Wednesday, June 26, 2013

1985 Ripper

Buzzer, Ripper, Torch.  Tom, Dick and Harry.  Winken, Blinken and Nod.  Any way you look at it, the original three Dreadnoks can not really be discussed individually without also including them as a group.  They are just so tied together in character and even figure design that they really have to be discussed in both contexts.  As a group, they are one of the most famous sub-teams in the line's history.  Collectors continue to enjoy them today.  But, as individuals, the Dreadnoks run the gamut from a fully developed character like Buzzer to someone like Ripper who was little more than an illiterate thug.

The Ripper mold is exceptionally detailed for a 30 year old action figure.  The designers really approached the Joe line with a degree of professionalism, love and attention to detail that translated into the classic figures that are still being derived from today.  Ripper is no exception.  From the Mohawk to the teeth of his necklace, the entire mold shows a remarkable attention to detail.  Ripper has a bulk to him the other Dreadnoks are missing which helps provide some diversity in their physical builds.  It's not so much as to make the figure unusable with vehicles from the time.  But, it is a visual difference in the three figures.  The half shirt and sunglasses are a bit dated.  But, taken ironically, Ripper could be considered a hipster in the modern Joe line.

Ripper's accessories are nothing short of exceptional.  His gun has the basic body of the 1983 Snow Job rifle.  But, Hasbro added on a scope, clip and a monster cutting blade that took a basic weapon and made it something signature.  Once you get past that, the Jaws of Life are a great accessory for someone hell bent on destruction.  (I only wished they had actually opened when I was a kid!)  The plug from the jaws to the generator on Ripper's pack was just a wonderful plus.  But, the great play feature was that the jaws could be hung from the prongs on Ripper's pack.  Or, it had a small clip that allowed it to attach to the pack's frame.  The result is a self contained accessory set with magnificent detail that defines Ripper as a character.

I have told the story of find the Dreadnoks prior to Christmas of 1984 many times.  Of the three Dreadnoks, though, Ripper was the one who I never, technically, owned.  While I got Torch and Buzzer for my birthday and Christmas, Ripper was actually given to my younger brother.  Since the figure was not actually mine, I didn't have as much of a chance to develop the character to the extent that I did for the other two Dreadnoks.  Even as Ripper lost my brother's attention and was integrated into my use rotation, I always used him more as a one off character than anyone who was actually part of my overall Cobra hierarchy.  My only real memory of the figure is that in the early of months of 1985, I took all the Dreadnoks out in the snow to play.  As I was carrying the figures back into the house, Ripper's gun fell out of his hand and into the snow.  I could not find the silver weapon against the white backdrop.  A few weeks later, we had a warm day with heavy rain.  This melted off the snow and created a thick fog over my entire neighborhood.  Naturally, all the kids got together to play in the haze as it made our "war games" that much more fun.  As I ran across my front yard, I spotted a flash of silver and resurrected Ripper's gun from oblivion.  I stuffed it into my pocket and have, basically, the only specific memory of Ripper as a figure from my childhood.

While the Dreadnoks should be tethered to Zartan, I never really saw them as his minions.  While I may have used the 3 bikers in conjunction with the shape shifter for a few months after my initial acquisition, I quickly found the Dreadnoks being more of their own subgroup.  Mostly, this was due to issue #30 of the G.I. Joe Marvel comic where the Dreadnoks simply couldn't resist destroying Joe Skystrikers.  This lead me to use the Dreadnoks as more of a rogue group.  They would work for Cobra from time to time.  But, they would also attack the Joes out of general spite with no help from Zartan or the Cobra organization.  In time, though, this played itself out.  With the exception of Buzzer, the Dreadnoks simply didn't have the strength of character to remain prominent players in my collection.  By the end of 1985, they were mostly gone from my play rotation.

Ripper's jaws of life found more use, though, as I commandeered them for various rescue teams that would save Joes trapped in burning aircraft or the hull of Whale.  The silver color worked well with a variety of Joes.  The Ripper figure slowly became more of a generic bad guy who would often get killed as he undertook some nefarious, criminal endeavor.  He was not Ripper, per se, but a nameless criminal the Joes could kill or imprison without affecting the character.  Eventually, my main Ripper figure was taken apart and his legs and arms used for various custom figures in my collection.  I distinctly recall an accessory pack M-60 wielding heavy machine gunner using Buzzer's torso and lower body, Ripper's arm and Duke's head.  That was basically the end of Ripper in my collection until I reacquired one as a adult.

The Ripper mold has an interesting history.  After his use in the U.S., the mold was sent down to India.  In the mid 1990's, Funskool started producing the figure.  The most famous variant is the extremely rare purple Ripper figure that features a purple shirt and glasses.  This figure was then replaced with a version that is very similar to the American figure.  Funskool stopped producing Ripper prior to 2000.  As such, no version was readily available for many years.  In 2002, though, a major retailer in India commissioned Funskool to run another batch of Ripper figures.  Some American dealers were able to tack on to the overstock and brought a nice batch of Funskool Ripper figures to the U.S.

The reality, though, is that over the years that Funskool produced the Ripper figure, they made several major and minor variants.  Many of the more obscure Ripper figures that feature color differences were put into vehicles as bagged pack ins.  As such, there are probably 6 to 12 major Ripper variants out there for OCD collectors to track down.  In 2003, the Ripper mold was one of the first 18 molds that Funskool returned to Hasbro.  Master Collector quickly swooped in and released a version of Ripper in the 2004 Dreadnok Convention set.  This red and blue figure is something different for Ripper.  But, it's not, necessarily, an improvement upon the original.  In 2005, Hasbro released Ripper in a Dreadnok themed comic pack.  This figure featured a new head and colors similar to the original release.  While the figure gets points for including the original accessories, the reality is that the pack was a colossal flop that was clearanced for as low as $3 each.  The Ripper mold doesn't really lend itself to great repaints.  (Though, a black version to simulate biker leather might work.  But, it's likely the mold would appear more Village People and less Sons of Anarchy.)  But, collectors have quite a gamut of figures based on this original mold to track down.

