Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2005 Comic Pack Firefly

Given the benefit of time and perspective, it becomes clear that the original comic packs were a great idea: just horribly executed. While the character choices were rather strong, there are few comic pack figures who really stand apart on their own. Most are inferior to their original versions. Even the characters only available in the comic packs are largely lacking in some respect. But, there are some gems. Most of them are well known to collectors and have, thusly, enjoyed some aftermarket appreciation. But, others are largely unheralded and relegated to trash heap of collectordom. There are myriad reasons for this, but many of these figures deserve a second look. Perhaps the most glaring example is the 2005 Comic Pack Firefly.

Firefly is one of the stalwarts of any vintage collection. During the heyday of the Joe renaissance, complete Fireflies easily hit the $40-$50 range. Hasbro was quick to realize Firefly's popularity and found ways to get repaints of the character rotated into their modern releases. The first was in 1998. This arctic version was a new take on the character and brought another dimension to the Firefly mold. The 2000 version was reminiscent of the original, but still different enough that it had some use. The 2002 version was less useful as it was kind of crimson but not quite. In 2003, the mold found use as Wreckage as well as in 2 convention releases. These both offered different takes on the Firefly character. But, collectors were getting tired of the mold. In 2004, Hasbro brought the mold out again. This time, though, they released a figure that was probably the best version of Firefly up to that time. The Urban Strike Firefly featured classic Cobra colors, his original accessories and a complex paint mask that featured a full 7 different colors. It is an amazing figure and was the last Firefly collectors needed. But, Hasbro wasn't done. In early 2005, they took the same paint masks from the Urban Firefly, replaced the blue with red and released the Crimson Firefly. It's not a bad figure, but was overkill that diluted the definitive, earlier release. But, Hasbro was not done. In mid 2005, they released this final version of Firefly as part of Comic Pack #49. This figure featured a new head mold, his original accessories and colors that hearkened back to the original: only more complex and modern. The result is the best version of Firefly ever released.

If you had asked me how to improve the Firefly mold back in 2004, I would not have suggested a new head. However, this one little detail rejuvenated the entire Firefly mold and made it matter. It's not so much the fact that the head is new. Instead, it is that this new head is substantially better than the vintage version. Most of the comic pack figures featured new heads. But, almost all of them were either downgrades or equals to the vintage heads they replaced. Not so with Firefly. This new head brought a dimension of anger to the character. He was no longer just small eyes behind a grey cammo'ed mask. Now, his head had some character. The slightly furrowed brow and more pronounced chin give Firefly a more distinct and stronger look. Gone is wide eyed youngster from 1984. Instead, you see eyes that are more grizzled and show the hardship and destruction that a character like Firefly would have wrought in his lifetime.

The colors on this figure are basically the same as the vintage version. However, they have been modernized to an extent that leaves the original figure more dated than I would have thought. The cammo patterns are tighter and the base grey is slightly lighter than on the vintage figure. The result is a figure that is brighter overall and photographs better than the original. This figure also features more painted details than the original. However, it should be noted that the Urban and Crimson figures have more paint applications and do have more details painted than this version does. Regardless, this Firefly still features additional paint applications that were sorely lacking on the original figure. The silver grenades and black straps and holsters give the figure more depth and make him more visually appealing than the original. Overall, the coloring is just an upgrade in total. When you look at this figure, you know it is Firefly and you recall the vintage release. This one is just superior. It's too bad than can not be said of more of the comic pack figures.

This Firefly is now my de facto mold for the character. While I still have some vintage versions around, they have been surpassed by this release. The better coloring and less brittle plastic has made my vintage figures less necessary. That isn't to say that this version has surpassed the vintage in terms of significance. But, when I need to use a Firefly figure, this is the version that is more often chosen. The inclusion of all the original accessories in black help keep this figure on a more even keel with the 1984 version and also reinforce how important the right accessories are to most of the vintage Joe molds. Comic pack figures that would have been OK, like Flint, Tunnel Rat, Zap and Short Fuse, were made less useful by Hasbro's failure to also include remakes of their vintage accessories. Without them, these figures lose the characterization that made them so vibrant. So, that is another of this Firefly's strengths.

