Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cobra De Hielo - Argentine Exclusive Ice Cobra

At some point in the mid to late 1980's, the Plastirama toy company in Argentina released a triumvirate of exclusive Cobra Ninjas in their native country.  The first two members of this highly desired group of figures are the famous Satan and Ninja-Ku characters.  Satan is a blood red repaint of the iconic 1984 Stormshadow mold.  Ninja-Ku is repainted in all black, and given an African skin tone to boot.  There is a third repaint of the Stormshadow mold, though, that is less popular than these more striking variants.  It has become the largely forgotten member of the Argentine ninja family.  But, the Cobra De Hielo, or Ice Cobra, is equally as interesting as the more popular variants and is a figure well worth examining.

Initially, this figure appears to simply be an international version of Stormshadow.  However, a quick read of the filecard shows that this is a completely new character.  Here is a filecard translation:

A martial arts expert, Ninja is a super expert in scaling huge ice walls with equipment.  Equipped with incredible strength, he overcomes the toughest weather conditions without flinching.  To fulfill his sinister task of destroying Comado, he will cross Antarctica.  Thanks to the Ninja's clothes, he is easily confused with the white landscape and it is almost impossible for the Comandos to discover his movements.
Cobra De Hielo, Ice Cobra, Argentina, Plastirama, Stormshadow, Filecard, Translation

So, this is not Stormshadow, but a winter espionage character who blends into the ice and snow to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Joes.  What is equally interesting, though, is that the Brazilian version of Stormshadow (The Cobra Do Gelo) is a similar, Ice Cobra, character.  Do Gelo's filecard, when translated from Portuguese, is basically the same as the Plastirama version.  It is likely that the Brazilian version came first and that Estrela toys actually created the character who was then adopted for the Argentine market.

As a figure, Cobra De Hielo is almost identical to the American Stormshadow figure.  He features the same paint masks as Stormshadow and the same color applications.  The main difference is that the Cobra De Hielo has brown eyes and eyebrows as opposed to the black versions on the American figure.  The overall paint mask quality, though, is substantially poorer than the Hasbro made figure.  The figure in the photos below was taken straight off the card.  So, the paint wear was from the factory rather than use.  The main attraction of this figure, though, is that the white plastic of the Cobra De Hielo figure doesn't yellow like the plastic used on the American Stormshadow tends to.  So, even after sitting a South American warehouse for over a decade, the Cobra De Hielo figures retain their white hue.  This alone makes the figure useful to collectors who otherwise have a high quality, V1 Stormshadow figure since they can use De Hielo as a the classic ninja without worrying about discoloration if the figure is left out on display.

Like most Plastirama figures of his era, the Cobra De Hielo has a few accessory variants.  In general, the figure seems to always include silver versions of the V1 Stormshaow's gear.  How much of that gear is required for the figure to be complete, though, varies by carded sample.  Many Cobra De Hielo's include the full complement of Stormshadow gear: including the backpack, long sword, short sword, nunchucks and bow.  However, it is also common to find the figure packaged with no backpack.  These versions might include the long sword, short sword, bow and nunchuks or two short swords, bow and nunchucks or a single short sword, bow and nunchuks.  In the end, each collector will need to determine if a figure is acceptably complete based on their own criteria.  But, since the full range of silver weapons are out there, that is the perfect figure should you have a choice.

For me, the value of this figure is just that: his accessories.  The silver swords and gear offer a visual break from the more often seen, black, American accessories.  It's fun to have a slightly different take on Stormshadow as part of displays.  And, when paired with the full set of swivel arm Plastirama figures, Cobra De Hielo fits right in.  Beyond that, though, this figure offers nothing that I didn't get in October of 1984 when the first Stormshadow figure entered my collection.  It's likely that the V1 Stormshadow mold is the most iconic figure from the vintage Joe line.  (Even if you don't agree, you'd be hard pressed to make any argument that doesn't have him in the top three.)  As such, seeing it in colors close to vintage automatically associates the release with the Stormshadow character.  It would have been cool to see the Ice Cobra character revisited through an amalgamated figure mold during the 2000's.  But, it was more important to get 6 versions of Firefly instead....

