It’s hard to doubt 1985 as the peak for Hasbro’s 3 ¾” GI Joe line. They released the definitive version of Snake Eyes with wolf, fellow icons Flint, Lady Jaye and Shipwreck, and, of course, the biggest toy ever produced, the USS Flagg. The military realism, which represented 90% of what we had seen to that point – handheld lasers rifles, jet packs and Zartan notwithstanding – would become less relevant in future years, with impractical vehicles like the Stun and Havoc arriving in 1986. The detailing that went into the vehicles was what suffered the most in subsequent years and the plastic quality was also compromised, presumably to reduce design time and to cut costs. Gems were still to be found post-1985, but they were fewer and farther between.
In the greatest year for GI Joe, the best vehicle released was the Mauler MBT.
The Flagg was incredible, and utterly the most ambitious toy in the line, arguably in any toy line. But the Mauler was significantly less assuming. It was replacing another of the Joe icons, the Mobat, as the Joe’s primary battle tank. But the designers clearly paid attention to what wasn’t quite perfect about the Mobat in designing its replacement.
The most obvious issue with the Mobat was the driver in the turret, exposed to a level of danger that would make Cobra’s HISS gunner think, “Poor sucker.” In the Mauler, the driver and another crew member were living large, safely hidden behind the tank’s armoured hatches. The Mobat was smaller than it should have been, and although this never bothered me as a child, it’s so apparent to me now as an adult; this was corrected with its replacement tank. The Mauler also had two compartments to stash weapons or tools, and two hatches to access the vehicle’s motor when pretending to do repairs, nice touches that always heightened realism.
The Mobat was a one-figure tank with nowhere for other figures to perch themselves, an issue made the more apparent when you saw images with Grunt and Zap on the sides of the tank on GI Joe #1 and on the Collector Display Case. With the Mauler, there were two pegs on the rotating turret, allowing a third and fourth figures to be involved in missions. And the Mauler had a pile of small pieces – the hatches, smoke grenade launchers, side skirts, mud flaps and antennas that are now the bane of some collectors’ existences – that when removed, allowed for the tank to appear as if it had taken damage in battle.
My main knock with the Mauler is the tow cable, which is even more the bane of collectors’ existences than the antennas, because of its fragility. Not as fragile as the Wolverine’s tow cable, mind you, so the designers were continually trying to make improvements over earlier toys.
The driver, Heavy Metal, was an extremely well designed figure, including goggles, belt buckle, and a dirt-line – or five o’clock shadow – on his face. His microphone is rumoured to be the hardest accessory to find in the whole line, somehow the ultimate bane on a vehicle with numerous banes. Heavy Metal’s microphone is the white whale for most North American GI Joe collectors, and would be the one piece I would splurge on if not for my fear of accidentally buying a reproduction.
(I do have a reproduction microphone from maraudersinc.com, but its black colour clearly identifies itself as such. It’s not trying to fool anyone.)
Although the Mauler is possibly the best Joe vehicle every produced, I should say that it isn’t my favourite. It’s up there – no doubt – but nothing tops my emotional attachment to the Skystriker and Killer Whale. In its defense, the Mauler isn’t propped up by the excitement of being a Santa gift, my big Christmas presents benefitting from the merriment of the season in a way that my birthday presents, in March, did not.
My initial firsthand exposure to the Mauler was early in 1986. The Joe toys were later arriving in Canada than the United States, and even later arriving in northern Canada. The son of the town’s doctor had the Mauler. We weren’t particularly close, and I shudder to think that I might have visited him because I’d caught wind that he had the Mauler. At that point, I would have walked through hell and back just to see the latest GI Joe catalog, and between my best friend, Corey, and me, we had feelers out for anyone who acquired new GI Joe toys we had never seen. Corey was a better person than me in this regard, as I’m sure Corey wouldn’t have visited someone just to play with the latest Joe toy. The Mauler was one of just two vehicles I associate with this friend, the other being the Cobra FANG. Regardless, I was both jealous of him and enraptured with his toy.
I can imagine the full-court press begging my parents for it afterwards. And, sure enough, the Mauler was what my parents gave me for my 9th birthday in March. In Fort Smith, there were few sources of Joe toys: just Wally’s Drugstore and the Bay locally, or ordering from the Sears catalog. Likely, though, this type of gift would have been planned weeks in advance so maybe they had already bought the Mauler before I started bugging them, and my excitement after that visit to my distant friend’s house just validated the choice they had already made.
Interestingly, Heavy Metal appeared on my birthday cake that year, with Lady Jaye, Airtight, Barbecue and the Armadillo mini-tank, meaning that I had already opened my gift before my actual birthday party. The pictures are grainy now, especially the version that I’d scanned for my computer years ago, and from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories is a long way to go to look at the original photo. But squint as much as I want, I can’t see Heavy Metal’s microphone. Maybe it fell off into the icing and one of my friends ate it. Maybe I’d already lost it. Or maybe, like so many kids at the time, I thought it was just a spare piece of plastic that I had chucked into the garbage, along with all the baggies and sprues.