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By Thomas Wheeler

You know, it really seems to me that the hobby of action figure collecting used to be easier. I can remember when one could walk into a Toys "R" Us, or a Walmart, or a Target, and see several aisles devoted to action figures. G.I. Joes were plentiful, and so were Transformers and any number of other lines.

And if for some odd reason, these retailers didn't have what you were looking for, there were other options! Stores such as Sears, JC Penney, and other major department stores all had very capable toy sections. Heck, I found the G.I. Joe HAVOC at Dillard's, a fairly high-end store that was not exactly known for any sort of toy department. I picked up the Cobra Terror-Dome at a local toy store called "Toys By Roy". They're not around anymore. Haven't been for a long time.

These days? Assuming that a major retailer is even carrying a reasonable supply and variety of action figures, if you don't get it within the first week of when it comes out, it's already been bought by someone else, and the store doesn't plan to restock because whatever's leftover is going to be put on clearance the following week, anyway, and that assumes that some newly-announced toy line isn't being relegated to some sort of online exclusive.

That's the other thing. I'm grateful for the Internet, but there are times when it gets frustrating. There's almost too much information out there. The element of surprise is gone. I remember walking into that aforementioned Toys By Roy one time, and here were all the new G.I. Joe figures for 1987 -- Jinx, Outback, the Techno-Viper -- pretty much everybody. That was a fun experience. These days, we tend to know six months or a year in advance when a given assortment of action figures is supposed to be out, and as much as anything, it turns into a waiting game, as well as -- increasingly -- a guessing game as to whether the toy will even come out, where, how, and in what quantities.

While I believe most G.I. Joe fans, myself included, were gearing up for the action figure line based on the G.I. Joe: Retaliation movie, the live-action sequel movie -- and this was before the movie got bumped to early 2013, along with most of the toy line, except for that which had already shipped to the stores, which the retailers put out for sale anyway, a totally non-movie-related assortment of G.I. Joes turned up just to add to the confusion. And they were exclusive to a discount retailer known as "Dollar General".

This wasn't the first time G.I. Joe products had turned up at a discount retailer. Several years ago, Family Dollar stores had received specially carded versions of the "newsculpt" G.I. Joe line. And the discount retailer known as Ross has become an increasingly interesting place to turn up product from any number of toy lines, including G.I. Joe, and every so often, it's product that for one reason or another didn't make it to any other retailer first.

However, this was the first time that a significant G.I. Joe assortment had made its way to Dollar General, and far more significantly, the figures were not just repaints. They were an entirely distinctive assortment of modern-design G.I. Joe figures, based on character likenesses, mostly from the original G.I. Joe 3-3/4" line, that had yet to be rendered in the modern format!

So naturally, they've proven to be extremely difficult to find. The alleged reasons for this are all over the map. Not all Dollar Generals got them in. They're expecting them later in the year. Somebody confused them with movie merchandise and didn't put them out until the movie actually gets released.

Personally, I couldn't care less about the reasons. I'd just like to be able to find them. I have yet to see them locally, despite four Dollar Generals in this town. However, with a little help from friends, I have been able to add two of them to my collection. One is the black-garbed Cobra Trooper, whom I reviewed a while back. A more recent arrival is STORM SHADOW, and I'll be reviewing him here.

To say that Storm Shadow is one of the most popular characters in the G.I. Joe world is phenomenal understatement. This frequently conflicted character is easily one of the top individuals in the G.I. Joe universe.

Storm Shadow, whose real name was eventually revealed to be Thomas Arashikage, was first introduced in the legendary "Silent Issue", #21 of the original G.I. Joe comic book. In this tale, a white-garbed ninja wearing a Cobra emblem on his uniform has managed to capture Scarlett. He brings her before Cobra Commander, who has set up a headquarters in Destro's castle in the Scottish highlands. Cobra Commander orders her thrown into the castle's dungeon, where, of course, she prepares to escape.

Of course, where Scarlett goes, Snake-Eyes is almost assuredly going to follow, especially if his lady-friend is in trouble. Snake-Eyes bails out of an airplane, and stages a highly successful one-man assault on the castle, including taking down Storm Shadow's personal minions, a trio of rather unfortunate ninjas garbed in red. Obviously these ninjas never saw "Star Trek", or they'd've known what happens to extras dressed in red.

