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By Thomas Wheeler

There used to be a lot more surprises in the action figure hobby than there are today. It used to be, you went into a toy store or a toy department, never entirely knowing what to expect. I can remember when the second year of G.I. Joe characters, individuals like Snow Job, Doc, Gung-Ho, Destro, and a number of others, were first introduced in the comic book. I had no idea if there would be figures of them, or if they'd just been created for the comic book to spark some new adventures. When I finally discovered the figures, I was sincerely surprised, and obviously delighted.

These days, with countless Web Sites devoted to the hobby, most of us have at least six months' notice before a new toy comes out, and there's plenty of pictures of the prototypes to the packaged versions to be had, while we're waiting impatiently for the toys to show up at a nearby retailer. So there's not a lot of surprises left in the hobby anymore, and sometimes, I think we're a little poorer for it.

Even less common in the hobby is the mystery. Some toy that just comes out of the blue within a given line without any warning or apparent logical explanation. That sort of thing really doesn't happen very often. Toy companies and retailers just don't work that way.

In early 2012, a surprise and something of a mystery did turn up within the G.I. Joe line. Collectors started to report online about finding an unusual series of G.I. Joe figures, clearly unique, on rather unusual packaging, and they were turning up, of all places, at Dollar General stores.

Dollar General is not specifically a "dollar store". It's not one of those stores where everything is a dollar or less. It's about one step up from that, however, where a decent range of products, most of them name brands, can be found for reduced prices. A lot of the products are discontinued items, overstock, or what have you. Family Dollar would be another good example of this.

These places tend to have -- interesting toy departments. They might have some popular characters. You might find some small Transformers, generally repackaged Mini-Cons. Or you might find some Hot Wheels cars that aren't too far in the past relative to their more recent counterparts at places like Walmart and Target. Some super-heroes can be found, although generally their articulation isn't as impressive as the better-known versions. And then there's the offbeat stuff, like the barely articulated, poorly painted ninjas trying to pass themselves off as Power Rangers or some such.

What you generally DON'T find in stores like this are exclusive action figures. New action figures. Action figures from a well-established line, that haven't turned up anywhere else.

Hasbro calls stores like these "Market 6". I have no idea what their ranking method is, or what stores would qualify as Markets 1 through 5 -- although I could probably guess a few of them if I wanted to. And as near as I've been able to determine, Hasbro wanted to produce a nice assortment of interesting and distinctive G.I. Joe action figures, and they were sold to the "Market 6" stores. Mystery solved as much as it's going to be. Still -- SURPRISE!

As of this writing, these figures have turned up ONLY at Dollar General, although they are not the only retailer in the "Market 6" category. They've also proven rather elusive. A local search in my area turned up nothing. Anyone's ability to find these figures has been scatter-shot at best, and any number of collectors have resorted to the "secondary market" to obtain them, and I am sure that they were all over the place at the G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention -- at somewhat more than original retail prices.

Thanks to a friend of mine in Ohio, I am now the proud owner of one of these interesting figures. I am hopeful that other friends -- or better local luck -- will eventually enable me to own the others.

The figures include modern-style G.I. Joes of: Duke in an all-green uniform, as if he was part of the first-year G.I. Joes; Snake-Eyes as he appeared in his 1991 uniform; Storm Shadow as he appeared in Ninja Force; Shipwreck as he appeared in the 2002-era "newsculpt" line; Cobra Commander in his all-black uniform from 1993; and a Cobra Trooper dressed in an all-black uniform.

It's an interesting group. Some distinctive, "later" versions of any number of popular characters, such as Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and especially Shipwreck, as well as a distinctive Duke and an impressive Cobra Commander, not to mention a unique COBRA TROOPER, who is the focus of this review.

Let's consider some of the history of the Cobra Troopers. When G.I. Joe was brought back as the "Real American Hero" in 1982, during the development process, which also involved people from Marvel Comics, who would be producing the tie-in comic book, the question was put forth, more or less along the lines, as to what the G.I. Joe team would actually be doing? This question had apparently not been greatly considered prior to this point. The G.I. Joes had a Commando, a Machine Gunner, a Ranger, and many other military specialties, but -- what would they be doing? If you're going to have a team of heroic soldiers, they need an enemy to fight, otherwise they're just spending all their time training and marching around the parade grounds, and that gets old pretty quickly.

The original 12" G.I. Joe had never had much in the way of enemies. During his military days, G.I. Joe had just been a soldier, for whom various uniforms and accessories could be purchased. Later, during his Adventurer days, he had faced a wide range of assorted challenges in the form of various playsets, but none of these had put him up against any human opponents. The closest to an actual enemy that the original G.I. Joe had ever faced were the so-called "Intruders", and no one really wanted to bring back a bunch of non-articulated alien cavemen.

G.I. Joe needed an enemy. But there was a problem. G.I. Joe was a reasonably realistic military action figure line. This wasn't Star Wars, or super-heroes. You couldn't just turn out Stormtroopers or super-villains and get away with it. And the last thing anybody wanted to face were the political ramifications of creating an enemy for the G.I. Joe team that was based on a real-world adversary. Bringing G.I. Joe back at all, in 1982, was a tough enough achievement without asking for that sort of trouble.

A fictional, but reasonably plausible enemy was needed, and was as such created. Cobra, an "evil terrorist organization determined to rule the world" was brought forth. They were allied with no nation, and their dark blue uniforms were not a color that was used by any known military force anywhere in the world.

The initial offering of G.I. Joe figures in 1982 consisted of nine G.I. Joes, not counting those sold with the vehicles. This number of individually carded figures was soon raised to eleven, as the Cobra Trooper -- then just called "Cobra" -- and Cobra Officer, were added to the mix. These anonymous characters with the masks over their lower faces were the first "army-builders" of the line. You could have as many Cobra Troopers and Officers as you could afford and make room for.

That same year, Cobra Commander was offered as a mail-in figure, inundating Hasbro with requests. G.I. Joe -- and Cobra -- had quickly proven themselves to be a massive hit.

It didn't take long for Cobra to become just as specialized as the G.I. Joe team. The following year introduced new dangerous individuals -- Major Bludd and Destro -- as well as the new HISS Driver character. Still, the Cobra Troopers remained the backbone of the Cobra forces.

However, over the next several years, Cobra would become even more diverse and specialized. More new individuals, such as the Baroness, Storm Shadow, and Firefly, were interspersed with new, specialized Cobra soldiers, such as the Tele-Vipers, the Snow Serpents, the Eels, and of course, the Crimson Guards.

By 1986, a new division of Cobra Infantry, known as the Vipers, were introduced. I'll admit, I've always liked the Vipers a little more than the Cobra Troopers. They just had a more high-tech, impressive design about them. However, this doesn't mean that the Cobra Troopers had retired. They still turned up in both the animated series and the comic book -- although the original figure had been dropped from the lineup, as had the Cobra Officer.

At this point, the Cobra Viper clearly took over the infantry ranks from a toy standpoint, and in the years ahead, there would be many recolorations of this character, straight through all versions of the line, right up to the present day.

But, we had not heard the last of the Cobra Trooper. He and the Cobra Officer returned a few years after their initial departure, although they had inexplicably switched places, and were now both assigned to the new Cobra special team known as Python Patrol.

During the 2002-2006 run, the original Cobra Trooper turned up in one of the comic-based three-packs, slightly recolored to match his coloration from the comic book. A Cobra Infantry six-pack, exclusive to Toys "R" Us offered slightly reconstructed Cobra Troopers, arguably somewhat better proportioned than before, along with a couple of Officers. And the originals returned once again, recolored somewhat, in a special set of Cobra Night Squad figures that defended the shores of Cobra Island at night when everyone else slept.

Not surprisingly, when the G.I. Joe line was reworked with an entirely new figure format for its 25th Anniversary, a new Cobra Trooper and Cobra Officer were included among the offerings, and over time, Python Patrol versions of both figures, one a Convention Exclusive, were offered.

There have been other figures called Cobra Troopers. In 1998, a Cobra Infantry three-pack that featured three recolored Cobra Vipers designated two of them Cobra Troopers, and the third as a Cobra Officer. And both the Renegades and Retaliation lines have Cobra Troopers, who while they share the name "Cobra Trooper", don't have a lot in common visually with the original.

