Tuesday, August 26, 2008

1984 Baroness

It is hard to believe that in almost 9 years of profiling G.I. Joe figures for this site I have never approached the character of the Baroness. As a character, she is an imposing figure in Joe media and was the first actual character that was ever introduced in the comic back in 1982. She features an intricate backstory akin to that of Cobra Commander or Snake Eyes and has enough figure releases that at least one of them should have appeared here by now. For many collectors, the Baroness is an iconic character and one of the first they think of when they start to name off Cobras. For me, though, she is a figure that has never played any part in my collection.

In February of 1984, I found my first new Joes of that year. I bought Firefly, my younger brother bought Roadblock and my youngest brother bought the only other new figure they had: the Baroness. By early 1986, I was on a kick to replace most of my figures from 1983-1985. They had all been heavily played with and most were decimated. My original Firefly and Roadblock figures were broken and had lost most of their accessories. However, the Baroness figure was still in perfect condition and we still had all her accessories. How did this one figure escape the hard play patterns of that time? Simple. Neither my brothers nor I had any interest in the Baroness figure. She was simply useless. Had my parents not needed a third figure to keep their youngest child appeased that night at Value City, it is unlikely that the Baroness would have ever been part of my childhood collection. And, we were not alone in this.

Many collectors simply either never purchased a Baroness or they didn't use her in their collections. Of my childhood friends, few had the Baroness figure, even though they had pretty much every Joe released in a given year. As an action figure, she is somewhat boring. The figure is just black with a red Cobra sigil. She lacks painted details. It is likely that the cost of the figure was incorporated into the hair and head mold and that explains away the lack of paint. But, this was never a figure that, when I was a kid, stood out as anything other than boring. Even though the Baroness' character was compelling in the comic, the figure didn't offer anything. Firefly had cool bomb making gear in his pack, tools and walkie talkie. Storm Shadow had a pack full of swords, nunchuks and a bow and arrow. Zartan carried an extra face in his pack. Scrap Iron had a missile launcher that you put together. Baroness had...the figure. I think that's why she fell into the background in my collection and many others. She wasn't the type of figure that could distinguish herself from the other great characters with which she shared retail shelves.

In the comic, the Baroness was the first character to undergo a massive character shift. In the first issue, the Baroness appeared a brainwashed aristocrat whose contempt for her own upbringing blinded her to the shortcomings of a terrorist like Cobra Commander. I'm reminded of Patty Hearst when I see the original Baroness. But, as the ranks of Cobra grew, the Baroness became less a slogan spouting fascist and more of an all encompassing villainess. The addition of Destro and the Baroness' link to him was a nice segue into the dichotomy of Cobra. It fueled much of the Cobra intrigue for the second year of the story and helped to give the Cobra characters more depth than just being evil. The Baroness eventually became the turning point in Cobra Commander's grudge against Destro and lead to the tension that eventually forced Destro to form the Iron Grenadiers.   However, I felt that the Baroness story also lacked proper motivation. As the Joe comic progressed, the Baroness was eventually tied into the Snake Eyes origin story. It made revenge her motive for evil. But, that was inconsistent with the Baroness' early depictions. The Baroness' contempt for Western society was not a symptom of revenge against a soldier. That was a seething that would have been forged in intellectual bastions: not the streets of Saigon. As such, I lost much of the interest I was gaining in the Baroness character as her entire motive for joining Cobra and working to take down society was not consistent with her behavior when we first met her. Of course, this leads to an observation on the workings of Cobra itself. Originally, Cobra was more of a socialist/communist leaning organization. There was no mention of the profit motives of the members until much later. It is likely that in order to give Cobra a believable motive for their actions the backstory of Cobra was changed to be more capitalistic. This goes along with the '80's mantra of the time and the backlash against rampant consumerism. (Though, the yuppies hadn't seen anything yet!) Making Cobra a for profit organization accomplished 2 goals: it gave Cobra operatives a reason to continue on in spite of defeat (you lose hope in taking down an entire political dogma when you lose to it all the time) and it moved the Joe comic out of some of the Cold War subtones that were beginning to thaw during the Reagan years.

