Thursday, December 26, 2013

1987 Gyro Viper

In December of 1987, I turned 14 years old. I was, frankly, too old to still be playing with toys. My parents were loathe to buy me any additional Joe toys and rolled their eyes when I bought them with my own money. However, as 1987 progressed, I slowed down my Joe acquisitions. By the fall of the year, I was buying baseball cards with my hard earned money. This was, for many, a more acceptable collecting past time than toys. But, for that birthday, I got the final large Joe toy of my childhood: the Mamba. The large Cobra helicopter looked like an awesome toy but quickly showed its limitations. As such, the chopper simply never made a dent in many of my Joe adventures. The pilot, though, resonated with me much more deeply than the vehicle. The Gyro Viper was a figure that I thought was the best Cobra pilot ever released. In retrospect, that praise is probably overkill. The figure has its limitations. But, the design is still strong and the Gyro Viper delivers on the promise of a Cobra pilot that Hasbro often failed to deliver.

As a figure, the Gyro Viper is decent. The lack of traditional Cobra colors is a bit deceiving since the figure is mostly designed to be cooped up in the cockpit of an aircraft. The tan base is something new for Cobra. But, the red helmet does give him some standard Cobra relevance. The body mold features an array of hoses that suggest the suit has built in life support systems and that the Gyro Vipers can fly at great altitudes. It also appears that the suit has a molded on ripcord. I'm not sure how a pilot would abandon a helicopter with blades that would hit the canopy were it thrown open in flight. But, it's a detail that may suggest the Gyro Viper was originally intended for a different purpose and was pulled into duty as the Mamba pilot as a last minute replacement.

In the comic book, Cobra had a tremendously cool transport helicopter. Armed to the teeth, this chopper was also capable of carrying crew and vehicles. It appeared for a number of years as the go to Cobra air transport. Unfortunately, that copter never made it to toy form. Instead, Hasbro sold the Mamba. The selling point was that it was a twin blade attack copter with removable jet drones. The reality is that the Mamba looks a lot cooler on paper than it is in actual toy form. I was quickly disappointed with it as a toy. (Though, the drones ended up being an important piece of my Cobra army for many, many years.) It was the Gyro Viper, though, that kept my interest. The figure was high quality and needed to play an important role in my collection. For a few weeks, at least, the Gyro Viper was involved in any Cobra operation. He might be a pilot who was shot down and needed rescue from the Joes. Or, he was a new Cobra advisor partaking in his first battles. But, as 1987 wound into 1988, toys simply faded away. As such, the Gyro Viper didn't get the full treatment that other, solid vehicle drivers from 1987 saw. Instead, he was packed away with my other figures and left for many years, awaiting the day he would rejoin my collection.

These days, the Gyro Viper is a Cobra pilot. Figures like the Strato Viper can be more useful since he fits into any Cobra aircraft. But, the Gyro Viper still has a place. He is a perfect pilot for the AGP or even the Firebat. It's just a figure that can be plugged into any number of Cobra aircraft without looking out of place. The flight suit is flexible in that way and the helmet denotes both high tech and standard combat issue. Even as the pilot of his native Mamba, the figure works quite well. The maps on the leg and general detail really showcase that Hasbro still cared about vehicle drivers in 1987...even if the paint applications would fade away in 1988.

The Gyro Viper mold saw little use. Aside from its appearance as the Mamba pilot, the body was reused for the 1990 Skydive figure. After that, the mold disappeared. The Gyro Viper would have been an excellent candidate for a repaint during recent years. Done is more traditional Cobra colors, the figure would have been a welcome addition to the line. But, it was not to be. So, collectors are left tracking down the vintage version and living with the limitations of just a single release.

Gyro Vipers are not expensive. The figure was available only with the Mamba. But, it seems that unlike other vehicle drivers that were packed with expensive vehicles, the Gyro Viper is fairly easy to find. Mint and complete with filecard figures sell in $6-$8 range, with some skewing higher due to an impatience factor. It's a small price for a solid figure and one that works well as either a chopper or aircraft pilot. Due to the high availability and low price, it's a great candidate for army building and it's a cost effective way to standardize the Cobra pilot corps.

1987 Gyro Viper, Mamba, 1988 AGP, 1992 Slice

Monday, December 23, 2013

2004 Funskool Windmill

Windmill may have the distinction of being the last new G.I. Joe figure ever produced by Funskool. Declining sales in India have put the Funskool G.I. Joe line on a indefinite hiatus in India and it could be some time before we see any new figures: if ever. This has happened before. Every so often, Funskool stops producing new Joes and lets their stock sell down in India. After a while, interest is rekindled in the line and Funskool starts producing brand new figures again. In the meantime, though, there is little of interest for the casual Funskool collector. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as the Funskool Joe line had become somewhat tired. Even the 4 or 5 new releases every year.

1988 and 1989 vehicle drivers were very popular Hasbro cast offs. The Secto Viper and Skidmark were both sold off to Olmec in the late 1990's. A large quantity of the '88 vehicle drivers then made their way to India where figures like Windmill were then re-released in new color schemes. (Wild Card was supposed to the final Funskool figure, but the line was cancelled before he was released.)