Ripper was a popular figure released as part of a popular subset at the height of Joe's retail power.  As such, the figures exist in huge quantities and are rather easy to find.  However, Ripper features four points that make a mint figure problematic.  First, the blue plastic used on the figure's legs is very prone to sun fading and discoloration.  Second, the smallest details on the figure are done in highly fragile gold paint.  Finding a Ripper with perfect gold on his armband, knife, necklace and, especially, rings is very difficult.  Third, the mohawk and beard on his head have a number of angular points that make them very susceptible to paint chips.  Finally, the black paint on the figure's belt, holster and boots is also prone to wear.  If you can find a truly mint Ripper, though, he still won't cost you much.  The figures tend to max out around $12 if the figure is gem mint and has the filecard.  But, even slight wear can cut that price in half or more.  Every collector owes it to themselves to have the original three Dreadnoks.  Even if the overall theme went too far, the original three are a great way to both remember the '80's and appreciate the Joe line's heyday.

1985 Ripper, Dreadnok, Buzzer, Torch, Zartan, 1984

1985 Ripper, Dreadnok, Buzzer, Torch, Zartan, 1984

1985 Ripper, Dreadnok, Buzzer, Torch, Zartan, 1984

1985 Ripper, Dreadnok, Buzzer, Torch, Zartan, 1984

2006 Lt. Gorky - Oktober Guard

In general, the G.I. Joe comic packs weren't great.  The featured a lot of repetitive colors and molds and only, occasionally, produced something visually distinct.  As the series wound down, though, Hasbro finally seemed to get a better idea of what the comic packs could have been.  Many of the final packs in the series featured some solid figures in colors that were more distinct from the earlier releases.  Of course, by the time this happened, it was mostly too late to save the concept.  But, figures like Lt. Gorky show that Hasbro still had great opportunities to create high quality figures even at the end of the line.

Gorky uses the entire body of the 1994 Action Soldier/Action Marine/Joseph Colton figure. He has a unique head that was sculpted exclusively for this release. This body, being a late addition to the vintage line, has its limitations as it is a bit bulky. But, it works for this figure. Adding the grey base color, the Russian blue and white undershirt and the holster accessory makes all the difference for this figure.  Instead of a rehash of something before, it breathes new life into the mold and creates something that stands out in any collection.  The large torso also gives the figure some heft and makes him look like a ridiculously strong individual.  This helps define the character for me.

The figure features a molded chest holster.  It is a neat accessory, but has the pistol as part of the mold.  Instead of going with something like Chuckles' working holster with removable pistol, Hasbro just molded the whole thing.  The visual effect is decent.  But, the reality is that there was no reason why a 2006 molded accessory should not have had the removable pistol.  It's a small point, but something that seems a little antiquated for a Joe of this vintage.  Beyond that, the figure includes an array of nondescript weapons as were common to the comic packs of the time.  The holster does break up the look of the figure and is a nice touch.  But, the rest of the weapons are not very special.

In my collection, Gorky has found himself a niche. The look of the figure got me to recognize it and from there I was able to create a character that was useful and missing. I see Gorky as a young officer who is somewhat ambitious. His focus is security and law enforcement. He spends his time chasing down some of the most dangerous criminals in my Joe world. Among these scofflaws are the characters represented by the Funskool Red Dog and the Funskool Mercer. These two individuals are known for their ability to escape capture...often by killing their captors through brute force and fighting knowledge. The Mercer character, in particular, is known as one of the most ruthless hand to hand combat fighters in the world. Here, though, Gorky is his match. I see Gorky as someone who spent his youth learning various fighting styles. But, he also possessed the world class athleticism that allowed him to utilize these skills at the highest levels.

Now, Gorky is obsessed with tracking down the Mercer character. He has already defeated him in hand to hand combat once...only to have the Red Dog character successfully free him a few hours later as Gorky was filling out his paperwork.

So, this character is one who slowly becomes obsessed with tracking down this criminals.  At some point, he will either complete his goal or perish in its pursuit.  At this point, though, I like the character enough that he may actually get his two main quarry.  (I've had them running amok for over a decade now.  So, it might be time for their reign of terror to end.)  We'll see where he ultimately ends up.  But, the decent mold, striking color and blank slate of a character gives me a lot of leeway in how to use the figure.

Lt. Gorky figures are not hard to find. The last wave of comic packs were widely available and most languished on the shelves of Toys R Us stores for more than a year. These days, the entire pack can still be purchased MOC for under the $12 original retail price. By himself, Gorky will be lucky to get $4 or $5. At that price, the figure is simply a must buy. Gorky is different enough that his appearance alone warrants his inclusion in any collection. He is useful for custom fodder, too. All told, this is a figure who's distinct look has made him more relevant than his character ever could.

2006 Comic Pack Lt. Gorky, Oktober Guard, Funskool Mercer, Law

2006 Comic Pack Lt. Gorky, Oktober Guard, 2002 Big Ben, 2004 Night Force Short Fuse, 1985 Armadillo

Monday, June 24, 2013

Coyote - Argentine Exclusive Footloose

There are many examples of foreign Joe figures out there in the market.  Some are rare and pricey.  Some are rare and cheap.  Some are easy to find and stupidly expensive.  And, some are easy to find and really cheap.  It's the full gamut.  While I appreciate all of the foreign exclusive G.I. Joe repaints, I have found that it is the Plastirama series of figures from Argentina that hold the most interest to me as a subset.  This is mostly due to the number of swivel arm figures produced that is small enough to track down without too much hassle, but also large enough that you don't complete the series in a couple of weeks.  The series features some great, original figures and characters as well as a full complement of slightly repainted American characters.  Since most of the molds used fall within my sweet spot of 1983 - 1985, I find the whole set provides a great deal of collecting satisfaction.

