1986 Low-Light

My favourite year for Joes was 1983 – they were all great years! – but 1986 was a special class for me too. Series five came out as I was losing interest in Transformers, and was a step forward from what had been a remarkable Joe line-up in 1985.

The Cobra opposition in 1986 was still formidable, however they were beginning to break away from any semblance of military realism (bikers, mad scientists, clone emperors, android troopers and whatever the hell the STUN was supposed to resemble). But the good guys in 1986 were grittier – with more muted colours as compared to Airtight, Barbecue and Bazooka in 1985. And the Joes incorporated a palatable amount of science fiction, aligning with the cultural impact of mid-80s movies like Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986).

I seem to remember hearing that 1986 was the biggest sales year for Joe and I can imagine that being true, with the 1985 lineup – Snake Eyes, Flint and endless troop builders – still on retail shelves, and a new crop of figures supported by another year of the cartoons, and Larry Hama’s storytelling hitting new highs in the 40s, with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s assault on Cobra Island, and Cobra abandoning Springfield altogether.

Low-Light was one of the most impressive figures in that monumental year. His colour pallet of grey, black and silver, with lesser elements of green and red, looked amazing. Hasbro could have made the silver elements black to save money on paint applications, but didn’t cheap out in anyway, even applying silver paint to the zippers on the inside of his legs and green paint to his two grenades. Black, grey and silver would have made him too dark, so they wisely used red on his shoulder padding and glasses, and made his hair blonde, a remarkable study in contrast.

Blonde Joes had been common in the early years (see: Hawk, Short-Fuze and Duke), however had fallen out of favour by 1985. I can imagine subconscious biases of little children against blonde and red-haired soldiers must have shown up in market research. But Low-Light likely had the coldest blood of any Joes, and his hair both created necessary colour contrast and humanized his character.

Low-Light is essentially the pre-cursor to the Toys ‘R Us-exclusive Night Force figures that came out two years later. Like with Low-Light, the Night Force figures used reds and greens, as well as browns, in their uniforms and even hair colours to create contrast. Figures dressed in all black would have become less interesting, as proven by how the 1985 Snake Eyes surpassed the 1982 version as an icon within the Joe lineup, and how subsequent versions of Snake Eyes used even more colour.

Low-Light was the favourite 1986 figure of my best friend. With Donny laying claim to Low-Light, I started my 86 purchases with Beach Head, Hawk, Leatherneck, Lifeline and Wet-Suit. Donny felt a kinship with Low-Light that went beyond a preference for the way he looked, relating to the story contained in his filecard. He and his father were outdoorsmen, and he would have welcomed the opportunity to prove himself on the land for three weeks, as Low-Light had. Also, he would have appreciated that his rifle could be used in less military-focused play, including for hunting.

His equipment was great. From 1982 to 1988 the breadth and complexity of accessories was continually improving. Low-Light had a bulkier backpack than most of 1985 and 1986 figures, a pre-cursor to the giant backpacks packaged with Tunnel Rat and Outback in 1987. But I can openly admit that I appreciated larger backpacks, because I could imagine the figures were carrying extra supplies that could be worked into play with some imagination. Low-Light’s was close to the tipping point on reasonable size, but worked with a figure who would frequently be operating alone and needed additional resources. His rifle also came with a nifty little bipod that set him up for sniping. And his Uzi was seemingly unnecessary, except when considering that his rifle wasn’t going to help in closer battles.

Low-Light is one of the darkest Joes. He’s the first sniper, a bonafide killer in a kids’ toy line.

Notably, I feel more appreciation for the role of sniper now, as an adult, having read Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road and having watched American Sniper.

After staying away from Low-Light when the 1986 figures first came out, I did get opportunities to play with him when visiting Donny. And he became my figure at a later date, when Donny and I exchanged his GI Joe figures for my Transfomers.

That figure survived my teenage yardsale purge in 1991 and was rediscovered with a few other favourite Joes in a box of vehicle parts in 2009.

I have also been lucky enough to add a US carded Low-Light in 2014, back when carded Joes averaged $100 a piece. The condition isn’t the best, which means he hasn’t spent as much time on display as a mintier sample would have. When I acquired him, I stressed about whether I would ever recoup my investment. Now with the heat of Joe figures as collectibles, I don’t think that will ever be a concern.

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