This figure is terrible. The bright red coat, blue pants and sloppy paint applications just create an awful visage. But, then again, Windmill didn't have much to live up to in comparison to his 1988 figure. The green and orange original is equally bad, but doesn't have the foreign cachet to offset the terribleness. But, as a pilot in an awkward vehicle, this Windmill works as well as the original version. He's also good for basic background filler and could work as a crewman on the USS Flagg. Beyond that, though, the figure is pretty limited. The colors are too garish and the mold too poor for the figure to ever have any great use.

Windmill's true camp value lies in his accessories. The figure includes a black version of the oversized .357 Magnum from the American figure. But, he also includes an accessory unique to India: a personal helicopter pack. This is not the high tech, you can believe it could exist with a small suspension of disbelief, helicopter pack from the Annihilator. No. This is a full on cheesy 1970's comic book propeller on a stick. Stuck with a yellow and purple combination, the pack is nothing short of hilarious. And, for the pack alone, the figure is worth having. Seeing the propeller in the position where it is would propel Windmill forward rather than up. But, that just adds to the figure's already comedic nature. It's hyperbolically bad. But, it's also what makes the figure good.

The demise of the Funskool Joe line was likely hastened along by collector desire to have some of the Funskool back in the US. In early 2003, Funskool returned 18 of their most popular figure molds to Hasbro and could no longer produce them. Hasbro and Master Collector both took advantage of these molds to produce figures like new Night Vipers, variations on the Muskrat mold, Tracker, Tunnel Rat, Flint and Beach Head. Despite the mold's appearances, though, the end result was a pretty poor crop of figures that brought these Indian figures back to American retail. A few of the figures were OK. But, the lack of accessories and general laziness that permeated the repaint era really leaves me with the feeling that the molds would have been better off in India where there was always the possibility of new variants, original accessories and new amalgamated figures using classic parts. Plus, Hasbro didn't use all of the molds. So, figures like Spearhead and Airtight never saw their molds return, despite being plucked from India with the others.

Funskool Windmill's are no longer the ubiquitous pegwarmers they were meant to be. In the decade since this figure's release, the collecting world has absorbed most of the figures imported to the U.S. As such, it can take a while to track one down. But, being both terrible and Funskool ensure that even carded versions rarely sell for much above $8 these days. For that price, the figure is fun. It's just such a terrible mold with worse colors that you really have to own one. This is a perfect example of Joe as a toy line and not a collector based toy property. As such, there is an innocence in the Funskool figures from the early 2000's that is not seen in the Hasbro based products. For that reason, figures like this have value to me beyond many of their American contemporaries just because the Funskool figures were so different from what we got stateside. It's just too bad the Funskool book has been closed for nearly a decade now.

2004 Funskool Windmill, India

2004 Funskool Windmill, India, 2002 Viper, 2001 Laser Viper

Thursday, December 19, 2013

1990 Salvo

Throughout my childhood years, there were many tales of figures who simply disappeared from my collection and were never seen again. I was usually very careful with my figures, so it wasn't a matter of careless misplacement. Some might have been inadvertently taken home by a friend. Others may have been stolen by my brothers. But, from time to time, figures just disappeared. However, the opposite of that was also true. Every so often, a figure would show up at our house with no explanation. The most glaring examples of this occurred after I had stopped playing with toys. I suspect that one of my brother's friends had brought the figure over and left it behind. In other instances, neighbor kids may have been playing in our yard and left their toys. Whatever the source, though, occasional figures would appear with no definitive information as to their origin. One such figure was Salvo. At some point in the early 1990's, a figure with his helmet appeared in our toy room. I looked him over and was impressed not only with the mold design, but also the excellently done helmet. So, when the time came, I rescued Salvo from the toy room floor and stowed away with my other figures I had saved.

The Salvo mold is rather simple. While the legs are well detailed with the array of ammunition, the upper body is little more than a t-shirt. From a practical standpoint, this doesn't make much sense. Seeing the figure wearing a backpack, though, makes even less sense. But, sometimes a toy is about being a toy and obvious errors can be forgiven due to generally cool overall design. Still, though, Salvo would have benefited from some web gear on his upper body. Whether molded or removable (like Outback's), some additional details would have gone a long to improving the figure.

Salvo's accessories are plentiful and interesting. His full complement of gear was in line with the over-accessorized frenzy that was the 1990 Joe line. Some of the launchers and weapons lack practicality. But, the look is still strong enough that the figure stands out from many of his contemporaries. The brown shoulder launcher is large, but well detailed. Salvo's gun is completely bizarre. But, the inclusion of layable land mines as part of the overall weapon is something very different and a neat little add on for the figure. Of course, the highlight of Salvo is the tight fitting helmet with painted silver visor. It fits better than most helmets in the line and showed that Hasbro was capable of making high quality removable helmets. The final overlooked piece of Salvo's arsenal is a briefcase. This accessory appeared many more times in the line in subsequent years. It was, at one time, the accessory du jour for customizers creating Crimson Twins or civilian Cobra Commanders. For Salvo, it doesn't bring a lot of value. But, it's nice to have around for other figures.

In my collection, Salvo's role has evolved. In the late 1990's, the figure was my Joe army builder of choice. Outfitted with a Tiger Force Flint backpack and a Sonic Fighters Lamprey's black version of Spearhead's gun, the figure was a basic infantry trooper who fought against the Cobra legions. He remained in this role until 2000 when Dusty and then Mirage figures replaced him in this role. From there, Salvo became more of himself. I ditched the add on accessories and returned the figure to his true role. His bulky weapons made him ill suited for an infantry patrol. But, he was the perfect crewman on an APC, Havoc or Monster Blaster APC. Today, that is still his primary duty. The figure, though, gets much less than he did a decade and a half ago. But, that's how my collection tends to be: with figures ebbing and flowing in and out of popularity as time goes on.

