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By Thomas Wheeler

The late 90's were a grim time for 3-3/4" G.I.Joe collectors. The Real American Hero had gone on indefinite furlough in 1994, and his replacements, first Sgt. Savage and then G.I.Joe Extreme, had resoundingly failed to meet expectations, and had basically been swept out of stores faster than you could say "Clearance Aisle Bait". The quality of the first resurgence of the 3-3/4" G.I.Joes, a series of Toys "R" Us exclusives in 1997, remains in debate.

So what's a longtime G.I.Joe collector to do? There were a handful of alternatives. There was Lanard's CORPS, although many of these figures lacked the precision and detail of the original 3-3/4" G.I.Joe, and weren't always looked upon with any great fondness.

But in 1997, a set of action figures came along that did attract a reasonable measure of attention. They were from a company called OLMEC, which specialized in toys for African-American children. In short, they were all black.

Olmec was not exactly a major player like Hasbro or Mattel, nor were they really trying to be. They were marketing to a very specific audience and were, for the most part, content with that. Most of their action figures had been based to one degree or another on other popular lines. They had created a Masters of the Universe-like character called SUN-MAN, and they had even produced a set of 3-3/4" semi-military action figures called the BRONZE BOMBERS. It was generally regarded that the original Bronze Bombers were even lower in overall appearance and quality than Lanard's CORPS.

But in the late 1990's, Olmec tried again. And this time, the results were a lot better. Largely because their new BRONZE BOMBERS were taken directly from the molds of original G.I.Joe figures!

I have absolutely NO idea how Olmec acquired the molds. I have to assume it was done legally, because the Bronze Bombers were so widespread (albeit a Toys "R" Us exclusive), that Hasbro would've been all over them if it hadn't been done legally, and there was certainly no mistaking the identity of many of the figures, even if some of the uniform pieces used were somewhat obscure.

There were twelve figures in the new BRONZE BOMBERS line, and they were sold as a boxed set. They also took a ridiculously long time to come out. Originally announced for 1995, they actually didn't appear until 1997. I actually went so far as to track down the phone number for Olmec to order a box of them for myself. This worked, but just to show that racism can certainly come from all corners, the person who took my order for these actually had the nerve to say, "You sound white. What do you want these for?" Read into that comment what you will. Fortunately, I wanted the figures more than I wanted to engage in a debate...

There were eight good guys in the set, all of which featured new head-sculpts. And while the headsculpts were, for the most part, very well done and nicely detailed, that remark from the phone order was almost laughable when one considers how derivative some of these head sculpts actually look. We've got at least one hysterical afro here, several big toothy snarls, and in general, hair-styles (including facial hair) that one might expect to more readily encounter in a street gang than a heroic defense force. Can we say "stereotype", anyone? At least one character has such a frightening expression on his face that he looks like he got kicked in the "family jewels".

The uniforms for these eight figures were are a rather remarkable mix-and-match of some pretty obscure figures from the G.I.Joe line. Even I had trouble figuring out who everyone was. There's pieces here from Skidmark, the Track-Viper, Darklon, and a few that I really just don't recall even now. While the details on the uniforms are neatly painted, they're not especially extensively painted. Generally speaking, the figures have maybe one color spray op. Still, enough colors across all eight, both in molded uniform colors and in the spray op, have been used so that as a group, they actually look very decent, if you can get past some of the facial expressions.

The four villains actually come across better than the heroes, for two reasons. Olmec left them their original heads, and they were willing to do more than one color spray op on some of them.

The villains are more identifyable than the heroes, being clearly based on Darklon, the Cobra Strato-Viper, the Cobra Motor-Viper, and the Cobra Secto-Viper. A few parts have been switched here and there, but basically, that's who these are.

The Secto-Viper character is easily the most impressive of the lot, as he features the transparent helmet that the original figure came with. The Strato-Viper looks very decent in red, and the Motor-Viper's colors are actually an improvement over the original.

It's not hard at all to merge (I almost said "integrate", but thought better of it) these characters into the G.I.Joe line. About the only visual difference between them is the fact that the arm rivets on the Bronze Bombers are not painted, which is easily remedied with a little paint if one so chooses.

The red Strato-Viper could easily be viewed as a Crimson Guard Pilot of some sort, perhaps. The Motor-Viper and Secto-Viper-based figures could also be worked in as Cobra troopers. The recolored Darklon figure could either be some sort of "Stealth Darklon", or if you want to build troops, as some sort of Iron Grenadiers detachment specifically assigned to Darklon.

The eight Bronze Bombers could be worked into the G.I.Joe Team, perhaps as a special team on their own of some sort.

The figures all came with equipment, in the boxed set, of course, which included a great many squirting devices taken from the Eco-Warriors line. They also had a set of colorful shields, which could be punched out of cardboard, but which probably wouldn't hold up all that well if squirted too often. It did seem to be an odd accessory combination.

The BRONZE BOMBERS hung around at Toys "R" Us for about a year and a half before vanishing. I believe that OLMEC is no longer in business, although I'm not 100% certain about that. Meanwhile, the BRONZE BOMBERS sets have become fairly welcome commodities on eBay, at least when they turn up, which isn't often, especially for collectors that like to do customizing, and could at least use the parts.

And, in a sense, they're probably a lot closer to official G.I.Joe figures than any other 3-3/4" line out there, given that they were, for the most part, actually based on G.I.Joe figure molds.

So, that's the story of one of the more unusual sidesteps in the world of G.I.JOE. And if you get a chance to own them, I most definitely recommend the BRONZE BOMBERS. They're a bit peculiar, but they're also cool.