In 1984, Hasbro started getting a little more creative with their Cobra characters. Aside from adding more unique soldiers such as an anti-armor specialist and a saboteur, they even went further by including a ninja and possibly….a mutant?
Zartan, the Cobra master of disguise was a very unique action figure. Aside from his rather dark post apocalyptic inspired uniform complete with mysterious face paint(?) and a hood, he came with a “mask” that could be placed over his actual face to satisfy his “master of disguise” gimmick….although I’m not sure why the ability to switch your face to the same bearded man every time would warrant the title of “master”. Anyway, the other draw to his toy was that it was made from UV reactive plastic which would basically cause the figure to turn from its usual caucasian tone to a darker purplish-blue when exposed to direct sunlight.
This skin changing feature was highlighted in the cartoon where his character had the ability to literally change his skin color and blend in with his background like a human chameleon. He was also adverse to direct sunlight which like his toy darkened his skin.
Anyway Zartan and to some extent his biker gang posse the Dreadnoks were sort of the breakaway stars of the 2nd G.I.Joe mini series “The Revenge of Cobra” in 1984. Where they were originally mercenaries hired by Cobra who eventually broke off with their own agenda causing additional chaos for both sides. This of course lead Hasbro to capitalize on their popularity by giving us in the following years more Dreadnoks and giving Zartan...siblings.
When I first heard that Hasbro was planning to give Zartan siblings, the image of more dark hooded mysterious post apocalyptic looking action figures came to mind. To my surprise, Zartan’s new siblings, Zandar and Zarana came out looking more like Dreadnoks. Both Zandar and Zarana had bright orange hair with bright blue and pink “uniforms” respectively. Both sibling toys were also made of the same UV reactive plastic giving their characters the ability to change skin color as well. While visually, they definitely complimented each other and gave off that whole sibling vibe, their individual talents actually differed. They sort of took both Zartan’s specialties, that of being a master of camouflage and the other a master of disguise and expanded on them.
Zandar was the ultimate master of camouflage. He was an expert of literally disappearing into the background...a living wallflower. Unfortunately, G.I.Joe writers took this to heart and Zandar was hardly featured in any episode of the cartoon or issue of the comics. He’s pretty much the forgotten brother. Surprisingly he was included in the 2013 live action G.I.Joe Retaliation movie where he had an itty bitty role as Zartan’s head security officer as the later posed as the President of the United States. Of course you wouldn’t know it was him unless you happen to read the end credits where the character was identified as Zandar. Zartan of course was one of the featured characters in the live movies and was played by both Mummy actor Arnold Vosloo and the High Sparrow himself, Jonathan Pryce (when he was disguised as the President).
Zarana on the other hand took over the role of master of disguise. She was always infiltrating G.I.Joe headquarters under various disguises. In one particularly memorable cartoon episode she goes undercover to steal some top secret submarine plans from the Joes and and gets assigned to work with their computer specialist Mainframe. They end up developing feelings for each other and while she ultimately goes through with her assignment, double crosses him and steals the plans, she returns to save Mainframe who is left lying unconscious under a bomb set up by Zartan. In the end of the episode she reluctantly reveals her true identity to Mainframe and he ends up “hiding” her from his teammates who are in pursuit. The episode ends with them going their separate ways but with both of them wistfully looking up at the same moon...awwwww.
The whole Zarana/Mainframe relationship is actually revisited in a later episode. In another 80s worthy plot...Mainframe and a bunch of his fellow Joes are de-aged and turned into kids. Zarana finds him and secretly aids Mainframe by providing him with the means to return to his real age (I guess she wasn't interested in dating a kid!)
Aside from romancing with the enemy, there is also one more thing Zarana is known for by most hard core G.I.Joe fans. In 1986-87, Hasbro produced animated movies for both Transformers and G.I.Joe. For some reason, Hasbro wanted both movies to be rated PG-13 and back then, there were 2 quick ways to do so….either include profanity or female nudity. For the Transformers, they chose profanity, so in one scene, when being attacked by the planet devouring Unicron, they had Transformer human companion Spike say “shit”. For G.I.Joe they decided to go with female nudity. So early in the movie, Zarana successfully infiltrates Joe headquarters as a tourist and then goes off to the forest and undresses to take a dip in a lake (no really). Fortunately(?) Hasbro decided to scrap the whole nudity thing and while the scene remained, she ended up sporting a flowery bathing suit. BUT even if the idea was scrapped, the actual animation model sheet of topless Zarana does exist so there you go….
One thing worth mentioning was that the original vintage Zandar & Zarana toys were two of my favorites as a kid...but not for the reasons you would probably think. Towards the end of my childhood collecting days, I was constantly coming up with more creative ways to play with my G.I.Joe figures. I had a phase where I would have my Joes do “stunts”, most notable of all was making them “repel” down from the second floor of our house down across our pool below on a nylon string that I strung from the window to the fence below. So basically from the second floor I would have line up my Joe figures and one by one send them zipping down the line with nothing but their 2 hands hooked onto the string. Of course this wasn’t the best way of securing the figures on the line so it was pretty much 50/50 that a Joe would actually make it across to the end, more often than not he would fall into the pool (best case scenario) or onto the hard concrete ground before the pool which would often result in a cracked/broken toy.
Zandar and Zarana were different since their toys had knee pads which when positioned properly (bend the knee to create a “hook” with the knee pads and hang them upside down) gave them a 100% success rate of making it to the other side. So while I lost a good number of Joes with this stunt, Zandar and Zarana remained unscathed.
Anyway, back to the guy who started this all...Zartan. While in the cartoons, he was nothing really more than a crafty mercenary, in the original Marvel comics, he was definitely more...much more.
Towards the later years of the 80’s G.I.Joe toyline, with ninjas Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow established as the bonafide stars of the property, Hasbro decided to double down on the whole ninja craze and add a whole lot more ninja characters to the line as well as “turn” other popular characters into ninjas themselves...including Zartan. As part of the whole “Ninja Force” subline, a radically redesigned Zartan toy was produced. Amusingly enough this new Zartan looked more like a biker than an actual ninja, complete with a black leather vest and bright orange mohawk! This version actually made his relation to Zandar and Zarana more believable. Despite looking really out there, the new design got one thing right….aside from giving him a lot of bladed weapons, he came equipped with a bow...which in the comics he would use with deadly accuracy.
What really made Zartan really special is how the comic writers (specifically Larry Hama) tied him up and made him a crucial element to the background story of one of line’s most iconic characters...the aforementioned ninja Storm Shadow.
Now Storm Shadow was introduced the same year Zartan came out as Cobra’s ninja assassin. As his popularity grew, his backstory was fleshed out more wherein he was wrongfully blamed for the death of his uncle and sensei, the Hard Master who was shot through the heart by a mysterious arrow. On a tip that the assassin had a connection to Cobra, Storm Shadow joined the organization to flush him out. It is later revealed that it was Zartan who was that said assassin.
Zartan also single handedly ended the Cobra Civil War between Cobra Commander and Serpentor. Using the same bow he used to kill Storm Shadow’s uncle, he ended Serpentor’s reign with a single arrow right between the eyes. Now that’s hard core stuff.
And finally, it’s also worth mentioning that in the later Devil’s Due series, which was a continuation of the Marvel series, it is revealed that Zartan has a daughter...Zanya. Eventually Devil’s due lost the G.I.Joe licence and the company that took over, IDW made their OWN continuation of the Marvel series and basically negating everything Devil’s Due did as well as any notable original characters they created, including Zanya. To be honest, I’m not really sure if Zanya actually came out in the new IDW series, but fortunately for the character, Hasbro did decide to acknowledge her existence by creating an official action figure.
In the end, I’d love to know what the thought process of the Hasbro design team was when they came up with the idea of Zartan. I’m sure back then he was just another kooky concept they threw on the wall hoping it would stick. How ironic that ultimately, Zartan the Master of Disguise (and to some extent his family) has become one of the most easily recognized characters in the G.I.Joe universe.