Salvo's shirt carries the slogan "The Right of Might".  In and of itself, this isn't anything particularly special.  However, there is book published in the 1890's entitled "Might is Right".  Where it gets interesting is that this book , published in 1890: 100 years before Salvo's release, is heavily influential in modern Satanism.  Could Salvo's shirt have been a subtle occult reference?  It seems a bit much...until you really look at some of the themes in Joe.  Serpentor was basically about raising the dead.  Crystal Ball's character was written by Stephen King.  Cobra La included references to mythical, evil creatures.  So, there are definitely some dark themes that pervade the Joe world. Personally, I don't think there's anything to it. But, it's a fun reference for Joe collectors.

The Salvo mold was used for this figure only in the vintage Joe line. In late 1994/early 1995, the entire body mold was used for the Street Fighter Movie Balrog figure. (This is actually a pretty nice villain figure done in blue and white.) In 2003, Hasbro slapped collectors in the face when the released the body with a Low Light head as the Tiger Force Big Brawler. A recolored Brawler showed up in 2004, too. So, Hasbro had the body mold during the repaint era, but chose to not use it for a re-done Salvo figure. It's a terrible waste of a good mold as collectors generally ridiculed the Big Brawler figure, but would have welcomed a new Salvo...even if it were only as part of Tiger Force. But, the repaint era is marked by missed opportunities and poor figure choices. Being so close to getting a new Salvo, though, makes him sting a bit more than most of the other errors from the time.

Salvo figures are not cheap. Being prone to paint wear on the gold bullets and eyebrows as well as including a large volume of accessories has put a premium on genuinely mint and complete figures. Top conditioned Salvos sell in the $11-$13 range and will sometimes range upwards of $15. For an obscure Joe character who debuted in the 1990's, that's a fairly high price tag. But, the figure is worth it. The great helmet, solid design and cool colors all combine into a package that every collection needs. Many of the figures from the 1990's are easily on par with releases from 1985. Salvo is no exception. It seems that collectors are finally realizing the quality of many later figures and giving them their due.

1990 Salvo, 1991 Super Sonic Fighters Zap

Monday, December 16, 2013

1997 Lady Jaye

In the early days of Joe collecting, female figures were held in high regard.  There was a misconception in the collecting world that female figures were produced in smaller numbers than other figures.  So, collectors were willing to pay a lot more for figures like Lady Jaye than they were for many of her contemporaries.  As such, when Hasbro looked to bring back Joe for the 15th Anniversary in 1997, they included the Baroness, Scarlett and Lady Jaye molds in their offerings: hoping that they would appeal to collectors.  The tactic was likely no more or less successful than had they included other, high quality figures.  (All of the packs were pretty much pegwarmers.)But, it did offer collectors different takes on all of these iconic characters.

This figure's coloring is pretty good. The black motif with the splotches of grey and white create the aura of a Night Force Lady Jaye figure. Hasbro really experimented with the paint application blending in 1997. They seemed to learn from it as the 1998's and later featured even better blends than the guinea pigs. (Note the Vypra from 1998 uses about the same colors as Lady Jaye, but the blends are more subtle and create a more aesthetically pleasing figure.) Overall, this is probably my favorite Lady Jaye color scheme. But, it is not my favorite Lady Jaye figure.

There's something off with the construction of this figure.  The torso no longer fits perfectly to the waist piece.  The result is that the figures often appear lopsided due to the tilt from the imperfect fit.  This is likely a combination of the mold being returned from Funskool along with the fact that the 1997 materials were of very poor quality. However, it does impact the ability to display the figure and definitely lowers the value of the figure in relation to the color scheme. The poor plastic of the 1997 figures is also an issue. The figure feels weak. It seems like the joints could easily snap and the figure broken with just the slightest movement. The plastic also did not take paint very well and many Lady Jaye figure faces look more like a Funskool paint job than a full fledged Hasbro application.

As a character, though, Lady Jaye is someone whom most collectors consider to be extremely important. As such, it is nice to have an alternative look for her, especially when her original green is rather bright. The black motif lends itself to Night Force comparisons and blends well with many of the darker colored figures from the line's history. This version also complements Flint very well and gives the pair more of a matched look. It's a shame that such a quality color scheme was used on a figure of such poor material quality. Were this not the case, it's likely that this figure would be more popular.

The 1997 Lady Jaye included black versions of her original accessories. The javelin gun, pack and video camera were all part of her weapons complement. One thing the 1997 series got right was the inclusion of most of the original figure's accessories. Through 1992, really, accessories were a key component of any figure's characterization. Having Zap without his bazooka wasn't worth having at all. So, seeing the original gear with the classic figure molds was something that helped these figures age better than most collectors who were around when the figures were released in 1997 would have guessed. Hasbro moved away from the unique accessories as the 2000's wore on. And, many otherwise excellent figures suffered for it as their generic gear made them too mundane to stand on the merits of their mold alone.

