There is a short list of items that Hasbro can release that will reduce me to the level excitement of a 7 year old boy on Christmas morning. The first item is any type of new character in the GIJoe line. I love reissues and updates to classic characters as much as the next Joe fan but a new character represents new opportunity for character development and new growth for the line. Without such infusions of creativity, the line might as well be dead as nature abhors a developmental vacuum. The second item on that short list is a bit more open-ended: anything to do with the “Original 13” team members. Influenced more by Larry Hama’s writing on the Marvel Comics series than anything else, I LOVE the “Original 13” Joes and the interactions that they had. Back when the unit was truly a small elite team, there was much more opportunity for character interplay and development. Bonds were formed between characters that would have been much more difficult to establish in a larger task force. So, imagine my shock and delight when I first read about the “Plague Troopers vs. Steel Brigade” six-pack. Literally, the “best of both worlds”, the set would contain SIX new characters—three from the much-maligned (by me) Steel Brigade and three additional from a new unit known only as “The Plague”. A group of thirteen specialists assembled from the hordes of Cobra, its Cobra Commander’s answer to the original GIJoe team! Now, after many long months of waiting, the set has finally arrived and it most certainly lives up to the anticipation!
According to comments by various Hasbro representatives at the 2006 GIJoe Collector’s Convention in New Orleans, LA, the concept for the Plague team is elegantly simple. Based upon now-General Hawk’s original GIJoe team, the Plague will be comprised of thirteen elite soldiers from the “army of the serpent”. Literally, the “best of the best”, the Plague members will come from all of the various Cobra specializations with one objective in mind— to thwart and utterly humiliate GIJoe at every turn. The plan is a brilliant one especially considering how often Cobra was defeated by a mere group of 13 men and one woman back in the early 80’s. Rather than try and counter America’s Elite with numbers, Cobra Commander has created an elite unit free from the Cobra Command structure and answerable only to him. Fans can only hope that Hasbro sees the potential in this set and releases the other 10 members in the not-too-distant future!
Described in his file card as “judge, jury, and hangman” (apparently “executioner” is a bit too dark for the kiddies), Gallows is former SAW Viper that takes precision to a whole new level. Typically, the image of a heavy machine gunner conjures the images of a barrage of suppressive fire rather than pinpoint accuracy. It is this targeting skill that earned Gallows his place on the Plague. For a figure body, Gallows is based upon the GvC Snake Eyes mold last seen in the Kmart exclusive Operation Avalanche boxed set. Molded in a charcoal gray, the figure’s belt, harness, holsters, and forearm guards are all painted black. A dash of red has been applied to his shoulder pads as well as to the back of his forearms and calves. This is a familiar mold to GIJoe collectors and one that many Joe fans initially decried as the “perfect Snake Eyes”. I was not one of those collectors; the sheer abundance of molded gear never made sense for a “silent commando”. The design is terrific and the molded details are some of the most abundant found on ANY Hasbro figure released to date, but it was just a case of “too much”. Yet, the very issues that prevented me from embracing this as Snake Eyes have caused me to immediately accept it as a nearly-perfect body for an elite Cobra soldier. I see the Plague as a squad operating independent of normal Cobra channels most of the time. As such, they’re got to be a self-sufficient unit and that includes carrying enough gear in their standard kit so as to be useful in any situation. This mold seems indicative of that philosophy and fits in perfectly with my preconception. However, I did say that this was a “nearly-perfect” choice of a figure mold earlier and I stand by that statement. My only real issue with this figure mold is that the nature of the design makes it impossible for the figure to rest his arms at his side. The result of the torso musculature is that the figures based upon this body will forever be strutting around with their arms flexed out from their torsos—just like those insecure “jocks” that seem to populate every high school in America. (You know the ones I’m referring to—the ones that “almost” made the cut for the team each year.) So, as much as I love the use of this mold for the plague, it’s still not quite perfect due to a design flaw.
Gallows has two unique aspects that just make this figure come to life. The first is his helmet and the second is his signature weapon. For the Plague troopers, Cobra appears to have borrowed a page from the “Book of Vader”. The new team helmets, with their flanged cowling and their angled face plates, evoke memories of a certain Dark Lord of the Sith that made such an impression on generations of movie-goers. Carrying over a few aspects of both the Neo-Viper and Interrogator designs, the head gear works to achieve a two-pronged goal of providing protection as well as conveying intimidation. This is not the face mask of someone who comes to your door selling cookies for the girl scouts. This is the face plate of a man who will turn your house into a gazebo with a few thousand rounds from his trusty signature weapon. The helmet and the rest of Gallows’ gear is highlighted with the color red—evocative of his former life as a SAW Viper, which is also evidenced in his trusty mini-gun. Hasbro could have simply reissued the same mini-gun that was originally packaged with the Spy Troops version of Roadblock but instead gave us an entirely new weapon for the Plague’s heavy machine gunner. The new “instrument of destruction” is significantly larger than its predecessor, sporting nearly twice the barrel length. It is secured by a single strap with fits over Gallows’ shoulder which helps to support the massive weapon. I’ll be blunt—this thing is amazing! Jesse Ventura’s character from “Predator” would look as this gun and turn green with envy. My only grievances with the gun are minor—the strap could be a bit longer and it has no method of feeding ammunition. The first problem is a bit harder to remedy while the second requires the addition of a backpack and belt. (Werecat of JoeSightings.com found a terrific solution by incorporating the backpack that originally came with Rock n Roll v2. You can view his work here. ) Aside from two minor issues with the gear, this is pretty much a perfect new character.