Footloose was one of the first two newly released figures I acquired back in the February of 1985.  The figure's strong mold, great colors and amazing accessories really worked for me and made the figure one of my favorites.  But, I had upgraded my American Footloose as one of the first priorities when I returned to collecting in the late 1990's.  Having a chance to get a new take on the figure was something I hoped would happen during the early days of the Joe relaunch.  When that did not occur, I found that Footloose had two South American releases in Brazil and Argentina.  On top of that, the Plastirama figure from Argentina, named Coyote, was actually readily available for about the same cost as a mint, complete American Footloose.  With that, I had a new version of Footloose in my collection.

As a figure, Coyote is well done.  He follows the basic tenants of the Footloose figure, but uses slightly darker hues for the greens on his uniform.  He has a few accouterments painted differently than the American figure.  But, on quick glance, is basically the same figure.  Side by side, though, the differences come out.  The red insignia on Footloose's left arm is gone, but the greens and browns are shades lower than the American version.  The darker colors give the figure some greater depth than the American release.  The figure appears more combat ready.  It is a good look for the character and helps give me greater opportunities to use the mold.  Overall, the paint applications on this figure are well done.  Many Plastirama figures can have sloppy paint.  But, Coyote's don't appear to have this problem to the extent of other figures.  It all helps to shape a high quality release that is worthy of carrying the legacy of a classic 1985 mold.

Coyote includes the full complement of Footloose accessories.  His pack is substantially darker than the American version.  The M-16 and rocket launcher, though, are pretty much the same as the American accessories.  (There are slight variations to color and texture of the two due to the different plastic make up.  But, they are black.)  He also includes the unique helmet.  The foliage on the top of the helmet, though, isn't painted in the same detail as the American figure.  It still has the paint application to keep the two toned look.  But, it isn't as sharp as that of the American figure.

One of the things I most enjoy about foreign Joe collecting is getting new versions of childhood favorites.  Figures like Coyote, Risco and Muralha give a chance to relive the joy of getting Flint, Footloose and Alpine for the first time.  The foreign versions offer something slightly different without being so different that they lose their nostalgic appeal.  That allows me to use a figure like Coyote as Footloose.  It's just a different take on the character that keeps him from getting stale from using his one version all the time.  That is the value I find in figures like this and is the reason why foreign Joe collecting has been such an important part of my Joe collecting world.

Footloose saw substantial release around the world.  He was used in the U.S. for Footloose with his head being adopted for Claymore and Rumbler.  From there, the mold was sent to South America where it was released in both Argentina and Brazil.  The mold seems to have died in South America, though, as it never appeared again.  Both the Plastirama and Estrela figures, though, are similar to the American figure.  So, Footloose is definitely a mold with untapped potential.  Seeing the figure in a more desert theme or as a member of Night Force would have been an excellent addition to the Footloose pantheon.  But, neither the mold nor the character resurfaced during the repaint era.  So, collectors are left with another example of a mold with untapped potential.

Coyotes are moderately difficult to find. A large number of them were brought to the United States when the large overstock of Plastirama figures was found around 2000. But, the quantities were much smaller than those of the wave that included Satan and Ninja-Ku. So, Coyote tended to disappear rather quickly. Today, you see a few of them up for sale every year, usually carded. The prices fluctuate greatly, though, with some carded figures selling for over $50 and others resting in the $25 range. Even at these prices, the figure has merit. The different colors are more pleasing than those of the American figure and add some nice diversity to a collection. He's hard enough to find that not everyone has him, so he definitely adds some diversity to an American collection.  I have found the figure well worth owning and he is a way to appreciate Footloose all over again.

Coyote, Footloose, 1985, Plastirama, Argentina, 1985 Flint

Coyote, Footloose, 1985, Plastirama, Argentina, 1984 Zartan

Friday, June 14, 2013

2007 Clutch - Convention Exclusive

When the repaint era began in 1997, there was much promise of what collectors could expect.  As the years passed, though, collectors were largely disappointed with the offerings from Hasbro.  Sure, there were some winners.  But, for the most part, the figures released were either boring or outright bad.  This trend continued in the Convention sets.  There were some good ideas and a few great figures.  But, for the money, the sets often failed to deliver across the board.  In 2007, though, Master Collector really came through.  Rather than release their Cobra centric set as was the standard, they instead offered a large amount of classic Joe characters recreated from a variety of different molds.  Some were bad.  Some were good.  And a few, like Clutch, are a perfect update to the character and have become required versions for any collector.

As a character, Clutch is as memorable as they come.  For whatever reason, the character seemed to click with Larry Hama and he made Clutch a mainstay in the comic.  From a figure standpoint, though, the character didn't get much love.  The original figure is one of the highlights of the original 13 Joes.  The 1984 desert repaint was cool, but still the same mold.  Clutch then did not appear for another nine years.  When he did return, it was as a bright, neon orange member of the Mega Marines.  In the repaint era, Clutch did not appear until 2004.  The comic pack figure used a new head on a Mace body.  The result was a large and clunky figure that left much to be desired.  In 2007, though, Master Collector reused the comic pack head and combined it with a Pathfinder chest to create this figure.  The result is something that is true to Clutch's character (the Manny's Mean Machines logo on the back of his jacket is a nice touch) but still a nice update of the figure with more modern parts.  The Thunder arms and Duke legs even still work with the torso from 1990.