The Lady Jaye mold enjoyed a solid life. After her American release, the mold was sent to India. There, Funskool released a Lady Jaye figure for a few years. (They also used the mold for the Canary Ann figure in a knock off line, too.) Hasbro got the mold back in 1997 and used the body again in 1998 for the Volga figure. In 2003, the mold made its final appearance in the convention set. After that, Hasbro resculpted the Lady Jaye mold and all Lady Jaye and her derivatives since then have used that newly sculpted, smaller mold rather than this original version.

For a time in the early 2000's, this version of Lady Jaye was difficult to find and substantially more expensive than her original version.  Slowly, though, interest in the figure waned.  First, Hasbro produced more Lady Jaye figures.  But, collectors also realized the 1997 series was likely not as rare as they had anticipated.  So, prices on this figure have dropped steadily since then.  Since the set includes a nice Stormshadow with his original accessories and a decent Snake Eyes in the pack, too, that's probably the better way to go if you want the figure. For my money, this is an interesting take on Lady Jaye. But, the figure's construction problems really offset the solid colors. As a display piece, this figure is decent. But, beyond that, I find its use limited.

1997 Lady Jaye, TRU Exclusive, Vypra, 1998, Funskool Flint

Friday, December 13, 2013

1983 Snow Job

Imagine you were a kid in early 1983.  While you likely played with Joe figures in 1982, it is also likely that your main interest at the beginning of the year was the upcoming Return of the Jedi figures in the Star Wars line.  Now, imagine watching cartoons on your local station one afternoon and seeing a fleeting 30 second commercial showcasing not only the newly designed G.I. Joe figures for 1983, but also touting their new articulation feature (Swivel Arm Battle Grip) that allowed the figures to use a whole new array of accessories.  Seeing Return of the Jedi in the theatre might have kept those figures near and dear to you for a while.  But, the increased Joe articulation, more varied colors, exceptionally detailed molds and incredible new accessories likely swept you into G.I. Joe and made it your preferred toyline.  At least, this is what happened to me, my friends, my brothers, their friends and a host of other kids in 1983.

There were, basically, 4 new Joe figures who got the most face time in the Joe commercials: Gung Ho, Airborne, Doc and Snow Job. Each of these major characters brought a completely new look to the world of G.I. Joe. The introduced specialties beyond those of the original 13 and really allowed the figures to show the characterization that was evident from the filecards. For me, these four new characters opened up the Joe world beyond anything Star Wars could offer. As soon as I had my first Airborne figure, G.I. Joe had replaced Star Wars as the figure brand du jour in my home and would hold that place until I stopped playing with toys entirely.

As a figure, Snow Job is exceptionally well done. His base is standard white. But, the small details just bring him to life. The black scarf and goggles along with brown shoulder pads and belt provide just enough color to break up on the monotone body and give the figure depth. But, the true highlight is the flaming orange beard. This gives Snow Job a definitive look and allowed the designers to add a bright color to the figure in a way that was realistic. Much has been made about the abundance of redheads on the Joe team. I suspect that this was a way for the early designers to incorporate the color into figures without giving up realism. Thunder is a great figure in green and brown that fits with military style. But, the red hair brings much more color to the mold without sacrificing realism.

I got my first Snow Job figure for Christmas in 1983. Due to the figure's popularity with wintertime gift givers, though, both of my brothers also got one. So, we had three Snow Job figures for winter fun. That first snowfall, Snow Job saw some use. But, as the snow melted, the figure became less interesting. At some point, though, I saw a television movie (possibly The Day After, but I'm not sure as it's a fleeting memory) where enemy troops were dressed nearly identical to Snow Job. At that point, Snow Job figures became an army, often against the Joes. It was easy since I had so many of the figure and the white uniforms weren't really all that much more ridiculous than Cobra's blue. This lasted a short time before Snow Job fell out of the limelight again. In 1985, he saw a bit of duty on my new Snow Cat. But, he was replaced by Iceberg in 1986 and never returned. The figure really became more valuable for his accessories as I spread his gun out to Duke, Hawk and Flint and his skis would be brandished by any figure I wanted to take out in the snow.

These days, Snow Job doesn't see much time in the limelight. Living in the desert, I haven't seen snow in over a decade. Even cold days are few and far between. On top of that, the only real arctic vehicles I have are the Snow Cat and Blockbuster tank. The Snow Cat is really left for figures like Iceberg and Blizzard while the Blockbuster is weighed down with Snow Storm figures. For whatever reason, the Polar Battle Bear never resonated with me as a toy. So, Snow Job is basically just drawer fodder for now. It's an unjust fate for a figure of this quality, but Snow Job is just a victim of circumstance. Should I ever move to a colder climate, I could see the figure taking on greater importance. But, for now, he is mostly just memories.

Snow Job's accessories are remarkable for the time. His laser rifle became a cartoon staple. But, it's original appearance was something very different from the rifles included with the first wave of Joe figures. It is the backpack, skis and ski poles, though, which up the ante for all action figures that would follow Joe. In a feat of engineering, the skis and poles fit into the pack allowing Snow Job to carry his accessories when he's not using them. The skis are a well detailed with bindings that attach to the figure's feet. The poles are a bit fragile, but they are also nicely designed and can wrap around the figure's wrists or be held in Snow Job's hands. The Joe designers of 1983 showed what was possible with accessory complements. Kenner had upped the ante a bit with their initial Return of the Jedi figure line in early 1983. But, Hasbro completely blew them out of the water with their own yearly offerings. It was just the beginning of accessory progression, too, as the Joe team would push the envelope of that type of accessories they could offer to consumers well into 1992.

