The 2008 Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention took place June 26-29, in Dallas, Texas. I always look forward to each year's 3-3/4" Convention Set, for several reasons. For one thing, the basic theme is always interesting. It continues to astound me that each year, the Club manages to at the very least equal and more often than not surpass itself.
For another thing, the figures are produced in the traditional-style format that was part of what made G.I. Joe so popular in the first place, and these days, it's the only place you're going to find new traditional-style G.I. Joe figures. And for another thing, the sets usually feature multiples of various enemy troopers, so it's not a bad way at all to army-build.
The theme of this year's 3-3/4" concept featured a series of characters which have not been heard from in quite a few years, the HEADHUNTERS.
The Headhunters have an interesting history within the world of G.I. Joe. They were first introduced in 1992, as the official bad guys in a new special team. At this stage of G.I. Joe's history, special teams were the order of the day -- Eco-Warriors, Ninja Force, and a host of others had been woven into the storyline. The new team was called Drug Elimination Force, or DEF for short. Hasbro worked with the Partnership for a Drug- Free America to do its part to combat drug abuse in this country. To that end, the DEF Team was created. Not only did the characters come with file cards, but each one also came with a tip to prevent the spread of drug abuse. The logo for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America also appeared on the packages, and there was a special two-part animated episode that featured G.I. Joe and Cobra teaming up to combat the Headhunters.
Which brings us around to the creation of this unusual enemy force. Hasbro clearly didn't want Cobra dealing drugs. It was one thing for Cobra to be a "ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world". As much of a threat as real-world terrorists are, in the early 1990's, terrorism hadn't hit very close to home. Drugs did, and still do. So Hasbro needed to create a new enemy force. Thus they came up with the Headhunters, led by the ruthless HeadMan, a merciless drug pusher who wasn't interesting in ruling the world, just selling it drugs.
The initial assortment of DEF featured a new G.I. Joe member, a Federal law enforcement specialist named Bullet-Proof, a name taken from the COPS action figure line, also produced by Hasbro, from a few years earlier, although there was no direct relationship between the two characters. Added to the team were logical members Shockwave, a SWAT Specialist; Cutter, a Coast Guardsman; and Mutt & Junkyard, a K-9 Officer and his dog. All of these individuals could logically have had drug interdiction experience. New figure versions of all of them were created for DEF.
They were joined by figures of the HeadMan and the basic Headhunter figure.
Unfortunately, while the concept behind DEF was certainly noble, even needful, the toy product suffered from one unfortunate aspect. The early 1990's were also the years of the gimmicks, some contraption or other packed in with figures to allegedly increase their play value, but also their retail price. Squirting weapons, sound-making backpacks, mylar parachutes -- some were received better than others. Unfortunately DEF's gimmick wasn't very well received -- "Battle Flash" weapons, large weapons molded from colored transparent plastic that lit up with the spring-loaded missile was fired.
It is at this point that DEF's history gets a little convoluted. A second year of DEF was already in the works, and indeed was packaged as DEF in Australia -- minus the Battle Flash weapons. This second assortment, along with featuring repaints of Bullet-Proof, Mutt, and the Headhunter, introduced four more G.I. Joes to the group, including newcomers Mace and Longarm, also names derived from the COPS line, as well as remakes of Law and Muskrat, this last one probably being the oddest choice for the team, since as a swamp fighter, his experience with drug interdiction was probably the most minimal. The new bad guys included HeadMan's right-hand thug Gristle, and the new Headhunter Stormtroopers.
In the United States, these new DEF characters ended up being incorporated into the standard "Battle Corps" line, along with a boat, the Shark 9000, who came with a recolored Cutter. This resulted in a huge "basic" lineup for figures in 1993. The Headhunter characters were incorporated into Cobra, and all references to drug dealing were removed from the file cards. Instead, they became urban and street soldiers. Most collectors recognized that these characters were intended as an extension of DEF, and I believe that many regard them as such, regardless of what packaging they officially turned up on.
