There are but a few simple truths in this world consistent as gravity. Among them are the following: Darth Vader is Luke’s father, time travel is “heavy“, and Mondo is awesome. Previously we’ve talked to Rob Jones and Mitch Putnam about posters and Mo Shafeek shared stories about vinyl releases, but today we’ve got something extra special for those interested in toys and collectibles.
Rounding out our trifecta of filmic interviews focusing on the personalities running Mondo (the Alamo Drafthouse’s boutique poster, toy, and music label) is our 90-minute sit down with Brock Otterbacher. Brock let us in on his day-to-day operations, and even gave us some exclusive first shots of their upcoming figure – the one and only Alfred Hitchcock! Check them out below.
Brock’s title, Creative Director – Toys/Collectibles, sure seems like a dream job. A professional child, he is in the business of making collectibles, statues, and various scale figures. While this lead in won’t come off anywhere as fascinating as Mr. Otterbacher himself, let’s cut right to the chase. Enjoy the entirety of our time with Mondo’s toy manufacturing czar.
GoSeeTalk: Brock, thanks for taking some time with us. You are in the business of making toys, so that’s got to be a pretty sweet gig. Can you even begin to describe a normal day?
Brock Otterbacher: No. [laughs] It’s such an unusual thing, at least for me. If you’re working for a large corporation like Hasbro, you go into an office and do your daily stuff, but for me because Mondo is in Austin and I’m in L.A., I work remotely. I work at home, in my pajamas, and I have an office in Studio City. But my job is all in how I structure my day. Because I deal with China, I stretch my time over the course of 24 hours. I don’t work 8 hours straight, I spread it over the day because I want to deal with factories that ask me certain questions and get back to them in a timely manner. I don’t do that everyday, so I’m not up til 3 in the morning everyday of the week. But it does happen.
What you have to do is look at it in terms of what’s happening at any given moment. It’s a lot of emails, and not always fun and games. It’s not about being creative all the time either. We have to evaluate where are we in production, what’s happening with the product at the moment, and know if there any problems with shipping on time. Or, after product has shipped, are customers having issues with the product once they have it? I try to deal with that type of stuff first. Then I book the last half of my day with the fun stuff which is going over different products and pushing things creatively one way or another.
One thing I got from talking to Mo Shafeek was a good understanding about licensing. Now records and posters are granted a little bit of creative freedom to allow any artist to put their spin on it and make a uniquely Mondo release. But when you’re dealing with something like The Iron Giant, how do you capture the likeness of the property yet still make it your own?
The Iron Giant is a very simple scenario. I used to work for a company called Sideshow Collectibles and did licensing for them, so that’s old hat for me. It’s not the sexiest answer, but it’s often the easiest part. Especially now, since we have someone who does all that for us. Tim Wiesch, our VP of Business and Legal, handles most of that. I’m sure he would give you a different as to the difficulty of it though. [laughs]
With The Iron Giant, it was very easy. We went to Brad Bird and he was able to give us the 3D model of the Giant. It’s a 2D animated film, but they modeled him in 3D. Then we turned it over to BigShot Toyworks, who checked it out to see if it was production friendly, checked the points of articulation, etc. The challenge was not just the look of the Giant, but the engineering to make sure the articulation work.
But if it is something like our upcoming one-sixth scale Hitchcock figure, that’s where you have to have something done by hand, sculpting a portrait that is accurate to a person that people know very well, especially people who are into film. He’s a very famous personality, so you have to work with a sculptor who’s the best of the best, in this case Trevor Grove, to be able to get it right. Capturing that is quite a bit more difficult.
We’ve had this Hitchcock prototype for about two years. Now because of our efforts getting factory quotes, and tweaking things, and some behind the scenes stuff I won’t get into, it got delayed. But it actually works out, because the pre-order of the figure is also timed to us introducing a new payment plan option. When you pre-order some of our more expensive toys/collectibles, you can space out your payments right up until the point where the product ships if you want to, or can put up all the money upfront. Your choice!
One thing I noticed about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures was the payment options – you could buy a subscription for all four, and secure the whole team, or you could buy them a la carte. How was that decided?