As a mold, Snow Job was done to death.  Aside the Hasbro releases, the figure was also produced by the Funskool toy company for release in India and the Nilco toy company for release in Egypt.  These figures are basically identical to the American release.  Hasbro re-acquired the mold and first re-used it in 1997.  It then appeared in 2000/2001 as Whiteout, in 2003 as the Snowcat driver, in 2005 as part of the Winter Operations exclusive set and 2010 as part of a Then and Now concept.  On top of these releases, parts of the mold have been used for the arctic Snake Eyes in 2004 and a convention figure in 2007.  Basically, Snow Job has been done to death and there are really no reasons for him to ever appear again.

Mint and complete Snow Jobs have greatly decreased in value in the past decade.  For a time, truly minty white Snow Job figures would fetch upwards of $25.  But, years of re-paints and re-releases helped to temper the demand for the figure. It's still somewhat difficult to find a gem mint, white figure. But, it can be done and they will likely cost only around $15-$18. If you are willing to take on a slight bit of discoloration, the price is cut in half. (And, no matter how good of care you give to that gem mint Snow Job, it's likely that he will, eventually, discolor, too. It's just the nature of the plastic. You can stave off the deterioration for a while, but it will happen, eventually.) As a classic Joe, Snow Job is an essential part of any collection. As a high quality figure, he is even more so. Figures like Snow Job showed what action figures could be. And, for these reasons, he is a figure who will always be a part of my collection.

1983 Snow Job, 1997 Duke

1983 Snow Job, 1997 Duke

Monday, December 9, 2013

1984 Stinger

There are staples of the Cobra army.  Certain designs in figures and vehicles were so well done that they are iconic to the Cobra brand.  Cobra Commander, Destro, the Hiss Tank, Cobra Troopers, Vipers and BATs all come to mind as items that are instantly identifiable as Cobra not only to collectors but to average people who grew up in the '80's.  The 1984 Stinger Jeep is another of these iconic vehicles.  Sure, it is based on the VAMP design and is not completely unique to Cobra.  But, it's perfect meshing of color with the Hiss Tank and complementary nature to the classic Cobra blue has created a vehicle that has taken on a life of its own as an essential part of any Cobra army.

The Stinger is pretty straightforward. It is a black jeep that holds two figures. The upgrades from the base VAMP body, though, are the brush guard on the front, an updated interior, the sleek doors and roof and the large missile launcher on the back that would turn the two troopers riding on the foot stands and holding the handrails on the back of the jeep into crispy critters the first time they were fired. Practicality aside, though, it is one sleek looking vehicle that blends perfectly with the FANG and HISS which comprised the bulk of the Cobra vehicles available at the time.

When I was a kid, the Stinger was in pretty heavy play rotation. It was a nice supplement to the HISS Tank and worked well with many of the Cobra figures of the era. In the fall of 1984, I took the Stinger to my Aunt and Uncle's home in Ohio. They had a tiny backyard that consisted of a brick pathway that surrounded a raised flower garden in the center. It was a great place to play with Joes since there was open dirt, lots of plants and rocks and the whole setting was raised up so it was easy to kneel down and not have to sit on the cold, fall ground. The Stinger was a huge component of the adventure. As I grew more and more animated in the play, my older cousin and her friend were watching from her upstairs window. I heard her friend remark how weird I was to play with toys. (I was 10 at the time.) It was a stinging comment and one that's stuck with me to this day. It was this experience that painted my view of the Stinger for a few years.

As such, the Stinger fell out of favor with me. In time, the vehicle was broken and got rather run down. At some point, I removed the bases from my original VAMP and Stinger and swapped them so the VAMP had a more detailed interior. After that, the Stinger remained relatively unused for a long time. As an adult collector, though, I gained greater appreciation for the Stinger. The solid design and great colors were enough to get me past the bad memories (As an aside, years later, one of my best friends in college turned out to be the high school boyfriend of the girl who made the snide comments about me years earlier. His stories helped ease some of the baggage.) The Stinger has since become a staple of my classic Cobra displays. The design is just too perfect with classic Troopers and Officers to not use.

The Stinger mold was used all over the world.  It was repainted in its entirety in 1986 as the Sears exclusive Dreaknok Stinger.  Other than that, there are decal variants from around the world.  There is also a mail in Stinger with slightly different colored doors and roofs.  (It is actually quite hard to find.)  Hasbro reused the mold in 1998 (paired with Vypra), but kept the basic black coloring.  After that, they never released it again.  During the repaint era, a Cobra blue or Crimson Stinger would have snatched up in huge numbers by the army builder crazy collector community.  But, it never came to be.  As such, while the Stinger remains iconic, it also has great potential that was never realized.

Stinger prices fluctuate quite a bit.  There was a time when you could get them mint and complete for under $15 with no problems.  Collectors got interested in the mold in the late '00's and prices spiked to a point where it was difficult to acquire a mint and complete version for under $50.  But, that peak was short lived.  Today, you can get them in the $25-$35 range depending upon whether it includes the driver or the blueprints.  It's not a terrible price, but one that makes it more expensive to army build than something like the Hiss Tank which has never really appreciated on the secondary market despite its popularity.