There is, ultimately, a final showdown between Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes, in which Storm Shadow attempts to hurl his sword at the G.I. Joe commando. Scarlett, flying a Cobra jet pack, intercedes, but Snake-Eyes is still able to intercept the sword, and the two Joe Team members fly off to safety.

The last couple of panels reveal a secret, however. A torn spot on the lower right sleeve of Snake-Eyes' uniform shows a mysterious tattoo underneath. The white-garbed ninja, the wrapping on his lower arm having come undone, has the same ninja.

The implication was as clear as it was mysterious. Somewhere along the way, Snake-Eyes and the ninja had a shared history. And given that Snake-Eyes had already proven himself to be, basically, the ultimate bad-@$$, the notion of someone with similar capabilities working for the bad guys was decidedly alarming.

The ninja, whose name was soon revealed to be Storm Shadow, in the next issue that actually used word balloons, proved to be as formidable a threat as expected. The Joe Team captured him -- briefly -- and it was Stalker who realized who the ninja had to be, and the G.I. Joes realized that if Storm Shadow was as dangerous as some sort of relationship with Snake-Eyes implied, then he was a whole lot more dangerous than initially believed.

Gradually, the origin of both Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow unfolded. Both men had served in the same Long Range Recon Patrol unit with Stalker, in southeast Asia. At this point, there was no Joe Team, no Cobra. Stalker and Snake-Eyes were simply soldiers, albeit very good ones. Storm Shadow had enlisted at the urging of his family. Apparently the ninja clan from which he came considered military combat duty a sort of "graduation exercise".

By the time Stalker had joined the unit, Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes were already close friends, and Storm Shadow frequently spoke about Snake-Eyes "joining the family business". Snake-Eyes, however, just wanted to get through his tour of duty and get home. He constantly kept a picture of his sister with him.

Tragedy struck, however, when Snake-Eyes family was killed in a traffic accident caused by a drunk driver (astoundingly enough the brother of the man who would become Cobra Commander), and having nowhere else to really go, he accepted Storm Shadow's invitation to travel to Japan and "join the family business". The family business was, of course, the Arashikage Ninja Clan, whose tattoo, derived from the I - Ching, was worn by most of its members on their lower right arm.

Snake-Eyes excelled in his training, to the point where he exceeded even Storm Shadow in some disciplines. This drove an increasing wedge of jealousy between the two men, who had once been as close as brothers. Then, during a training exercise, during which time the ninja clan's head, the Hard Master, intended to name Snake-Eyes as his successor, the Hard Master was assassinated. Storm Shadow was seen fleeing the scene, and it was assumed that he had turned against both Snake-Eyes and the clan.

With the ninja clan in disarray, Snake-Eyes returned to the United States, and lived a hermit-like existence until recruited by Stalker for the brand-new G.I. Joe team. Storm Shadow, on the other hand, infiltrated the ranks of Cobra and worked his way up to becoming Cobra Commander's personal bodyguard. While playing the role of villain, Storm Shadow's intention all along had been to find the real assassin of the Hard Master. It had not been Storm Shadow. The true assassin had fled the scene in a Cobra helicopter.

It would eventually turn out that the assassin was Zartan, and his real target, as directed by Cobra Commander, was Snake-Eyes. But as part of the exercise, the Hard Master was duplicating the life signs of Snake-Eyes, and Zartan's advanced archery equipment had been fooled.

Cobra Commander knew all this, and made a promise to tell Storm Shadow who the assassin was -- at some point. Eventually, Storm Shadow did learn the identity of the Hard Master's assassin, but was unable to take his revenge at the time. By this time, he had already turned his back on Cobra, in the comic books, at least, and was training young Billy, the son of Cobra Commander, while occasionally assisting the G.I. Joe team, or at least Snake-Eyes.

Storm Shadow's life would continue to be a tumultuous one. He was shot by the Baroness, his genetic material used as part of the development of Serpentor, was able to recover from the gunshots thanks to certain arcane ninja skills, was helped to escape the Cobra-held city of Springfield by the Dreadnoks, of all people, and eventually went into a very semi-retirement, while still assisting Snake-Eyes and the G.I. Joe team on occasion.

Much later, he was captured by Cobra and exposed to the Brainwave Scanner, which turned him against Snake-Eyes and the Joe Team once again. At this point, continuity gets a little vague. The Devil's Due comics have been "Disavowed", but within these stories, which were certainly capable tales, Storm Shadow went back and forth for quite some time before finally shaking off the Scanner treatments, and aligning himself once again with the Joe Team, which was understandably a little reluctant to trust him. He also starred in a seven-issue comic series on his own.