The Firefly mold history was well chronicled above. In addition to those uses, Firefly also saw time in India and was released by Funskool. In India, the mold was altered so the figure's backside read "Made in India". This was erased (poorly!) by Hasbro starting in 1998. This comic pack figure, though, was likely the result of a slightly refurbished mold. The remnants of Funskool are gone on this figure and many of the mold details that were starting to fade away in earlier Firefly releases have been sharpened up and are once again crisp and clean. As such, the figure seems "newer" than even the awesome 2004 release. A simple mold cleanup and a new head were all this Firefly needed to have some new life breathed into him.

With this new take on the mold, I have brought a new take on the Firefly character. While he is still a saboteur, I now see Firefly as an information broker as well. Firefly has great infiltration and forensic skills and he puts those to use in gathering information on his enemies and his employers. The result is the ability to sell information to competing factions or to protect himself from some of his more ruthless clients. My new Firefly is younger, not associated with Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow and has a background more steeped in law enforcement and intelligence than straight military. Firefly is now the first person brought in when a murder is committed on Cobra Island. He knows all the players on the island, is familiar with their politics and alliances and knows who has the will and motives to kill. That isn't to say that he won't protect the guilty if it serves his own ends. But, it also gives Firefly more power than a simple saboteur would otherwise have.

The sad reality is that this figure was a remarkable pegwarmer and is criminally cheap on the secondary market today. At first, the comic pack including this Firefly was well received. It came on the heels of the hard to find Oktober Guard packs and collectors were ready to buy. The packs were slow to trickle out. So, for a while, this pack actually commanded a premium on the aftermarket. But, after a few months, that ended. Slowly, these packs backed up at retail. And, with the end of the retail line imminent, many stores clearanced these packs at steeply discounted prices. On top of that, many discount retailers also received shipments of this comic pack assortment and sold them for 1/2 the original retail price. The result was a surplus of these packs in the marketplace. As such, you can still buy a MOC version of this set for around the original retail price. If you are only after Firefly, you can get them for around $3. At this price, this figure is a no-brainer and it is a shame that a figure of this quality is relegated to such a cheap fate. But, that is the reality of the modern toy market. But, it gives new collectors a chance to add the best version of a major character for a fraction of the cost of the original figure. That's a good thing.

2005 comic Pack Firefly, 2008 Convention Exclusive headhunter Driver, 1983 Hiss Tank, Rare G.I. Joe Figures

2005 comic Pack Firefly, 2008 Convention Exclusive headhunter Driver, 1983 Hiss Tank, Rare G.I. Joe Figures, Headhunter Guard

2005 comic Pack Firefly, Snake Eyes

2005 comic Pack Firefly, 1990 Undertow

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Action Force Stalker - European Exclusive

Some time around 1984, the Palitoy toy company extended it's line of Action Force toys to incorporate a new style of action figure that was taking the US by storm. Gone were the 5 points of articulation figures that were compatible with vintage Star Wars toys and in came some recently used molds from the G.I. Joe line. These first figures were recolored to match the Action Force color pallette and given distinctive Action Force names. However, the G.I. Joe juggernaut was too strong and slowly but surely the Action Force line simply became the European brand of G.I. Joe. Among those early Joe figure mold repaints, though, are a slew of highly desirable unique figures. Most collectors would love to have Quarrel, Red Laser, Hunter or Blades as part of their collections. Also part of the Action Force line, though, was a figure that has caused great confusion among the collecting world in the years since its release. The figure is the Action Force Stalker who is actually a repaint of Snake Eyes. Confused? You're not alone. But, the result is an interesting figure who was once the best Snake Eyes mold available and is also the subject of this profile.

