Wednesday, April 24, 2013

2003 Scarlett - Toy Fare Exclusive

In the 1990's, the Internet was nascent.  So, if you wanted to find up to date information about toy collecting, you went to your local bookstore once a month and bought a copy of Lee's or Toy Fare magazine.  In these, you would find the latest pictures of upcoming toys, articles about rare or obscure toy lines and speculative articles about what the next hot toy would be.  Slowly, the Internet changed all this and information and pictures about collector themed toy lines would be broken online and discussed to death long before a printed publication could catch up.  Today, printed toy magazines are all but dead: a relic of a prior era.  But, the toy industry didn't go into the future without a fight.

While toy magazines had long offered toys as an incentive to subscribe to their publication, it was mostly limited to factory overstock.  (Lee's toy magazine was still offering 1993 G.I. Joe mail away figures as their subscription bonus into the 2000's.)  As the Internet made them more and more obsolete, though, the magazines went a different route.  Using their connections to the toy manufacturers, the magazines were able to procure exclusive toys that they could sell through a retail arm.  The upside to collectors was that the toy magazines were company independent and could, theoretically, develop an exclusive from any toy line in the marketplace.  Toy Fare produced exclusives for the Masters of the Universe and Simpsons lines that were well received.  In 2003, they decided to foray into G.I. Joe as an attempt to capitalize on the line's burgeoning popularity.  (While many collectors think the 25th Anniversary was the beginning of a Joe resurgence, the reality is that the 2002 relaunch brought many more collectors into the fold and really was the golden age of Joe online interest.)  The result was a two pack of figures that were comprised of repaints of iconic Joe characters: Snake Eyes and Scarlett.

As a character, you don't get much bigger than Scarlett.  She is one of the top ten or so most popular characters in the entire Joe mythos.  Despite that, the character only had two figures in the line's original run: the 1982 original and a 1993 Ninja Force redesign.  This mismatch between the importance of character and few retail figures was resolved in the repaint era.  Since 1997, Scarlett has had no fewer than 16 versions of the character released.  (Which is still a surprisingly small number when you consider that both Duke and Snake Eyes have seen over 60 versions of figure releases.)  The problem with Scarlett as a toy, though, is that the only ARAH style molds of her are either dated or limited by archaic gimmicks.  But, those limitations didn't really stop Hasbro from exploiting other figures during that era.  The real limitation was that despite collector demand for Scarlett, Hasbro maintained the perception that female figures did not sell during the 2000's.  So, slots allocated for Scarlett were few and far between.  This left ARAH style Joe collectors with precious few takes on the Scarlett mold to represent the character in their collections.

As a mold from the first days of Joe, Scarlett is nothing short of amazing.  While Hasbro reused most of the parts from the original 13 where ever they could so save money, they took no such shortcuts on a figure they knew would have limited reuse and limited retail appeal.  Scarlett has textured padding on her shoulder, just like the Flash mold.  In addition, her arms are decked out with throwing stars on her left gauntlet and her back-up pistol molded under her right.  (A detail that was perfectly fleshed out in the short story "Hot Potato" in Marvel's first issue of G.I. Joe.)  Her lower body showcases a knife, what appears to be an explosive device and a slingshot all molded onto the figure.  It is a level of detail that was rarely present during the line's first year and shows the dedication the Joe team had to quality when you consider they spent that amount of expense to develop a figure who was sure to be their poorest seller.

As a figure, this version of Scarlett is excellently done.  The figure features a full eight colors: silver, red, green, tan, white, purple, flesh and black.  It really is convention level quality in terms of the paint masks.  Every detail on Scarlett is painted.  Her gloves are two toned with a small ring of white separating the tan and the purple arm.  Her belt is painted between the loops and has a differently colored buckle.  All of the gear on her lower body is highlighted and even the pouches on her boots are done in purple to offset them from the black footwear.  The color palette in general is relatively pleasing.  Scarlett keeps her tan base which is true to the original character, but uses a purple undercoat to tie her to the 1997 offering.

But, this is the main problem with the figure.  Really, this Scarlett is two homages in one: both the 1983 original and the 1997 repaint.  So, while the overall detail is remarkable and the colors are decent, the whole thing feels like its been done before.  There is nothing overly original about the paint scheme that gives a new take on Scarlett.  Collectors saw the purple and tan Scarlett and the brown details Snake Eyes and thought: "Hey, I already have a tan Scarlett.  I already have a purple Scarlett.  I already have several Snake Eyes figures with painted details.  (The 2003 DVD Snake Eyes uses the same paint masks as the Toy Fare Snake Eyes, but used a purple body to match the cartoon.  The result is something new for Snake Eyes and an example of what could have been done.)  Why should I buy this set to get two figures that are basically the same as what I already have?"  Instead of doing something new, like giving Snake Eyes the camo pants from the concept art and doing Scarlett in a matching motif, Toy Fare went with something safe.  Their hope was that non Joe collectors would see the homages and buy them.  But, the result was that Joe fans were alienated at a time when there was a huge amount of product hitting the market.  So, this set was relatively ignored and quickly faded into obscurity.