In the more recent IDW comics, at least in the continuation of the "Real American Hero" title written by Larry Hama, Storm Shadow has also managed to shake off the effects of the Brainwave Scanner, and assists Snake-Eyes and the Joe Team however he can. He is still dealing with no shortage of tragedy and challenges, as his longtime protege, Billy, was killed, and he, Snake-Eyes, and even Cobra Commander had to ally themselves against the threat of the cybernetic Blue Ninjas.

In the first animated series, Storm Shadow was clearly associated with Cobra, and his relationship with Snake-Eyes was essentially non-existent. Snake-Eyes honestly didn't have nearly as great a role in the animated series as he did in the comics. Storm Shadow's best moments in the original series were likely in the episode "Excalibur", where the ninja discovered the legendary sword of King Arthur.

In the second animated series, produced by DiC, Storm Shadow was clearly associated with the G.I. Joe team, which was also in keeping with the toy line at the time, and his relationship with Snake-Eyes, which had dominated the comic book anytime both characters turned up, was given greater emphasis.

As for the toys, the original Storm Shadow figure was released in 1984, and was clearly a Cobra figure. Storm Shadow was garbed in white, with a red Cobra emblem on his tunic. The second figure, released in 1988, actually switched Storm Shadow from Cobra to the G.I. Joe team, which, as far as I know, is the first time an official action figure has switched sides like that. This Storm Shadow was dressed in a looser-fitting costume, mostly white with some gray camouflage trim on it. The next several Storm Shadow figures were also clearly affiliated with the G.I. Joe team.

However, it was eventually decided, at least in the action figure line, to return Storm Shadow to Cobra. I have the belief that the general consensus was that it made more sense to have one hugely popular, @$$-kicking, martial-arts ninja-commando-whatever on EACH side of the Joe-Cobra conflict, instead of having them both on the same side. Storm Shadow remained with Cobra through Sigma Six, and largely into the present day, including his appearances in the live-action movies. The fact that Storm Shadow is once again one of the good guys in, at least, the continuation of the original comic book, is being ignored from a toy standpoint.

There have been literally dozens of Storm Shadow figures over the years. He had four in the original line alone, not counting a 12" Hall of Fame version. There have since been other 12" versions, as well as many, many 3-3/4" versions. He returned in the 1997-1998 series, and during the "newsculpt" era of 2002-2006, not only had several appearances in that format, but turned up once again in traditional form in a number of the special edition comic-packs and multi-figure packs that were produced.

And, of course, he has had a presence in the modern line, numerous times over, from the 25th Anniversary right through and including Retaliation.

So what makes this Dollar General version so unusual? Well, like many of the other Dollar General figures, it's based on a version of Storm Shadow from fairly late on in the original line, and as such is not a version of Storm Shadow that one would really expect to have otherwise seen transferred into the modern figures.

If you look at the figures that were produced for the 25th Anniversary line, and for a while afterwards, those that were specifically based on figures from the original Real American Hero line didn't get much past 1985, with a few from 1986. Those years are considered by many collectors to be the "hey-day" of G.I. Joe, although speaking for myself, I think there were plenty of cool characters that followed. However, in fairness, most of the prominent characters were either well-established by, or during, this time.

I was personally delighted when the series of figures prior to the Retaliation line gave us modern incarnations of characters like Sci-Fi, Lifeline, Airtight, and the Cobra Techno-Viper. Their presence was sorely lacking in the modern figure format. I also admit I was rather surprised to see them.

However, it's fair to say that for the most part, the modern G.I. Joe line has been based either on the live-action movies, the more recent animated series, or a handful of new characters, or new interpretations of existing characters, rather than being based on the later years of the original line. Those are few and far between these days, and generally only turn up in special sets, such as the Dreadnoks 7-pack that wound up as an online exclusive.

Or -- the Dollar General figures.

So, how's this particular Storm Shadow figure? Really very impressive, and certainly, his overall look is not something that one would have expected to see in the line.

By 1992, G.I. Joe was specializing in a number of "special teams". These were themed groups of figures, usually with some G.I. Joes and some Cobras, that usually had some special feature about them. One of the special teams to turn up in 1992 was called NINJA FORCE.

The G.I. Joe side of Ninja Force included team leader Storm Shadow, along with members Dojo, Nunchuk, and the how-the-heck-do-you-pronounce-it T'Jbang. That one must have given some kids a bad moment -- and some collectors. The Cobra side consisted of two ninjas named Slice and Dice.

