I don’t have too many GI Joe toy memories that stand out as much as my first experience with the Zartan figure. The story is as vivid in my mind as the original two Joe figures I obtained early on in the Real American Hero era. I first got wind of the toy (before seeing it in a store) via that year’s pack-in catalog. Zartan was featured prominently in the catalog, and he certainly looked like a character destined to be an important addition to the series. My mind couldn’t conceive of how this figure and all of its accessories would be packaged. I thought I would find him carded alongside all the other figures. After all, he was pictured on the cross-sell cardback images.
I wouldn’t have to wonder too long about how Zartan would be packaged, as a trip to KMart yielded my first glimpse of the toy. I was perusing the toy aidle as usual, during a trip to the store’s garden center, a pretty regular ocurrence. I made my way to the action figure aisle, and lo and behold, there was Zartan on a top shelf, in a box not unlike a small vehicle abd driver set. I was both taken aback and impressed. Naturally, I immediately had the sense that I had to own it. With a bit of cajoling, I convinced my folks to buy it (come on, it’s not much more expensive than a regular figure!) and I ripped into the package on the way home.
Zartan is unique among the figures of his day not only for his packaging and availability, but for his accessories and action features. There’s so much to cover, but the first thing to hit me as I pulled the figure out was the color-change. It worked brilliantly, both the figure and his vehicle. I remember experimenting with removing his chest harness to see the difference in skin tones. The removable armor really was an ingenious bit of design. I never really could get the color change of the chest and thigh pad stickers to work for me. I always assumed they worked like a mood ring.
Being a master of disguise, Zartan also included a mask with which to assume another identity. At the time, I of course had no idea that the concept and even the look of the mask was an homage to an earlier 1970s Joe accessory set, but it was still a very cool feature in itself. Looking at it as an adult, Zartan is fooling no one, but hey, all of this stuff requires a hefty suspension of disbelief.
Again, Zartan had not only his own figure-based gimmicks, but also a vehicle. The Chameleon could have easily been thrown in as an afterthought, but the swamp skier is a nice little pieve of egineering. Not only does the figure ride it perfectly, but it also breaks down to fit into the included carrier to be dusguised as Zartan’s box o’ junk. Brilliant.
Zartan quickly became a favorite figure that went everywhere with me, and the Chameleon was a go-to vehicle for him in every battle. I could go on and on about the character in the comics and cartoon, but that’s a conversation for another time. Just viewing the figure and vehicle itself, it’s not just a wonderful bit of nostalgia and a window on a joyous time for me as a child, but also a flat out cool toy.