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By Thomas Wheeler

The newest additions to the G.I.Joe collection of comic/figure three-packs, reprinting the early issues of the original Marvel G.I.JOE comic written by Larry Hama, and including three traditional-style figures made to look as much like their comic counterparts as possible, turned up at a Target in Tucson in mid-November.

The first thing one notices is the profile of the package. Sets #4 and #5 are nowhere near as "deep" as the first three. This is a good thing for two reasons -- stores will be able to stock more of a supply, and it'll be easy for collectors to spot these two new sets.

Set #4 doesn't include any new characters, but it does include some interesting variations on some longtime Joes. It seems that these early sets are determined to reproduce as many of the original dozen or so Joes as possible, while throwing in a few characters, such as Set #2's KWINN, that have never been made as action figures before.

Set #4 features ZAP, GRUNT, and SNAKE-EYES, three long-established characters. Zap is "officially" referred to on the package as "Raphael 'Zap' Melendez", meaning that Hasbro couldn't "legally" just call the figure Zap. Although with a first name like "Raphael", I'm surprised they didn't get into trouble with a certain foursome of Turtles.

Zap has a new head-sculpt, and it looks like Hasbro is gradually getting away from the "shrunken head" look that some of these new sculpts have tended to have, with Baroness and Scarlett being the worst to date. Zap's new head sculpt is as highly-detailed as all of the new head sculpts in this line have been, and doesn't look like it's been wedged into a helmet for too long. He has a pretty traditional uniform, using the 1982 upper body, the 1986 Roadblock lower torso, and fairly "standard issue" legs.

Grunt is an interesting entry. The new head sculpt looks very much like the character in the comic book. The original 1982 Grunt head sculpt, which interestingly was also used on Zap and Grand Slam, was one of the most butt-ugly head sculpts of those used in that first year. This one is vastly superior. Grunt is dressed in a reddish-brown uniform, which may seem odd, until you read the comic book and realize that it was the uniform color of the group of hard-core survivalists under Commander Wingfield (one sort of wonders why they didn't make him, except he didn't survive the story), which Grunt, Hawk, and Snake-Eyes infiltrated.

The Snake-Eyes figure is pretty straightforward. Mostly 1982 body with the 1986 Roadblock lower torso, really not significantly different than any of the other traditional-style original-type Snake-Eyes figures that have come out in the past couple of years.

The characters' file cards read as follows:

ZAP Ground Artillery Soldier File Name: Melendez, Rafael J. Primary Military Specialty: Engineering Secondary Military Specialty: Infantry Artillery Birthplace: New York City, NY An original member of the GI JOE Team, ZAP has a reputation for coolness under fire and a totally professional attitude. He is the team specialist in infantry-portable, armor-defeating, high-explosive projectile delivery systems, which is to say that if it's a weapon that a grunt can carry and it can knock out a tank, ZAP has probably got one. ZAP is a square in the best, old-fashioned sense of the word. He can look you straight in the eye and not flinch, because he's got nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. Does this make him a better soldier? Not technically, but it certainly makes him a person you'd want to soldier with. "The stuff I work on could blow up at any time. It's a good incentive to maintain your cool under fire."

I rather like the personality listed here for ZAP...

GRUNT INFANTRY SQUAD LEADER File Name: Graves. Robert W. Primary Military Specialty: Infantry Squad Leader Secondary Military Specialty: Small Arms Attack Specialist Birthplace: Columbus, Ohio An original member of the GI JOE Team, GRUNT left the service to get his engineering degree. He's a wizard with anything technical or electronic, so he could have worked anywhere he wanted and named his price. But he chose to return to the GI JOE Team, where he could put his skills to work for peace and justice around the world. When he's not assembling a new kind of surveillance device or a weapon for the fight against COBRA, he's leading a squad into battle, with a rocket launcher blasting away in his hands. Whether the system he's battling is electronic confusion or COBRA criminals, GRUNT will grab hold and not stop until he finishes the job. "I didn't want any part of the business world. Give me a bunch of guys who are always there for you when the chips are down and COBRA is breathing down your neck."

SNAKE-EYES COMMANDO File Name: Classified. Primary Military Specialty: Infantry Secondary Military Specialty: Hand-to-Hand Combat Instructor Birthplace: Classified SNAKE-EYES learned his top combat skills in missions around the globe. A tragic helicopter mission took away his voice and scarred his face. That's why he communicates with sign language and never removes his mask around others. He studied mystical martial arts with the ARASHIKAGE clan, which is also the family of master ninja STORM SHADOW. SMAKE-EYES is an expert in all disciplines of martial arts and ninja weapons. He can move silently and without being seen. at one time, he and STORM SHADOW were sword brothers, linked by spirit and tradition. Now that STORM SHADOW is part of the evil COBRA organization, there is no escape from a final battle between two of the world's greatest martial arts fighters.