Basically, Stalker is nothing more than a V1 Snake Eyes figure with some dark grey highlights. Today, this is hardly anything worth writing about as we have plenty of V1 inspired Snake Eyes figures who are nicely detailed with many different paint colors. However, in the '90's, the only way to get a Snake Eyes figure that was anything other than solid black was this European exclusive. Even as Hasbro started putting out variations of the V1 Snake Eyes figure in 1997, this Action Force Stalker retained its allure. Collectors were not yet burned out on Snake Eyes and were always quick to welcome another version of the character's mold into their collections.

What to do with Stalker? This is a difficult question for the American collector since Snake Eyes is so ingrained in any USA-centric Joe mythos. It's hard to view this figure as a new character since Snake Eyes' design is so unique to him. It doesn't make any sense to have this figure be another version of the American Stalker character since that Stalker also has such an iconic look. Most collectors simply used this as yet another Snake Eyes figure. But, with so many better versions of Snake Eyes out there these days, even that leaves this figure as the odd man out. However, looking at this figure's Action Force roots show some potential. In the Action Force mythos, Stalker was an Icelandic madman who seems like an amped up amalgamation of Clutch. In the Action Force comics, Stalker was drawn without the mask at times and that look gives credence to an entirely new character. Unfortunately, the use of the Snake Eyes mold does not live up to it. But, it does open the door for this figure someday becoming something more in the modern Joe world.

Personally, I think that much could be done with the Action Force characters. A convention set featuring many molds painted up in Action Force green, SAS black and Red Shadows red would be among the most popular sets Master Collector could attempt. The Action Force villain line is full of great characters that would expand upon the existing Cobra hierarchy. They have their own army builders in Red Shadows that would easily be made from existing molds and new heads. On the Action Force side, a character like Stalker could be brought to life with a new interpretation and could be made relevant to all collectors with a new mold. The rest of the Action Force characters could undergo the same process. On top of that, some standard Joes who were big players in the Action Force comic (Flint comes to mind...) could be redone in Action Force green: which would actually be a welcome repaint for even the most overused molds. At this point, there isn't much left for Master Collector to do in terms of a high profile convention set. However, Action Force would probably be the one theme that would energize collectordom en masse.

Stalker was included with the Action Force Panther jeep. It was a black and yellow repaint of the American VAMP. The figure included the same accessories as the V1 Snake Eyes figure. Savvy collectors also know, though, that Stalker was available as a bagged premium figure at one of the early G.I. Joe conventions in the '90's. It seems that Hasbro got ahold of a large quantity of Palitoy overstock. So, they bagged up spare Quarrels, Blades and Stalkers, gave them accessories that were in production at the time, and bagged them as exclusives for convention attendees. These are the same figures as the vintage Action Force models but have become slightly more collectible in recent years since they do feature the convention exclusive moniker.

This brings up an interesting point about most of the Action Force exclusive toys. When Hasbro acquired Palitoy, they also acquired all of the old overstock that Palitoy had on hand. This included tons of Action Force figures still sealed on their original bubbles. Some of these were used for things like the convention premium figures. But, a lot of the overstock was slowly sold off to European (usually UK based) toy dealers in the late '90's. These days, you see collectors paying through the nose for figures like Gaucho and Jammer. Yet, just a few short years ago, these figures were available in multitudes from UK toy dealers. Yes, that stock has dried up. But, many collectors mistakenly think that the Action Force exclusives were only available with their vehicles. That isn't the case as many American collectors were able to acquire carded Action Force figures at the turn of the century from these overstock dealers. As such, many of these Action Force figures are more common than newer collectors are sometimes lead to believe.

Simply put, the V1 Snake Eyes mold was one of the most popular in the entire world. Aside from being used in the US, the mold was repainted in unique color schemes in Argentina, Brazil, Europe, Mexico and India. Snake Eyes parts were used to create Cobras in both Argentina and Brazil. And, Snake Eyes was the original figure included with the Funskool exclusive Street Hawk toy. After the mold was returned to Hasbro in 1997, it has been used a number of times to create newly updated and detailed versions of Snake Eyes. At this point,the mold is exhausted and there are really only a few things that could be done to it to make it relevant to collectors once again. If we never see this figure mold again, it will probably be too soon.

