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By Thomas Wheeler

Each year, the Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Club offers its members a free G.I. Joe figure. This year, in the 3-3/4" realm, that figure is the UNDERTOW, the designation for the frogmen, the underwater specialists, of Destro's Iron Grenadiers forces.

This figure, I believe, is the result of a desire to extend an extremely popular Convention Set from several years ago, itself based on a notably popular division within the ranks of the G.I. Joe Collection.

The Iron Grenadiers first appeared in the G.I. Joe action figure line in 1988. They were a new enemy force, entirely independent of Cobra, that had been assembled by Destro, Cobra's now-former enemy weapons supplier, who had gotten more than a bit, and entirely understandably, fed up with Cobra Commander's constant insane ravings, as well as the assorted politics that were being played among the Cobra hierarchy.

Destro, who had first been introduced in 1983, was first and foremost a businessman. He was a weapons manufacturer. His interest in global politics, never mind conquest, generally only went as far as how he could stir things up in order to sell weaponry to some agitated area of the globe. Granted, this was something Cobra excelled at, which is doubtless why Destro threw in with them to the degree that he did.

However, Destro had a personal sense of honor about him, whatever his business practices, that was likely second only to Storm Shadow's -- who ultimately left Cobra. Destro's personal sensibilities were ill-suited for the company he was keeping with the possible exception of the Baroness. A maniac like Cobra Commander, utterly devoid of mercy or scruples of any sort, and low-rent mercenaries such as Zartan and the Dreadnoks, are going to get on the nerves of someone who not only regards himself as above the sort of petty bickering and megalomania that seemed to define these individuals, but pretty much was above them.

The final straw, in the comic book, at least, seemed to be when Cobra Commander sent Major Bludd in disguise to Destro's ancestral home, in order to try to steal Destro's complete set of Terror-Drome blueprints. Destro actually teamed up with members of the G.I. Joe Team, retook his home, and turned the blueprints over to Flint and Lady Jaye.

Absent for some time after that, Destro returned during the Cobra Island Civil War, with one purpose in mind -- to rescue his lady-love, the Baroness, who had gotten caught in the middle of the mess and was not especially trusted by either side. Destro had no interest in either Cobra or G.I. Joe at that particular point.

The appearance of Destro amidst the Cobra Civil War was the first comic book appearance of the Iron Grenadiers. Later on, they would turn up, sometimes opposing Cobra, sometimes allying themselves with Cobra, but generally regarded as an independent force. On more than one occasion, Destro was seen actually hiring out his army to the highest bidder in some godforsaken place on the globe. As I said, Destro was more of a businessman than a conqueror.

In the toy line, the Iron Grenadiers were referred to as "Destro's Enemy Army". They weren't affiliated with Cobra, but they weren't the good guys, either. The concept went out of its way to avoid reptile-sounding names for the soldiers and equipment. Trooper names such as "Nullifer" and "Annihilator" managed to be sufficiently intimidating without calling Cobra to mind, as were vehicle names such as "D.E.M.O.N.", "Razorback", and "Dominator".

Indeed, the Iron Grenadiers even had their own distinctive insignia, which appeared on the vehicles, and occasionally on the figures. It was a stylized dagger, with an image of Destro's mask, and the stylized word "Destro" worked into the design. Cobra had nothing to do with this.

The Iron Grenadiers got their start in 1988, and ran through 1990. Never an especially populous group, the Iron Grenadiers consisted of, naturally, Destro, a few individual characters such as Voltar and Metal-Head, and an assortment of troops, including (of course) the Iron Grenadiers, Ferrets, Nullifiers, Annihilators, T.A.R.G.A.T's, and a few others.

The Undertow frogmen were the only Iron Grenadier troopers offered in 1990, and indeed, were pretty much the only environment-specific Iron Grenadier troopers ever produced, unless you want to count the T.A.R.G.A.T.s as being space-capable. One wonders if the Iron Grenadiers had continued for a few more years, if we would've seen arctic troops, desert troops, or some such.

However, it made sense to offer underwater specialists. There's an awful lot of water on this planet, and there's no shortage of battle possibilities on the sea as well as on the land. Ask any country's Navy. Both the G.I. Joe team and Cobra had gotten around to underwater specialists -- Torpedo and the Cobra Eels -- pretty early in their respective runs. The Undertows made sense.

