighters donned more traditionally colored uniforms and serve in more elite units. (Oddly, I have more V1 Alley Vipers than any other version in my collection.) They still have the hallmarks of the Alley Viper corps, but they also have the restraint that makes them valuable in more aspects of Cobra operations. In time, these are the soldiers who I see replacing the fallen Crimson Guard as the Cobra Elite Troops in my collection.

Back in 2001, the Alley Viper first broke $15 for a mint, complete figure. Over the next year and half, the price inched closer and closer to $20. Just as Joe exploded in popularity, though, Hasbro offered collectors nicely done repaints of the later Alley Viper mold. As such, army builders spent their time and money to acquire these figures (The Wave 1.5 blue Alley Viper is a member of the most overproduced wave Joes of the entire relaunch.) In the subsequent years, Hasbro offered a well painted Alley Viper in a number of different army building themed sets. As such, those who wanted to army build Alley Vipers no longer had to focus only on the vintage figure. The result is that the '89 Alley Viper is readily available these days and nicely conditioned complete versions will only set you back about the $15 you would have spent for this figure five years ago. I feel this isn't a bad price. I finished out my squad of 6 Alley Vipers many years ago. (I don't tend to army build more than 6 of any one figure otherwise a collection becomes too concentrated in one figure and is unbalanced. This is a great problem with collections that are heavily modern retail purchases.) However, in recent months I came across some cheap complete Alley Vipers and decided to augment my crew. I simply couldn't pass up a great figure like this at a bargain price. As this figure has remained popular even though Hasbro has probably over saturated the character, it seems that many collectors agree with me on the Alley Viper's quality.

1989 Alley Viper, Urzor, Brazil, Estrela, Forca Fera, Repeater

1989 Alley Viper,

1989 Alley Viper, Skeres, Midnight Chinese

1989 Alley Viper, 2002 Night Rhino, Convention Exclusive Paratrooper Dusty, 2001 Big Brawler

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