Those are a little different. The turtles are four brothers, and they’re team, so we know a lot of people want the team. Now because we had Mondo exclusive versions of them – that came with certain items that were only available through our website – we knew they would be in hot demand. But if you only like Leonardo, and Raphael, and you want to try to get those exclusives individually, have at it. It’s going to be a race, but you’re going to have fun doing it. Hopefully! [laughs]
But if you wanted to take that pressure off, why not do a subscription, and get all four turtles, and access to the exclusives? Also as a special incentive, if you ordered got on board for the subscription you get a poster by one of our artists, Jason Edminston, who is designing a print based on our figures.
We did set those to a limited number because we wanted to make it special for those who signed up for it. We thought it was a great promotion, and it created great excitement around the line.
Now with Hitchcock, this is not us being coy, but if you don’t have the money up front, you can space it out over time. We’re hoping it encourages people to buy from us directly, but hopefully doesn’t feel like we strung anyone out over a long period of time. With The Iron Giant, people were waiting a year, even more than actually, after spending $300 up front. So we wanted to try and ease that pain a bit.
Ok, so two quick questions. First, why Hitchcock? Next, Hitchcock was not very tall, so how is a 1/6 scale going to be 12 inches?
[laughs] Yeah, I know where you going with that. He’s going to be 12 inches tall. Deal with it. [laughs] With this particular type of figure, which is an articulated body covered in fabricated clothes, at the time we designed it we did not have our own articulated body (yet). So we had to buy an open-market body, and those are generally a specific size. You can’t go in and cut their ankles off because they are pre-made. [laughs] Now the 1/6 scale may not be absolutely accurate, but he’s going to be 12 inches tall.
Our Ninja Turtles, and the Masters of the Universe figures we’re working on are probably easier to see why we made figures of them, but we are a company that celebrates not just pop culture but very specifically a lot of film. And who’s more influential in film and directing than Hitchcock?? Even if you haven’t seen all of his movies, you know the name. He’s an icon, and someone we all respect, and we thought it would be a really cool thing to do.
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Now is this going to kickstart a whole director line? Eh, that’s up in the air, but if it does, that’s a great place to start. We have access to the Hitchcock estate and so we thought, “Hey, let’s try it.”. He’s such a character, and no disrespect to Steven Spielberg, but I’d rather have a Hitchcock figure on my shelf. But that’s just me.
Before we get any further, I want to make sure I have the right vocabulary. It’s not toys, it’s “collectibles”, right? But if it’s both, I want to know where the line is drawn when it’s toys/collectibles.
This is a weird sticking point for me. When I meet someone on the street and they ask me what I do for a living, I say “I make toys.”. If they ask further, I say I make adult toys…not dildos, [laughs] and then we go from there. But within our culture, and when I talk to people like yourself, we understand what a toy is. It’s a thing you get in your Happy Meal, or Toys R Us, and there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s great stuff out there, I buy that stuff too.
But the reason we call things “Collectibles” is that we’re not manufacturing things at a level like the big boys do. We are doing limited editions and runs of sometimes a couple hundred statues, or only a couple thousand for an articulated figure. That’s what I term a collectible.
If you’re coming from the poster world, you may not think that something like 3,000 figures sounds very limited, but from a toy perspective, when they’re normally making 10,000, or 100,000, our runs are pretty damned collectible in my opinion. So I prefer using the word collectible outwardly in our message to audiences. But internally, do we call them toys? Of course we do. It’s shorthand.
I have a friend who got me into records and as a huge soundtrack fan, I’m all about film scores. But when I tell somebody about it, I have to choose my words carefully. My first instinct is to say, “yeah I’m big into vinyl”. But then I have to backtrack and go, “No I don’t wear outfits like the Gimp in Pulp Fiction…I mean records.”.
It’s funny because when you say vinyl, I obviously know what you mean. But when you talk to toy guys about vinyl, it’s something completely different. When I say vinyl it can be urban vinyl, or artist-based toys. I’ve gotten into conversations where I say “Yeah, we make vinyl.”. And they say “Really, what is it?”. Then I say “It’s the soundtrack to Jurassic Park.”, and they go “What?”. So it’s a slight adjustment depending on who you’re chatting with.
Let’s go back to scale for a minute. Earlier you used the terms traditional and non-traditional. The Turtles that I grew up with were 5 inches. The ones you have are 12 inches. How do you decide on the size?