The original Undertow had a mildly curious color scheme. Grey leggings and collar, with a burgundy shirt and a green headpiece. It didn't seem especially Iron Grenadier-ish. It really didn't seem all that distinctive of anything, really. The design of the figure was cool, but the color scheme was a little -- odd. One sort of wondered how Hasbro had determined the color scheme, and how many others had been considered along the way.

The Undertows would return in 2000, this time, affiliated with Cobra! Apparently, Cobra and Destro had made amends, and Destro was willing to ally his forces with Cobra once again. This new Undertow even had a Cobra insignia on him! The color was certainly an improvement, and quite distinctive. The 2000 Undertow had a mostly blue diving suit, about the same color as the original Cobra Commander. Unfortunately, the Undertows of 2000 fell victim to the practice of far too many of the 2000-2002 series, and were smeared with a wash of black paint.

A second version of the Undertow was released in this time period, part of an eight-pack exclusive to a warehouse club store. This Undertow, like the other three Cobras in the set, was primarily outfitted in red. It's an interesting color effect on the figure, and thankfully, the overwash of black paint is entirely absent. Like his blue friend, this Undertow is assigned to Cobra, and has a white Cobra insignia on the forehead of his diver's hood.

Despite their relatively short life-span in the toy line, the Iron Grenadiers remained a popular component of the concept. There was a newsculpt Iron Grenadier figure, for example.

Fast forward a bit to 2005. The Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Club has been making 3-3/4" figure sets for their official Conventions since 2002, and is looking to top themselves once again. They turned to Destro's personal army, and brought back the Iron Grenadiers!

An interesting new take on Destro was assembled for the set, Metal-Head rejoined the group, and a new bad guy, a General Mayhem, signed on. They were joined by six re-worked and meaner-than-ever Iron Grenadiers, and six of Destro's new paratroopers, the ironically-named Iron Anvils, which finally made good use of the otherwise horrible 1994 Cobra Viper figure, which not only didn't look anything like a Viper, but which, in its original year of release, had been given the rather dubious color scheme of purple and orange. No wonder they defected to Destro and were willing to jump out of airplanes. Anything to get a better color scheme, which they certainly had.

There was a greater consistency to the color scheme of these Iron Grenadier troopers than there had been during the original years. Adhering close to Destro's own colors, the figures were predominantly black, with red and gold trim, and some grey. It worked. It looked like an extension of Destro's own favorite colors, it didn't look especially Cobra-ish, and it certainly looked menacing enough. And the Club made sure that everybody got Destro's insignia on their uniforms, which was also brought back for this special set.

The set was extremely popular, enough so that later on, a Membership Figure in the form of a newsculpt Nullifier, in the Convention Set colors, was offered.

And now -- the Undertow has returned! This is the first year that the Club's Membership Figure has been a traditional-style figure, but it seems fitting, since this year's Convention Set will be in the 25th-style format.

So, what have we got with this Undertow? How about the coolest, most impressive, most Iron Grenadier-looking Undertow ever produced! This figure is amazing. Never mind Big Red and Greasy Blue from 2000. You can even disregard the burgundy-green-grey from 1990. HERE'S the Undertow that you're going to want assigned to your Iron Grenadier forces, and he's a perfect extension of that 2005 Convention Set, as well.

The figure has a predominantly black uniform. The gloves and high collar are grey. The oxygen tanks and a few other details are metallic gold. The chestplate, belt, knee pads, and other trim on the uniform are all red. This sounds like a fairly limited color palette, but it all works together superbly well and is perfect for the figure and for the character's affiliation.

The Undertow has the Destro insignia stamped clearly on the front of the high collar. This is the first time that any Undertow has had this, since the 1990 Undertow was lacking it, and the two 2000-era Undertows were assigned to Cobra. This guy is no Cobra. He's with Destro, he looks it, and don't forget it.

Although the bulk of the figure's face is concealed by a hood, the small portion that does show through around the eyes has been masterfully painted. There is a region of flesh tone, with eyes and eyebrows clearly and neatly painted, including the whites of the eyes, which is also a new feature that no other previous Undertow has had.