Scarlett's accessories are abundant.  In addition to her iconic crossbow, Scarlett also included the ubiquitous black version of the 1991 Dusty's backpack.  She also included two swords.  These are a great theoretical addition to a Scarlett release.  Tying to her Ninja Force days and link to Snake Eyes, it made sense to have her add swordswoman to her pedigree.  The reality, though, was that Hasbro used two swords from the Ninja Force era with the figure.  The weapons designed with the larger 1992 figure molds in mind are not a great match for the 1982 era Scarlett mold.  More contemporary swords like Stormshadow's Katanas would have been a better fit.  So, while Scarlett has the swords, they look awkward when used with the figure.  But, at it was a good attempt.

The Scarlett mold was probably overused around the world.  The straight armed mold was released in the U.S., Argentina and Brazil.  In Argentina, Plastirama reused the mold as the exclusive Glenda figure.  Estrela used the mold for a white jumpsuit Scarlett named Athena.  The swivel arm mold also got good use.  After the U.S. release, it was used for Quarrel in the European Action Force line.  After that, the mold lay dormant until 1997.  Hasbro used it then, again in 2003 for this figure and finally in 2006, though with a new head.  The issue is that there isn't much diversity in the American Scarlett releases.  Though they had many molds from the 1983 series of Joes available to them, Hasbro didn't do much with them.  Much of the repaint era is the story of unfulfilled potential on the repaints that were offered.  While many figures weren't bad, the reality is that they could have been so much better.  There has been more creativity with repainting molds in the modern line.  But, collectors during the repaint era were largely short-changed with the quality of the releases Hasbro developed.

In 2003, an online toy dealer approached Hasbro about repainting this set for an exclusive distribution.  Hasbro agreed in principle to the set.  The premise was to repaint the Toy Fare figures in Action Force homage themes.  So, in lieu of Scarlett and Snake Eyes, the set would include Action Force Stalker and Quarrel.  (Copyright issues would have prevented those names and it would likely have been Undercover Scarlett and Agent Stalker.)  The figures would have been close in color to the Action Force originals.  But, with some new details and highlights to differentiate them.  However, the deal could not get closed in time.  So, the set never saw the light of day.  But, it would have been a nice addition to the repaints from that time period.

The reality is that the Toy Fare set sold very poorly.  While some Toy Fare exclusives, notably from the Simpsons line, had seen huge aftermarket increases in value,  (Along with questionable distribution practices.) the Joe set mostly languished.  It is likely a combination of overestimation of the Joe collector market along with higher production numbers that doomed the set.  (The fact that the Snake Eyes and Scarlett figures weren't as popular in 2003 than they had been in 1998 and 1999 also played a part.)  Demand was low and unsold sets were still around for years.  Speculators who bought the sets in droves quickly found them worth less than retail price and many of the sets were dumped at a loss.  Today, you can still buy sealed, boxed sets for under $10.  Individual figures, if you can find them, rarely top out at $4.00.  It is a notably cheap price for a figure of this quality and allows every collector to get a great version of Scarlett for basically nothing.

2003 Toyfare Exclusive Scarlett, Snake Eyes, 2008 AWE Striker, Fuera De La Ley, Destro, Argentina, Plastirama, 2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch

2003 Toyfare Exclusive Scarlett, European Exclusive Quarrel, Palitoy, Action Force, Z Force, RAM, Olhos de Fenix, Spirit, Brazil, Estrela, Rare G.I. Joe Figures

2003 Toyfare Exclusive Scarlett, Snake Eyes, 2008 AWE Striker, Fuera De La Ley, Destro, Argentina, Plastirama, 2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch

2003 Toyfare Exclusive Scarlett, Snake Eyes, 2008 AWE Striker, Fuera De La Ley, Destro, Argentina, Plastirama, 2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch

Monday, April 22, 2013

2004 Unproduced "Night Force" Tracker

There are certain figures who have found decent popularity despite poor colorings on their actual releases. Many of these are molds that are well done and unique. Oftentimes they are also characters that have potential. One such character is Tracker. Since the early days of online collecting, repainted Tracker figures have been a staple of the collecting community. The great mold but bad colors made it a customizers dream piece. In the modern line, Hasbro has taken a few occasions to give up properly colored versions of under appreciated vintage molds. In the case of Tracker, collectors were oh so close to finally seeing a properly colored version of the figure in 2004. But, a last minute change left Tracker in the cold as his character was changed to Action Man and he was given a bright orange shirt in the Night Force set. But, a little Easter Egg was left. A few of the Night Force Tracker figures were actually produced and they found their way into the hands of Asian Joe sellers. The result is the best version of Tracker never made and the subject of this profile.

There are a few collecting phrases that truly annoy me. The first is "Argen 7". There is no Argen 7. There are 6 rare figures released in the scarce 2nd series of Plastirama figures. The Cobra Invasor was not in that wave and is not part of them. It is a cutesy term that novice collectors use to make themselves seem more knowledgeable than they are. The other is "Midnight Chinese". I'll grant this, the term is clever and catchy. But, it is also derogatory and misleading. It is true that some Asian factories likely churned out after hours product using whatever material was in the machines at the end of the day. But, these are almost certainly limited to the unpainted, odd colored "prototypes" that have become all too common. The fully painted production level figures, though, are unlikely to be "bootlegs" and are more likely truly unproduced items. This is an important distinction as it lends the proper amount of credibility to figures such as this Tracker.