1984 Stinger, Stinger Driver, Stormshadow

Thursday, December 5, 2013

1998 Cobra Trooper

In early December of 1998, I went into a Toys R Us store on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  I was mostly looking for Star Wars figures, but figured I might stumble upon the newly released G.I. Joe exclusives as well.  Sure enough, I hit the jackpot and found most of the 1998 figures hanging on the shelf. I then proceeded to wait in line for nearly 45 minutes as the busy store struggled to check out the massive throng of Christmas shoppers. In that time, I looked over the figures and anticipated getting them home and opened up. Of course, the reason I was at TRU during the rain storm was because I was moving that day from one apartment to another and the rain had gotten so heavy that it was no longer practical to carry all of my belongings from one side of the building to the other. So, even when I got the figures home, they were left in the package until I finished the move.

As soon as I opened the 1998 Cobra Troopers, I knew it was a special set. The figures were of excellent quality, far above the 1997 releases. They were in classic Cobra colors and included excellent accessories that fit the figure well. Really, they were everything that a collector could have wanted from a $10, 3 figure set that was available at retail stores. The paint masks were nothing short of remarkable with layered silver and golden highlights that helped offset the black on blue base. Every strap and molded piece of gear is highlighted in accent paint to let the power of the mold stand out from the base. Even the figure's collar features a two tone paint application that starts with gold framing the faceplate but then turns to silver as it wraps around the figure's head. This figure proved that Hasbro did know how to make figures geared for the collector market and was willing to go the extra mile to make something spectacular. It's very odd that they were willing to do this for a retailer exclusive line in 1998, but a full retail line just two years later already saw cost cutting and skimping.

When these Cobra Troopers debuted, their inclusion of recolored 1991 Dusty accessories was rather inspired. At the time, the 1991 Dusty was fairly obscure and somewhat difficult to find. So, the rifle, stock, pack and pistol weren't overly familiar with collectors. The pack was a field pack in a similar vein to the original Viper backpack. The rifle with the removable, folding stock was a great fit for the figures and brought some depth to the accessories. The pistols were somewhat superfluous. But, collectors weren't going to care that their Cobra army builders included too many weapons. In the years after this figure's release, though, the rifle, pistol and backpack were used ad naseum by Hasbro: interchanging the weapons with both Joes and Cobras. That subsequent use sucked the uniqueness of this accessory from the 1998 Cobra Trooper. But, the complement of weapons, at the time, was something that gave this figure more character and helped to differentiate it from the standard Viper gear.

In the early 2000's, army building was the meat of the Joe collecting world.  Large armies were in vogue and many people saw the size of the army as a measure of the collection.  It was a silly time in a lot of ways, but it was easy to get caught up in the hype.  Hasbro was part of the machine and they churned out army builders in droves.  Some were OK, a lot were terrible and a few were really well done.  Given years of perspective, though, I find it amazing that the first real army builders targeted for collectors were not only the best combination of paint, accessories and mold, but they were also the cheapest way for collectors to build a decent sized army. It would be a full 5 years before Hasbro would once again issue a retail release with multiple army builders. And, it took until 2004 for Hasbro to finally come back to their lost understanding that army building sets geared towards collectors were a smart product move.

The 1998 Joe figures actually saw three distinct production runs. The first was late 1998 and those were the figures shipped for the holidays of that year. Most of these sold through with a few straggling Oktober Guard and Diver packs left behind. In the early part of 1999, all of Hasbro's action figure production facilities were dedicated to producing toys for Star Wars Episode I. It's comical now. But, at the time, there was fear that no amount of toys would be enough to sate the huge demand that the hit movie was sure to create. (Oops....) After the Episode I toys were made, though, Hasbro ran another smaller batch of G.I. Joe figures. These hit the stores in the summer of 1999. There weren't many and the Cobras sold through pretty quickly. But, the sales were strong enough that Toys R Us had one final production run that was shipped in time for the 1999 holiday season. This final batch of figures stuck around a while longer and many collectors bought extra army builders because they could and there was no indication at the time that we would ever see Joes at retail again. By early 2000, though, the Cobras were gone from retail. As that year wore on and the A Real American Hero Collection came to retail, the 1998 Cobras became more and more sought after. (The same was not true of the Joes, many of which were still hanging on TRU shelves well into 2001.) By 2001, collector demand for army builders was nearing its crescendo and the 1998 Cobras were more expensive to purchase than a mint, complete with filecard Starduster figure.

This figure basically has three flaws. First, is the flat rear end that was a function of Hasbro removing the Funskool copyright information from the BAT mold. The second is the golden faceplate. Most collectors would have preferred a silver faceplate to keep the figure more in line with the vintage Viper. However, this is largely forgivable as the gold is an acceptable alternative. The final flaw is that this figure has no Cobra logo anywhere on his uniform. For whatever reason, Cobra always liked to advertise their members. (That probably made it easy for witnesses to identify the perpetrators of any crime, but Cobra Commander was always a bit of an egomaniac.) Neither the Cobra Trooper nor the Cobra Officer, though, feature Cobra sigils anywhere on their uniforms. In 2002, Master Collector reused the 1998 paint masks for their Crimson Vipers. However, they added in a Cobra logo. In a lot of ways, I don't miss the Cobra logo on these figures. But, it is a flaw that many bothered many collectors at the time of this figure's release.