Today, in my collection, the Baroness remains packed away in a chest with other figures from the line's early years. Most of those figures, though, are duplicates of others that are still in rotation in my "use" collection. Not so with the Baroness. She has remained a figure in whom I have little interest. For me, some of the later figures using this mold suffice for when I have a need for the character. But, even that is rare. Nothing about this figure or character clicks with me and the Baroness remains one of the few characters from before 1986 who is irrelevant in my collection. At this point, I'm far enough along that I don't see that changing. It's not that this is a bad figure...far from it. It's just that this isn't a figure that ever grabbed my attention.

The Baroness is rather under-accessorized for a 1984 release. She only includes a rifle and small backpack. Her rifle is one that, on first pass, looks really nice. But, its bulk and short handle make it hard for any figure to adequately hold it. As such, I've never felt her rifle was all that great a weapon. It just didn't look right with her, or any other figure. Baroness also included a small backpack. It just had a Cobra logo on the back and there was no explanation as to what it was beyond a little extra to make you feel like you weren't getting shortchanged in accessories...especially when you compared the Baroness to the other, new figures on the shelves that year. The one nice thing, though, is that these weapons have remained iconic to the Baroness. While some other, modern figures have included her rifle, it is still referred to as a "Baroness" rifle in collector circles. So, even bad weapons have the chance to become legends: given the right context of their original release.

The Baroness mold was used just once in the vintage US line. She was not a hugely popular figure at retail (despite her popularity in the comic), and Hasbro did not return to the character until another version of Baroness was planned for 1995 as part of the Battle Rangers line. The original Baroness mold was sent to India in the early '90's and Funskool produced the character in colors very similar to her American figure for many years. Hasbro re-acquired the mold from Funskool sometime around 1997 and finally produced a new version of the character in the 15th Anniversary assortment. The entire mold appeared in black with red highlights in 2000, but as a "new" character named Chameleon. After that, the Baroness mold got a lot more use. It appeared twice in 2002 as part of the convention sets and then with a new head in 2004 and again in 2005. On top of that, Hasbro has produced new Baroness molds for both the new sculpt and anniversary lines. All of this has pretty much left the modern collector with any version of Baroness they could want. The mold has been used in about as many ways as it uniquely can and there isn't much left to do with it. As such, if we never see the mold used again, it can't be said that the mold's potential wasn't realized.

In the days before the internet, Baroness figures would routinely be offered for over $50. As collectors came online, it became obvious that Baroness figures were far more common than dealers wanted collectors to believe. Prices quickly dropped below $20 and, for a time, were even well below $10 for a mint, complete with filecard figure. Since then, Hasbro has offered this mold many other times and collector demand for this mold has largely been sated. These days, the Baroness has seen a little resurgence in interest and prices have stabilized. You can routinely find mint and complete version 1 Baroness figures for around $10 or less. You will, occasionally, see a mint, complete with filecard version double that price. But, those are isolated incidents and a little shopping will net you this figure for substantially less than she would have cost you a few years ago. Personally, I sold every Baroness figure I could find back when they were expensive. Even today, this figure has little significance to me and she just doesn't get any use. I'm in the minority on that point, of course. But, even if the figure isn't one that I care about, I can not deny the importance of the character nor her place in the Joe mythos.

1984 Baroness, Wild Weasel, Rattler, 2004 Cobra Trooper

1984 Baroness, Wild Weasel, Rattler, 2004 Cobra Trooper

1984 Baroness, Wild Weasel, Rattler, 2004 Cobra Trooper, 1983 Destro, Cobra Trooper, Firefly

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

1990 Ambush

There are great Joe characters and great Joe figures. In rare cases, the two intertwine. But, more commonly, the best characters have figures that are perceived to be flawed. (Though this is likely due to increased scrutiny of those popular molds.) It is the minor characters, though, where the modern collector can find the true gems of the vintage line. The line is full of high quality molds painted in realistic colors that included great accessories but are characters about whom no one cares. Ambush is one such figure. He has a distinctive look, original accessories and colors that allow him to blend with figures from all years. Yet, he remains an unsung member of the Joe ranks.

When you really dig into it, had the 1990 figure lineup been swapped with the 1985 figure releases, they would easily be considered the pinnacle of the Joe line. While the Cobra figures aren't as strong, the 1990 Joes feature a remarkable blend of specialties, realistic paint applications and awesome accessory complements. In fact, the figures surpass the mighty '85 line in many of those respects. Where 1990 falters, though, is the strength of its characters. The '85 characters had the benefit of Joe being at the height of its popularity: including a daily cartoon in a era when such a thing was culturally significant as well as a top selling comic book. The 1990 characters lacked this media exposure. And, as such, suffer in terms of popularity for it. However, in a figure by figure comparison with characterization taken out of consideration, 1990 is probably a stronger toy lineup than the juggernaut of 1985.