That was pretty much the last anyone heard of the Headhunters. HeadMan returned in 2002, in a recolored suit, but this time around he was an "International Thief" working for Cobra. He was presented on a two-pack with General Hawk. HeadMan's body molds have turned up here and there, since he's the only figure in the line that's dressed in an outfit that decently resembles a business suit or, to a reasonable degree, a military dress uniform. Tomax, Xamot, and General Flagg have all benefited from this.
So, what have the Headhunters been up to since then? Well, for that we can turn to the introductory statement in the full-color comic book that comes with this year's set -- a distinct first! I'll discuss the comic in greater length later, but for now, the information it provides is highly valuable. The text at the start of the book reads:
"Years after they were thought defeated and their leader HeadMan permanently removed - the scourge of evil Headhunters have returned! Led by former henchman Gristle and enforced by his Headhunter Guards and Headhunter Stormtroopers, they are now working for Cobra Commander as part of the Urban Assault Division. Using Cobra Rage Tanks designed to dominate city streets, they have squeezed the resistance out of selected urban occupied territories. Taking over civilian warehouses and infesting them like rats, they stockpile these facilities with contraband for their own evil purposes! But there is a darker secret that lies deep within one of these cities, one that an elite G.I. Joe SWAT team may soon uncover!"
For the record, at no point are drugs mentioned anywhere in the story. The Headhunters seem more interested in weapons dealing at this point.
It's probably giving away some of the story at this point, but the "dark secret" turns out to be Battle Android Troopers working in the factory, located in the city of Phu Bhar, in Southeast Asia.
The story involves a confrontration between Gristle and his troops, as well as a mess of B.A.T.s, and a SWAT team consisting of Shockwave, Longarm, Low-Light, and Bullhorn, this last member driving a revised Hammer vehicle designed for SWAT use. I'm sure you can guess what some of the cool extras were beyond the boxed set at this year's Convention.
However, this particular review is devoted to the boxed set, so let's have a look at that, shall we?
The box art, by Greg Horn, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we have a serious action scene featuring Gristle, the Headhunter Guards, the Headhunter Stormtroopers, and the BAT's, fending off an attack from above by the aforementioned SWAT team, but we have a level of intricate detail in this illustration that borders on the painful. Give yourself a case of eyestrain and take note of the brickwork on the walls of the factory, the metal grating on the floors, and even the fabric pattern on Gristle's outfit. I'm abundantly impressed and I haven't even opened the box yet!
A new logo for the Headhunters has been created. The Headhunters never really had an official insignia or anything when they first appeared. This time around, with their new affiliation to Cobra, they've been given one. It's a skull with a Cobra emblem on the forehead, intersected by three spears. I'm inclined to regard it as a bit of a cross between a pirate logo and an image evocative of actual headhunter legends from various remote parts of the planet.
GRISTLE: Let's start with the lone individual in this year's boxed set. Gristle was first introduced as a figure in 1993. An animated version of him did turn up in the animated two-parter which presented G.I. Joe and Cobra battling the Headhunters, but the figure version, which honestly didn't look that much like his animated counterpart (then again, neither did the HeadMan himself) didn't arrive until 1993 -- by which time the DEF concept had been retired. So Gristle, unfortunately, didn't really amount to much. Without a specific organization of Headhunters in existence, Gristle was listed as a "Cobra Urban Commander", and given the look of the character, came across as much as anything like a better-dressed Dreadnok. Even that was open to some interpretation, given that his uniform colors were black, burgundy, and bright yellow.
Gristle seems to be getting a higher level of respect this time around. He's clearly in charge, with the implication both in the comic book and on his file card that the HeadMan has met with a rather permanent fate somewhere along the way (and it couldn't've happened to a more deserving guy), and with Cobra's Urban Division clearly more significant than it used to be.
The Club tracked down the original Gristle mold, which is pretty impressive in and of itself, especially for what is easily a formerly very obscure character. And the new color scheme is certainly an improvement. Gristle has the somewhat darker skin common to more modern G.I. Joe figures, and his hair is a bit more reddish brown than the straight brown of the original. He's traded in his black glasses for gold ones, and his uniform has been toned down from its original color scheme as well.