Accessory wise, Clutch is armed with weapons done in the standard Convention grey color.  He includes a version of the V2 Low-Light's gun and the rifle from the 1992 Shockwave figure.  There is, of course, the requisite clear stand as well.  The guns are nice.  But, Clutch's role is to drive the VAMP.  So, just the figure is enough to fill most of the figure's roles.  (It would have been nice for him to include a helmet, though.)  The figure is a good match for the VAMP that was released at the convention.  But, he also works well with the 2004 VAMP repaint or even the vintage version.

The result is a figure that has become my default modern Clutch.  Sure, when displaying 1984 and earlier figures, the vintage Clutch is the only choice.  But, I like the character to be available with remakes of other classics like Snake Eyes, Stalker, Hawk, Steeler or Rock and Roll.  This Clutch can drive his VAMP.  But, he also looks good in some of the later vehicle releases.  He has been seen as part of the crew for both the Mauler and Night Rhino on my display shelves.  The basic green and black fits as a general purpose vehicle driver and stays true to the military roots of the 1982 characters.

To me, this is what the comic packs and other releases during the repaint should have been about.  I think the comic packs tried.  (And even did produce some great great figures.)  But, they largely fell short with obscure colors, less than stellar mold choices and terrible accessories.  The 2007 Tanks for the Memories convention set did a nice job of putting together new figures and creating something rather collectible.  Not all of the colors were great for the mold choices.  But, they did give something different for many characters that expanded their use into more modern displays.

After the 2007 convention, prices for figures in the exclusive 15 figure set started to rise.  Slowly, the characters climbed over $20 or more.  Then, though, demand simply died.  Despite the high quality of the releases, collectors lost interest with the set.  Prices plummeted to as low as $7 or $8 per figure.  For the collectors of the time, it was a great price at which to pick up a few Convention exclusives.  Now, though, the demand has caught up again.  Today, Clutch figures sell in the $15-$20 range.  But, the lower supply can tempt impatient buyers into purchases for nearly twice those amounts.  So, it pays to look around and take your time when after a figure like this.  I feel this is a great version of Clutch that is on par with the original figure in terms of quality.  It can stand proudly as the character among figures made after 1984.  It takes nothing away from the original, but is true to the character and is a great upgrade.  If only more convention figures had been designed with those characteristics in mind.

2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch, Tanks for the Memories, Zap, Awe Striker, 2002 Scarlett, 2004 Night Force Flint

2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch, Tanks for the Memories, Zap, Awe Striker, 2002 Scarlett, 2004 Night Force Flint

2007 Convention Exclusive Clutch, Tanks for the Memories, Zap, Awe Striker, 2002 Scarlett, 2004 Night Force Flint

Monday, June 10, 2013

1997 General Hawk

1997 was a great year and a terrible year for Joes. It was great because Joe returned to retail shelves. Sure, it was only 3 years after the last product was produced and you could still find vintage Joes on the shelves of many out of the way retailers or independent toy stores. But, the fact that Hasbro was producing new Joes at the same time as this new fangled notion of the Internet was just starting to explode made for exciting times. It was a terrible year, though, because the figures weren't that strong. Changes in plastics lead to a different look and feel for the figures. On top of that, most of the classic molds that were meant to be a part of the line wouldn't be found and we were, largely, left with less popular replacements. To make matters worse, on many of the figures whose molds they did have, Hasbro chose less than flattering paint colors for the characters. The result is a year full of could have beens and should not have beens. (Don't get me wrong, though, there was a smattering of good and even a few great figures.) This is best showcased by the General Hawk figure that was included with the A-10 Thunderbolt.

Of the vehicles released in 1997, the Thunderbolt was the highlight. It was the highly popular Rattler mold only in drab green and made for the Joes. Really, it is the perfect way to repaint an iconic vehicle and have it switch sides. The Thunderbolt was also made more desirable by the inclusion of 2 figures: Ace and Hawk. Of course, this made the toy a whopping $25 at retail and it was the most expensive Joe toy produced that year. And, this made it the plane largely a pegwarmer.  It was readily available well through 1998 and even into 1999 in many markets.  Collectors have caught on to the Thunderbolt's quality in recent years.  But, at the time, the vehicle simply didn't click with collectors since vintage toys were still so readily available and cheap on the secondary market.

This mold is the definitive version of Hawk.  It showcases him in a way that honors his new found status as a general but also holds true to the fact that he's a combat troop at heart.  The 1997 version, though, isn't as combat ready as the 1986.  This is a much darker figure with the grey pants and slightly darker coat.  But, beyond that, it is still very similar to the original paint scheme.  Rather than take a chance and repaint the mold as something greatly different than the original, Hasbro played it safe and kept Hawk's appearance rather tame.  The result is a figure that is somewhat non-descript.  The dark brown and grey do work well together.  But, they lack any pizazz that would make this figure a must have.  At least the mold features solid paint details that showcase the sculpting.  The details have unique paint applications.  But, they are also muted like the figure in general.  The figure does have the burnt pink skin that was introduced in 1997.  That can be a bit off-putting.  But, the overall paint details are what we would now call convention quality.  Hasbro didn't skimp on the paint applications and this figure is closer to his vintage brethren in terms of paint than he is the figures who would follow him.

For me, this Hawk is nothing more than an outfit change for the Hawk character.  The 1986 figure is the definitive Hawk.  But, I do tire of using the same figures molds over and over again in photos.  This Hawk provides a nice diversion since he's recognizable as the Hawk character, not overly outlandish, and still true to the military roots of the character.  So, as a dio filler, this figure works nicely.  But, that's about the extent of his value.  My collection is no better nor worse for having this figure.  He is not essential by any means.  In sum, that defines many 1997 figures.  They are something different.  But, largely, they are not different or risky enough to be vital parts of a collection.