The Turtles are special to me because they have never been done before. Now have they ever made 12 inch figures? Yes they did. They were the enlarged version of those Playmates 5 inch figures you mentioned. They were blow ups of that. The term 1/6 scale is usually tied to a higher end figure. NECA had really, really great 5 or 6 inch Turtle figures which were based on the original comics, or a version of the original comics (because the art changes so much from issue to issue, they went on direction, and we went in another).
So NECA did ones that were 5 or 6 inches tall, they’re awesome, I have them, but I wanted bigger. I wanted something that was substantial so we could do something with crazy accessories and more fun stuff. So there were questions like whether we could we make this work financially, stylistically, and do people want this stuff? So we’ve been proven yes on all accounts and it was really, again, just a desire to do something new.
That’s actually, I think, the key to what our company does. A lot of our products are something new mixed with something that’s old, whether it’s a poster, a vinyl record, or anything that you’re generally familiar with, or something obscure, and we’re trying to present it in a new way.
Another thing we go after is the kind of story we can tell with not just the pose of the character, but the look of the character as well. That’s actually more interesting to me. What is the angle that we can put on this to make it different and unique enough that someone is as interested as we are?
So more on the Turtles, as I’m a die-hard TMNT fan, do you have plans to continue the line past the Mousers? Can we expecting Baxter Stockman, Krang, a mini Technodrome?
We want to continue with more characters. I don’t like to think in waves – action figures are always presented in waves, or series – but even though I’m doing four figures, I’m still spacing them out over a year-and-a-half. They won’t drop all at once.
The next batch of figures we’re working on are Casey Jones, The Shredder and Foot Soldiers. These are based on the comic books, but we’re going to throw in one or two nods to the cartoon.
Going forward, a mini Technodrome is something that doesn’t really fit with what we’re doing, but the ones I want to do further down the line are Rocksteady, Bebop and Krang. Now the cool thing that I want to do is that while these were not characters in the comics, I want to approach them as if they were from the comics.
So they would look like you remember them from the cartoon show, but they would have a, and I hate to use this term, gritty look to them. That’s pretty much what the comic was. Very gritty. Beyond that, it really is all up in the air and they’re just ideas. And you know, ideas come and go all the time.
Let’s talk about time frames. The Iron Giant was years in the making, and Hitchcock is like two and change for different reasons. But when you look at Mondo’s poster and vinyl record releases, their releases seem prolific. But with statues, and collectibles – because production time is a huge factor – it seems it would be very tough to time a collectible with a movie’s release. So what determines your time frames for releasing a figure? Is promoting something with the release of film a goal at any point?
It could be, but it would have to be a very specific item. This was something we always talked about when I was at Sideshow Collectibles. At Sideshow we had access to pretty much every license – Star Wars, Marvel, DC, etc. and we are given reference way ahead of a film. Often times, it would just never line up because of how long this process takes.
Now you could line up a pre-order with the release of film, but what I found is that I’m more comfortable, honestly, operating at what makes sense for the product. Let’s look at a major film coming out this year…Captain America: Civil War. Let’s say I had something planned for that. Now the advantage of launching a product at the time of the film’s release is that you get all the marketing around what’s happening with the film. You have people who are curious about the film, and want to know more, and they want to buy more.
But what also happens, especially when you’re dealing in the higher-end market place like we are, specific collectibles can get overlooked in favor of more commonplace merchandise. People are selective in what they want to spend their money on, so if you are in a time where everything being released is Captain America: Civil War – comics, action figures, shirts, Coke cans, whatever, you are competing against all this other stuff out there and all the dollars for it.
So if something resonates with an audience, like Guardians of the Galaxy, you could probably sell a baby Groot or Rocket Raccoon for the next several years. So why not move away from everything and be more comfortable, and more confident in your product choices and the properties you go after, and exist outside of that marketing push?