The black remains intact, but the burgundy and yellow has been replaced by a dark blue-green, definitely an improvement, and a color pattern that is consistent for a lot of the figures in this set, and is a distinctive color in and of itself that has not seen extensive use in the world of G.I. Joe before, either.
As ever, the painted detail on this figure is remarkable. Please take note of the two rows of little gold buttons or snaps that run down the front of Gristle's shirt. Each one has been fully painted, as have two additional snaps on his collar. That's just not the sort of thing you see in usual toy products from -- well, much of anybody, really. The handles of two knives on his chest and one on his left wrist have been painted tan, and the overall painted detail is just remarkable. Gristle has the Headhunter logo on his upper right sleeve.
The overall quality of the figure is, of course, excellent, and is as good as any other traditional-style G.I. Joe figure ever made. With his entry in this Convention Set, Gristle has gone from near-forgotten obscurity to a distinct prominence in the world of G.I. Joe. His file card reads as follows:
When you think of greasy, slime-ball types, you are basically thinking about Gristle. Like his namesake, he is a disgusting but resilient individual who has evaded capture from civilian authorities for over a decade. Rumored to have relocated to South America, he somehow masterminded the experimental growth of the newly motivated Headhunters into a powerful worldwide crime organization. Now both respected and feared in the underworld, Gristle commands the legions of Headhunters working as an international syndicate of smugglers for Cobra, specializing in goods deemed too dangerous or questionable for the tastes of his peers.
Fearing a fate similar to that of his short-sighted predecessor, Gristle personally trained his underlings in rarely-seen street fighting styles to maximize their skills as bodyguards. This protection is especially needed as the Headhunters ensure the clandestine manufacture of chemical-firing weapon modules for Cobra. The G.I. Joe team will soon discover they have never faced a more ruthless crime boss, or one with a more impressive private army of vicious, highly trained guards.
"Don't waste your time... you'll never get your hands on me!"
Yeah, Gristle's definitely moved up in the world -- HIS world, anyway...
HEADHUNTER GUARDS: One of the great oddities about G.I. Joe is that any given enemy force's most basic troopers always seemed to receive really cool uniforms. Consider how impressive the Cobra Vipers are. Or the Iron Grenadiers. Now, while the original HeadHunters might have been low-life, dirty, rotten, drug-dealing scum of the world -- they were certainly snappy dressers.
The original Headhunters, introduced in 1992, wore heavy black jackets and trousers, with a spiked shoulder pad over the right shoulder, boots with what looks like spurs on the heels, and a helmet that consisted of a blank faceplate that wrapped around about 180 degrees, and what looked as much as anything like an armored beret. The faceplate was gold, the shirt collar was blue, and the shoulder pad, gloves, and boots were tan. Overall it was a very cool design.
When the Headhunters were recolored for inclusion in what eventually became the fourth Battle Corps assortment in 1993, the brown trim was traded in for a rather bright green. This wasn't quite as impressive-looking, but they still came across very nicely.
And now, for the Convention Set, the Headhunters have returned, now dubbed Headhunter Guards, as they serve as Gristle's personal bodyguard force. Two of them are included with the Convention Set.
The mold is the same as before, but this time around, the uniform has been molded in the same dark bluish-green as the trim on Gristle's uniform. While certainly a different look than the two previous Headhunter versions, it still looks cool. The new Headhunters insignia has been clearly stamped on the front of the jacket, which admittedly was rather plain-looking in its original appearance. There was certainly plenty of room for it on this uniform design, and that open space on the jacket has been well-utilized for it.
The faceplate is still gold, but the shirt collar is black. Similarly, the shoulder pad, gloves, and boots are also black, an interesting offset since on the previous versions of this figure, they were the color aspects on the otherwise black uniform.
Once again, the painted detail is staggering. While the original Headhunter figures were neatly painted, including the jacket buttons, shoulder pad studs, and the buckles on the sides of the legs, what WASN'T painted the first time around but which IS painted on the Headhunter Guards are the intricate little studs molded to the sides of the legs around the buckles. There are more of these apparent on the right leg than on the left, where a holster is in place, but this is still some extremely impressive detail work. Even the buttons on the jacket cuffs have been painted!
On the whole, this is an immensely impressive new version of a figure that was always a personal favorite of mine. The file card reads as follows:
Headhunter Guards are recruited from the greediest, most ruthless criminal organizations in the world. Gristle offers them a big money stake in Cobra's global operations and a chance to live out their meanest fantasies for absolute loyalty and obedience. They are willing to undergo constant and rigorous training in advanced weapon systems and fighting styles to further their careers in Cobra's highly illegal and utterly ruthless business ventures.
Frightening in both their skill and number, they seize whole cities and infest them like rats, using civilian warehouses to stockpile contraband for worldwide distribution. They even provide fronts to international money laundering along with the manufacturing of illicit materials. Knowing the value of the often hazardous goods they deal in, they are adept at setting up tripwires and booby trap devices to protect their inventory and take care of anyone foolish enough to enter their domain.
"We'd rather see the whole building blown sky high than let the authorities get their hands on what we're guarding!"
HEADHUNTER STORMTROOPERS: Technically, these were part of the Battle Corps assortment in 1993, and as such affiliated with Cobra, but with a name like "Headhunter Stormtroopers", you knew darn well that these were supposed to be the next trooper division for the Headhunters had the DEF concept continued into its second year as originally planned.
The Headhunter Stormtrooper is almost assuredly one of the most bizarre-looking troopers ever created within the world of G.I. Joe. An obviously rather tight-fitting helmet has a certain "high-tech skull" look to it, and the upper body and arms are covered in body armor loaded with little spikes! This has garnered the Headhunter Stormtroopers the occasional nickname of "Porcupine Armor" among a few collectors, and certainly looks like it wouldn't be pleasant to deal with these guys in close-quarter combat, something that even their original file card makes reference to.
The original HeadHunter Stormtroopers were colored in dark grey and black with a certain amount of metallic gold trim. They've traded up a bit colorwise, swapping out a lot of the grey for the same dark bluish-green as is found on Gristle and the Headhunter Guards, but there's still no shortage of black and metallic gold trim on them as well, and their visors even maintain the original orange color that the first versions had.
There is one fairly noticeable difference -- legs are not the same as the original Headhunter Stormtrooper. Honestly, after fifteen years, it's a wonder the Club was able to find any of this stuff, so I'm not going to criticize the use of different legs. Besides, the legs used work pretty darn well, visually. They're the legs from the Rock-Viper, and they have the same sort of ridged area on the boot fronts as can be found on the sides and arms of the rest of the uniform. And with the color scheme merged in such a way that all of the ridgework is painted in gold, and the boots and holster on the right leg are painted in the dark bluish-green, it all works together quite nicely. If anything, the Rock-Viper boots are more detailed than the original Headhunter Stormtrooper boots, and blend better, so it's arguably an improvement!
Sometimes there is a concern with a different set of legs fitting into a lower torso piece properly. Not all sculpts are alike, and in the past, there have been occasional problems with this in Hasbro-released figures. I'd have to say that here, the fit is excellent. It's not perfect, and the Headhunter Stormtroopers tend to want to stand a little crookedly, but the fit is tight enough so that it can be adjusted manually and they're fine. So really, no problem. Swapping parts between figures is an inexact practice at times, and this time, it's worked very nicely.
The Convention Set includes six of these Headhunter Stormtroopers, and they all look extremely impressive, and extremely nasty. If I saw half a dozen of these guys coming in my direction, fully armed, I'd realize I was in some serious trouble. There's nothing friendly-looking about these Headhunter Stormtroopers.
As one would expect, the painted detail is excellent, and on a figure with a rather complex design. But all of the various ridges, buckles, belts, and whatever else are all painted with a great deal of precision. My one thought, before this figure was first unveiled on GIJoeClub.com, was -- Where the heck are they going to put the new insignia? There's no real smooth spots on this figure to do it. This isn't like the Headhunter Guard, who has a nice big plain jacket to work with. Well, it's there, dead center on the hemet just above the visor. It's not very big, but it's there. Nice to see it.
