1986 Cobra Viper

In 1985, Hasbro was firing on all cylinders. They had the comic and the cartoon, and were telling great stories in each. The Joes themselves were extremely well designed – detailed, distinct and well-characterized. The marketing machine had been firing from the start of the line with the gorgeous card art, flag points and mailaway figures, and of course the commercials featuring cartoons in the ads selling the comic book, and the comic book positioned to sell toys while telling incredible stories. Hasbro had produced the biggest toy in history, and had hit kids with four exceptional troop builders in 1985, all of which I owned.

The Joe line really hadn’t seen troop builders since the OG Cobras in 1982. And the original troopers must have sold a shit-ton over the years because they were still on the cards even while the four new troopers were hitting the scene in 1985.

The Cobra trooper had always been elusive to me – I must have seen some on display at The Bay in Fort Smith at some point, but I honestly don’t remember that. My parents had bought me the officer first, and the two were indistinguishable to me at 5 years old. I didn’t even know anyone that owned the trooper. I mean, there was a kid down the block that was rumoured to have one but I never saw it. We were friends for a short time and when we played at his house I remember the dog from Battlestar Galactica and some A-Team figures, and not many Joes. And year later, he was rumoured to have the Night Raven, another Joe toy I had never seen in person. But by then we were not hanging out anymore.

The way that I read the troop builders of 1985 was that the Snow Serpents and Eels were specialist troops and the Tele-Vipers were support figures, essentially non-combatants, and that left the Crimson Guards as Cobra’s everyday foot soldiers. I guess at eight years old I wasn’t quite understanding the subversive nature of how the Crimson Guards were portrayed in the comics. And I wasn’t quite flagging on the fact that they had “Guard” in their names and that their red uniforms were reminiscent of the Emperor’s Royal Guard in Return of the Jedi. Not even the fact that their uniforms made them easy targets on the battlefield clicked in my brain. My understanding of war was that one side wore one colour and the other side wore another colour, and the colours were necessary to spot your team in the heat of the battle and avoid friendly fire. It was a cross between sports and the American civil war. Of course someone would be wearing red! 

My Joes were as sneaky as my Cobras – and shot just as poorly – making easy targets wearing red still a challenge to hit. And having all four of the 1985 troop builders was fine, because my parents never bought me doubles and that group could function as an army to fight Joes that outnumbered them nearly 3-to-1 in every battle. I just needed to get them in the right location when the armies went to war, somewhere where Crimson Guard could carry out the frontal attack on dry land, Eel could attack some Joes in the water, Snow Serpent could attack some Joes in the snow and Tele-Viper could communicate back to Cobra Commander about how the squad was doing.

So, the next year, in 1986, when Hasbro released two more carded army builders for Cobra, I wasn’t onboard. Crimson Guard had functioned as my main grunt – in some environments even functioning as a one-man army – for a whole year and now he was being replaced? It made no sense to me. My best friend, Donny, grabbed both BATS and Viper while I concentrated my efforts on fortifying my Joe army, buying Beach Head and Leatherneck. I knew I would feel a lot better if my Joes could outnumber the Cobras 4-to-1…

Both of the new Cobra troopers grew on me, though, as they became mainstays in the cartoons and comics. When Donny and I orchestrated a trade that saw all my Autobots and Decepticons sent to his house for all his GI Joe and Cobra figures, I got to appreciate Cobra’s new soldiers firsthand. 

Viper was missing at least one thumb by then. Of course he was! His rifle had two handles and Mr. Garrido’s artwork showed him – memorably – holding both the extended front handle and rifle butt, neither of which would fit in either hand. So although I had Viper in my possession, he never was as useful to me. BATS on the other hand got a lot of use, battling Lady Jaye on the Silver Mirage in a re-creation of his famous first comic appearance in GI Joe #44.

Viper has only grown on me since, to the point where he is now in my top five troop builders. His artwork was remarkable. His weapons were simple but efficient. The blank slate of his helmet was menacing. And his colour scheme was truest to the Cobra-motif since the OG Cobra Trooper, the figure he was intended to replace.

As an adult collector, I tracked Viper down early in my revived obsession. I bought my first at Cherry Bomb Toys in Victoria in 2010, and bought him every time he appeared at toy shows, at retail or on eBay when I saw him at a decent price. I know my limitations and troop building for $50 a pop doesn’t appeal to me, so I was lucky to find him as often as I did, as early as I did.

Viper was also one of my first MOC figures purchased as an adult collector. And both MLC and MOC Vipers have been part of my displayed collection almost consecutively since they were purchased. My small army, however, needs display space. There are 12 of them now and they have 24 thumbs between them. So it isn’t so hard to keep their thumbs attached, after all!

There’s something so special about the Vipers. They were the last classic trooper released. I mean, I like the Iron Grenadiers, Alley Vipers and Night Vipers, but… Cobra blue with accents of black and Cobra red, plus a silver face shield!? Also, Viper’s uniform is a whole lot more practical than those gorgeous, but ill-prepared, Crimson Guards. 

As a kid, I remember spending so much time reviewing the cardbacks, trying to figure out who to buy first, who I would buy next… If I could go back in time and purchase the 1986 Joes in a new order, Low-Light, Leatherneck and Hawk would still be near the top of my list, but I’d be hard-pressed to pass on Viper in favour of any of them. Beach Head is still my number one, but Viper is the second best figure that year, and I’m glad to have him now. No Joe collection would be complete without him.

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