The Stormshadow mold has been the world over.  After the figure's long retail run in the United States, the mold was sent to Brazil where the Cobra Do Gelo was born.  It then went to Argentina for use on the three ninja variants.  The mold appeared again in the U.S. in 1992 as the Ninja Viper mail away and then was part of the Chinese exclusive figures that were manufactured sometime in 1994.  The mold, with the full accessory complement, had a triumphant return in the 1997 Toys R Us exclusives.  But, it was then not used again until the highly derivative Ninja Strike set in late 2004.  It's final appearance was in a 2005 comic pack, only with new arms.  Collectors are fortunate that Plastirama created the variants for the figure as Hasbro, for whatever reason, really dropped the ball with their repaints between 1997 and 2005.  We never got a Cobra Blue Stormshadow.  And, that's a glaring omission that no one has been able to correct.

In late 2000, the first waves of imported Plastirama figures from a warehouse find in Argentina began to permeate the U.S. collectors market. Through the first half of 2001, carded Cobra De Hielo figures could be purchased for around $15.  While the Satan and Ninja-Ku figures slowly sold out and started to get more expensive, the Ice Cobra lagged behind, usually more expensive than Sokerk, but slightly less expensive than TNT.  Over the next decade and a half, though, the supply of Cobra De Hielo figures has dried up.  Many savvy collectors realized that acquiring a carded vintage Stormshadow with the standard art for under $25 was likely not going to last and they bought them up.  While Satan, Ninja-Ku and Cobra De Hielo were all shipped in equal numbers in the same case, though, the Ice Cobra is substantially easier to find now than the two characters with whom he shares a mold.  While carded Satan figures routinely sell in the $300 range, Cobra De Hielo figures can still be acquired in the $60 - $75 range.  (Usually the higher amounts are reserved for figures with the full range of Stormshadow gear.)  If you can find a loose version, it will sell for substantially less.  But, few collectors of the early 2000's opened these figures.  So, loose samples can be a tough find.

Pristine, white American Stormshadow figures are now more expensive than carded Cobra De Hielo figures.  So, if you're in the market for an excellent Stormshadow figure, the Plastirama version is a nice alternative.  You don't have to worry about the figure yellowing and it includes the alternate, silver accessories which are a great upgrade from the black, American swords.  The fact that this is a different character is a neat conversation point.  But, the overall similarity to the iconic Stormshadow prevents the Ice Cobra character from really taking off.  But, as a figure, the Cobra De Hielo is a worthwhile acquisition.  He's a different take on the Stormshadow mold and is a nice complement to both Satan and Ninja-Ku: two foreign figures who have become staples of any American collection.  Personally, I wish I had been in a position to acquire many more of these figures back when they were cheap and plentiful.  But, I have enough now and enjoy the figure for what it is.  If you have a nice, American Stormshadow, the Cobra De Hielo is certainly not an essential part of a collection.  But, he's a neat way to expand the classic ninja molds and characters.

Cobra De Hielo, Ice Cobra, Argentina, Plastirama, Stormshadow, Antorcha, Blowtorch, Funskool Lady Jaye

Cobra De Hielo, Ice Cobra, Argentina, Plastirama, Stormshadow,1984 Firefly, Cobra Mortal, Bootleg, Black Major

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

2003 Major Storm - Convention Exclusive

In 2002, Master Collector shocked the collecting world with an exclusive set available to convention attendees.  (Sure, you could order it even if you didn't go, but you were, essentially, still paying for a convention ticket in the cost of the set.)  It was an amazing blend of figures that caught the collecting world by storm.  A crimson Baroness and Tomax and Xamot along with a full dozen crimson Cobra Vipers was exactly what pretty much every collector of the time wanted.  The sets sold out, saw great after market appreciation and a phenomena was born.  As such, collector anticipation for the 2003 set was very high.  With nearly a full year of waiting, collectors worked themselves into a tizzy with the possibilities of what the 2003 set would have in store for the collecting world.  When the set debuted, though, it was very different from the 2002 offering.  Instead of one, iconic, Cobra army builder with sensical commanders, the set included 10 army builders and 5 character figures: 3 of whom were Joes.

The army building figures (the aspect of the set that was most appealing to collectors of that era) were not great.  The Viper was a beloved mold that, at the time, could not appear enough times.  2003, though, saw the use of the highly obscure Mega Viper mold along with an amalgamation of the 1988 Ferret and 1988 Star Viper figures.  Collectors were underwhelmed.  The 5 characters were a bit better.  The new Black Dragon Ninja was somewhat forced, but interesting.  Cobra Commander was visually stunning, but the mold had limitations.  Falcon had not been seen since the vintage days, so his inclusion was welcomed, even if his original legs and accessories were gone.  Lady Jaye hadn't been seen in 6 years, so her inclusion was greatly cheered.  The final figure, though, was the most odd.  Sitting in the middle of the set was the ridiculously obscure Major Storm.