Then in 2011, something interesting happened. After several uses, the first of the modern-style Cobra Troopers was retired, and a whole new Cobra Trooper was produced, offered in the 30th Anniversary line. Interestingly enough, a whole new Cobra Viper, who had also already appeared in the modern style, was produced as well.

There had been some criticisms of the first modern-style Cobra Trooper. The head, underneath the now-removable helmet, wasn't particularly detailed. The arms were too skinny. Some said the entire figure was too thin. Or that the figure lacked the sort of detail one expects from a modern action figure.

These were all addressed with the new Cobra Trooper, who seemed to have a bit more weight, certainly had more detail under his helmet, and was definitely ready to carry the battle to G.I. Joe, with a superb, very military-looking uniform, and plenty of accessories and equipment. Although my own collection of modern-style G.I. Joe figures is somewhat limited, as I still regard myself first and foremost as a fan of the originals, I would still very readily say that this new modern-style Cobra Trooper was a truly outstanding figure, and one of the finest entries in the modern G.I. Joe line.

As such, when he turned up in an interesting recolored mode for this rather curious set of G.I. Joe figures, I knew he was somewhat that I wanted to add to my collection.

So, how's the figure? Really outstanding, but I'd like to discuss the packaging a bit first.

As one might expect, the packaging is fairly simple. I've seen this sort of thing before. Some time back, a number of previously released "newsculpt" G.I. Joes were repackaged for the "Market 6" stores, mostly turning up at Family Dollar. The cards were smaller, the file card barely wedged onto the back.

The cards for this new set are even more generic. The front of the card is gray, with a black-and-white G.I. Joe emblem on it, reflective of the one most recently used on the figures prior to the Retaliation line. It looks like a G.I. Joe emblem pounded out of metal.

In the background of the card is a series of red stripes, that one quickly realizes is the tattoo of the Arashikage ninja clan. Given their prominence in the Retaliation movie, and this emblem's use on the movie-based toy products, this is an interesting way to link this particular assortment of toys to both the 30th Anniversary and the Retaliation lines.

The individual name of the figure, in this case the Cobra Trooper, is printed on a small piece of cardboard inserted inside the plastic bubble that also houses the figure.

The back of the package card does not contain a file card. This is unfortunate, but all six characters offered in this series are certainly well-known to longtime G.I. Joe fans. There's no real mystery as to who any of these guys are. All six are shown on the back of the package, photographs of the actual figures themselves.

A small bit of text at the top of the card reads: "G.I. Joe is the code name for a special operations unit of highly trained men and women who defend the world against the evil Cobra organization." Not too far removed from the description used all the way back in the original animated series. Hasbro's logo, as well as those for the G.I. Joe Web Site and the G.I. Joe Collectors' Club also appear on the packs, with a 2011 copyright date.

As to the figure of the Cobra Trooper, he is truly excellent. I was a little concerned that just maybe, the earlier modern version of the Cobra Trooper might have been used for these unusual figures, but this is not the case whatsoever. This is unquestionably the most recent modern Cobra Trooper, and as such, it is superb.

Granted, the all-black uniform is unusual, but let's say that perhaps these are Cobra Troopers on some sort of stealth mission. He certainly looks menacing and dangerous enough. Okay, so he's not all that colorful. All the better to sneak up on you. Besides, I think most of the paint apps work went to Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, anyway.

The helmet is removable, revealing a Caucasian head underneath, with very neatly painted blue eyes, scowling eyebrows, and short-cropped brown hair. A face mask covers the lower part of the face.

The entire uniform is black, with the exception of gray knee pads, and a large silver Cobra emblem on the chest. Oddly, this is not the same Cobra emblem used on the previous Cobra Troopers of this type. The silver Cobra emblem is noticeably larger, and the horizontal "stripes" within the emblem are a slightly different configuration. I'm honestly not at all sure what this may mean. Perhaps a different production facility?

The detail on the figure is outstanding, and the uniform design has a very military look to it, which I think is enhanced by the fact that this Cobra Trooper is dressed in black, which has certainly been used by real-world military forces, instead of the more distinctive (and less real-world) Cobra blue.

The shirt has pouches on the upper sleeves, and protective elbow pads. The Cobra Trooper is wearing black gloves, that appear to have been given a glossy black finish.