Hawk included a black version of his original pack and a green remake of the original 1982 helmet.  The helmet doesn't really work for the figure.  But, the brown version of Hawk's 1986 helmet from the 1987 accessory pack actually fits with the figure's overall color tone.  So, adding this keeps some of the elements of the vintage Hawk without being completely similar.  Hawk lacks any weapons.  But, original Hawk pistols are rather easy to acquire so outfitting him with a spare completes the figure.

The Hawk mold was a bit of a world traveler.  After it's use in the US, the figure was released in both Brazil and India in colors nearly identical to the V1 American figure.  Hasbro got the figure for the 1997 release.  From there, though, it gets somewhat interesting.  In 2002, Hasbro had to quickly throw together Wave 1.5.  It was a hasty hodge podge wave of ARAH mold figures that were designed to quiet collector backlash while Hasbro retrofitted their new JvC line with O-Rings.  The wave is mostly remembered for the Viper, Alley Viper and their accompanying Big Ben and Mirage figures.  However, also included in the Wave were a General Tomahawk and Sure Fire figures.  These two figures are largely forgettable these days.  However, in 2002, Hasbro planned for the Tomahawk figure to use the V1 Hawk mold.  (Sure Fire was planned to use the V1 Shockwave mold.)  However, Hasbro lost the V1 Hawk and Shockwave molds and had to go with the newer, less collector approved figures they released.  Hasbro did manage to find at least Hawk's chest and released it in a comic pack in 2005.  Despite all the mold's potential, it has not appeared since and is likely done for at this point.

The 1997 Hawk if probably one of the harder 1997 figures to find. While the Alley Viper and Viper are substantially more popular, the reality is that the A-10 was the largest and least produced item from the year and Hawk and Ace are the scarcest figures. A few years ago, a mint and complete version of this Hawk was going to cost you around $17. Now, though, the demand for these '97 figures has largely been sated and, when you can find him, you can get a Hawk for under $7 or so. But, that's only slightly less than you'll pay for a 1986 version of the figure. As such, I'd spend the extra dollar or two and get the superior '86 figure every time. As a placeholder, this Hawk is fine. But, beyond that, it isn't a great figure, or even a good figure. It's different than the '86, but that's about the extent of what you can say. So, if you're looking for figures to skip, this Hawk can probably be on your list.

1997 General Hawk, Clayton Abernathy, 1998 Cobra Trooper, Colonel Brekhov, Red Star, Oktober Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive

1997 General Hawk, Clayton Abernathy, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1988 Tiger Force Duke, 1997 Zap, European Exclusive Quarrel, Action Force, Z Force, SAS, Blades, Stalker, Snake Eyes, 2003 DVD Release, Plastirama Backstop, Blowtorch, Argentina

Thursday, June 6, 2013

2004 Night Force Flint

It is no secret that Flint is my favorite character in the Joe world.  I have versions of him from all over the world.  Really, there are no bad releases of the character's original mold.  The issue with the mold is that all of its uses around the world gave collectors a Flint figure with the same basic colors.  There are no desert, Arctic or dress versions of the mold.  They are all done in basic military colors.  Truthfully, that's not a terrible thing as it is rare for any important vintage mold like Flint to not have some terrible color variant that was released at some point in time.  But, even Flint's modern releases were well done.  The 2004 Night Force version is a perfect example of a slightly different take on a classic mold.

At its core, the idea of a Night Force Flint is fantastic.  A seminal, core character redone in one of the most popular subsets of all time is definitely a winner.  And, frankly, this Flint version is extremely well done.  The Night Force set in general was a triumph for Hasbro.  The figures featured up to 7 paint applications (on par with convention figure) and featured intricate details.  The face cammo, overlaying body details and the American flags on the figure's arms showed what modern technology could do with 20 year old molds.  The problem with the set, though, was two fold.  First, the accessory complement was horrendous.  These amazing figures all had rehashes of accessories that didn't fit their specialties and had been included ad naseum with JvC era figures.  The second issue was the mold choice.  It's not that Flint, Beach Head, Short Fuse, Tunnel Rat or Action Man were poor choices.  Far from it.  (The V1 Roadblock mold was heavily played out, though.)  The real issue was that the set featured 4 Funskool molds that collectors had been able to easily acquire for more than 3 years.  As such, 5 of the 6 molds in the set just seemed stale at the time of the Night Force set's release.  The collector malaise, though, allowed the figures to slip under the radar a bit since little attention was paid to them at the time.

As a figure, though, the Night Force Flint is exceptional.  While the basic green a black colors are similar to the original figure, they are alike only in that they work in the same environment.  The deep, forest green criss crossed with black lines offset by black and grey cammo pants is a visual treat.  In total, the figure features no less than 8 paint application colors...something that was unheard of for a retail release just a year later.  It is a release well worthy of the Flint character and something that could have been released in the vintage era.

One of the other plagues from this Night Force set was that the figures didn't fit in with any of the vintage Night Force members.  Those early figures used a lot of olive greens and black to distinguish themselves.  The 2004 versions, though, are much more colorful and look more like a forest cammo team than anything dedicated to nighttime operations.  This was the same approach taken with the 2003 Python Patrol set.  But, the vintage Python Patrol is often seen as an interesting novelty among collectors.  Vintage Night Force is a must have for any vintage fan and most of the figures who were released in Night Force see their subteam versions considered the best version of the figure in lieu of their original release.  Not meshing with these vintage beacons is something that greatly limits the subset value of this Night Force team.  Instead of seeing them as a unique uniform for specific duties, they are better used as high quality examples of individual characters.  It is a much lesser role for the '04 releases and is likely a reason why they don't enjoy a higher collector profile these days.

For me, this is just a different look for Flint.  Without his trademark shotgun, though, I find this version doesn't see the use reserved for the Funskool or American version.  (If you can find black versions of Flint's shotgun and backpack, though, the are perfect for this figure.  They are just really hard to track down from customizers and bootleggers.)  I do find him useful as part of displays that utilize vehicles from the 2000's.  He blends nicely with the Night Rhino and even works with the vehicles from the 1997 and 1998 TRU exclusive sets.  But, this is a very limited use for a figure of this quality.  The reality, though, is that while this figure is very well done, he does not surpass the iconic nature of the original Flint figure.  Given a choice, I'd take the original Flint every time.  That's less a detriment to the Night Force figure and more a testament to the enduring quality of the V1 Flint mold and colors.  But, I do appreciate at least an attempt to give collectors a Flint in slightly different colors.

The Flint mold has a long history.  It was used in the U.S. in 1985 and again in 1988 on the Tiger Force Flint.  The Hasbro produced V1 Flint was released in Europe (where he was a major player in the Action Force comic) and Japan.  From there, it was sent down to Brazil and the mold was released in colors similar to the U.S. figure as Muralha.  After that, the mold went to India.  There, Funskool produced Flint for many years.  It was here, though, that the arms from the Flint mold were separated from the rest of the body.  (It is likely that the use of the arms for Starduster caused the separation.)  The loss of the arms lead to a wide variety of arm variants in India.  In 2003, the mold was returned to Hasbro for use in future U.S. releases.  For whatever reason, though, Flint's accessories that were available in India never made a return appearance in the U.S.  Hasbro used the mold for the Night Force Flint, again in 2005, but with a new head, on the comic pack Flint and the head appeared in 2010 on the Convention Flint figures.

This Flint was actually released twice.  The first version was in the Night Force set.  But, the exact figure was released in 2005, along with the Night Force Beach Head, as the crew for the Toys R Us exclusive Hydrofoil.  Of the 2, the Hydrofoil is the more obscure release since so many collectors bypassed it at the time.  But, the figures are identical.  The Night Force figure is the only one with accessories, though.  Aside from those official releases, large quantities of Unproduced White Pants Night Force Flint's were available in Asia.  These figures are similar to the official retail release except they have white pants in lieu of black.  The figures are relatively easy to find (as Midnight Chinese figures go!) and aren't too pricey on the second hand market.

The Night Force sets were not a huge hit at the time of their release.  Paired with the highly anticipated Cobra Infantry set, the Night Force simply couldn't catch collector attention like the Cobra release.  Night Force sets languished at TRU stores until the end of the year when the holiday sales finally saw their absorption into the market.  At around ~20,000 sets produced, there are ample Flints to sate collector demand.  The fact that another ~10,000 were made for the Moray release shows that these figures exist in abundance.  The result is a very cheap figure to acquire on the secondary market.  While entire Night Force sets will fetch $40, you will rarely pay the $7 that the set price breaks down to if you want individual figures.  So, you have a cheap figure of a great character in a great color scheme.  That sounds like a winner to me.

2004 Night Force Flint, TRU EXclusive, Cobra Mortal, Bootleg, Black Major, Plastirama, Argentina

2004 Night Force Flint, TRU EXclusive

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

2006 Mercer - Convention Exclusive

There are some characters in the Joe mythos who have taken on greater significance far after their vintage media days were over.  In some cases, this the result of their figure being rare.  Other times, it is due to some modern Joe media outlet culling obscure recesses of the Joe world for something new.  And, some times, it is just a hidden little filecard gem that modern collectors latch onto.  It is this final scenario that has made the character of Mercer into much more than he ever was in the vintage line.

1987 was really the last year I collected Joes as a child.  I was heading towards high school and collecting Joes was not something I wanted to move along with me.  The fact that the 1987 G.I. Joe figure lineup included some real stinkers for figures certainly helped mature me.  Still, most of the 1987 Joes became part of my collection and were featured members for a short time.  Some, like Falcon and Outback, became icons and have remained relevant even today.  Others, like Fast Draw, were fun for a week and then became background fodder.  The Slaughter's Renegades set was both.  Almost immediately, I had no use for Red Dog or Taurus.  Both were quickly relegated away.  The Mercer figure, though, resonated with me.  I liked the design, the colors, the accessories and the look of the character.  As such, Mercer quickly joined the Tunnel Rats and Flints of the world in the main rotation of my Joe world.

When I returned to Joe collecting as a adult, I found the 1991 Mercer figure.  Another solid mold, that take showed a more mature Mercer who was not the lost soul that the 1987 version seemed to represent.  The 1991 character, though, also had a different file name.  What was likely just a copy editor error on Hasbro's part in the early '90's, though, became the impetus for collectors in fledgling online Joe world of the late 1990's to create elaborate backstories around the Mercer character.  Mercer then became much more popular as collectors realized the character's potential.  In time, some of this popularity dimmed.  (It always does.)  But, Mercer was much more popular than he had ever been in 1987.

As a mold, this Mercer has great potential.  The chest, waist and legs are from the Mega Marines Clutch figure.  The Mega Marines have always been a subset of figures that collectors have felt were under appreciated due to the poor color choices of the original releases.  That is true.  Unfortunately, Master Collector did not choose to capitalize on this mold's potential.  Instead of finding decent colors, they used a base of cream and blue.  The blue, along with the orange around the figure's neck, are an homage to the vintage Mercer figure.  But, for a character like this, I would have preferred a figure that was not bound to prior looks and used colors that were more flattering to the mold.  The bare arms from the 1992 Gung Ho figure are muscular enough to work for the character.  But, again, they were also likely a shout out to the vintage mold's bare arms as well.  The head is all new.  It is based on the vintage figure, but is a new mold with some nuance.  It is true to the character, though, and shows the young Mercer visage that is more in line with the character I used as a kid.