Major Storm first appeared in 1990 as the driver of the mighty General vehicle.  In 2003, a large population of the collecting world did not own a General and many were not even familiar with Major Storm.  Master Collector's rationale for his inclusion in the set was that he was a "rare" figure and this would give collectors a chance to get one.  It isn't terrible reasoning.  But, in 2003, there were hosts of "rare" figures that collectors would have salivated over.  Major Storm was not one of them.  At the time, the vintage figures, while somewhat hard to find, were not overly expensive.  You could get one for less than a mint and complete Cobra Trooper, Officer, Crimson Guard or Viper would cost you.  Plus, he was not a character that had taken on any secondary life in any of the comics or popular dio-stories of the time.  So, there was no real demand for the figure at all.

But, in retrospect, that is actually a good thing.  In 2003, the line was still full of hope of expectation that collectors would get tons of awesome new figures.  So, seeing a figure like Major Storm was a disappointment as everyone wanted something that was closer to pre 1988 vintage or just repainted army builders.  The reality is that had it not been for this release, there would never have been a Major Storm repaint offered.  Some might say, "Who cares?  He's a crappy figure anyways." and they are not incorrect.  But, the Joe line of the 2000's was mostly a sea of banality and sameness with recurring characters and molds that were seen again and again and again.  Major Storm is, at least, something different.  He is a figure and character that had no place being released in that era when more popular characters and molds were ignored.

As figures go, though, Major Storm isn't great.  The camo pattern designed for the 2003 convention Joes was supposedly Tiger Force inspired while not being Tiger Force.  The result is figures that don't fit into Tiger Force and are not painted well enough to really be integrated into any other group, either.  The vintage versions of Falcon and Lady Jaye are better than the convention paint jobs and Major Storm is too obscure a character to really base anything around.  The figure's base is a solid, olive based green.  The brown highlights are a bit too bright, though, and somewhat clash with the overall look.  The camo pattern and details, though, are the typical convention level quality.  So, that helps.  The biggest detriment is the figure's sunburned skin tone.  The large head makes this color more pronounced.  The color used for Major Storm's hair, eyes and eyebrows blends into the pinking flesh and gives the head the appearance that it was left undetailed.  It's somewhat creepy.  But, the helmet does help to obscure some of the issues.

The nice thing about the Convention sets was that they often included either a figure's original accessories or facsimiles close enough that they were more than acceptable alternatives.  Major Storm was the former as he included both his overly large gold pistol and his comically oversized helmet.  It was always nice to see figures released with their full complement of vintage weapons, so this was a nice way for Major Storm to be released.  But, Major Storm's weapons kind of suck.  They always have.  So, sure, you get the vintage look.  But, the helmet still looks awkward and figure and the pistol just isn't that interesting.

For me, Major Storm is nothing more than a placeholder.  I have never used the figure nor character in any meaningful way.  If you search the thousands of images on this site, you might see the character appear once or twice.  He just isn't someone in whom I have any interest.  Years ago, I acquired a beat up old General in a lot.  But, the frame was broken.  So, I stripped it of parts and left the carcass in the garage attic of an old house.  The vehicle was not that interesting to me, so it's doubtful that I'll ever track another one down.  So, that further limits Major Storm's relevance to my collection.  As an oddity of the time, this figure is a solid reminder of the collecting world circa 2003.  At the time, it was hard to imagine feeling nostalgic for that collecting era.  But, in retrospect, it was a much better time to be a collector than 2015.  But, this Major Storm is also a reminder that many of the issues that have slowly choked off the collecting community had their roots in the early online days and we are, basically, a product of the decisions made years ago.