This figure was once one of the more desirable European Action Force exclusives. However, as Hasbro began to release more and more figures based on the V1 Snake Eyes mold, the need for this figure was diminshed. At one time, this was the only way to get a V1 Snake Eyes that wasn't all black. These days, collectors have almost a dozen different versions of Snake Eyes that are based on the V1 mold and most of them feature more intricate paint masks than Stalker displays. As such, Stalker is no longer the featured collectible he was once. While some Action Force figures have gotten ridiculously expensive in recent years, Stalker has remained affordable and can often be purchased for about the same price you'd pay for a Snake Eyes figure. That's pretty cheap considering that Stalker is probably rarer than the American figure. Personally, I like having figures like this in my collection. But, for many collectors, the enjoyment they would get out of this mold will vary. It is no longer a figure that is required in order to have a slightly better Snake Eyes and that really makes him a figure that cash strapped collectors can probably skip.

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, Fumaca, Estrela, Brazil, Ripcord, Spirit, Olhos de Fenix, Transportable Tactical Battle Platform, TTBP

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, 1982 Scarlett, 2008 Convention Headhunter BAT, Battle Android Trooper

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, 1984 Firefly, 2005 Night Watch Trooper

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, 1982 VAmP, Spirit, Recondo, Brazil, estrela, Leopardo, Olhos De Phenix

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, 1982 VAmP, 1983 Steeler, Cobra Trooper, Short Fuse

Action Force Stalker, Snake Eyes, European Exclusive, Palitoy, Funksool Flint

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

1985 SMS - Sears Exclusive

It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when Sears was the go to retailer for toys. They were world's largest retailer and used that clout to secure holiday exclusives that they could sell both in their stores and from their catalogs. Hasbro, wisely, worked with Sears from the beginning on their Joe line and produced a cardboard base that was exclusive to Sears in 1982. This "Missile Headquarters" wasn't much of a toy, though. In 1984, Sears was able to secure some of the 1985 Joe toys early for release during the '84 holiday shopping season. In 1985, though, Sears took on a whole new element when they produced exclusive repaints of existing Joe toys. There were two sets that year: the C.A.T. (a repainted MOBAT) and the S.M.S (a repainted HISS and MMS) that shared a common, Crimson theme. Most collectors know these items as expensive aftermarket acquisitions made as adults. I, though, was a lucky kid who found the SMS under our tree on Christmas morning in 1985. As such, this item was a special part of my childhood collection and remains one of my few nostalgic pieces that I own today.

During the holidays in '85, my parents frequently took us to the mall. It's likely this was due to the fact that it was a cheap way to keep us occupied during the cold winter. They would simply drop us into the toy aisle of various stores and let us browse while they shopped for whatever it was they needed that day. (Odd that writing that statement in 2008 makes me think my parents were irresponsible. But, in 1985, such a thing was not only commonplace, but it was both accepted and safe.) As such, my brothers and I spent hours scanning over the toy aisles, looking at all the awesome new toys we wanted for Christmas. To this day, I know that I visited other aisles while I was browsing. But, my only detailed memories are of the G.I. Joe toys that lined the shelves. The items that always absorbed the most of my attention were things I did not own. That year, it was the Moray and, of course, the USS Flagg. But, also on the shelves were two toys that were somewhat odd: the CAT and SMS. These items were not available in any other store and featured box backs that were drawings rather than the full color photos that were the standard of the reverses of Joe vehicle packaging of the day.

