When 2001 started, it was an amazing time to be a Joe fan. The first wave of the A Real American Hero collection was both widely available and well received. The second wave, with 6 top notch figures was just trickling out and collectors were excited for what the year would hold. Vintage Joes were starting to get more expensive, but you could still find a lot of deals: especially on larger collections. A warehouse find in Argentina flooded the market with tons of cheap Plastirama figures and vehicles. On top of that, American Joe dealers began carrying cheap Funskool imports. Basically, if you had some money to spend, it was about the best time imaginable to be a Joe collector. While collector exuberance continued through the year, retail enthusiasm for the Joe line did not. It took Hasbro nearly 6 months to get the third wave of the A Real American Hero collection to stores. Instead of shipping more of Wave 1, which had risen in after market value by 5 to 10 times, they kept shipping Wave 2.
Unsold pegwarmers quickly clogged the shelves. When Wave 3 finally hit, it was slow to reach retail due to the backlog. Collector interest in the wave was cool as the figures weren't up to the standards of the first two waves. At the end of the year, Hasbro dumped out Wave 4 of the line. It was the swan song as retailers had already de-committed to Joe and forced Hasbro to create an all new construction style for 2002. Wave 4 featured even less inspired designs than Wave 3 and was relegated to discounters and close out stores in very short order. A decade and a half later, the wave is still uninspiring. But, with time comes re-evaluation. When taken in quick succession, many of the figures of the A Real American Hero collection were a sea of similar mold, same color banality. But, when taken in context of the hundreds of figures released in the 2000's, some of the figures are worthy of a bit more appreciation. The Leatherneck figure is one.
When the Leatherneck name first popped up as a potential figure in the next wave of releases, collectors were ecstatic. 2001 was before the reality of lost molds, broken pieces and separated accessories had become in ingrained. Most imagined a repaint of the highly appreciated 1986 figure. (At the time, mint and complete Leatherneck figures routinely sold in the $12 range, which was rather pricey in comparison to his contemporaries.) When the figure appeared, though, disappointment set in. The figure didn't incorporate any of the hallmarks of the Leatherneck character. Instead, the figure used the 1992 Duke Torso, a new head (that was a cross between a young Richard Nixon and Duke) and the growing to be hated 1984 Roadblock legs. The skinnier legs beneath the bulky Duke arms and legs makes the marine look like a body builder. In short, it Leatherneck looks nothing like the iconic character so many people had desired.
The worst part was, the colors made the figure look like a cheap custom. The torso and arms had been released in nearly identical colors on the 2001 Duke figure only a few months prior. (And that figure was readily available when Leatherneck hit the shelves.) The legs were available in nearly the same color on Double Blast that had been released the wave prior. The saving grace, though, were the accessories. Leatherneck featured a knife, helmet and backpack (based on the '84 Roadblock's pack) that were good, but not really interesting. The highlight, though, was the return of the 1992 Duke rifle that has been missing from the 2001 Duke figure. The rifle was at least something new for the figure that allowed you to distinguish him from the other figures with whom he was so similar.
As Leatherneck, though, this figure failed. As a nameless army builder, he works and a repaint of the figure would have been a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 Greenshirt set. For many, seeing a popular character reduced to such an awful figure release was very disheartening. The figure quickly faded from memory and many collectors will not even recall that a Leatherneck figure was made in this era. In 2003, Hasbro released the figure again as the driver of the MCC that was a Toys R Us exclusive. The figure was unchanged from the original release, but included fewer accessories. But, even this duplicate release did little to spark collector interest. In 2004 and 2005, you could still find Leatherneck/Gung Ho figure packs in various retail pockets around the country. When the figures were finally reduced to $1 per pack, collectors were able to absorb the overstock.
As 2001 wound down, my Joe budget was shot. I had little to no means of figure acquisition and what little trade fodder I had was spent acquiring Brazilian and European exclusives. (Which turned out to be a fortuitous choice.) I got one pack of the Gung Ho/Leatherneck, opened it up and packed it away with the other figures from that year. He was simply an item to check off a list. There was no excitement at finding him nor enthusiasm for owning him. In the mid 2000's, though, I acquired a couple of spare Leathernecks from someone who had found them clearanced. With a few years between the sameness of the 2001 figures, I looked at the figure again. I thought that it had potential. But, again, he was packed away in bins, never to really be used. Not much has changed in the ensuing decade. The figure still sits in bins. But, as I look to display more and more of my collection, I have found that figures like this Leatherneck can make for good background fodder. The colors work with a variety of other figures and vehicles and having him in the background helps to fill out a display without wasting a good figure on an obscure position. That's about the best this figure can hope for.
But, I do see more potential in Leatherneck than I did 15 years ago. The black pants with grey highlights are far more interesting than some of his contemporaries. The leather brown gloves and belt bring a splash of color to the mold and show that there was more here than just releasing Duke all over again. It's likely that Hasbro spent all their development on this figure for the head. Of the new heads from the 2001 and 2002 series, Leatherneck's is the closest to vintage quality. (Sure Fire's is a pin head. Big Brawler is, well, Big Brawler and the other heads for Crossfire and Side Track were just bad.) Leatherneck's new head fits on the torso and wears the helmet well. Had Hasbro taken a little different approach in his base coloring (maybe desert or a brighter green) the additional differentiation would have likely lead to wider acceptance of the figure.
To call this figure worthless is an understatement. Left to sell on his own, a mint and complete with filecard figure routinely sells for $1 or $2. Dealers won't touch him for that price, so you see lots of unsold figures with an $8 price tag that makes him more worthy of dealer time. You can get carded figures for $5 or $6. So, basically, this figure isn't worth his retail price, before you take inflation into consideration. It's probably a fitting fate for this figure. He showed minimal effort by Hasbro and has become completely forgotten by the collecting community. But, as a diorama filler or general soldier, the figure has some value. The 2001 Duke is among my favorite figures of the 2000's. Using this Leatherneck just as a way to properly accessorize that figure is worth the $1 price tag.
Ultimately, this is the type of figure that will be found at thrift stores and garage sales. And, for many who do find him, he will be left behind as even those discounted prices are unattractive for anything less than a mint and complete specimen. Fortunately, through the years, collectors have responded to poor G.I. Joe products by not buying them and leaving them behind. It frustrates both Hasbro and the club since we can't be counted on to buy anything with the logo on it. The result is that what little product we get now seems to have a bit more thought put into it. (We may not agree with the thought, but at least it was there.) Unfortunately, many, many figure slots in the heyday of collecting were wasted by Hasbro before they learned that lesson. This Leatherneck is simply a poor reminder of that.