Is there something more lower end we can time with the movie? Absolutely, but when we’re operating at a higher end with the collectibles, it’s a lot of money, and I get it. A lot of people don’t have tons of money these days, so you don’t want to be in a position where it’s like, “I gotta buy my kid this video game that’s 50 bucks, and then my other kid wants his toy, and it’s another fifty bucks, it’s already hundred bucks, and now they want me to spend two hundred bucks on a statue.”. You just don’t want to be in the middle of that conversation, you want to be outside of it. So you go “Okay, the kids are taken care of, they forgot about Captain America: Civil War, so I can enjoy a statue now that it’s been a few months.”. [laughs]
Mo said something in the last interview that really resonated. He said that around the time of the first MondoCon, they priced a couple vinyl releases way outside of the normal SRP. He said that, jokingly, the thought at Mondo was “we’re invincible, we can do anything!“. But his point was that their most expensive items have still not sold out, and he took that as a learning experience. The toys seem to be doing very well, but is there anything that didn’t work out for you?
We had a poster we did last year at MondoCon by an artist named Mike Sutfin. He did art for a character called Devilman. Devilman happens to be one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a Japanese character from manga and anime, and this poster we did was absolutely fantastic.
We were going to do a figure of it based on the poster, but due to circumstances with market input and other factors, we put a hard stop on it. I had even had a sculpture started, but particular circumstances just came about that we just had to kill it. The poster didn’t do very well, and it’s not a reflection of the art, or the quality of the poster – I have the poster, it’s framed and it’s awesome – but it’s really, really obscure. I have a Devilman tattoo on my wrist and people are always asking me “Is that Batman?”. So I get it, and I understand, it’s a really weird anime that few people get, but that was a true kill your darling moment.
Now the silver lining to that is that Mike and this company called UnBox Industries, are going to be making it instead. I’ve seen images of it and it’s amazing! So in the end, I still get my Devilman figure!
One that we still may do, and I’ll get into reasons why we did pause on it, was a piece based on work by an artist named Jason Freeney. Jason is known for taking toys or characters and doing a dissected version of them. He’s done Care Bears, and another one with a Gummy Bear that’s been dissected. So half of the character is cut away, and you can see its skull and ribs and stuff from the side. He’s done Mickey Mouse, he’s done a whole art show and he’s out here in L.A. It’s really fantastic stuff, and he created, for us, a dissected SpongeBob SquarePants. It is awesome.
It’s really cute, and really cool, and not gory at all – it’s kind of like those clinical textbooks or diagrams you see in the doctor’s office – and done in a very fun way. So we were down for it, everybody was very happy to make this happen, but we got the factory price and it was just too high. It didn’t make sense that if this was the price we had to go out with it at, we would have to charge X amount to customers, and I don’t think people were ready for a vinyl dissected SpongeBob that cost X amount.
So we looked at it, gave it a lot of thought, and that got put on hold. That was about a year ago, but I still have the prototypes and there is a potential it may come to life. I bring up SpongeBob specifically because we feel we’re close to resurrecting it and being able to make it work on a financial level.
That’s the tough part of the job, whether posters, or records, or something else, you go “We can do this really cool thing”, but does it make sense? Are we going to be sitting on a bunch of these?”.
You always have to be precise, or as much as you can. I always say that the job involves a little bit of science and a little bit of black magic to make it work. You have to look at the math, take a guess, and go with a gut instinct based on your experience. But there’s no pure science to it.
One thing Mondo is known for are the variant releases. In the collectibles portion of the site, you have the Little Mikey, and Hellboy variants, but where does this all stem from? You brought up NECA earlier, and they have this really cool 8-bit line which is how these characters would look as if you took their video game profile and translated that pixel design onto an action figure. So how did the variants come to be, and what do they allow you to spin off into?
Variants are a tradition in this business – you want to have the chase. Whether it’s cards, records, posters, or toys.
Little Mikey worked out like this. We had to make a certain amount of those, and it didn’t matter what color they were, but we had to reach a minimum order quantity, an MOQ. So we thought we could sell a set amount of a colored version of the character. But we thought in order to mitigate the risk, and not just make it all one color, we would give him a red mask and kind of tie back to the comics with the grey tones as well, and doing a fun blank one (which is weirdly my favorite). Those three designs were a way we knew we could reach the MOQ, while still have fun doing it.
When it came to The First Turtle, which is a figure we shipped earlier this year, that was based on the original concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that Kevin Eastman did. That one looks really cool in black and white, like the illustration. But we wondered how would it look if we colored it. Michelangelo is known for having an orange mask, but in the comic, they all had red masks. So we went back and forth and that just came out of the conversation we had one afternoon. We decided to split it up so some people could have really whatever they wanted.
When it came to the first Hellboy, it was very simply this. We wanted it look like the illustration which is a black and white, and I wanted to paint it just like that. Mike Mignola, Hellboy’s creator wanted to do it full color. So we said “Let’s do both!”.
For that, we got David Stewart, who colors the comic, and had him color the original art. Then we used those colors to make up the paint scheme of the figure. That was a happy compromise, [laughs] and so when we got to do both, it was a win- win. It’s not like we’re saying, “Hey, we’re going to do crazy chases”.
How does the creative process get rolling? Do you have structured/scheduled pitch meetings, or do you just get an idea in the middle night and then email everybody the next day?
For me it’s more like this. There’s a statue I’m working on right now that probably won’t be seen until the end of the year. We have a license for it, and my idea was to make a very specific version of this that has two characters interacting. Normally, every time you see this property, one character is always depicted the same way.
I know this is going to sound really stupid because this is so vague on purpose, but I was trying to figure out something clever for one of the characters. One of them flies, and no it’s not Superman. So I wanted to do something where that character is not flying and I was looking for some way to make it an interesting concept. But it’s difficult when one is not flying. Then I came across an illustration online, and it’s of the two characters, but one of them was flying. I was like, “Damn it, I didn’t want to do flying, but that’s so damn cool. What do I do?”.
So I went down the path of not having him fly, and presented it to the gang on the online message board format we use, and I was like’ “Check this out. Tell me what you think.”. They were apprehensive because it didn’t look exactly like I was trying to do. It was a little James Bond-ish. But then I threw the drawing I found online at them, and told them I would change some stuff with it. I would contact the artist that made this so we’re not ripping off his pose, and they got what I was going for. And while I was not trying to do the traditional thing, and do my own spin on it, we ended up right back at it – flying.
Other times, it’s very simple like, “Here’s what I want to do, do you have any issues?”. In these situations, you’re not asking for permission, you just making sure you’re not going to get hamstrung, or run into a big creative/marketing hurdle down the line, or just doing something dumb. You have to have people to bounce ideas off of, and you can’t work in a vacuum. You may come up with some cool stuff, but you may also come up with something really stupid because no one ever told you no, [laughs] and no one ever called you on your crap.
So, long story short, I got in touch with the artist, compensated them for their pose, changed enough to make it our own, and we’re proceeding. We should have something to show for the next Mondo Con. It’s pretty damn neat, and one of my favorite things I’m working on.
Is there a median length of time that a product takes from the concept phase to sitting on someone’s shelf? Or if that is so varied, does the production process have a more or less standard length of time?
That’s a little tricky just because I have to ask you where you want to pinpoint as the true start of the process. If you’re talking about concept, sometimes it can be 2 years because sometimes I’ll get concept done but not do anything with it for a while. That’s mainly because the timing is not right. I don’t want to think about starting at concept because, for instance, I’m doing concepts right now that probably won’t see the light of day for another year or so, and by that I mean prototype.
That’s not a fair place to start. What is, is when we’re starting a sculpture. Then you take it from that point straight through to the end when the product ships. Now that, generally, can be anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
In the case of The Iron Giant, which just shipped, that was almost three years. Wow that sounds crazy just saying that out loud. [laughs] There are many, many, many reasons why that happened, but it was a very complicated project.
We took things a little slowly because we were trying out different ideas and concepts. For instance, all the little add-ons and exclusive pieces. It was an ever-evolving project and anything but straightforward. We changed things constantly, and the idea to include sound in it, came very late in the game.
That’s an exception, not the norm. We are at a point now where I am reordering the product, so by the time I’m all said and done with it, it will be three years I’ve been dealing with it.
Well I have to think that the look on Brad Bird’s face – when he’s admiring the first statue – makes it all worth it. What was that like?
That was a very cool day. I’m not bragging, but I got to go up to Skywalker Ranch and he was in the middle of editing Tomorrowland. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Skywalker Ranch, it’s amazing. But I went to meet Brad and we went over the prototype and while we at Mondo loved it, it was really cool to see him get excited. He totally geeked out and was like “Wow! This is awesome!!”.
But to be honest with you, the best part about that day was the drive down from there and getting to have some amazing Puerto Rican food. [laughs] I’m a jaded weirdo, but that’s who I am. [laughs] Now if you’re ever in or around San Rafael, make sure you go to Sol Food. It’s awesome.
When you work with artists who are working on sculptures, and this is after you’ve gotten past the concept and approval phase, you’re kind of in project management mode. But just before you start sculpting let’s talk about your role. Do you sculpt, do you draw, and how do you work on a project in the interim between paper and physical product?
I don’t sculpt. I can barely draw a circle. [laughs] But I have an idea and I know how to implement it, so I hire people. I always hire a concept artist, and this is really hilarious. When I get a concept, or a 2D drawing, I’m usually at my cigar parlor where I work in the back with a computer and a tracking Mouse drawing lines – it’s right-handed, and I’m left-handed. So my comments are all these obscure, random, and indecipherable scribbles and I’m always asking the artist, “Does this make sense?”. And they respond, “Yes, I understand what your wiggle worms are doing.”. [laughs]
So as a creative director, you are literally directing a project and putting a bit of your vision in it. Obviously you have other people involved, highly talented artists who have a lot of great ideas, so you get a ton of their vision in it as well.
In the case of Turtles, or actually the Masters of the Universe figures, there’s a lot of interpretation we’re getting to do and we’re finding that we can find places where we can stretch our wings creatively in the design phase and the sculpture phase. So you can take what’s been done before, and modify it so the older version is there in spirit and hopefully come out the other side with something fans appreciate. So a large part of my job is trying to keep things on schedule as much as possible. You’re also dealing with various artists.
With a statue, or collectible, I have to deal with a 2D artist, and then get that over to a sculptor which is the lengthiest part of the process. Then a digital printer (if it’s not a traditional hand sculpture). After that you have to clean it, and go to mold and cast, and then paint, and then you’re getting somewhere. All these stages are important and are part of the process , and shows why it’s lengthy. And I’m there at each stage guiding the stuff along to make sure it meets personal standards and what the audience wants to see. It’s very complicated.
Since there are so many statues, and figures, are you going to stay with that, or are you going to try to do more props? Maybe something like the amulet from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or maybe the Bebop and Swordfish ships from Cowboy Bebop? Getting away from figures, what other avenues could you, or would you want to pursue?
I prefer figural stuff, but obviously we did the Iron Giant “Bolt”, and what we showed last year at Comic-Con was Casey Jones’ hockey mask. There are certain items that I think that A. haven’t been done before, and B. I think there’s interest in. Doing an amulet from Atlantis, to be honest with you, doesn’t blow up my skirt. I’m not a fan of the film, and that’s where it really needs to start. It’s not a bust to you or anyone who likes that movie, but if my heart is not into it, then what’s the point?
You can’t be willy nilly with your decisions and pursuits. It’s not what Brock wants, Brock makes. It’s what Brock is approved for, and can prove he can make it work. [laughs] So in terms of props, there’s not that much out there that is exciting to me that either hasn’t already been done before, or just makes sense.
I think the Casey Jones mask, because it’s never been done before, as a prop replica is a fun thing because we kind of got to design our own version of it. It looks cool and it’s a cool piece. The goal is to make something that when people see it they will really want it. But their pursuit of it creates this “gotta have it” mentality because it brings back a flood of memories. And that’s really what we’re after.
I have to say that I really enjoy The Iron Giant “bolt”. It’s a glorified paperweight, but it’s the coolest paper weight I own. But as you mentioned putting sound in the Giant statue, was there ever thought to put a beeping sound in the bolt so it truly is like the film?
If it came up, and I’m trying to remember, it was a while ago, it was quickly shot down. Only because when you do a sound chip, you have to make a certain amount of sound chips that usually exceed your production of the actual piece. So we would end up scrapping a lot of them because we weren’t making a whole lot of bolts. So it just didn’t make sense to do that.
If we were making several thousand of these (which we didn’t) that would have made sense. Because we made this for a select core fan base, I think it was just at a thousand, we just knew there was not going to be a good place to spend money, and it would have increased the price of the bolt significantly.
Thanks very much to Brock for his time. Keep an eye on Mondo’s official website (Mondotees.com) for simply extraordinary releases – LPs, posters, toys, etc – of films/TV properties. For more up to the minute news on product drops, follow Mondo on Twitter.