The Viper mold was used three times in the vintage line: 1986, 1989 and 1990. The legs and waist, though, were cannibalized by Hasbro for use on the 1993 Dr. Mindbender figure. That Dr. Mindbender was then sent to Brazil after his American release was done and the original Viper legs went with him. In 1997, Hasbro introduced this incarnation of the Viper that used the waist and legs from the V1 BAT figure. That same mold was used in 1998 for the figures in this Cobra Infantry Team, 2002 for the Convention Crimson and Fuchsia Vipers as well as the 2 Vipers that were sold at retail and 2003 as the Venom Cycle driver and the Viper released at retail. A third version of the Viper was released in 2006 when Hasbro remolded the thighs for the Viper and released them in colors similar to the original Viper in the overproduced and uninspired Viper Pit set. Despite a rainbow of Viper colors available, the mold was never done in arctic theme nor a desert motif. As such, there are still glaring holes in the vintage Viper releases, even though we have them in green, purple, pink, maroon and red.

In the mid 2000's, mint and complete 1998 Cobra Troopers sold for between $20-$25 each.  Carded sets sold for $60 or more.  Collectors were desperate for high quality troops and were willing and able to pay high dollar amounts for them.  Slowly, though, the army building craze subsided a bit.  Mostly, Hasbro made so many army builders that just buying one or two of each unique figure left a collector with a decent army.  But, collectors also saw their collection size balloon as they bought dozens of dozens of different figures.  As such, much of the demand has been taken from the army building world.  Collectors still build armies, but they are more judicious and there are so many alternatives that, usually, the only army builders who still command a premium over their pricing from 6-8 years ago are those that are either extremely rare or have yet to be redone in either a vintage remake or a modern reinterpretation.  As this Cobra Trooper fits neither criteria, the price is now less than half the quoted numbers above.

Really, though, this is a great thing.  For $8 or so, this is a figure worth acquiring again and again.  It is one of the best army building figures Hasbro ever released. I see the figure as the backbone of any Cobra army. While it's not the original Viper colors, it's close enough that these figures can be combined with the classic figure without any loss of integrity for either figure. The basic Cobra blue works with all the relevant Cobra vehicles and these figures look great on Stingers, Hiss Tanks or as the lone operator of smaller vehicles. The collecting world has somewhat left these figures behind, but I have not. I still consider them to be the mainstays of my Cobra army and they are among the few figures whose numbers remained intact as I sold off large chunks of my collection. This is a figure worthy of a heralded place in the line's history. And, 15 years to the day when I first acquired one, I still feel that figure is one of Hasbro's best efforts.

As a side note, I looked back at my old usenet postings and found the confirmation of the exact day when I first acquired this figure: December 5, 1998. As such, this profile was published 15 years to the day from the time I first acquired a version. It's amazing that, at the time, figures that were 15 years older than this figure, were classic 1983's from my childhood. It's hard to believe that this figure was released that long ago. But, it shows that the Joe line can endure and that collecting can survive lulls, hiatuses, movie flops and complete changes of direction from Hasbro.

1998 Cobra Trooper, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1984 Stinger

1998 Cobra Trooper, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1984 Stinger

1998 Cobra Trooper, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1984 Stinger

1998 Cobra Trooper, Toys R Us Exclusive, 1984 Stinger

Monday, December 2, 2013

1994 Star Brigade Duke

There is no denying that Duke is one of the top three to five most important characters in the Joe mythos. He was iconic in the comic and cartoon and, as the line progressed, he became more prominent in the toy line as well. By the end of the line, Duke was basically ubiquitous. He had releases in 1992, 1993, 1994 and was planned for different releases in 1995. The character had grown and was becoming more and more important to the line as a whole. In 1993, Hasbro added Duke to Star Brigade in the ill fated Armor Tech subset. In 1994, they kept Duke in the astronaut theme. The result is a decent rendition of the famous first Sergeant, even if he is a bit out of his element.

Star Brigade as a concept is difficult for many Joe fans to accept: especially as it branched off into armor-wearing cyborgs and space aliens. However, Star Brigade is a logical progression for the line. As early as 1987, Joe had a space presence. So, there was a precedent. But, even as early as 1982 with Flash and the HAL, G.I. Joe had a sci-fi element that was melded with the traditional military. Because of this, I haven't had any issues accepting Star Brigade into the Joe mythos. (Honestly, I'm more forgiving of Star Brigade than I am of Ninja Force if only for the reason that the Ninja Force figures don't follow the standard vintage Joe construction standards.) Taken at face value, many of the Star Brigade molds are well done. They may be a bit out there in some cases. But, many of the "realistic" Joes are a bit out there in terms of what the military would have allowed its members to wear.

The Star Brigade group did make an appearance at the tail end of the G.I. Joe Marvel comic run. Here, a group a Joes had to battle Soviet robots that were directing an asteroid towards earth. This storyline was a few years before the asteroid hits earth disaster movies of the late 1990's. So, it was either ahead of its time, prescient, or a faster to market rip off by someone who had access to movies in development in Hollywood at the time. Regardless, the comic story is fairly straightforward. But, it does feature an odd twist. The Oktober Guard aid the Joes in their mission. Among the Guard at the time was Dragonsky. So, maybe the choice of a Star Brigade figure to create the convention Dragonsky was more than kismet. But, it is something to note.