The "gimmick" to Ninja Force was that each of the figures had some sort of built-in spring-action feature that enabled them to make some kind of "martial arts" move. It was based rather strongly on a similar feature that had been installed in Kenner's Super Powers line years earlier.

Personally, I didn't care for the gimmick. It hindered articulation, made the figures impossible to disassemble for repair purposes, and in some cases, the physiques of the figures had to be altered to accommodate the mechanisms, since they were a good bit smaller than Super Powers figures. This was not always a complimentary alteration. The trade-off was getting five new characters introduced into the line, since the only "veteran" of the initial group was Storm Shadow.

Of course, this was an entirely new Storm Shadow figure, and he was unusually outfitted in a costume that featured a significant amount of black, previously a color associated with Snake-Eyes, not Storm Shadow. Storm Shadow was wearing a white hood, white boots, and some white accessories strapped to his leg, but much of his costume was black. The white from his shoulders tapered down, and from his boots tapered up, in a sort of speckled pattern that looked like a snowstorm at night, but much of the center of the costume was black, as was the mask covering Storm Shadow's face under the hood. The only other prominent color on the costume was gold, on the shoulder pads and a couple of weapons.

So, how does the new figure stack up compared to its predecessor? Very impressively, I must say. I don't really know which previous set of molds might have been used here, although I'm certain it was for some previous ninja, as the costume is just too ninja-like to be anybody else. I suppose it might have been for the 25th Anniversary version of the 1988 Storm Shadow, but I am not enough of an expert on the modern figures to be certain.

What's important, as much as anything, is how well the color scheme comes across, and in this case, it comes across very effectively. The figure is wearing a white hood, which is a separately molded piece, while the head underneath it is wearing a tight-fitting "ski-mask" like face mask, that only leaves the area around the eyes exposed, and has been molded in black.

The white patterning on the shoulders lacks the "speckled snowflake" design of the original, and as much as anything, has a sort of jagged "icicle" pattern, as if Storm Shadow might have looted Captain Cold's wardrobe locker. But it still looks effective enough, and certainly remains highly reminiscent of the original Ninja Force figure.

Similarly, the legs do not have the "speckled" pattern on them, but above the otherwise white boots, a small part of the pants legs have some jagged white on them. Can icicles be stalagmites as well as stalactites?

Storm Shadow has a white belt wrapped around his waist, its tail ends trailing loose, typical for a martial arts-type belt, and he also has a white strap that runs from his left side over his right shoulder. Although this was not a detail on the original Ninja Force Storm Shadow, it is a detail that existed on the original Storm Shadow figure, and so it does not look out of place here, especially since the gold shoulder pads of the original are not present. As such, the shoulder belt also adds a nice bit of detail.

The only other significant color variation is that Storm Shadow's hands are painted in a flesh-tone color. The original's were gloved, in black, like the rest of that area of the costume. Honestly, since I think a greater percentage of this figure is black relative to the original, I'm glad for the colored hands.

Of course, Storm Shadow is superbly articulated. I've had a little trouble getting him to stand up straight. The ankle articulation is a little limited, and the bottoms of his feet are not flat. But it's not impossible to get him to stand up straight. And one distinct improvement over the original is that this Storm Shadow doesn't have some silly spring-action gimmick installed inside him.

Although these Dollar General figures do not have file cards on their packages them (one might assume that the characters are popular enough so as to not need all that much backstory accompanying them every time), Storm Shadow does come with a few accessories. This includes a nicely made sword, an extremely impressive and rather large bow, and a display base. Interestingly enough, the base has a Cobra emblem sculpted into it. Apparently, Hasbro is determined to keep Storm Shadow allied with Cobra, even though the first time he wore this outfit, he was considered a member of the G.I. Joe team.

So, what's my final word? Well, first off, at least as of this writing -- good luck finding any of these figures. One might hope that the supply shall increase at some point, and depending on which rumor you care to believe, it just might. We'll see. However, if you're a longtime G.I. Joe collector that is looking for modern versions of your original-line favorites, then this unusual series of figures, certainly including Storm Shadow, is worth the hunt. And the Storm Shadow figure in particular is extremely impressive, and will be a welcome addition to any modern G.I. Joe collection.

The "DOLLAR GENERAL" G.I. JOE figure of STORM SHADOW definitely has my highest recommendation!