Imagine a Sand-Viper so ruthless that he’d alter the DNA of his own men during a mission to complete his objective. If you can picture this, you’ve just envisioned Grim Skull. Based upon the same mold as Gallows, Grim Skull retains traces of his former specialty by incorporating traces of yellow into his uniform. Equipped with a retooled version of the DTC Scrap Iron rifle as well as a small SMG, Grim Skull is a trooper that can lay down some serious “pain and suffering” upon his foes. As he shares a mold with Gallows, the same comments apply to the body design. The only additional issue that I might have with this set is that, in some lighting, the yellow used to highlight his uniform and helmet is almost a bit too bright. A gold paint application might have produced a more subdued effect akin to that found on the most recent Sand Viper figures, but that is a matter for the customizers out there to determine. It is important to note that Grim Skull’s helmet is subtly different from Gallows’. Whereas the crest of the former SAW Viper’s helm was smooth, Grim Skull has opted for a more brutal appearance. The crest of his headgear is adorned with series of small spikes, adding an additional layer of menace to his already foreboding presence.
FINALLY! Hasbro has finally found a use for a Spy Troops mold that just never worked for me. Guillotine, the former Navy SEAL who defected to Cobra to train as an Eel is based upon the Coils mold. I’ve always like basic nature of this body design—a form-fitting black racing suit with additional padding on the forearms and along the sides of the legs. Yet, I never found a use for the figures in my Joe collection. Without a vehicle to be attached to, they languished in obscurity as “those other troops”. (I loathe and despise the over-sized Venom cycle that was released around the same time and refuse to own one.) Guillotine takes this rather practical character design and uses it to spin a far more sinister tune. The body is once again black but this time the gaudy orange and red panels have been removed. Instead the seam along the legs (and the forearm panels) has been painted with a flat gray. The belts and straps have been painted dark brown with the only real pronounced color choice found on the holster on his right leg. However, the most startling change is that decision to mold the arms in a flesh-colored plastic rather than in the previously-used black. The result is a sleeveless skin suit that not only accentuates the characters muscular biceps but adds a degree of menace to what was previously a fairly mundane character design. Guillotine is another example of just how much difference (and improvement) can be made by a simple change of color applications.
Guillotine’s head sculpt almost confuses me. A stern-faced bald with an extremely strong jaw, the Plague commander conveys a sense of complete and utter ruthlessness. His arched eyebrows, thick moustache, and “soul patch” complete a look that is utterly devoid of compassion. He is a cold-blooded killer to whom the ends always justify the means—in other words, the perfect man to lead a unit like The Plague. What confuses me is that he also bears an uncanny resemblance to both Gung-Ho and Dr. Mindbender. (At least, he resembles the Dr. Mindbender of the first 100 issues of the Marvel Comics series.) This shouldn’t really be a factor but it’s actually hindered my usual efforts to read the details of his personality from his facial features. I keep finding myself reminded of either an arrogant scientist or my favorite Marine. One this is for certain, there is a cold intellect seen this face that removes the nomenclature of “thug” from his description. If Cobra Commander is the yang to General Flagg’s yin, this is man is the “anti-Hawk”—and is a leader who is willing to do anything to accomplish his objective. Guillotine comes with a fantastic set of accessories including a backpack, a massive shotgun-like rifle, a rebreather mask, and a sword. The mask is uncannily similar to the Eels helm that was included with the Spy Troops Depth Charge figure. As such, it provides a nice consistency with the figures that have come before this. The sword is a bit of mixed bag for me. When it comes to sculpting, the work on this is phenomenal! From the various nicks and dents on the blade to the “Mortal Kombat” pommel, the weapon is a deadly work of art! The downside of it is that it doesn’t really fit solidly in either the figure’s hands or his backpack. The solution to the hand situation can be achieved by picking up a second set and simply swapping the arms with those of an extra Red Zone figure. The back pack sheath (essentially a slot along the right hand side of the accessory) with take some more work. Still, I’m so enamored with both the figure and the rest of his gear that it is easy to overlook this one simple flaw in an otherwise perfect figure!