Batman News’ collectibles coverage has definitely gone up over the years. Whether it’s toys, high-end figures, statues, subscription boxes, vinyl records, or posters, we’ve done our best to highlight the finest stuff available for fans of these iconic characters. But we’ve never gone behind the scenes until now! In this interview, I talk with Brock Otterbacher, the creative director for Mondo’s toys and collectibles, about what it’s like to work in the toy business and the development process behind a top-quality action figure. Along the way, you’ll even get a few insights into the upcoming 1/6 scale figures of Batman and Mr. Freeze modeled after their appearance in the award-winning Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice,” plus some info on Mondo’s plans for more Batman: The Animated Series figures.
Andrew Asberry: You’re the creative director for toys and collectibles. What does all of that entail?
Brock Otterbacher: The easiest answer is that I oversee the creative direction (hence the title, ha!) of this department. What it entails is quite a bit more than that. Basically it’s figuring out what products we’re going to make, how we’re going to make them, who we’re making them with, how many we’re making, etc. We work with so many creative artists with great ideas, so it’s also being a bit of a funnel getting all that creativity into one product.
What was the moment you realized that your passion for toys could translate into a career?
I’ve always had an interest in toys, and was an active collector, but never really thought I’d be working in the industry. Then in September of 2003, while being on a tour of Sideshow Collectibles (a company I hadn’t heard of until the day before the tour) I asked if there were any opportunities in customer service, an entry level position. I was told, no, BUT there was opportunity in production, and the rest is history!
How did your initial idea of working in the toy and collectibles trade, back before you ever started, differ from the reality of it? What’s something you wish you knew before you got into the business?
I think a lot of people, including myself at the time, think working with toys is all fun, all day. And it certainly can be fun, a lot, but it’s also a ton of hard work. And business! So much business talk! The majority of my day is spent talking about factory quotes and purchase orders and budgets, and much less about Gremlin butts or Predator dreads.
So you oversee the designing, sculpting, painting, photography, and all other fun stuff involved in the creation and marketing of these collectibles—do you have a bit of a rivalry with the poster/vinyl team at Mondo? Is there a drive to make it so when the public hears “Mondo” they think “statues and figures”?
No rivalry, as we’re all super supportive, and fans, of each others’ work. That sounds like such a safe answer, but it’s true! And we often work with each other, planning releases that go with other releases, and the like.
As for public perception- if someone is a fan of posters, I want them to think Mondo. If they’re a fan of vinyl record- Mondo. Pins? Mondo. Sensing a pattern? Haha. There are A LOT of companies out there doing toys and collectibles, so if we ever become a place thought of first by someone as “statue and figures”, that would be a fantastic honor. In the meantime, I’d rather that if someone is a fan of our collectibles, they know we’re going to deliver something unique and awesome.
What separates a Mondo collectible from everything else that’s out there? Particularly with Batman. There’s no shortage of options out there for a fan who wants a Batman collectible so what do you look for when crafting merchandise that’ll stand out from the crowd?
I would like to think it’s our approach to a particular character or property. Whether it’s something like our Harley Quinn statue, which is not like any other Harley statue out there in my opinion, or our Batman: The Animated Series one-sixth scale figures with our take on articulation and paint. Our hope is always that someone will go “That’s neat. That’s new. I want that!”
Where is the love for the Schumacher era? Mondo, Hot Toys, NECA, Kotobukiya, all of you guys keep cranking out merch from every era of Batman except Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Yes, I know they’re not shining examples of what Batman should be but a lot of Batman fans, myself included, wouldn’t mind having that period of Batman history represented on their shelf in some way.
I’m going to say something that might seem sacrilegious to your readers, but if you’ll bear with me on this, and the reasoning, you may understand– Batman & Robin is my most watched Batman film to date. NOW- this is not because I think it’s the best (Mask of the Phantasm), nor is it even my favorite (Mask of the Phantasm), nor do I even think it’s good, but if I want some absurdity, insanity, Arnold, AND puns? You know what I’m playing in the background to feed my fever dreams.
That said, I truly don’t believe that kind of viewing, ironic or not, leads to a desire to purchase product. Now if you get ten-thousand people to commit to spending two-hundred dollars on a one-sixth-scale Mr. Freeze from Batman & Robin, you’d probably move my dial a bit.
Andrew Asberry: How often is it that the owners of an IP contact you first as opposed to you having the idea and then approaching them for licensing?
Brock Otterbacher: I don’t know what the percentage is, but we do a lot of pitching, and people do a lot of pitching to us. We’ve got great relationships with most of the majors out there, so it’s more about the ebb and flow of conversation as new properties and opportunities come about.