All of the painted detailing is very neatly done. I find myself these days, on ANY toy line, regardless of what it is or who makes it, checking for hand-painted detailing, which is, simply as a byproduct of the mass production environment, going to turn out sloppier than spray painting the detailing through a proper stencil. If there's any hand-painted details on this Undertow, I'm not seeing them. Everything is exceptionally neatly done.

Equipment? You say you want equipment? The Undertow has plenty. An underwater combatant is going to want swim fins. The Undertow has a couple of very high-tech-looking swim fins -- exactly the sort of thing someone like Destro would invent -- and they even have painted detail on them! It's not often that accessories get painted detail, but these grey fins have some cool black trim on the tops.

There's a nasty-looking trident spear thing, that looks like something Aquaman would refuse to use because it's too vicious. This, too, has been painted. It has a black handle, and the spiked fork has been painted in metallic gold.

There's a cool little underwater sled, with handles and a peg for the Undertow's air hose. It also has a removable missile underneath. It's not spring-loaded, which in my mind is no great loss. It looks cool, and is clearly something the Undertow could use to charge into battle -- or retreat at a pretty good clip if things go against him.

How about a bit of sea life? The Undertow comes with a 3" barracuda, with a set of teeth that would give a piranha pause. I'm not entirely sure how the Undertow controls this animal. Is it possible to train these things?

Interestingly enough, the barracuda is molded from a very rubbery plastic, allowing him a certain flexibility. Should this count as articulation?

The Undertow comes with a small air hose, which fits into a hole in the oxygen tank on the chest, and then attaches to the separate face mask. And there's the one accessory I need to deal with a little bit.

The face mask has been molded in red, and given some gold trim and a gold eye. It looks great. I am concerned as to how well it will work. And that is categorically not the Club's fault. This mask has never worked all that well. When I purchased my first original Undertow in 1990, I tried to fit the mask over the head. It's more or less a face-piece with straps to go over and behind the head. SNAP! It broke on the first try. Over the course of the year, I did a little "army-building" with the Undertow, and I came to the conclusion that the mask was simply not a good fit for the head. It was just a little too small.

I didn't even try to put the masks on either of the 2000 Undertows, and as for this one. online reports of other people who have received this figure indicate that it will fit in place, but since it's molded from a fairly rigid plastic this time around, as opposed to the rather rubbery plastic of 1990, there's some evidence of "stress cracks" developing. Now, this new mask may be sturdier than the original, but in my opinion, that's not the problem. It's just not a very good fit. The Club is not at fault on this...nor am I criticizing them in any way.

I did manage to fit it over the head pretty well, but I did notice a little "stress" in the straps. At least it didn't snap clean through, which puts it ahead of the 1990 version, at least the one that I bought. It is an extremely tight fit, and trying to remove it is no easy feat. Granted, it does make the Undertow look a little more menacing, but in my opinion, the Undertow also looks perfectly good without it. The Undertow also comes with a transparent display base.

And there's a file card, which is technically the reverse side of the membership card. The front presents a lenticular image with the Club logo, and the 12" Adventure Team figure, and the Undertow figure. The reverse features the file card information for the Undertow, and it reads as follows:

Code name: UNDERTOW
Primary Military Specialty: Covert Underwater Operations
Secondary Military Specialty: UDT (Underwater Demolitions)

Destro's elite frogmen are specially trained to function and fight in the murky, polluted waters that clog busy industrial and military waterfronts. Each member is organically conditioned against hostile biological agents and infections. Their wet-suits are made of a nontoxic, anti-corrosive material and coated with silicone to repel oil slicks. These underwater specialists are almost impossible to defeat in their own environment!

"Undertow will swim through anything!"

This is a well-written update to the original file card, and I love the high-tech description of the wet-suits. Exactly the sort of thing Destro would invent.

So, what's my final word here? This is an amazing figure. If you're a longtime collector of the G.I. Joe line, you'll want this figure. It's easily the best Undertow ever, and certainly ranks way high among ALL the divers that have ever been part of the G.I. Joe line. If you're not a member of the Club (and why the heck not!?) you should definitely look into it, and see if you can still add this figure to your collection!

The G.I. JOE COLLECTORS' CLUB UNDERTOW most definitely has my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation!