Zartan, Cobra Commander, Zarana
The Cobra Civil War stands out in the minds of many Joe fans as one of the greatest arcs of the entire Marvel Comics GIJoe series. Simply put: this arc had EVERYTHING! You had Cobra Commander (aka Fred VII), the Baroness, Zartan, and the Dreadnoks on one side and Serpentor, the Twins, and Dr. Mindbender on the other with the Joes caught in the middle and Destro serving tea on the sidelines. Literally, there was no bad to this entire arc—including the dramatic death of Serpentor at the hands of one of my favorite Cobra characters. Comic Pack #74 begins the Cobra Civil War trilogy and it features a character I never thought I’d see and one that has never looked better. Oh yeah, and Zarana is tossed in there too.
I can still remember getting the original Zartan with swamp skier for Christmas when I was growing up. The character had just debuted in “GIJoe: The Revenge of Cobra” and had left a strong impression on my impressionably young mind. A master of disguise with cool gear, Zartan quickly shot to the top of my list of favorite Cobra characters. His design was elegantly simple: dark colored pants, heavy boots, gloves, hood, and a “chain mail” shirt covered by an armored chest plate. Sure, it might seem a bit goofy when described on paper but as a kid it worked! Oddly enough, the simplistic nature of the character design is one of the reasons that this character still looks as “cool” as he does today. (Ironically, the same cannot be said for his sister but more on that later.) For the comic pack release, Hasbro simply took the original body design and altered the color scheme. The hood and pants are now more of a rust color rather than a maroon. The armored pads on his pants and his chest plate are now silver instead of black. Gone are the clear sections where the thermally activated color-changing stickers were applied; the plates are now just solid silver. The gloves and boots are now more of dark blue-green instead of their original black. I’m usually opposed to the lighter color palettes used in the comic packs but it’s hard to make this design look bad, (although Zartan v2 tried really, really hard) and the end result is just sharp. The “Big Z” is back and he’s back in style.
If the original Zartan figure had a weak point, it was found in his head sculpt. Perhaps it’s the way that his mouth seemed to protrude from his head but I was always reminded of a frog when looking at him. (Although I can’t see him playing a banjo and singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.) Also, the hood always came across as less of a hood and more of a wet towel just tossed over his head. The design was “okay” but it wasn’t great. However, I loved the character enough that I just overlooked this rather bland sculpt as a child. For the comic pack, Hasbro went and gave the original “Master of Disguise” a complete facial makeover. The jaw line is stronger; the gaze more severe, and the facial features are more defined. To top it off, this version actually has eyes rather than blank white lenses that have the emotive capacity of Spider-Man. The face, while possibly a touch long, belies a grim cunning intelligence befitting a character that has played his allegiance to Cobra like a trumpet at a SKA concert. In fact, Hasbro has done what many fans have thought impossible—they’ve produced the definitive Zartan in this comic pack. With a more natural looking hood and an improved head sculpt; this figure has leapt to the forefront of my Joe collection not just as a comic pack figure but also as THE Zartan. Add in the fact that he comes with a compound bow, quiver, and two arrows and you find yourself left with a figure that has just enough ammo to take care of both Ripcord and Serpentor. Trust me—the team in Pawtucket has done right by the fans with this figure.
Fred VII replacing Cobra Commander had to be one of my favorite plot twists in the original Marvel Comics GIJoe series. Who would have thought that Cobra Commander could be written successfully out of a GIJoe comic strip? The sheer audacity that it took for a CG to gun down his commander and then replace him immediately caused me to take a shine to Fred and his shiny new battle armor. Okay, while it was never quite bulky enough for me, I still loved the design. Why shouldn’t Cobra Commander get some tricked out armor that rendered him pretty much invulnerable to small arms fire? My adolescent mind immediately wrapped itself around the concept and the battle armored Cobra Commander became one of my favorite concepts in all of Joe-dom. Nearly twenty years later the armor design has passed the test of time. From the armored gauntlets to the odd little tubes on the left side of the torso I still love this design. The combination of cloth and armored sections produces a body suit that is both defensive and mobile- giving the wearer both protection and freedom to move on the battle field. This armor is cutting edge—both in the 80’s and even today. The biggest change to this design for the comic pack is found in the color palette that was used. Going with a more comic-accurate look, the blue for the body is now almost a light blue where the reds have taken on a more maroon hue. Normally I’m not a fan of the lighter colors used in the comic packs but in this case it works—and works really well. This is one of those reissue figures that literally looks as though it has stepped right off of the page of the comic and into the real world. (Now if only that would happen with Jim Lee’s X-Men and Psylocke!) As I’ve said previously, the battle armor has not only stood the test of time but it has weathered it extremely well.
Okay—it’s “fanboy time”. This is where I’m just going to become a giddy little Joe geek and rave incessantly about how cool the new head sculpt of this figure is. I’m just warning you now—if you’d rather read more mature writing, hit the New York Times. Okay, you’ve been warned. IT’S FRED!!!!! IT’S FRED!!!!! For most of my Joe-collecting life, I’ve wanted a Fred series CG head sculpt for my figures. Sure plenty of people have made due with other heads that are similar to the Fred series and have produced some pretty creative customs. However, THIS IS FRED!!! (Okay, maybe part of my geekiness comes from the fact that I share the same name as this series of CG. Do you know how hard it was to find anything with the name “Fred” on it growing up in the 80’s?) One of my favorite characters from the comics has truly come to life—just not in the form that I’d have expected. Hasbro did two really amazing things with this figure. First off, they made a comic-accurate removable helmet for the battle armor. (I never liked the more angular look of the toy.) Secondly, they actually gave us the Fred head underneath! This head is another example of a design that looks like it just literally stepped off of the pages of the Marvel Comics issue of GIJoe. Heck, he’s even got that slightly shaggy early 80’s haircut that all of the Fred series seemed to be wearing. Considering the fact that the true Cobra Commander never actually wore this armor in the comic series, this was the only route that Hasbro could have taken and I’m glad that they did. I can see Joe fans gobbling up this comic pack like Michael Moore at an All-You-Can-Eat Anti George Bush rally. Seriously, Hasbro should just consider one more release of the removable helmet Crimson Guard—this time with all Fred series heads underneath. Sure, this figure doesn’t come with his original rifle or backpack but honestly, I never liked the backpack anyway. This Battle Armor Cobra Commander is going to go down as one of my favorite comic pack figures ever!
Zarana is one of those characters that came out during what I like to call the “transition to neon” phase of GIJoe. Prior to 1986 many of the figure sculpts and color schemes were fairly realistic in appearance. Sure, you won’t see many anti-armor specialists wearing football jerseys into combat but you could imagine someone wearing those colors on the street and not being asked “Which way to Mardi Gras?” Zandar and Zarana, however, were two additions to line that marched to the beat of a different color coordinator. Clad in garish colors, the two were intended to be the punk-influenced siblings of the ‘Master of Disguise’ Zartan. (However, any family resemblance ended with their names.) Zarana’s character design was something that you might expect to see from a Sid Vicious groupie—torn short and jeans, short-cropped hair, high boots and black gloves. All that was missing was a bit more black in the color scheme and a band logo on the t-shirt and Zarana would fit in the punk scene in just about any major city. Let’s face it—the outfit screams “80’s” in a voice that makes that Ricola guy sound like a mime. For the comic pack version, someone in Pawtucket decided that a “softer, gentler Zarana” was needed and so many of the original colors have been toned down. The hot pink shirt is now more of a melon, the jeans are now light blue, and the black boots and gloves are now the same color as the jeans. Even more puzzling—the gloves are now just arm guards with exposed fingers. The end result is more akin to “Diet Zarana” than a great comic pack update. (Same look, just half the taste!) By lightening up the colors, much of the edge has been removed from the character. Now, she’s just some “biker chick” who shops at the GAP as opposed to a tough as nails member of the famed Dreadnoks. This is one of those updates that I’ll keep in my collection but I won’t be displaying anywhere prominent. She’ll just sit on my comic pack shelf, behind Zartan and quietly collecting dust over the years.
Poor Zarana—she never really fared well when it came to RAH-era sculpting. Back in the 80’s you either ended up with an exaggerated Asian woman or a man with a bun on his head. Seriously, she has to be one of the worst sculpted figures of the entire GIJoe line. It wasn’t until her Spy Troops version that Zarana finally started to resemble a woman from the neck up. (Many fans still weren’t happy with that version either, which ended up in many a Cover Girl custom.) So, after all of these years we finally get a new Zarana head sculpt and it’s…. ugly. Seriously, I don’t understand just why this character is so difficult to capture. Maybe it’s the punk haircut or just the shorter hair in general but either way we’ve once again been left with a Zarana that resembles a man in a pink wig. Between the square jaw line and the strong brow, there is no way that ANYONE would allow themselves to be taken in by this “woman’s” feminine wiles. It will take a couple of six-packs before Mainframe allows himself to be taken in by her again. It’s sad too as this was a figure who had amazing potential for an overhaul. Most of the other comic packs have featured terrific head sculpt updates but poor Zarana apparently drew the short “ugly” straw out of the deck. This ugly duckling comes packaged with her original accessories—the famed “weed wacker” and backpack.
So, two out of three really isn’t all that bad. Okay, Zarana looks like a strong-jawed drag queen heading to Carnivale in search of an endless supply of daiquiri’s and a man to take home at the end of night. However, Zartan has never looked better and Cobra Commander (Fred VII) is just plain fantastic! While the first female Dreadnok is as forgettable as seeing Blood Rayne in the theatres, the other two figures more than make up for her plastic inadequacies. When you factor in the included reprint of Marvel #74, you’ve got a comic pack that is easily worth my hard-earned cash. My advice is to snag this pack, send Zarana packing, and proudly display the other two figures in your Joe collection.