Major Storm was, basically, an amalgamation of previously used parts.  The 1990 figure featured a new head.  But, the chest and arms were from the 1989 Windchill figure and the waist and legs were from the 1985 Crankcase figure.  This makes sense as it would have driven down the cost for a figure that was included with a high price point, low production run vehicle.  The 2003 figure uses the same parts combination.  The fault is that the head is large and the chest is small.  So, the figure looks unbalanced and the effect is only magnified when Major Storm is wearing his helmet.  The existence of the 1990 Major Storm is likely the reason that Crankcase never materialized in the repaint era.  (He was at least considered as the driver for the 2004 AWE Striker repaint that included Dialtone instead.)  And, since Crankcase is one of my preferred figures, I hold that against Major Storm even moreso than I do his odd proportions.  The Windchill parts would later make appearances on other Convention figures.  But, this was the last time major Storm ever appeared again.

Major Storm, like many of the 2003 Convention figures, quickly fell into obscurity.  Most collectors who wanted one at the time, just bought a convention set.  In the years that followed, all of the figures fell by the wayside as better sets were released.  Today, mint, complete with filecard Major Storm figures sell in the $30 - $35 range.  They aren't overly common.  But, the low demand keeps them cheaper than a more popular character of similar rarity.  Considering that it's been over a decade since this figure was released and the fact that he was never revisited in any form, those prices are probably fair.  But, for a collectibility standpoint, I'd be hard pressed to spend that much on this figure.

In the end, I'm still torn by this figure.  Really, I have no interest in him and have never used the figure in any capacity.  He doesn't fit with any vehicles.  And, if I had a vintage General, I'd get the vintage Major Storm to command it.  At the same time, I'm glad that someone as obscure as Major Storm got a chance to be redone during the 2000's.  There were so many Duke, Snake Eyes and Roadblock figures that collectors were inundated with sameness.  The rare, obscure gems that did appear are now great breaks from the sea of sameness that defined the retail releases.  I think it really comes down to the fact that I'm happy this figure exists.  I just wish it was a little better.

2003 Convention Exclusive Major Storm, General, 2005 Comic Pack Snake Eyes, #21

Monday, September 14, 2015

2002 Gift Set Firefly

If you went back in time to the summer of 1997 and posted to Usenet or the Pit mailing list (how's that for dated technology!) that collectors would be sick and tired of the Firefly mold just 8 years later, you would have been laughed and flamed out of existence.  There was no way possible at that time that Hasbro would take such a beloved mold and make collectors rue the day it was created.  But, that's exactly what happened.  And, while the 2005 collector was REALLY sick of Firefly, by 2002 the mold was already becoming stale.  Collectors had seen the figure in 1998 and 2000.  As 2002 wound down, the third Firefly of the era, and the beginning of Firefly's diminished appeal, appeared: the Gift Set Firefly.

The repaint era of 1997 through 2006 created a large sea of banality in the Joe line.  When taken in retrospect, there is a lot of sameness throughout the years.  There are obvious gems as well as some real losers.  What was rare, though, was something so different that it's inherent oddity overcame the fact that the figure was pretty poor.  This Firefly is a perfect example of that.  The figure is cast in a basic red.  Not crimson, or any other red color associated with Cobra: bright red.  The figure is a better match for the Plastirama Satan than he is for the Crimson Guard.  If you can forgive the base coloring, though, you are left with a few other, bizarre color choices.  The figure's gloves and boots are copper colored.  It's a metallic copper paint that is easy to miss, but is basically unique to this figure.  Copper was not an oft-explored color in the Joe line.  So, its inclusion here adds to the uniqueness of this figure.  To complement the two inexplicable color choice so far is a greyish/blue accent paint application that highlights Firefly's holster, bandoleers and leg attachments.  Again, it's not Cobra blue and isn't, really, a great accompaniment to the bright red.  The figure is finished off with some additional, brighter red explosives and black grenades.  The crowning touch, though, is the brown head.  (The figure was dubbed the poo-headed Firefly by some at the time, but those with a more literary slant could refer to him as Gen. Scheisskopf.)  It's an odd topper to the figure and just completes one of the most head scratching color combinations on any figure in the entire line.

There is something to be said for figures that are so terrible they become good.  Figures like Rumbler, Big Brawler and even the Create A Cobra have all found collector followings just due to the absolute awfulness of the figure.  While this Firefly remains obscure, it has fascinated me.  There's something about it that makes me keep it around, even though there is no non-completist reason to do so.  The fact that the figure is so bizarre and out of place is the main draw.  This has no relation to the Firefly character I know.  (As an aside, there is an unproduced version of this figure available that replaces the base red with a green color.  It is a substantial improvement, but extremely hard to find.)  He really doesn't fit with any other Cobra figures.  Is this who Firefly really is and what he wears when no one is looking?  Or, is it a red herring and something Firefly dons when he wants to completely rattle anyone with whom he meets?  Either way, it's a uniform that gives some levity to the Firefly character.

The Gift Set which included this figure was an odd item.  An 8 figure set including Snake Eyes, Stormshadow, Dial Tone, Undertow, Fast Blast Viper, Wet Suit, Roadblock and Firefly, the Gift Set was packaged into a massive cardboard box that was logistically challenging to ship.  This fact is important as the Gift Set was only released regionally in the U.S.  The set was originally commissioned by the BJ's Warehouse chain.  At that time, they were only in slightly more than half of the states.  Some of their corporate partners, mostly regional grocery stores that also stocked retail items, eventually sold the sets, too.  But, the reality was that for many collectors, the set was simply not available at retail in their local market.  As the set was "exclusive" only a couple of online dealers were able to get any.  So, for those outside of the retail footprint, this set was extremely pricey.  Dealers rarely sold it below $35 and the large, heavy and overly long box added another $10-$12 for shipping to the cost.  After a few months, the retailers began to clearance the sets.  Many collectors were left rather non-plussed at the fact they had paid nearly $50 to get one set and were now hearing of collectors leaving stacks of them on the shelves at $12 in locales lucky enough to have a retail seller.  The result is that this was the only Gift Set ever created.  (Some dealers who acquired a supply had stock left sitting unsold for years after the set's release.)  And, beginning in 2003, Hasbro looked only to more national retailers for exclusive offerings.

One of the great things about the re-releases of Firefly was that they all included his original accessories.  Even the 2003 Wreckage, that used the Firefly mold, included the iconic gun and backpack.  There is one lone exception, though.  This Gift Set Firefly did not include any of his original accessories.  For most figures, this would be a huge detriment.  However, there are times when new accessory complements can breathe some life into a figure.  The Gift Set, largely, failed in this regard as figure included non-sensical accessories.  (Stormshadow with an AK-47, Wet Suit and Undertow with no flippers or underwater gear and Dial Tone with a bazooka.)  However, Firefly kind of works.

The figure includes a gun metal grey version of Beach Head's submachine gun.  (Oddly, this would not come with the Night Force Beach Head just 18 months later, but that's something for another time.)  In the context of Firefly, it is acceptable as it is reminiscent of his original rifle but gives him something different.  He also includes a silver version of Hit and Run's knife.  The fact that it's silver is great.  But, there is not a single vintage or repaint version of Firefly that includes any edged weapon.  For a character who was a ninja master, this is an odd omission.  So, finally having a figure with a knife is a solid addition to the character.  The figure is rounded out by a silver version of the 1991 Dusty's pistol.  It became a ubiquitous accessory in the repaint era.  But, the silver color is somewhat fresh and gives the weapon a bit of a shine for Firefly.  The last piece is a silver version of Firefly's original rifle.  In silver, this would have been an awesome upgrade to this figure.  But, alas, it has a fatal flaw: sound attack.  The rifle is not the classic version and, instead, has a massive sound tab on the side that renders the weapon useless.  For me, overall, though, this accessory complement only adds to the oddity that is the figure.  It makes is stand out even more and gives it a bit more cachet.  (And, if you really insist on classic Firefly accessories, they are now so common that it's easy to find a set from this figure's contemporaries and outfit him with those.)

As a collector, this is a great figure.  Not great in the sense that it's the definitive Firefly and should be included in every display of Cobra command.  It's quite the opposite.  If I could only keep one Firefly figure, this would be the first to go.  But, the figure is great because it's so different.  In an era where Hasbro tried so hard to placate collectors and so often misfired, it's refreshing to find some figures that defy that trend.  This Firefly is rather terrible.  But, that awfulness makes him awesome since he's so different from pretty much everything else released during his time.  Copper, brown, bright red and blue do not a classic figure make.  But, in this case, the combination creates something that's fun and odd.  The vintage line was good at doing that every now and again.  The repaint era mostly created duds.  So, the few times that Hasbro released something like this figure should be enjoyed.  The Gift Set Firefly makes my collection different and is so out of place among the rest of my figures that I have to appreciate him for the ugly duckling he is.

2002 Gift Set Firefly, BJ's Exclusive, 2005 Crimson Shadow Guard, Agent Faces

2002 Gift Set Firefly, BJ's Exclusive