The trousers have, along with the gray knee pads, several holsters and pouches strapped to the legs, including one for a pistol and another for a knife that, unfortunately, this bargain version of the Cobra Trooper doesn't come equipped with. I've never been all that big on accessories, so this doesn't bother me, but it might be a bit of a gripe for some fans.

Finishing off the uniform are black boots, very military in style, with visible laces. Really, the sculpted detail throughout this figure is outstanding.

This Cobra Trooper doesn't have as much paint detailing as his predecessor, but given that most of the paint detailing on his predecessor was black, that would tend to be a bit redundant. It might well be why this figure was molded in black in the first place, but whatever the reason, the end result is still an extremely impressive figure.

Most of the paint detailing is on the head, painting the facial details, particularly the eyes and eyebrows, and this has been done exceptionally well. Interestingly enough, the previous Cobra Trooper seems to have a head that was molded in flesh-tone plastic, with the hair and the face mask painted. This Cobra Trooper seems to have a head that was molded in black, with the face and the hair painted.

This has had one other beneficial effect. If you take the previous Cobra Trooper's helmet off, the interior of the helmet is flesh-tone -- which is just a little bit creepy. The new Cobra Trooper's helmet is entirely black.

There are two unusual elements about this figure, however. First off, there's the belt and chest straps. Now, one thing that set the Cobra Trooper and the Cobra Officer apart from the very start was the design of their belt and straps. Although molded to the individual figures, which were otherwise quite similar in appearance, they were very distinctive.

When the 25th Anniversary figures came along, a basic "Cobra"-type figure was created, and two separate strap sets were made, one for a Cobra Trooper, another for a Cobra Officer, so that the same body molds could be used for both figures, with just the straps-and-belt set changed out.

No great surprise, when the new Cobra Trooper was produced, he was wearing the straps and belt from the previous Cobra Trooper. What the heck, it still fit, and was a perfectly viable piece.

This new Cobra Trooper is wearing the straps and belt for the Cobra OFFICER, even though his package card clearly calls him a Cobra TROOPER. This is doubly interesting since Hasbro hasn't gotten around to producing a standard-colored Cobra Officer figure using this newer set of modern-style body molds. Hey, at least they know the harness fits now.

Additionally, the helmet has a silver "V" emblem printed on it, which is also indicative of Cobra Officers, and was a step that clearly didn't need to be taken for this figure to be a Cobra Trooper. And one wonders if this was an entirely new paint stencil or imprint, since this helmet is distinctive to the more recent Cobra Trooper -- unless they found out that the previous imprint would work on these helmets, which is possible.

So, what do we call this guy? Is he a Trooper or an Officer? Well, the package says Cobra Trooper, so that's what I'm calling him. And thanks to Python Patrol, this wouldn't be the first time that the Cobra Trooper and Cobra Officer have switched these particular details.

It would be interesting, though, if, in whatever G.I. Joe line develops following the Retaliation movie, a conventionally-colored Cobra Officer should happen to surface.

Although the Cobra Trooper lacks any of the needed accessories for his various pouches and holsters on his trousers, that hardly means he is unarmed. He does come with a very nicely designed and detailed rifle to carry into battle. The figure also comes with a display base with an embossed Cobra emblem on it.

Of course, the figure is superbly articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, mid-torso (which thanks to the black coloration isn't all that obvious visually), legs, knees, and ankles.

Although the Cobra Trooper doesn't come with a file card, I'm sure it's safe to assume that he is one of the "nameless, faceless legions of Cobra", totally dedicated to Cobra Commander, and his goal of conquering the world. Right up to the point where the G.I. Joe Team kicks his backside every time.

So, what's my final word? This is an extremely cool figure, and easily one of the most unusual situations I've encountered in the action figure world in a very long time. I am still astounded that a series of such impressive G.I. Joe action figures would be turned out for this particular market level. I'll probably never know all the "whys" about it, and really, that doesn't bother me. I just look forward to somehow obtaining the rest of the series, and if you're any sort of G.I. Joe fan, you should be doing the same. Good luck!

The "Dollar General" G.I. JOE figure of the COBRA TROOPER definitely has my highest recommendation!