This Tracker has a nice paper trail that cements its status as a true unproduced figure. At the 2003 Convention, a hand painted Tracker in colors eerily similar to this figure was shown. At that time, it was Hasbro's intention to release Tracker as part of the Night Force set. As the existence of this figure indicates, that remained Hasbro's intention until fairly late in the process. While this Tracker figure does feature the same paint masks as the Action Man figure, there is one important difference: the Night Force insignia on his chest. This stamp is unique to Tracker and shows that Hasbro produced a entirely new paint mask for the Tracker figure. It also proves that the change From Tracker to Action Man occurred at nearly the last minute and it's likely that had there not been other issues with the Night Force set that we would have seen Tracker at retail.

As a figure, this Tracker is beautiful. All of the Night Force figures were well done with intricate paint applications. Tracker is the exception, though. Instead of the complex Night Force cammo pattern, Tracker's base color is just simple, olive drab. But, it is this simplicity that makes the figure special. Instead of being part of a specialized team that is difficult to integrate with figures of a different paint design, Tracker fits perfectly with figures from all generations of Joes. The figure actually uses the same paint masks as Action Man. So, he has silver and green grenades, a silver knife and a green pistol on his legs. There are 2 points that differentiate this figure from Action Man, though, and prove that he is a true, unreleased figure.   First, Tracker has black boots. For whatever reason, the first incarnation of the Night Force figures wore white pants. Tracker is no exception. However, his boots are painted black. This was an unnecessary detail on Action Man as Action Man featured black pants. But, on Tracker, the contrast between the green upper torso, white pants and black boots creates a visually remarkable figure. The second detail is the Night Force logo on Tracker's chest. Action Man features a unique Action Man logo on his chest. Tracker, though, features a distinctive yellow Night Force logo that is unique to the Tracker figure. This is an entirely new paint mask and that helps prove the intention of Night Force Tracker as a truly unproduced item.   As you might be able to tell, I am quite pleased with the Night Force Tracker figure. He fills a huge gap in my collection and is a figure who I would use endlessly were he not an unproduced rarity. Tracker, as a character is highly underused. The reason, though, is because the figure features such a high quality mold.

Collectors do not have any Navy SEAL who was not released in underwater diving gear. Since one of the early issues of Special Missions when Wet Suit was featured in standard fatigues, Joe collectors have wanted a Seal who could be used outside of the water. Tracker offered hope of that, but fell short in the most important area: his colors. The original Tracker is a horrid mishmash of yellows, oranges and browns. As such, he isn't all useful in standard combat situations. In the early years of online Joe collecting, a repainted Tracker was a standard right of passage for novice customizers. The mold features strong details, solid design and a look that, properly colored, would stand among figures and characters from any year. Alas, to this day we have yet to see a decently colored Tracker offered in any official release.   And this brings me to the crux of this profile. As a figure, I think Action Man is quite nice. However, as a replacement for this Tracker, he is inferior. Night Force Tracker shows us the great opportunity cost when figure slots are either wasted or underutilized. Had Action Man replaced the Night Force Roadblock, I don't think anyone would have any issues with him since the NF Roadblock figure sucks. But, as a replacement for this Tracker figure, Action Man simply has too high of standards to live up to. This was the Tracker figure that collectors were waiting for and the unreleased figure offers a tease of what might have been available to all collectors had things gone a bit differently. It is this opportunity cost that most collectors struggle with. Many collectors have the notion that anything Hasbro puts out is fine as they will, eventually, release some good figures.

However, as we've seen with Tracker, that is simply not the case. We missed our window for the definitive Tracker figure. And now, over 3 years later, we have yet to see the figure revisited and there is no hope on the horizon for a decent Tracker to ever make an appearance. As such, due to Action Man, we lost out on one of the better figures of the modern take on ARAH. This is why each and every figure that is released carries such importance. Every slot wasted on Avalanche, another V1 Duke, Firefly, Alley Viper or several other characters is one Night Force Tracker, Wal Mart Low Light or other, high quality, otherwise unreleased figure that never gets to see the light of day. I get quite cynical about this hobby at time and can be animated in my criticism of Hasbro and others. But, that is a direct result of this notion above. It is a waste to see a single figure slot used on something that collectors and consumers have no use for since it cost us the chance at something cool. When Joe is an infinite line and everything we want is released, things will change. But, while ARAH-style releases are finite and infrequent, each and every slot counts and should be treated as the opportunity it is.

The alternate Asian figures tend to feature soft paint that chips and rubs easily. As such, if you hope to use a figure like this as your everyday Tracker, you need to be especially cautious. The silver paint rubs easily and the Night Force logo is incredibly fragile. These figures do not seem to full production quality. But, that is to be expected from a quality control run.   This Tracker is truly a striking figure. His deep green matte offset by the while pants and heavily painted details really makes for a figure that could be considered convention quality. The Night Force set as a whole is greatly under appreciated as most of the figures featured up to 8 different paint applications. Much of this is lost, though, due to the overdone striping and patterning on the figures. Granted, it's a great detail. But, it clutters the figures and doesn't allow you to fully appreciate the quality of the underlying colors. Not so with Tracker. He is devoid of the patterns that clutter the rest of the Night Force figures and stands apart in his simplicity.