The 1994 Star Brigade series was split into two parts: Series 1 and Series 2. Series 1 featured this Duke, Roadblock, Sci Fi, Payload, Space Shot, Cobra Blackstar and Cobra Commander. Of these, Roadblock and Payload were straight repaints while the rest of the figures featured either all or majoratively new parts. (It should be noted there are two Payload variants in the first Series which takes it to eight total figures. But, the Payloads are distinct variants rather than individual figures.) Series 2 featured Countdown, Ozone, Effects and the three Lunartix aliens: Predacon, Lobotomaxx and Carcass. Interspersed were the Star Brigade Mechs with the V2 Techno Viper and Gears. This leaves a total of 15 unique figures in the line, with a 16th major variant. The reality, though, is that none of the 1994 Star Brigade series were shipped in large quantities. By 1995, these figures were all but gone from retail. The aliens sold out even quicker as the budding action figure resale market of the time hoped to cash in on their unique nature and low production run. The result is that the entirety of the 1994 Star Brigade is rather difficult to find. Many of them were consumed by collectors at the time and never opened. For many years in the late 1990's and early 2000's, it was virtually unheard of to find loose, complete specimens on the market. Most collectors had to resort to opening carded versions of the figures if they wanted to complete their loose collections.

The mold for this figure is actually quite well done. However, it suffers from a fatal flow common to many of the figures from 1994: there are basically no paint details. The only paint on the figure's body are the green legs and gloves painted over the silver plastic. There are no details highlighted with a little splash of color. This leaves the figure rather washed out since there is no depth to the mold. Looking at the chest, it is chock full of little details that, if painted, would have made the mold really shine. But, the lack of paint applications really causes the mold to suffer. The true gem of the mold, is the head. The final years of the line really featured some amazing head sculpts. The design process had progressed to the point where the faces could show more detail and expression. This Duke has hair texture, the lined forehead and the grim expression of a career soldier. It is light years ahead of the original Duke headsculpt and is a perfect example of the year to year progression in sculpting and design techniques that were employed in the vintage line. The changes are subtle from year to year. But, over time, you can see how greatly certain aspects of the design process improved. This figure is a perfect showcase of those progressions...even if they are obscured by lack of paint accentuation.

Duke's accessories are interesting. His helmet is all new. Here, Hasbro didn't skimp on the paint applications and used black details to obscure some of the faceplate to add realism. Rather than affix directly to Duke's head, though, the helmet attaches to the backpack and then fits over the figure's head. His backpack and helmet combination are all new and well engineered. It was a different approach for an astronaut to have his helmet attached to his pack. (Which would, ostensibly, hold his life support gear.) The idea didn't really work, though. The result is that the pegs on the pack are very brittle and prone to breakage and the helmet doesn't fit onto the head all that well. The launcher fitting into the rest of the pack allows the modern collector to remove that piece. But, it is something relatively uncommon from the launcher era. Duke's gun is the horrid 1987 Blaster weapon. While it fits with the sci-fi theme, it isn't anything that is visually interesting and doesn't really add much to the figure.

This Duke mold was typical of the era. He featured the waist and legs from an existing figure (The 1991 Skycreeper) but also featured newly molded parts for the head, arms and chest. This was a common cost cutting move that was featured on many 1994 figures and would have extended into 1995. After the figure's lone release in 1994, the mold did not appear again for 11 years. In 2005, Master Collector used the torso on the under appreciated and really quite impressive Dragonsky figure. But, that was the end of it. It is likely that more figures could have been squeezed out of the mold. But, leaving it at just two basic figures helps keep the original mold somewhat relevant rather than be overused into oblivion.

This Duke is somewhat problematic from a use standpoint. The only way to put him into space combat is with his bright orange pack. Without it, he has no helmet. He does work as a crew member of the Defiant or Crusader shuttles. But, that is about it. Despite the realistic green and silver color palette, the figure's design doesn't really work as a re purposed figure for earth bound missions. He could be incorporated into the Eco Warriors or Mega Marines. But, again, the lack of helmet without the pack holds him back. As a display piece, the figure meshes perfectly with the other 1994 Star Brigade figures. But, that is about the extent of his uses. As such, you rarely see the figure showcased in any online photos or dioramas. But, for that reason, when he is used, the figure tends to stand out.

One of the things that has always kept my collecting attention with the 1994 Star Brigade series is the variety of colors used to create them. While there are bright figures like Payload and Roadblock, even they use the color appropriately. As such, the series isn't a visual nightmare like the 1993 series can be. Instead, it is a blend of colors that, when displayed together, mesh well without being overly redundant. The same is true of the carded figures. The 1994 Star Brigade cards are some of my favorites in the line. They feature subtle colors that showcase the artwork and allow the figure to still be a focal point of the overall display. It is this aesthetic that makes these figures some of my favorites in my entire collection. The fact that they are the bookend to the line just adds a little more importance to them, as well.

The 1994 Star Brigade figures have gotten somewhat more popular in the past few years. Collectors have come to appreciate the coloring a bit. But, really, it is more a function of the fact that many collectors are just now realizing how difficult it can be to track down a complete set. As such, prices on these figures have risen steadily in recent years. Carded figures will run $25 or so and loose figures are typically selling around half that amount. Really, it's a lot to pay for a figure like this. But, it's within acceptable limits when you consider the figure's rarity. The headsculpt is worth tracking down, even if it's only for customs. But, the general obscurity of the figure combined with the importance of the character creates a juxtaposition that is worth the price.

1994 Star Brigade Duke, 1991 Clean Sweep, Eco Warriors

1994 Star Brigade Duke

1994 Star Brigade Duke