I have to say, the package/file-card illustration for Snake-Eyes is one of the bext "comic-style" drawings I've ever seen of the character in the modern era.

Now let's turn our attention to Set #5. This includes STEELER, GENERAL FLAGG, and a COBRA OFFICER. This is the first new Steeler figure since the character was first introduced in 1982, not counting a fairly scarce and generally popular European version that used the same molds, just in different colors. This one uses a different set of body molds, and of course a new head sculpt. And I hate to say it, but the head sculpt is not good... I wouldn't call it so much a shrunken head as a sideways-compressed one. It's not even especially symmetrical. And it's just small enough so that the helmet, which looks to be based somewhat on the original from 1982, doesn't fit all that well. It's too loose. The facial detail is good, but something got badly messed up here along the way.

Next we have General Flagg. Not bad, really, although some people have compared the head sculpt to John Kerry, and there is that sort of Addams-Family-Lurch-like look to it. Makes me wonder who'd be more offended at the comparison -- Kerry or Flagg. The uniform design is excellent, using the Headman upper body (really, about the only existing molds that look enough like a suit-coat), and done in an appropriate military green. The only thing messed up on this figure -- is his file card. Hasbro took it right from the General Flagg figure from 1992, which was actually the SON of THIS character, who was killed in action fairly early on (the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Flagg was named after him). Still, file card or not, this does constitute a new character in the collection, and one who was quite prominent in the early adventures of the Joe Team.

Finally there is the COBRA OFFICER. No new head sculpt here, anymore than there was for the Cobra Trooper that came with Set #1. But that's okay, it helps to maintain a certain sense of continuity, looking back over the years. The figure appears to be a pretty straightforward Cobra Officer, with the comic book colors. That is, red face mask and yellowish straps and belt instead of the black of the original figure from 1982. The Cobra insignias on the helmet are a nice touch and are very neatly done.

The file cards for these characters are as follows:

GENERAL FLAGG G.I.JOE General File Name: Flagg III, James Longstreet Primary Military Specialty: Chief Strategic Commander Secondary Military Specialty: General Commander Birthplace: Alexandria, Virginia GENERAL FLAGG is the son of the original GI JOE Team Commanding General. He is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, as were five preceding generations of flaggs. GENERAL FLAGG shares the same philosophy as DUKE of personally leading his troops into a firefight instead of sending out orders from behind the lines in some cozy commander's tent. When the call is given to charge, he's the one shouting it from the front. His strategies on the battlefield have twice earned him the medal of valor and countless decorations as he carries on his family's proud military tradition. "I didn't reach the rank of general by staying in the shadows. I got out and earned it on the front lines."

Granted, this file card is technically for the wrong Flagg, and it's a little hard to picture the snappy-uniformed General Flagg that comes with this set charging across the battlefield. Still a cool figure.

STEELER TANK COMMANDER File Name: Pulaski, Ralph R. Primary Military Specialty: Armor Secondary Military Specialty: Artillery, Transportation Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania STEELER comes from a blue-collar middle-class background. he put himself through college on an ROTC scholarship and by working as a heavy equipment operator. He entered armor school at Fort Knox, graduating at the top of his class. one of the first to join the GI JOE Team, he has taken part in countless operations against the COBRA organization. while he is recognized as a tough and dedicated soldier, his frequent clashes with authority figures, especially superior officers, make him quite a handful. Coming from a background in which you proved your mettle through physical contests, he frequently challenges team members to tests of strength and stamina. "Prove you're right, prove you're tough. That's how you earn my respect."

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first new file card for Steeler since the original, rather brief one (as they all were) in 1982. I rather like how it reads. It should be noted on the package front that Steeler, like Zap, has his full name spelled out for trademark purposes - "Ralph 'Steeler' Pulaski".

COBRA OFFICER COBRA INFANTRY Primary Military Specialty: Infantry Secondary Military Specialty: Artillery, Intelligence These front-line fighters lead COBRA attack units into battle, but they are "officers" in name only. The only real rank they have is over their own little squad of COBRA troops. They are among the meager handful from the teeming ranks of COBRA troopers that, for some reason, whether it's previous experience, personal ambition, or dumb luck, manage to show some level of initiative, organization, or leadership skills. ultimately, somebody has to keep the ranks together and moving with a purpose, so that even these low-level COBRA forces achieve their given objective. "We are dedicated to destroying the GI JOE Team and will be there when COBRA conquers the world."