The bad thing is that the accessories for the Night Force set suck. This was the beginning of Hasbro cheaping out the accessory complements in their exclusive sets. As such, none of Tracker's hallmark accessories are available with Night Force. But, the enterprising collector can find ways around this. The one accessory on the original Tracker that was done in black was the mask. Tracker's gun molded in black was then available with many figures in 1993 and 1994. Finally, Tracker's Funskool raft is actually blue. It's not a perfect match, but it is darker than the American raft. As such, collectors are really only left with Trackers oars not being available in a good color. For me, a spare face mask and gun is all this figure needs to make it a vital part of my collection.

The Tracker mold has a decent history: even though the offerings available out there all have issues. After Hasbro used the mold in 1991, it was supposed to be used in Brazil. Tracker even appeared on Brazilian cardbacks and in the catalog. But, Tracker was never actually released in Brazil. From there, Tracker showed up in India in the early '00's. The Funskool figure was actually brighter than the American figure and didn't really offer collectors the perfect version of Tracker they sought. In 2003, Hasbro recalled many molds from Funskool and Tracker was among them. The first figures to utilize the newly reacquired Funskool molds were the Night Force set. While this Night Force Tracker is a great figure, the Action Man who was released at retail suffers from the same issues as earlier Tracker figures since his base chest color is bright orange. Since then, we have not seen the Tracker mold used at all. Frankly, this is baffling. Tracker is a high quality that has never been released en masse in a good color scheme. As such, he is a logical candidate for a future release in a Convention Set or other exclusive that utilizes ARAH style molds. But, for now, if you want the best version of Tracker ever released, this unproduced figure is your only option.

When the alternate color, unreleased figures first started appearing out of Asia, this Tracker was among the rarest of all the releases. Initially, only a handful of samples made their way to the US and it was believed this figure might pull a Pimp Daddy Destro and become one of the true rarities of the line. In time, though, more of these figures were found in Asia and they were imported to the US in decent enough numbers to appease the hard core collectors who were really after them. Truth be told, though, this figure is still probably among the rarest figure in the history of the line and there are probably a few hundred of them in the hands of collectors at maximum. Here's the rub, though...collectors have yet to properly value most of the alternate, unproduced figures. As such, you can get this figure for next to nothing in terms of his rarity. Price wise, you might pay upwards of $80 for this figure, but people pay that for mass produced figures from the '80's. My point is that most of these unproduced figures have yet to fully realize their value potential. As such, deals can be had these days. In five years, I don't know if that will be the case. But, as many of the alternate figures have dried up and almost never appear for sale these days, I certainly wouldn't let an opportunity to add this figure to my collection pass me by.

2004 Night Force Tracker, TRU Exclusive, Unproduced, 1989 Recoil, 1989 Night Force Muskrat, VAMP

2004 Night Force Tracker, TRU Exclusive, Unproduced, 1989 Recoil, 1989 Night Force Muskrat, VAMP

2004 Night Force Tracker, TRU Exclusive, Unproduced, 1989 Recoil, 1989 Night Force Muskrat, VAMP

2004 Night Force Tracker, TRU Exclusive, Unproduced, 1989 Recoil, 1989 Night Force Muskrat, VAMP

2004 Night Force Tracker, TRU Exclusive, Unproduced, 1989 Recoil, 1989 Night Force Muskrat, VAMP

Thursday, April 18, 2013

1989 Python Patrol Tele-Viper

The 1985 Tele-Viper is an iconic Cobra army builder.  While the mold may be a bit odd, the release year and the prominence of the character in both the comic and the cartoon have kept him popular.  With Cobra's reliance upon technology, the Tele-Viper remained important long after the figure had disappeared from retail.  In 1989, Hasbro somewhat rectified that problem by offering a new take on the Tele-Viper mold.  Instead of iconic Cobra Blue, the character was incorporated into the Python Patrol subset.  The result is a figure that is bright, busy, but not altogether terrible.

Python Patrol was meant to be a "stealth" unit of Cobras whose uniforms made them invisible to radar and other technology.  To make up for that advantage, they chose bright yellow as one of the primary colors for the Python palette.  This unfortunate choice severely limited the quality of Python Patrol as a group.  The subtle grey and black used as a base for most of the figures was a great foundation upon which to build.  But, the bright yellow really holds the subset back.  Instead of being a valued member of the Cobra army, they are mostly useful only as a group and when displayed with the full complement of figures and vehicles.  In this group, the figures do look good as they mesh well and really look like a specialized team.  It's just that the bright colors limit the usefulness of the overall group.

Python Patrol originally consisted of 6 members: the Crimson Guard, Cobra Trooper, Cobra Officer, Viper, Copperhead and the Tele-Viper.  Made by Hasbro in their normal factories, the Python Patrol was a way for the line to be expanded beyond the traditional standard carded figure mix at retail.  The reuse of popular molds was a way to make the figures cheap enough to justify the truncated production run.  Tiger Force in 1988 had laid the groundwork for the success of such a concept.  And, Hasbro stepped it up in 1989 with both Python Patrol and Slaughter's Marauders.  As Joe moved into the 1990's, Hasbro went subset crazy and the line became more centered around the multitude of subsets they offered rather than the standard carded line.  By 1993, Hasbro even branded the main carded line as Battle Corps.  This loss of identity helped the line fade into oblivion.

The Tele-Viper has an interesting companion piece that was released in Brazil.  The criss cross cammo pattern on the figure's legs is a match for the Brazilian Python Patrol Ripcord: Relampago.  It's likely that Estrela simply used the paint sample to help design Relampago.  But, it does help tie the Brazilian figure to the American Python Patrol and makes it much easier to integrate the figures from the different lines.

In my collection, Tele-Vipers are basically the technological support for the Cobra legions.  The remain the type of character who isn't overly combative, but will see combat when they are embedded with Cobra Infantry units.  Beyond that, Tele-Vipers are the standard Cobra base troopers.  They man the communications stations in Terrordromes and will be assigned to work on vehicles and aircraft as well to ensure their communications systems are working.  Usually, though, these roles are always filled by the V1 Tele-Viper due to the Cobra blue.  The Python Tele-Viper is usually only seen in support of Python Patrol units.  But, these are few and far between.  The bright yellow limits the figure's ability to look good when paired with Cobra vehicles or aircraft.  If you expand into some of the vehicles from the line's later years, the bright colors become less of an issue.

Still, the figure has it's appeal.  I've always found the Tele-Viper head to be overly large.  The entire mold appears...bloated.  But, when you consider the amount of gear Tele-Vipers haul around, they would tend to be bulkier individuals.  So, I can look past the puffiness.  The base grey and white with the black accented head are a great start to the figure.  The Python cammo pattern is intricate and detailed.  Even the maroon goggles work within the context of the figure's specialty.  The bright yellow undershirt and base helmet, though, are a bit too much.  Even the more muted green from the Python Officer would have been better.  It makes the figure overly bright.

The Python Tele-Viper includes the same accessories as the Version 1 figure.  The pack, gun and hose were highly advanced for 1985.  Unlike the accessories from Mainframe, though, the accessories hold up fairly well.  The pack still has an antenna to link to Cobra satellites and the general size of the pack is consistent with the increased functionality the modern Tele-Viper would employ in his duties.  The figure's "gun" is an iconic look.  In the comic and cartoon, it worked as a 2 way camera that could both record and play back video.  As a kid, I also used it as a radiation gun that would project radioactive or microwave beams.  It was a group of Tele-Vipers who basically cooked a team of Joe aligned custom figures I used as a child.  Once that event occurred, the Joeverse that I still have today was born.

The Tele-Viper mold was not overly used.  After the 1985 figure was released, the chest was used in 1986 to make Claymore.  This Python Patrol version appeared in 1989.  After that, the mold was sent to Brazil.  In the early 1990's, Estrela released a Tele-Viper in colors basically identical to the American Version 1 release.  After that, the mold disappeared.  Despite collector demand for its return during the repaint era, Hasbro was not able to come through.  So, collectors are left with just three releases of the figure: two being basically the same and the third being a highly specialized subset.

Python Tele-Vipers aren't overly expensive.  Mint and complete with filecard versions typically run around $12.  While the Python Patrol figures tend to be a bit tougher to find than the originals from which they were created, the decreased collector demand for them helps keep the prices in check.  As a subset, the figures are interesting.  But, individually, the bright colors make them less useful.  So, you don't see too many Python Tele-Viper armies out there.  I've found it's always good to have a different take or two on classic Cobra army builders.  But, the quality of the original Tele-Viper so outweighs the colors of this version that having multiple versions isn't as useful as it is in some other cases.  As an element to complete a collection, the Python Tele-Viper has value.  But, as a be-all/end-all supplement to the Tele-Viper character, though, the figure is somewhat lacking.

1989 Python Patrol Tele Viper

1989 Python Patrol Tele Viper

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

2002 Headman

The idea of Joe fighting drug dealers hasn't been a popular one in the modern collecting world.  Regardless of feelings about the subject matter, though, the characters and figure molds that were released during the first wave of DEF figures are among the best in the line.  The feature unique and highly detailed sculpts, muted, realistic colors and great accessories.  In the years I've been at this, I've profiled most of the figures that comprised the first wave of DEF figures.  They are simply that good.  In modern times, more collectors have warmed to these molds and many DEF figures count themselves among the most expensive and desirable post 1990 figure releases.

The Headman was the leader of the Headhunters and the big cheese in drug trafficking.  I call him the big cheese because the figure does bear a resemblance to the Hamburglar and part of me always thinks of that when I see the figure.  The original coloring was decent enough with a black suit dusted with gold stripes.  But, the 2002 figure went all out.  It turned the Headman into a flamboyant drug dealer with the gaudy suit to match his personality.  It was this great orangish-brown suit that drew my attention to the 2002 figure and made it stand out against the backdrop of his similarly colored contemporaries.  The one element of the figure design of which I have never been fond, though, is the pony-tail.  While that physical feature fits the Headman's intended specialty, it does not match with the characterization I have assigned to the figure.  It is a minor point but one that probably keeps this figure from seeing as much use in my collection as it otherwise would were the pony tail omitted.

In my collection, Headman is not a drug dealer and he is not named Headman.  Instead, he is named Rialto.  Rialto is a supply chain management genius and holds an MBA in the subject from an Ivy League university.  Rialto's position within Cobra is as the head of munitions manufacturing.  He is not the designer but he is responsible for ensuring that the raw materials and production facilities needed for Cobra's arms business is a fine tuned machine.  He also oversees the transport of the completed munitions to their final destination.  He is in control of the Cobra ports, railroads, highways and motor truck cargo capacity.  It is a huge responsibility that makes Rialto one of the most important members of the Cobra hierarchy, even though he is, officially, a non-combatant.  It also gives him some leeway in terms of fashion sense since he has no combat role to worry about.  Plus, it's really not like an organization like Cobra: full of outlandish uniforms, would frown on Rialto's choice of wardrobe.

This non-combatant status, of course, causes rifts on Cobra Island.  Combat commanders do not like someone who does not fight having so much power within Cobra.  But, the Commander is fine with this as and actively encourages Rialto's non-combatant stance.  The reason why is since Rialto understands the the logistics of Cobra Island's transportation system, would he ever decide to lead an insurgency on the Island, he would have a huge advantage in moving his troops around the island.  This fact isn't lost on the Commander and he ensures that no combat troops ever deal with Rialto.  That way, Rialto's knowledge is only dangerous as part of a plot rather than as the mastermind.

For his part, Rialto doesn't mind.  He has access to one of the most ambitious manufacturing operations in the world and the logistics of moving massive amounts of hardware all over the globe keeps him satisfied in his duties without having to dream of conquest.  This has lead to a friendship between Rialto and Ramen.  (Cobra's South American Commander.)  Ramen admires Rialto's abilities and his dedicated focus.  The two also share an Ivy League pedigree and that has fostered comradeship.  Ramen considers Rialto one of the keys to the Cobra dynasty and one who, if in Ramen's stable, would give him the ability to do pretty much anything he wanted in the Cobra world.  Rialto has resisted actively joining Ramen, though, as he feels his neutrality is better serving the good of Cobra.  At some point, though, he will be forced to declare allegiance to either the Commander or to Ramen.  When that day comes, the winner will have one of the most important allies in their stead and will gain a clear advantage over the other....

Of course, this leads one to question Rialto's motives.  Why would one of the brightest business minds in the world go to work for Cobra where the military aspect could spell doom despite great business success?  The answer to that lies in Rialto's upbringing and character.  While Ramen was a criminal whose exploits had him facing dozens of years in a white-collar federal prison, Rialto joined Cobra for the challenge.  Rialto wanted to head one of the world's largest companies upon graduation.  But even the most forward thinking company would have put off his dreams for at least 20 years as he navigated the murky world of corporate politics.  In Cobra, Rialto found a refreshing honesty that comes from such a confrontational and deadly military culture.  In Cobra, Rialto didn't have to worry that a rival might sabotage a presentation.  Instead, that rival might just shoot him.  That certainty made Cobra attractive and Rialto was able to rise through the ranks in only a matter of a few years.  There were no golf memberships, knowing the right people nor the other hallmarks of traditional corporate malarkey.  Instead, there was a certainty that if he proved himself, the military commanders would give him control of all the assets he desired and leave him to his devices as long as the money kept rolling in.  The military commanders were glad to be free of the hassle of the business logistics since those did not build their troop counts nor their battles won.  They left Rialto free and he has made the most of the opportunity.  Perhaps too well, though, as his power has become a spot of contention and competing factions on Cobra Island wish an oath of loyalty out of Cobra's most famous and powerful civilian.

The Headman mold was used in 1992 only.  The figure was then first used again in 2002.  Since then, the mold has not been used again as Headman but has appeared as the stock look for suits in the line.  First used on the comic pack General Flagg in late 2004, Hasbro then re-used it again for the under-appreciated suited Tomax and Xamot figures that were included with the Toys R Us exclusive Crimson set in early 2005.  It has not appeared since then, but is certain to be the first choice if Hasbro ever needs another ARAH-style figure that wears a suit.  Truthfully, though, the mold isn't too overexposed since the three releases have been of such drastic different colors and included on such diverse characters.  But, at the same time, I really don't think we need another Headman unless he was to return in a set stocked with his Headhunters and Headhunter Stormtroopers.  Otherwise, the character has been adequately done.

The reality is that Wave 1.5 in 2002 was one of the most overproduced wave in Joe history.  Hasbro needed a stop gap wave to fill in between the disaster that was Wave 1 and the re-tooled with O-rings figures that were planned to be Wave 2.  Retailers were warm to the designs in Wave 1.5 and the floodgates were opened.  Most major retailers stocked Wave 1.5 in abundance.  As if this weren't enough, though, many non-traditional toy retailers such as JC Penny, Kohl's and others also ordered this wave and stocked in their stores.  K-Mart even received an exclusive product wave where a 2-pack of Wave 1.5 figures was packaged with a third "bonus" figure from the Wave.  This made even popular figures like the Viper and Alley Viper very easy to get and collectors were able to stockpile massive armies just through successive months of retail incursions.  As if this weren't enough, though, Hasbro ended up selling a massive production run to Family Dollar stores.  They had walls and walls of the figures in their stores and were not able to get rid of them until they reduced them to $1 per pack in the summer of 2004.  In between times, Hasbro also sold off large quantities of overstock to an Israeli toy dealer and many high end American collectors were offered cheap quantities of army builders from Israel, provided they pay the shipping.

The result is that there is no Wave 1.5 figure that is very desirable.  Even the army builders can still be had for under $5 each and most of the other figures are often sold for $2 or less.  The Headman is one of these as he is often ridiculously cheap.  Personally, I feel the Wave 1.5 figures were decently done and the accessories with the non-army builders alone are worth the small price you often pay to acquire these figures.  I have purchased several after market Headman figures for almost nothing just due to the fact that they are cheap and the figure's look is good.  For the price, this figure is a no-brainer to add to a collection.  Unfortunately, it is unlikely that he will ever be appreciated for more than that.

2002 Headman, DEF, Headhunter, 1992 Headhunter, 2004 Comic Pack Grunt, 1997 Night Landing

2002 Headman, DEF, Headhunter, 1987 Sneek Peek, Chuckles, Law, Street Fighter Movie Balrog, 1994

Monday, April 8, 2013

1984 Rattler

The Rattler is probably the most iconic Cobra aircraft in the line's history.  It was the first larger sized Cobra vehicle to be released at retail and was meant to be a foil to the Skystriker.  In the look and feel of the toy, Hasbro produced a triumph for the line.  The Rattler meshed with the Cobra army, had detail that rivaled any Joe vehicle and was fun to play with.  It was a perfect storm of awesome.  Which isn't to say the plane isn't without some problems.  But, the Rattler is as definitive a vehicle release in 1984 as the Whale.

The Rattler was a brittle toy. The landing gear were easy to snap off, making the plane somewhat useless. And, the canopies featured hard plastic tabs that were also easy to break. These were more problematic since, once broken, they fell off anytime you tried to have the plane fly in any way that wasn't perfectly parallel to the ground. This lead the Rattler's quick demise in my childhood collection. While the Skystriker had suffered great play wear, it didn't have the small, fragile parts of the Rattler and was able to remain useful to me for much longer. This, naturally, lead to the Rattler's diminished importance in my collection. Since the one I had was broken, I never used it. So, my Cobra air army was relegated to the Trouble Bubble and a Claw.

The Rattler first came to my collection in October of 1984. I had been anxiously awaiting the Rattler since I first saw it in the '84 catalog back in January of that year. Wild Weasel had appeared in the comic and I was eager to finally add this missing piece of the Cobra hierarchy to my collection. My younger brother finally got the Rattler for his birthday that fall. Once we had the plane, it's luster quickly faded. Wild Weasel wasn't nearly as cool as his comic appearance had indicated. The plane was missing fun features like the ejector seats that were standard on the Skystriker and the gunner seat barely held a figure and he was stuck facing forward. But, the worst part was that the Rattler was broken in a matter of days. Once that happened, the usefulness of the plane was destroyed. As such, the Rattler was never my Cobra plane of choice. And, as my Cobra air force was so paltry, I developed my Cobra as a more ground focused enemy. I viewed air combat as too expensive and counterproductive to Cobra's goals. They were better off fighting American air power from ground emplacements and mobile gun batteries rather than trying to dogfight with superior technology. When the Mauler was released in 1985, though, I thought the Rattler would make a perfect foil to the Joe's newest weapon. But, since my original Rattler had long since been buried in a broken heap at the bottom of the toy box, this confrontation never came to fruition and encapsulates my frustrations with the quality of the Rattler as a toy.

The Rattler is both superior to and quite inferior to the Skystriker. The Rattler was obviously meant to be a lower price point item than the flagship Skystriker. But, from a detail standpoint, the Rattler was better. The cockpit was more detailed and the rotating wings and back gunner turret were play features that surpassed the Skystriker with ease. However, the Skystriker's working parachute seats and retractable landing gear gave it an edge over the Rattler as well. The main thing that was apparent was that Hasbro's ability to create detailed vehicles was increasing every year and the Rattler showed an improvement in the toy making process in terms of what could be delivered at a price point. It was a trend that would continue for a few years with the vehicles and a few more years with the figures.

The Rattler mold saw decent use. After it's run in the US, it was also released in Argentina in colors very similar to the original. In 1988, it was repainted in Tiger Force colors, re-patriotized and turned into a Joe vehicle. In 1997, Hasbro surprised collectors with the well thought out A-10 that also used the Rattler mold. This plane, while visually appealing, has severe quality problems, though and is really a vehicle that looks much better than it actually is. In 2002, Hasbro released a copper colored monstrosity that didn't even include a canopy for the gunner. In 2008, the mold was refurbished and brought back to retail in identical colors to the vintage plane as part of the Anniversary line. In 2009, that same mold will be released again in Tiger Force colors as an homage to an homage. Going forward, it is likely that this is a mold that will be used whenever Hasbro finds a place for it. So, we have likely not seen the end of the Rattler mold.

