By Kevin Kelly
If you haven’t heard of Mondo, the art print (and more) division of the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, then it’s time to geek out about them. Mondo had the bright idea to pair gig poster art and design to movie posters, and the result has been a steady stream of impressive, limited-run art that is coveted by geeks around the globe. These days, Mondo prints are announced on Twitter, and sell out within seconds, just like their recent Avengers posters have been doing.
But how did it all get started? We spoke to Creative Director Justin Ishmael at Mondo’s brand-new gallery in Austin during SXSW this year, and he talks about all things Mondo from the beginning, to the turning point, and straight up to right now. Read on for the full interview, and then browse through the Mondo Archive where we guarantee you’ll find something to drool over.
MTV Geek: A lot of people know about Mondo, but they don’t know much about you. What's your background? Where did you grow up? How did you get into artwork?
Justin Ishmael: I grew up in Kansas City. I was born there in 1984 and I moved out to Austin in 2006. I had a really nice childhood with my parents. They never fought and they were always there. I played sports and they went to every game and cut out pictures in the paper and stuff like that. My grandpa would bring me comic books to read every week, in the brown bags they used to have them in before people started advertising on them. It was always random. I never followed a series. I would get like Batman vs. Dracula or X-Men vs. Dracula or generally just The X-Men was like when I was growing. That was the huge one.
Anything from Jim Lee was the best. I tried to draw like Jim Lee. Rob Liefeld was really big too, all the Image stuff. Then my other grandpa on my mom's side had a satellite dish and so I would go over there and highlight the movies that I wanted to watch in their satellite guide and then I would come back over and it was like my own Blockbuster. It was kind of on-demand before there was on-demand but it was on-demand grandparents. I would have like 15 VHS tapes and they had a room upstairs. It was very small and it had a VCR and a TV and I would go up and watch Striking Distance, Die Hard. Anything with Bruce Willis. I was obsessed with Bruce Willis. I watched action movies all throughout my childhood.
I didn't watch a horror movie until I was a junior in high school so that's when I started watching them. You know, you go to Blockbuster and you start renting every movie in the horror section until you watch all of them and then you kind of move on to sci-fi and then you move on to thrillers and then you move to drama. You just start watching and by the end I was watching Citizen Kane. So that's how I kind of did my thing. My grandparents were kind of responsible for me getting into everything and then it kind of grew from that.
Geek: What about artwork? When did that kind of come together?
JI: I've always been into artwork. I went to college and played football but I was studying art and theater and stuff like that. I really had no formal training or anything. I just was just a fan and then kind of fell into this. Three years ago in 2009 a job opened up and I was working at the Alamo Drafthouse. I was doing sales actually. So like if Dell needed an office party I would sell the theater to them on the off hours at the Alamo.
Then Mondo opened up and Tim League [owner of the Alamo Drafthouse] was like, “Hey you can do this right?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah sure” and I just kind of did it. Basically, they said you know you can do whatever you want as long as you make money. And from then on out they would check up on me sometimes at the very beginning like, “How are you doing, do you need anything?” Now we just do whatever we want to do. Time came to the gallery opening and he had never seen the gallery so he was surprised like everyone else. He said “Wow, this is really cool.” So yeah, they seem to trust us, which I really appreciate.
Geek: What was the turning point for Mondo? These days you have prints selling out in a matter of seconds and anything Mondo puts out is a hot ticket.
JI: I want to say it happened at the beginning of 2010 when The Wolfman came out. The first ever studio job that I got was from Universal when they called me and they said they wanted to do a poster for The Wolfman, and we did it. That was the first ever time that the site just completely crashed. Like crashed where you couldn't even get on the site and it was a five-hour release because the site was down for four hours and 59 minutes. It was just a nightmare.
Geek: Because everyone was trying to buy it?
JI: Yes, because that was the first one to be featured on Ain’t It Cool News. We had been on Ain’t It Cool News before, but this time it was on the headline. This was also the first time it was for a big, new movie and it was a really good poster. We also announced a time that it would go on sale, which was stupid so that crashed the site. Then we started building from there.
We got the Star Wars license and that was really the thing that brought in a ton of fans. Any time we hit a major nerd property it gets wild. I remember when we announced the Olly Moss posters and we got 3,000 Twitter followers over the weekend and then recently we did Back to the Future. We announced that, that we had that license, and we got 1,000 Twitter followers. So it seems like any time we do anything major like that, it happens. Jurassic Park was the same way. It was just like huge, huge, huge.
It's really cool. It's like if Marvel does something. If they have like a rumor post on a big website and it's like “Marvel said something about a short film with Dazzler” and suddenly there's speculation and we had interviews before the gallery opened up and they were doing the same thing. They were like “Mondo was talking about a big series this year. What could it be?” And that's really weird. I never thought that would happen but now I guess it's something that because we don't announce things until they actually happen, that people think it's fun.
I would love to speculate like what's going to happen next. That's what I used to do when I lived in Kansas City before I would want to know what was going to happen in movies. I would read every little tidbit of movie like when Death Proof was coming out. It was like weird stuff and speculation like “This person is going to do this!” and all this stuff. So it was always fun to be like “What if that happened, that would be crazy!”
But now you don't really get that because everything is spoiled for you early on the internet. “Don't walk away before the credits roll on Iron Man 2, something cool's going to happen!” Then you click through and it's Thor's hammer and they actually have a picture of it before it even gets released. It sucks.
Geek: Many times fans get angry with Mondo because when something goes on sale, it sells out in seconds and the website can’t handle the load. What is your philosophy behind that? Why not just print more?
JI: We just don't want to cash in on it. It's irresponsible really. I always equate it back to the 90s and the comic book boom.
Geek: You mean when there were like double gold foil holographic alternate covers?
JI: It's their fault. It's all their fault. Watch, there's this documentary with Todd McFarlane called Todd McFarlane: The Devil you Know. It's a Canadian documentary and he actually talks about that in the documentary. He talks about how many comics they were selling, which was millions, and these days they're lucky to do thousands. He said it's their fault because they were irresponsible and they kind of took advantage of people and that's not what we want to do.
Other people are doing posters now and they can do whatever they want. That's fine. But with us, we're in the position to kind of make it or break it in a way. It's not like it's a stuck up answer. I'm not trying to be conceited or whatever but it really is. Like if we were to go out and do say 10,000 posters. Maybe we could sell 10,000. I have no idea. But what happens when we're doing 10,000 of everything and then no one wants one. It gets to a point where no one wants it anymore.
Geek: You just flood the market.
JI: Yeah, it's like the comic books. The Death of Superman happened. All these outside people came in because, “Oh! I need to buy this so I can sell it again.!” You have all this false customer base and then when they move on to the next thing whether it's pogs or Beanie Babies or something, they're gone and then you have all of this stuff and it makes it look not important. It makes it look like it's a worthless medium which comic books are not at all. It's amazing but people are like, “They're not worth it.”
I mean you go to any comic convention or anything, and the 90s comics are laughed at. They're like, “Look at this bullshit foil cover.” They’re just garbage. Like in that documentary they're at a comic book convention and they have this Spider-Man number one with all these different variants and they're like $1,000 and people are buying it. And now that stuff's worth zero. So I mean we're very conscious about actually keeping it limited edition. We don't reprint it. We like to be conservative with our variant runs. If we do a variant it's for a reason or there's specific about it, something like it's made out of wood or we change the artwork to be glow-in-the-dark or something. We try not to make it the chromium variant of the poster.
So that's one of the big reasons. And another thing is that some of our licensees are really strict on what we can do. There are lots of different poster licenses. Not to get into all of that but there's the poster license where a company can make a Twilight poster and then put it in a Wal-mart. We can't put our stuff in a Wal-mart, which is great. A lot of them give it to us because we don't do wholesale and we sell only to our fans which they like. No one does that anymore. Everyone's wholesale. So that's where we try to be careful about not blowing it out and not.
I mean everyone thinks we're rich. Everyone thinks we're like millionaires or something and are like “Why don't you print more?” and the answer is that we don't want to. It's not about the money for us really.
Geek: What about the people that buy these prints just to immediately turn around and sell them online for a huge profit?
JI: There's no solution. There's not. I mean larger people than us have tried to stop it. Shepard Fairey, all these guys who try to do stuff. Jack White even with his record stuff. No one can stop it. It's just a thing that happens in any kind of collector community whether it's comic books or shoes or toys, anything. There are dudes waiting outside of Toys R Us when the new Star Wars line drops and they go in and they dig though the boxes and they pull the ones they want and then they're on eBay.
It's no different than anybody else and people aren't going “Fuck Hasbro.” They're not. They're like “Fuck Mondo” because they think we're helping with it. We do everything we can. We check credit cards so no one can buy more than one. We limit people to one. In the gallery right now and people are trying to come in and buy more than one to sell and we check faces. We have a system now where we can check and see if you've order more than one.
We actually had a guy come in earlier and he bought a poster on opening night and then he came back the next day and had a big stack of posters that he wanted and we said, “Oh, no you were in here last night.” He said, “No. I wasn't. That was my twin. I have an identical twin.” So we said, “Okay, do you have a picture of your identical twin?” And he's like, “No, not on me, I'll go home and get it.” And he never came back.
Geek: So how did you get into getting these licenses? It seems like you’re been able to do that fairly successfully.
JI: I didn’t have any training at any of this. I just kind of did it. I always would go talk to people. I guess I don't bullshit people. I go in and say, “This is what we want to do.” I don't do a huge sales presentation. I don't dress up. I've never worn a tie. I can't tell you the last time I wore a tie. And I think because of that, they can tell this is like a normal dude they're talking to. It's not like some slicked-back hair guy going, “Do you like money? I'm going to make you money.” I'm not giving a sales pitch.
Geek: Is it easier now that people can see the artwork and know about Mondo?
JI: What it used to be was that we would send jpgss in the email and now we're sending links to stories on websites. So if they see something on Wired or MTV Geek, that kind of perks people up because it’s validated somewhere that is respectable. I mean it's still hard for a lot of them. There are some people we just can't get.
Geek: What’s a dream license that you'd love to get?
JI: The James Bond series. The Bond series is probably not as big as Star Wars but it's up there. They're not interested. They said they loved the original posters, which … more power to them. We could do a killer job on it. It's just like Star Wars. They said no for a really long time and I finally told them. “You’re wrong. You need to do this” and they finally said okay. I actually said that the them. I figured there's nothing we could lose so I went for it.
That license period is over now, and I mean nothing against Star Wars but I feel like we've done what we need to do with Star Wars. We would really have to think of a new way to go at it because I feel like we had a very good concise series and it ended well. Everything in it I am proud of, so I think we did what we wanted to do. Actually we made a list when we first got the series and said, “Here's all the stuff we want to do” and pretty much everything was on that list at the end. Everyone thought we were crazy for starting the series off with a gonk droid but that was one of the really cool things about working with that license.
Geek: Is there a process where you have to get a print approved the studios or multiple people?
JI: Yeah, everything is approved by the studios. So we'll send in, like the Back to the Future triptych thing we did. We send it in. We wait two weeks. They run it through their legal. They have to send it to Spielberg or whatever. It's just like any other product. I'm sure Mattel has to do that for the Hoverboard they did and stuff like that.
Geek: So tell us about the gallery. For people haven't been to Mondo before, you guys were in a tiny little space in the front of the Alamo Drafthouse and now you have this big gallery. When did you start talking about that and what did it take to move out here?
JI: We did a show at Gallery 1988 like three years ago in Los Angeles. It was a one-night thing and we had a pretty big line and everything sold out. We were really happy and we're thought, “Wow, people like us.” So we were like oh we should do a gallery. At the time, this is pre-Star Wars, it's pre-everything and we thought that if we do it we have to go out to LA because there's no market for this. So we started talking about it back then after that show.
We just decided to wait, just wait it out and see what happened. We started doing more posters and more products and stuff. We were actually, not a lot of people know this but if you're in Theater #2 at the Alamo Drafthouse, underneath that is where our shipment stuff happened. We were under that so the door going in was like four feet tall and you had to squat down to go under. And it was very, very narrow. It was long but it was very narrow. So we got tired of that probably last September or so, maybe earlier, and we started looking for gallery space. We found one in late December that we liked, signed it, started building it in January, and then opened up on March 10.
Geek: That's pretty quick.
JI: Yeah, it was really, really quick but I wanted everything to be really simple so it was really easy. Like white walls, wood floor, a chandelier, moving walls, and then we'll just decorate with art we commissioned for these shows. It's so much better. We're at SXSW right now, and we had meetings with some producers yesterday about stuff they want us to work on and it's exactly what I've always wanted where instead of just sending them a jpg to look at, you walk in, you have the artist here, you point at the wall and say, “This is what we want to do.” It's so much easier now.
Geek: Do you ship from here now?
JI: Yeah. This will be kind of our office space and fulfillment center / art gallery as well.
Geek: And you're still an arm of the Drafthouse?
JI: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we'll always be part of the Drafthouse, yeah.
Geek: What can you tease for the rest of the year? More in the DC Comics license? More mystery movies?
JI: We will definitely see more. This morning I just submitted two different designs to DC. And then we will be doing mystery movies this year. I think it's pretty safe to say that it will be in other cities that we have never been in. Actually the first people in line here at the gallery opening were from Denver and they slept overnight so ... you never know. Comic-Con is going to be the next big thing. I think we're going to have one or two mystery movies before Comic-Con and then Comic-Con is going to be so exciting. Last year was we had two week notice and I was like, “Can we do this?” It was like what do we have that we can just put out? So that was kind of a scramble. This year it's different where we have roughly six months to do it. I think people are going to be excited about it and hopefully they'll be happy because we'll have not only big pieces there but we're flying people in so we'll have big artists there as well.
Geek: Wow, well we look forward to it!
JI: Awesome, thanks so much for doing this.