Of these two, the SMS was the more intriguing item to me. I had always hated the MOBAT and had no interest in it with new colors of red and black. The SMS, though, looked kind of fun. It was a red Hiss Tank and a red and black version of the MMS. The MMS had been one of two vehicles I had received for Christmas in 1982. At the time, I had not appreciated it as it was towed behind my VAMP (the other vehicle I got that year) but could not hold a figure. So, though I had three vehicles and only four figures as I entered 1983, I did not have enough room on my vehicles to hold all four members of my Joe team. So, this had soured the 9 year old me on the MMS. Now, at 12 years old, though, the usefulness of a mobile missile launcher was much more apparent to me. I saw the tank as an elite HISS tank that was more powerful and faster than the standard, black version. But, more importantly, I saw the SMS as a way for Cobra to level the playing field against the Joes.

The SMS started as simply a mobile missile system that Cobra would cart around. They would, occasionally, shoot down Skystrikers or Dragonflies. But, that was about it. As 1986 progressed, though, Cobra took to missiles to a different level. They became a secret weapon that could be unleashed against Joe bases from short ranges: but outside the scope of the standard Joe base security. They were fast and hard to shoot down with the limited weaponry that was attached to the Joe HQ. By the end of 1986, these missiles were now Cobra's most powerful weapon. They were used with great affect against many Joe bases and had even managed to kill a few Joes. At this point, the Joes got desperate. They needed to find a way to shut down the missiles without have to surround their bases with tons and tons of stationary defenses. (This occurred anyways, though, as things like the SLAM and the LAW became standard installations around my Joe base.) By accident, Mainframe discovered that the missiles had deactivation codes. If the Joes could find the right numerical code, it would shut down the missiles in mid flight. But, due to the proximity from which Cobra could launch the missiles and the short time it took for them to reach their target, this wasn't a great solution as it was improbable that the right numerical code would be broadcast before the missile struck.

The Joes were thus forced to set out and find a missile station before the missiles had been launched and the onboard computers destroyed. There were a few close calls, but the Joes always found the launchers after they had self destructed. Finally, though, a hasty mission using unnamed Joe recruits (These were the repaints from the Mission to Brazil set. I used them as unnamed army builders who specialties mimicked those of their mold counterparts.) managed to capture a launch station. Cobra valiantly tried to defend the station and destroy the base. But, the Joes held them off long enough for the Science Officer (aka, Mission to Brazil Mainframe) to download all the codes. With this, the Joes rendered the missile stations useless. Anytime a missile went up, the codes were broadcast and it came right down: unarmed and harmless. The side effect of this was that I managed to render my SMS toy useless, too. So, it got packed away and forgotten about for a few years. Around 1988, I pulled all the pieces out of a box of junk and put the entire SMS away. Here it sat for many years until I pulled it out and brought it back to my collection. Today, it remains one of the few vehicles that are part of my use collection.

The SMS you see pictured below is my original. By late 1985, I was able to keep most of my Joe toys in very good condition. Despite the amount of use it got, the SMS didn't get worn down like some of the other high profile vehicles in my collection at the time. As such, it has survived, relatively intact, to today. Really, the 2nd half of 1985 was my line of demarcation. Anything that I purchased during that summer or later survived in pretty good shape into my adult collection. The figures I purchased in the first half of the year, though, did not. I guess it was a maturation process, but that seems to be the point where my collection became something important to me and I kept my items in much better shape. That isn't to say that I didn't still use them roughly or leave stuff outside for days on end. But, on the whole, I was much more cautious with my toys as the year wore on. There are precious few items from 1986 and forward that I lost from my childhood collection. And, most of those items can be traced to specific instances where my younger brothers or their friends got into my Joes and lost accessories when I was not around.

As a kid, though, items like the SMS were among my favorites. The main reason was that not everyone had them. While that statement comes off a bit snobbish these days, the reality is that it was the distinct items that made my collection different from that of the kids down the street. The fact that I had items like the SMS, the Dreadnok exclusives and the Mission to Brazil set allowed me to have some items that were unique to my childhood experience. As such, I didn't have to stay within the confines of Snake Eyes and Flint. I had some options. Frankly, I think that's why Joe still stays with me today. Joe was something that set me apart from many other kids. We all had toys, but I only had Joes. (Well, up through the first part of 1983, I did have Star Wars, too. But, those were all but gone by 1984 and totally replaced by Joes.) If you wanted to play with some toys that not everyone had, you came to my house. It's odd to think something like the SMS was that kind of draw. But, when everyone had the same toys, even something that was a different color was enough to be a draw. To this day, the items that most interest me are the ones that set a collection apart. It's not the rarity or the value, it's the distinction that comes from having something that not everyone owns. It has lead to a greater appreciation of the line's nuances and is a large part of why I still collect today.