Unfortunately for the 1990 figures, though, Joe is largely about the characters. This has left the 1990 figures behind in many respects. Many collectors do appreciate the 1990 figures for what they are. But, they do not hold them in anywhere near the same regard as they do characters from 1984-1987. This is unfortunate since high quality figures like Ambush are unheralded at best. But, it is also beneficial for the modern collector since this leaves many of the 1990 figures relatively low in price and highly available. Granted, it's still easier to find a mint, complete 1985 figure than it is Ambush. But, you'll pay a lot less for an Ambush and get a figure of equal quality to any of the figures from the line's early years. To me, this is the long standing value of the Joe line. If you only collect vintage Star Wars figures, you have a little over 100 total figures to track down. After that, you're off to the modern stuff. With Joe, though, you have 13 years of vintage figures to add to a collection. And, there are many great figures hidden in the '90's years.

As a figure, I've always wanted to use Ambush more than I have. For a while, he was an unaffiliated bounty hunter who used his nets to trap fugitives. That grew tiresome, though, and the figure morphed back into his intended specialty. I now use him as a bush infantryman who supports long patrols or covers less skilled soldiers. With his muttonchops, I've always pictured Ambush as having and English accent and mixing phrases like "Right-O!" and "Yes, yes, carry on." into his vernacular. From that, I kind of viewed Ambush as a more erudite grunt: a guy who had the book smarts to know what do to, but wasn't always able to apply those to practical situations. But, that's an aspect of the character I have yet to fully develop. Maybe that will give me a chance to use the figure more often. But, even if it doesn't, I still find value in Ambush as great fodder for background filler in dioramas and photos.

The highlight of all 1990 figures is the accessories and Ambush is no exception. Aside from the standard helmet and rifle, Ambush also includes 2 nets, a backpack that can hold the nets once they're rolled up, a pistol and a collapsible frame that can be used a tent or camouflage once a net is strung over it. This frame also folds up and can be carried on Ambush's pack. It is a neat little set up and one that is unique to the Ambush figure. His rifle has become less distinctive in modern times due to Hasbro's overuse of it with modern figures. But, it is still a highly distinctive weapon that perfectly fits the figure.
the Ambush figure also features a variant in the color and thickness of his cammo striping on the figure. Some are thin and faint brown while others are darker brown and thicker. It is a subtle difference and most people don't even recognize it. Neither version seems harder to find than the other and the difference is probably due to different production runs or a change in production facility.

The Ambush mold was only used by Hasbro through vintage times. After this original figure, it was highlighted in neon orange and released in the Dino Hunters set in 1993. In 2000, it was dusted off and used to make Sidetrack. After that, the head appeared in India in early 2003 on the Funksool Big Brawler figure. Then, in 2004, the body mold reappeared in the US where it was used to create the Ambush figure from the Desert Patrol set. (It seems that the head was separated from the body mold, though, as this figure featured Low Light's head.) Originally, this Ambush figure would have been a full body of desert cammo and was a figure that would have been well received. But, prior to production, the paint scheme was changed and the resulting figure was less than stellar. As such, I could still enjoy another Ambush repaint. The mold has the detail to take on additional color schemes and it hasn't been used to the point where collectors are sick of it. I'd say it's unlikely that will happen in the future, but another Ambush, well done, would be a figure I could enjoy.

If you want an Ambush figure, they aren't too tough to find. But, complete figures can be somewhat problematic and you will likey pay $8-$10 for a figure that is complete with both nets. As a figure, though, Ambush is quite good and does fit into a collection that is comprised of figures from many years. He's just another of the background Joes who gives a collection depth without offering much beyond that. Really, I don't use the figure much even though he is well done. And, that is Ambush's fate in a microcosm. But, he's still a figure I'd look to add to my collection were he not already a part of it and a figure that the modern collector can enjoy without spending a small fortune.

1990 Ambush, 1987 LCV

1990 Ambush, 1987 LCV

1990 Ambush, 1987 LCV, 1993 Mail Away Spirit, 1987 Outback, 2002 Viper