Is it more common for an artist you frequently collaborate with to pitch a merchandise concept or for you to first get the license and then shop around for talent that would be best for that property?
Though some artists do pitch ideas, it’s more common for us to seek out a particular artist for a particular project, simply because we know what we can and can’t do, license-wise.
How did the idea for the Batman: The Animated Series Mr. Freeze and Batman figures originate and who designed them?
This was something I had always wanted to do, which was doing larger scale figures, with paint schemes imitating the animation, and keeping the articulation as streamlined as possible, again, preserving that animated look.
For the look we were going for, the designing had to happen at several stages. We worked with Joe Allard on the initial designs for the figures, then Ramirez Studios and Bigshot Toyworks for sculpting/articulation, and then Jason Wires Productions on the paint design.
Each stage offered a lot of fun challenges, but each one of these artists brought their best to the table, and I feel the results show it.
Andrew Asberry: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures were wildly successful. What’s something you learned while making those toys that you’ve applied to the BTAS figures?
Brock Otterbacher: The biggest thing we’ve learned as we’ve gone is to stick to the vision you have. Certainly, fan feedback can be important, and we’ve implemented feedback in several of our products, but it’s the initial vision you’ve got to stick to.
When you first started working on Batman and Freeze, what didn’t work? When going from concept to an actual physical prototype, what details proved the most challenging?
With any three dimensional product, you are generally starting from something that’s two dimensional, whether it’s a concept, photo, or in this case if Batman and Freeze, animated cells. And in the case of hand animation, where every frame is designed to be the best version of that view possible, the translation isn’t always one to one. You have to do a lot of interpretation, connecting views, filling in a few blanks, and trying to get the character to look the best from every view.
Will there be a limited run of Batman and Mr. Freeze? Will there be variants?
For most of our figures, we do a semi-open run on regular versions, to make sure all our wholesale and distributors have a chance to get them out to as many people out there that want them. Traditionally, we have a Mondo Exclusive, which includes an extra piece, that’s either a limited number, or a timed edition.
For the BTAS figures, we’re going to do something a tad different, which is instead of just having the exclusive be a single extra piece, we’re going to have Mondo Exclusive Deluxe versions, which will have several pieces extra. What those will be have yet to be revealed, but I think that for the slight upcharge on these versions, it’ll be well worth it!
Take me through the process of choosing the accessories that accompany the figures. I’m especially interested in the Nora Fries tombstone because…well, she’s not dead in Batman: The Animated Series. This could be seen as a flub on Mondo’s part except if fans dig a little deeper they can find almost that exact tombstone in an issue of The Batman Adventures. Did you guys really dig into the tie-in comics or am I looking too hard and it was a happy accident that there’s precedent for a tombstone?
I’m stoked you pointed out the tombstone! That one is for the mega fan! Haha. And yes, we did dive into the comics for that one. Otherwise, it’s stuff that we remember, like, or think HAS to be in there. I’m sure we’ve missed tons of stuff, and that’s ok, because the figures come with A LOT. I think I’m most pleased with the thermos of chicken soup, though I wish we could have had real soup inside…
What’s the expected price point for each individual figure?
We haven’t announced that yet, but they will most likely be in the same range as our TMNT figures.
What’s your most favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series (not The New Batman Adventures) and what’s your least favorite (there really isn’t a worst, the whole series is awesome)?
I have a ton of faves- anything involving Mr. Freeze or Killer Croc (I’ve got a soft spot for that dummy), but all-time has to be On Leather Wings. Like most people who watched the series when it first aired, it was the first episode I saw, and really blew me away with what an animated Batman could be. Not to mention it’s got a giant bat in it, and I’ve got a HUGE soft spot for actual bats, so…
Least favorite? Man, you’re killing me. Off the top of my head it would be The Clock King. Like you said, not really terrible, but when it would come on repeats, I would usually skip it.
What’s your favorite collectible from your personal collection?
I have a lot of Devilman figures that need a shrine to match how great they are. Someday. Those, and my Frogacuda figure from an old, mostly forgotten toy line called The Other World. He sits by my monitor at home.
Do you have a “Holy Grail’ piece, an item that’s either too rare or too expensive that you desperately want to have on your wall or shelf but you’ve yet to obtain it?
Not really super rare or too expensive, but I keep kicking myself in the butt for selling off my Legends of the Dark Knight collection years and years ago. I don’t think that line got enough praise in it’s day, and while not perfect, had a lot of awesome designs and sculpts for its time. They’re easy enough to find, I just need to hunker down on ebay and grab them all again.