The file card for these guys reads as follows:
HEADHUNTER ELITE TROOPERS
Headhunter Stormtroopers are no ordinary Headhunters; they're an elite group of rapid-assault, specially trained urban terrorists who oversee large criminal operations. They're as violent and nasty as they appear - real monsters! Despite their extensive, highly-disciplined training background, they are quick-tempered and easily lose control. They wear fearsome, specialist Stormtrooper spiked suits, giving them an advantage in close quarters combat, as well as demoralizing anyone who engages them for capture.
Headhunter Stormtroopers use brute force and heavy firepower to overwhelm their adversaries. They specialize in urban guerrilla warfare to dominate all areas they occupy. In the face of foes of equal skill, they are known to go completely berserk, the onslaught eventually destroying everything in the surrounding area. Gristle knows this unstoppable might will ensure that no one discovers their latest project - and lives to tell about it.
"You've seen my skull, time to show me yours!"
HEADHUNTER B.A.T.S: Easily one of the most popular Cobra trooper divisions ever has been the Battle Android Troopers. And over the course of the quarter century of G.I. Joe history, there's been no shortage of new versions. There were four within the original line, including the original B.A.T., the B.A.T. II, Overkill, who was reportedly intended to be a third version of the B.A.T. but proved too expensive for Cobra to mass-produce, and the B.A.A.T.s, who were part of Armor-Tech.
The newsculpt era brought us the B.A.T. versions 3, 4, and 5, as well as recolorations of the B.A.T. II (one of these being the Inferno B.A.T.) and a new coloration of Overkill. The Sigma 6 era provided us with the Sky B.A.T. and the Ninja B.A.T.), and the 25th Anniversary style line recently introduced their version of the original Battle Android Trooper.
So, why not one more? And really, the B.A.T.s assigned to the Headhunters are a pretty interesting edition. For one thing, the Club managed to track down the head, lower arms, and attachable weapons to the original Battle Android Trooper. These haven't been seen in twenty years or so. Secondly, the Club successfully brought together parts from ALL THREE traditional-style B.A.T.s (the Armor-Tech B.A.A.T. would not have been compatible) to create a fascinating new Battle Android Trooper.
Molded in silver, the Headhunter B.A.T. uses the head and lower arms of the original B.A.T., the torso of the B.A.T. II, and the upper arms, lower torso, and legs of Overkill! And the end result looks darned impressive.
Some have said that the head looks unusually large. Well, the B.A.T. head was fairly large to begin with. But I don't think it looks any bigger on this edition than it does on a complete original B.A.T. One interesting point is that the faceplate has been painted orange. Although the original's was silver, in the animated series, the B.A.T.s had red faceplates. I don't think this is an intentional nod to the animated series, since the body of the Headhunter B.A.T. is silver, and painting the faceplate in silver wouldn't've looked too good, but it's still a nice touch.
This cacophony of parts is united by a very nicely done color scheme. The body is molded in silver, as I said, with a generous amount of black trim, on the shoulders and torso around the chestplate, on the upper arm bands, the belt, and the bands around the upper and lower legs. The secondary trim color is gold, and this can be found on the armbands and the belt "buckle", as well as on a couple of panels on the back of the figure, which I don't believe have ever been painted before on any previous version of this figure.
There is another especially notable detail area. The first two versions of the B.A.T. had chestplates that featured a lenticular motion plate. This was designed to present a simulation of the internal workings of the Battle Android Trooper, in a simulated three-dimensional image. Both the B.A.T. and the B.A.T. II had it, as well as the recolorations of the B.A.T. II in the 2002 era.
Now, it probably would've been easy enough for the Club to just put a plain sticker in there, but they didn't do that. Or to perhaps use a previous chestplate image, if one could have been found, but they didn't do that, either. They created an entirely new chestplate image, and had it made into a lenticular motion sticker! This new label shows off the internal workings of the Battle Android Trooper, but also has the Headhunters logo superimposed over it. Very impressive, and I am so very pleased that the Club went to this extra length to present a very authentic and impressive B.A.T.
You get six of these in the set, and really, there's an element to which they're the most impressive figures in the set (although they're all very impressive, of course), in that this many parts from this many different figures could be brought together this effectively, and we get the proper lenticular motion chestplate as well! The Club is to be commended.
I haven't talked about the accessories for these figures that much, and please rest assured that everyone -- Gristle, the Headhunter Guards, and the Headhunter Stormtroopers, all come very well equipped, but the B.A.T.s are worth a special mention, since they come with the original B.A.T. backpack with its weapons which can be swapped out for the lower right arm of the B.A.T. itself!
The file card for the B.A.T.s reads as follows:
HEADHUNTER BATTLE ANDROID TROOPERS
Through many manufactured versions and much trial and error, B.A.T.s are still the perennial almost-perfect trooper. They don't eat, sleep, or plot the takeover of Cobra. Unfortunately, they are definitely known to accidentally attack other Cobra troopers, their fellow B.A.T.s or even expensive-looking furniture. Naturally these are acceptable losses, considering the robots relatively inexpensive production cost. Now, premiere B.A.T. Mechanic, Hotwire, has taken what he considers the best features of every early version android trooper to date, and combined them into one near-perfect mechanical soldier.
To aid the Headhunters, this amalgam B.A.T. has also been retrofitted to function as an ordinary assembly line worker. This will ensure the incredibly dangerous toxins being loaded into the chemical-dispersing weapon modules do not annihilate the entire Headhunter army during manufacture. Yet, at the flip of a switch from Hotwire, these automatons will convert back to their original, deadly programming, even detonating themselves if invading forces get too close.
From Hotwire's journals: "Notion detectors, thermal tracking, ultrasonic sensors... but why did Dr. Mindbender give them pants?"
Heh -- that last quite is hysterical -- and not a bad question, either.
And I appreciate the fact that the file card makes reference, in its own way, to the multiple parts brought together to construct these Headhunter B.A.T.s.
Now, let's briefly consider the COMIC BOOK that is included with the set. With a superbly painted cover by DAF!, the story is entitled "When Fall the Hunters", and was written by Larry Hama! It tells the story of the G.I. Joe SWAT team searching out Headhunter operations in the Southeast Asian city of Phu Bhar, and eventually tracking them down to a warehouse that turns out to be a Cobra weapons factory manned by B.A.T.s, under the guidance of Hotwire.
Hotwire is more or less a new character. He was featured in the short-lived Collectible Card Game a few years back. Comes across as pretty much a crackpot genius in this story. He's fairly well-prepared for the battle, and indeed "throws the switch" that turns the B.A.T.s from factory workers to a serious battlefield threat, but he has this annoying tendency to constantly refer to himself in the third person. "Hotwire" this and "Hotwire" that... And you thought Tomax and Xamot's habit of finishing each other's sentences could get on your nerves.
I don't want to spoil too much of the story. Suffice to say it's a pitched battle between the G.I. Joe SWAT Team, the Headhunters, and the B.A.T.s, very effectively carried out in both story and artwork, and reads as well as any comic you'd find on the stands. The rest of the comic book is, for the most part, a program of Convention events.
So, what's my final word on this? Well, it's not exactly a final word, since there's still all the additional merchandise that was made available outside of the boxed set itself. But that will have to wait for a subsequent review. As to the boxed Convention Set -- well, what can I say? The Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Club has done it again. This is an amazing set of figures, that has brought back a very obscure character in Gristle, rejuvenated a short-lived concept with cool new versions of the Headhunter Guards and Headhunter Stormtroopers, and given us a cool new version of the Battle Android Troopers that take distinct advantage of the fact that these are indeed robots, so why not cobble them together from multiple previous versions?
Every year, I wonder how the Club is going to equal or surpass the previous year's offering. Every year -- they do it. The G.I. JOE COLLECTORS' CONVENTION "COBRA HEADHUNTERS" SET most definitely has my highest and most enthusiastic recommendation!