Modesty aside, I see more than a little of the Cobra Officer file card I wrote for Hasbro in 1998 in this. I'm rather flattered.

Now, let's discuss a few problems. I already mentioned that some of the new head sculpts are still a little on the small (or weird, anyway) side, although Grunt and Zap seem okay, so this is a problem that seems to be being dealt with. HOWEVER, whatever mechanical system that is used to inject the plastic into the head molds still needs some work. I am still seeing visible indentation-like ripples in the heads of some of these figures. So far, the worse has been Hawk from Set #3. He looks like somebody took the business edge of a shovel to the back of his head. One of these days, somebody's entire nose is going to go missing. I know, from conversations I have had with experts in the field, that there are different molding systems in use these days. While I don't fully understand the particulars, somebody either needs to turn up the pressure knob or better liquefy the plastic or something here. It's getting annoying, and it's happening too often.

The next biggest problem is the INCOMPATIBILITY OF PARTS. Now, I can understand doing some mix-and-match, especially on figures based on characters from the first year. Those first-year parts are nowhere near as well-detailed as just about every year after. Unfortunately, the very nasty side-effect here is that, despite a basically common construction basis, NOT all parts work well together. The 1986 Roadblock "crotch piece", along with being not one of the better sculpts from over the years, is too big to really accept the 1982 upper torso, and most leg pieces don't work well with it, either. I am aware that there are a limited number of traditional-style molds to work with for these toys. But still, a lot more test-fitting needs to be done.

I have noticed a new practice, an almost-invisible, slightly "roughened" area around the top of the legs (and in a few other places on the figure), presumably to create more resistance so that parts will stay put better and move more appropriately. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that well. It's a little like using a dime-store squirt gun to put out a campfire. The campfire may not be a dangerous blaze, but the squirt gun still isn't going to do much about it. The incompatability of parts may not affect the overall look of the figure, but it certainly affects how they stand and move, and a more effective solution is needed.

I am hopeful that the "parts" issue will at least be resolved by the time these sets move beying the first nine or ten issues, and more characters are introduced. These early sets have been hampered slightly by the fact that the Joes involved are in their earliest appearances here, and that means, in most cases, either using certain older parts, or, in the case of Grunt, or the upcoming Flash in his astronaut suit, coming up with new looks for these figures based on the storyline in the comic. There were also only so many Joes. Hasbro seems to be determined to give us the "core nine", plus such additional popular characters as Clutch, Hawk, and Steeler, as well as the Cobra Trooper and Officer. Only Grand Slam seems to be getting left out.

Once these comic sets start going beyond these early issues, Hasbro should be able to either stick with complete figures, such as Storm Shadow, for example, or will be able to use a greater variety of parts that hopefully will work better together, in the creation of the figures for these sets.

One other issue part-wise. Steeler has a leg that doesn't quite want to move forward all the way. I've encountered this before. For whatever reason, the "hole" in the leg through which the peg fits is not round. It is hexagonal. Which doesn't really work too well with a round peg and tends to cause jerky movement. It's nothing a fine-tip drill can't remedy, if you disassemble the figure, but I'd love to know the explanation for making it that way in the first place...

All of that having been said, as constructive criticism hoping to see G.I.Joe return to the greatness it once enjoyed, and in no way complaining about these sets from a conceptual standpoint or in basic execution, I am convinced that the crown jewels of these first sets will almost certainly be the forthcoming Oktober Guard packs, in Sets #6 and #7.

Which is not to say I don't recommend Sets #4 and #5. The General Flagg figure is welcome, Grunt's new head sculpt is certainly an improvement, and his uniform an interesting variation, and the Cobra Officer is always welcome. Zap's cool, Steeler's not bad, and even though I hope this is the last time we'll see the 1982 Snake-Eyes, well, you can't argue with a big-time player like that.

These newest sets should be arriving even now at most major retailers. And as one Hasbro official pointedly stated, both to me and to anyone who asked at the Convention a few months ago, "As long as you buy 'em, we'll keep making 'em." And that -- maintaining the presence of the traditional-style G.I.Joes in the overall collection, and getting some cool new characters and variations on longtime ones -- is abundantly reason enough. YO JOE!