While the choice of colors for this figure is suspect, the paint applications are not.  Master Collector does go all out on their convention releases in terms of color differences to bring out the details of the mold.  Mercer is no exception.  The figure features flesh, brown hair, eye whites, cream, light brown, black, gold, blue, dark brown, olive green and, just for good measure, a red anti-Cobra tattoo on the figure's left arm.  No less than 11 different colors appear on the figure.  The aesthetic of cream over blue may not be the most useful motif.  But, the overall figure quality is far above just about anything seen in the vintage line.  One limiting factor of the color scheme, though, was that it appeared on all three Renegade figures as well as the Sgt. Slaughter released at the convention.  The theory was a unified uniform.  The reality is banality.  Stand alone, Mercer can work.  But, with the other 3 member of his sub set, the limitations of the color scheme become too apparent.

Mercer's accessories are neither memorable nor terrible.  He includes a cream colored version of Big Bear's backpack.  It fits the figure, even if the color is odd were it not matched to the figure's body.  Along with the requisite clear collector stand, Mercer includes two weapons that were molded during the repaint era for use with the Joe vs. Cobra style figures.  One is larger weapon with no stock.  Frankly, I despise the mold.  I didn't like it when it was first released and don't like it now.  It's well detailed and in scale with ARAH style figures.  But, it just does not click with me.  His other weapon is a smaller sub machine gun.  It is a much better weapon and is my gun of choice with the figure.  It is not as unique as Mercer's vintage silenced pistol.  But, it works for the character.

Alas, Mercer's days as a prominent member of my collection are largely gone.  I'm not even sure if I have a vintage version in my collection any more.  This Mercer, though, is a good enough replacement.  Without Red Dog and Taurus from the set to give cream and blue overkill, this Mercer works as a way to break up the monotony of much of the modern Joe line.  From time to time, I may display him with other figures from the 1987 era.  But, Mercer was always more of a loner to me.  He wasn't really ingrained with the traditional Joes.  So, having him by himself seems like a waste.  One thing I've learned about my collecting habits, though, is that whatever is old becomes new again.  So, at some point, I'll be nostalgic for Mercer and you'll start to see him in the background of various photos around the site.  I just don't know when that time will come.

As a convention exclusive attendee release, this figure had a very low production run.  Historically, low run, attendee only convention items have appreciated greatly on the secondary market.  Many often trade for 3 to 5 times their original price within weeks of the convention.  Initially, the Renegades set looked like it would go that way.  But, the interest in the set quickly fell due to the poor design and, generally, unpopular characters.  For a long time, sets would sit unsold at their original price.  These days, interest has dropped even further.  Mint and complete, Mercer figures can be purchased for under $7.  Red Dog and Taurus sell for even less.  It can take a while to find them, though, since so few collectors who dropped nearly $15 per figure at the convention are so eager to take that kind of loss on them.  For those prices, the figures can be a nice break from the sea of sameness that heavily defined the repaint era.  And, having a new take on the young Mercer is always nice.  But, this figure has definite shortcomings and is, in my opinion, inferior to the original.  Since vintage Mercers aren't exactly lighting up the price charts these days, either, I'd simply buy the vintage version and call it good for the character.

2006 Mercer, Convention Exclusive, Slaughter's Renegades, 2005 Gung Ho, Steel Brigade

Monday, June 3, 2013

2006 Cobra Viper Leader (Viper Pit)

Army builders are largely the staple of the modern collecting experience. While there are niches of collectors who only want one of every figure, it seems to be that the majority of Joe collectors feel the need to amass as many versions of the various Cobra Troops that they can. This is, of course, not a trait that is exclusive to Joe collectors. But, it seems that Joe collectors are very particular in their wants and desires from army building figures. Unlike Star Wars collectors who will gobble up every Clone and Stormtrooper they can find, Joe collectors seem to have greater fondness for items that are similar to the vintage versions. In fact, the more similar something is to a pre-existing figure, the more likely it will be a hit in the collecting community. This characteristic of Joe collectors is likely a function of their incredible frugality and has created a lot of frustration with the line as we see the same thing over and over. But, when these homages to vintage figures are done right, the results can be stunning. In the case of the Viper Pit set, though, the result was a little bit of both.

If Hasbro had released this set in 2003 or 2004, they simply would not have been able to make enough of them. This set would have outsold the Cobra Infantry without even trying. Collectors were STARVED for classic Vipers at the time and many people were actively building armies of the vintage figure...even at $30 a piece. But, by 2006, the army building bug had largely passed. Collectors were a bit older and were no longer as inclined to buy up hundreds of the same figure. At the same time, three years worth of army builder overkill had left many collectors with large collections of army building figures...many of whom weren't all that great. So, when faced with the prospect of buying hundreds more of one mold, collectors balked. (Especially when you considered that many of the 2003-2005 army builders were no longer even worth their original retail price.) That isn't to say that collectors didn't buy the set. Far from it. But, instead of buying 6 or 8 Viper Pits, they bought one or two. This tamer purchasing pattern lead to wider availability and there was no panic to acquire these figures like there was with the Cobra Infantry of 2004.

While this Viper mold is based on the original, it is actually the first Viper to use this parts combination. The original Viper legs were lost in 1997 and all subsequent Vipers were released using BAT legs. Over the years, collector complaints about those legs finally reached Hasbro and they did something about it. Unfortunately, they did the wrong thing about it. For these figures, Hasbro recast the upper legs of the original Viper. The result is that the fat upper legs easily snap the BAT waist piece that is still part of the figure. So, in their zeal to fix a minor problems, collectors actually created a worse problem and largely rendered the Viper Pit figure irrelevant.