The MMS mold had quite a history. After the original green version was discontinued in 1983, the mold appeared in Europe as part of the Action Force line. There, it was released in a combo of black and grey. Hasbro then used the mold for this exclusive in 1985. Sometime around here, Hasbro also produced the M.S.V. exclusively for the Canadian market. This item featured an all black MMS. (In fact, the base, missile bracket and legs for the MSV are identical to those of the SMS. Only the missiles are a different color.) The MMS mold then seems to have died in India. Funskool produced an MMS for a very short time and it is one of the rarest Funskool vehicles today. This MMS was similar in color to the American version. But, there are rumours of Funskool also making oddly colored MMS's that may or may not have been part of their Joe line. As Funskool discontinued the MMS rather early in their history, it is not known if the mold still exists. It would make an excellent add on as part of a larger vehicle set (like the ASP in the Crimson Sabotage set) but would likely not work as well on it's own. At this point, though, collectors can get an MMS in enough colors to satisfy them. The prices might be higher than most collectors would like, but there are nice, alternate MMS options out there.

When you look back at the vintage Joe line, there were precious few exclusive items that were ever offered. You would think that the toy market of the time would have lent itself to many exclusives since just about every retailer sold toys and most of them sold them year round and would not have to discount any leftover Christmas stock. But, as modern collectors, we are probably fortunate that these exclusives were so uncommon. Today, the priciest pieces from the vintage line are exclusive figures like Night Force and vehicles like these Sears pieces. Imagine if the line was also littered with other exclusives that were only available at a regional retailer, through a catalog or by attendance at a specific event. The result would be many more items that would likely carry price tags that would trump even these Sears pieces. If you look at the exclusives that collectors deal with today, it is unfathomable how, if the toy market were to be the same with a large, new generation of collectors coming on in another decade, anyone would keep up. Fortunately, the modern toy market is heavily geared towards collectors so this won't be an issue. But, we are equally fortunate that the toy buyers of the mid '80's were not more aggressive in their pursuit of exclusive toys. Lest, the Joe line would be dramatically different today.

The SMS is fairly pricey. Being a retailer exclusive, it saw a severely truncated production run. On top of that, it's a fairly distinct toy and one that most collectors would like to have in their collections. The legs for the missile base and stand for the control panel are easily lost and the actual spinning missile bracket breaks frequently. To top it all off, the missile are fragile and the tips are easily broken. A nicely conditioned version, with the Hiss Tank will run you close to $100. You can get the missile launcher separately, but it is often substantially higher priced than the Hiss Tank. Even at those prices, you won't see too many of these at any given time. Personally, if not for my childhood piece, I would not likely own the SMS. As an adult acquired item, it would have some cachet, but little value beyond monetary. As this was an important piece in my childhood, though, I still hold the SMS in high regard and can not imagine my collection without it. For others, the mileage may vary on this piece. It is expensive. But, it also has an inherent exclusivity to it that might make a high dollar purchase worthwhile.

1985 SMS, Sears Exclusive, MMS, Hiss Tank, Crimson Guard, 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal

1985 SMS, Sears Exclusive, MMS, Hiss Tank, Crimson Guard, 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal

1985 SMS, Sears Exclusive, MMS, Hiss Tank, Crimson Guard, 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal

1985 SMS, Sears Exclusive, MMS, Hiss Tank, Crimson Guard, 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal

1985 SMS, Sears Exclusive, MMS, Hiss Tank, Crimson Guard, 1991 Crimson Guard Immortal, 1984 Firefly, 2002 Crimson Fast Blast Viper