Before you go out and drop ~$70 to buy a mint, complete Rattler today, you should look into the 2008 reissue of the vehicle that was a Target exclusive. This plane is nearly identical to the original (the missiles are slightly different colors) and can be purchased for about 1/3 the cost of an original. On display, the two would be nearly indistinguishable and you would get the benefit of plastic that is 25 years newer. If you are a nostalgia buff like me, though, the original still has it's place in a collection. There is just something about owning a toy that was around during those brisk fall days of 1984 when I first took my original Rattler outside to play. That is the main reason why this sample has stuck with me and remains in my collection. The look of it is enough to be meaningful in a display and the design is something that should be enjoyed. I'm long past the point where I'll be flying my Rattler around the house so the display aspect is what makes a vehicle relevant to me. It is rare for a vehicle this size that was part of my childhood for so short a period to attain such a place of prominence in my collection. But, that is a testament to the quality of this toy.

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

1984 Rattler, Cobra Flying Scorpion, Abutre Negro, Black Vulture, AVAC, Brazil, Estrela, Strato Viper, Wild Weasel

Thursday, April 4, 2013

1988 Hardball

At the end of 1987, I basically decided I was too old to be buying Joe toys any more.  Of course, as I saw the new 1988 figures, I really wanted a few.  So, in the first few months of 1988, I did buy a few select figures from that year.  Usually, I justified these purchases with various reasons.  I couldn't just want something.  I had to come up with a reason why it made sense for someone my age to still be buying action figures.  When I found Hardball, I had the perfect justification: he was a baseball player and, at the time, I was a baseball fanatic.  So, I had my reasoning and purchased Hardball.

Once I had the figure, the baseball angle quickly went away.  While the mold has the hallmarks of a baseball jersey and cap, I just took these as design elements rather than a full characterization.  Really, the value of the figure was the massive grenade launcher.  I had long ago lost Gung Ho's grenade launcher.  So, having this new one available to me filled a need.  Hardball found himself among the crew of a generic dump truck that fit a SLAM into the back of it, perfectly.  He was put on this detail to take out the STUNs and Hiss Tanks that would attack this moving armory.  Here, his grenade launcher was put to great use as he was able to disable any vehicles without having to leave the confines of the truck.  Alas, though, this duty only lasted for a few months before I was done with toys.

As a mold, Hardball is fairly decent.  The torso is rather bland, except for the blue trim.  His legs are well detailed with extra grenades and a holster.  His arms feature 3/4 length sleeves coupled with fingerless gloves.  Really, the total package is more interesting than the primary white and brown coloring suggest.  The head is well detailed and fits with the body.  The main gripe, though, is the red G.I. Joe on his chest.  Nothing says super secret covert missions team more than advertising your unit name on your uniform.  This isn't enough to sink the figure, but is something that was new to the Joe line.

Hardball's accessories are well done.  The grenade launcher has a working chamber that actually spins.  This is likely the cause for the weapon's large size.  It is a bulky accessory, but not to the point where it's useless.  (It is actually a perfect fit for the 1992 Gung Ho figure.  It matches the larger proportions and allows the figure to retain a weapon true to his roots.)  Hardball's pack is also well detailed.  Filled with extra grenades, it is a perfect match for the figure.  Hasbro was detailed with their accessories into 1993.  So, Hardball has the pack and weapon that match up to help define the character.  It was this attention to detail that kept the figure more interesting than he might otherwise have been.

Being one of the last figures of my childhood, Hardball never saw any great action.  By the time he entered my collection, most of my figures were packed away.  Hardball saw use for a few months.  But, by the time spring rolled around, my focus was solely on collecting the more socially acceptable sports cards.  So, Hardball was tossed into a plastic bin and pretty much sat there for a long time.  My brothers never really had any interest in the figure.  So, my figure remained in good condition with his accessories.  In the '90's, when I returned to collecting, Hardball was in the bin of figures that I had left available to me.  But, rather than have him be a major player in my collection, he became more of a cannon fodder type.  He might represent a casual military member who would be done in by Cobra, a civilian who got caught in the cross fire of Cobra's urban death squads, or a mechanic who would get taken out by the Dreadnoks.  Today, the figure isn't more than a display piece.  I have found that he rarely appeared in any of my photos and has been a figure that even I overlooked.  That isn't likely to change.  This is a good figure, but not one that I recall and use frequently.

The Hardball mold only saw release in the U.S. in 1988 and 1989.  It never appeared in any foreign countries and was never repainted by Hasbro.  When the Joe line returned in 1997, Hardball made sense as a figure they would revisit.  But, that never happened.  In 2008, Master Collector did dig up the mold and used parts of Hardball on the Hotwire figure.  However, the full character never appeared again.  In new colors, the character would have been welcomed in any of the TRU exclusive sets or in a convention set.  The result is a mold that remains unfulfilled and could come back at some point in new colors and be welcomed by collectors.  But, since the ARAH molds are likely done, that will never happen and we are just left with the original Hardball mold.

Hardball figures are not hard to find.  They are plentiful and cheap.  He is not a character that has ever really caught on in the Joe community.  This has kept him relatively easy to find.  That should not dissuade you from the figure, though, as the quality that vintage collectors desire is very much present.  This leaves Hardball as one of the quiet gems that the line still offers.  Sure, this guy isn't Flint or Snake Eyes.  But, the mold, character and accessories allow him to stand with those figures without being glaringly different.  The Joe line needs its supporting characters to flesh out the team without diluting it with too many versions of the major players.  (The modern lines have all fallen into this trap.)  Hardball fills that role well and is deserving of calling all collections his home.

1988 Hardball

1988 Hardball