When I first heard of this release, I thought there were some strong possibilities that would have made this a set for the ages. While this Viper mold was released in rainbows of colors in the modern line, there are still glaring gaps. I would have enjoyed seeing repaints like a desert Viper, arctic Viper or even the mold in a simple black and silver. These would have been welcome additions to the panoply of Vipers and not kept this mold stale. Had this set been 2 Vipers in the vintage homage colors, this leader figure and one of each of those themed Vipers, I think collector interest might have been higher since the set offered a bit more than army building figures in colors similar to those that most collectors had already amassed. Unfortunately, Hasbro did not go this route and Viper mold, actually, still has potential for more releases. The upside is that Hasbro has realized the errors of their ways in the Anniversary line and we have seen several molds repainted into some environmental themes. Had these types of sets been tried during the days of ARAH repaints, I think they would have been similarly received by the collectors of the time.  

While this set sold rather strongly at its release, sales quickly petered out and the Viper Pit was readily available at brick and mortar stores for nearly a year. To this day, online dealers still have the sets in stock for original retail price. This is due to a few factors. First off, the widespread complaints about figure quality quickly saturated Joe message boards. It quickly became apparent that if you were going to stand these figures in a row to collect dust on a shelf, they were OK. But, if you wanted to pose them in any manner, the construction constraints really hindered any use of the figures. This largely disenfranchised the remaining collector base since any figures they bought would have to be heavily modified in order for them to be even close to usable. Secondly, the collector market had largely quieted down by late 2006. Collector interest was at an all time low and those who were still around were fatigued by the pace of release from the prior 4 years. Finally, this set didn't offer anything that most collectors didn't already have. As such, there was no compelling reason to buy up dozens of sets since most collectors already had large armies of Vipers in colors close enough to these figures that the Viper Pit became redundant.  

Technically, this figure isn't the Viper Leader or anything like that. According the file cards, this is just another Viper who happens to have a golden faceplate. However, in 2009, Hasbro released Vipers with coloring similar to the Viper Pit as part of the anniversary line. In that set, the golden Viper is alluded to as a leader figure. It is a logical leap, but that lends some official credibility to a trend that collectors intuitively knew already. The golden faceshield, though, really only works as a mark of prominence. Given a choice between silver masked Vipers from the set and the golden version, I'd take the silver versions every time. The silver seems to go better with the blue, black and red that comprises the rest of the figure. Of note, though, is that this leader figure does also feature golden latches on his flak jacket. The remaining Viper Pit members all feature silver buckles to match their faceplates.

In my collection, this figure is just a squad leader. He doesn't command legions. (That is left to the Golden Viper from 1990.) He is just out on patrol with some other green recruits. I see these Vipers as Cobra's entry level. Most are uneducated, but love a small paycheck and the freedom to use military weaponry. Anyone worth a salt will quickly distinguish themselves in the Viper ranks and move up into one of the more specialized Cobra units. The Vipers remain cannon fodder and their most dangerous trait tends to be their sheer numbers.

The accessories in the Viper Pit were fairly decent. The figures included backpacks taken from the 1992 Gung Ho. The vintage Viper backpack that was used in 2002 for the convention Crimson and Fuschia Vipers remains MIA. But, the Gung Ho pack is an acceptable alternative as it is about the same size and features the basic trappings you would expect from a field trooper. The Vipers also included a choice of 2 rifles: a grey repaint of Ambush's gun or a heavy machine gun that was first used in the new sculpt line. The grey rifles are a decent homage to the original Viper gun. The coloring is consistent and the Ambush gun does have some similarities (from a toy designer's perspective) to the original rifle. These work well enough. The heavy machine guns, though, are very well done. The are scaled for use with ARAH style Joes and give these Vipers a bit more punch. Gone are the grenade launchers from the original Viper rifle and in is a heavier weapon that will allow a Viper to yield more firepower in the field. There are also two pistols in the set: which are most often attributed to this leader figure by collectors. Even while these weapons are decent, I still have found myself outfitting my Viper Pit figures with different weapons. In the photo below, you will see the leader with a sniper from the Python Patrol Officer. It is just a weapon that gives the leader a little more authority. (And also ties him back to the standard Cobra Troopers from which he was inspired.)

Quality wise, this figure is both excellent and terrible. The paint details on all the Viper Pit figures are convention level quality. The figures feature two toned gloves and goggles, painted buckles, intricate Cobra logos and paint masks over paint masks on the legs. The result is a figure that is probably superior in terms of paint to even the vintage Viper. The construction, though, is where the figure suffers. All of the Viper Pit figures used tight O-rings that hinder the figure's movements. Sure, you can easily replace these. But, that's still a knock against the figures overall. The waist piece is too small for the legs and more than one collector has snapped a crotch just by posing a Viper Pit figure in a kneeling position. This can be abated by sanding down the waist piece, if you are so inclined. Finally, the figure's heads all droop down. This has been an issue since 1997, but has become more pronounced. Again, there is a fix where you can sand down a tab in the figure's torso to make the head more natural. But, this just adds to the amount of work a collector has to do to make this figure normal.

If you are patient, you can buy carded sets on the aftermarket for below retail. Loose figures from the Viper Pit set are readily available in the $7 range, but often go unsold. If you find a lot with two or three of the figures, you can often get them for $3 or $4 each. Historically, that's a low price for a Viper mold with decent accessories. But, the market for ARAH style army builders is largely dead. As such, I don't think we're ever going to see the heyday of army builder pricing like we did in 2002 and 2003. That's not a bad thing as collectors can now still build armies without spending tons of money. And, since figures like this pretty much devastated the pricing of vintage figures, you don't even have to relegate yourself to the modern interpretations of classic molds. Overall, I'm torn on this. I like seeing cheap Joes. But, at the cheaper prices, less people are inclined to part with their collections...especially those collectors who invested $25-$30 each on some of the vintage army builders back at the height of the market. So, the available stock is largely incomplete or off condition cast offs. Still, sets like the Viper Pit did fill a niche in the collecting world and have a place. But, this set could have been so much more. Alas, that's pretty much the story of the entire run of ARAH style Joes from 2000-2006....

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader