Mondo C.E.O. Justin Ishmael Talks ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ 20th Anniversary Screening [Interview]
Directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a theatrical extension of their award-winning work on Batman: The Animated Series which finds Batman on the trail of a lethal new villain for whose crimes he has been wrongly given the blame, and whose identity and motives strike hard into the heart of Gotham City’s protector. The film is equal parts mystery, action and romance, and enhanced by riveting music, truly emotional vocal performances and exquisite animation and art direction like no other American animated feature. Indeed, legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert actually apologized to their television audience for not reviewing Mask of the Phantasm when it was released in theaters (lousy promotion caused them to mistake it for a compilation of episodes from the animated series) and heaped effusive praise on the film and its principals. The 1993 film remains the only animated Batman feature released cinematically.
This past Christmas marked the 20th anniversary Mask of the Phantasm, a film that’s arguably its creators’ most perfect expression of their enduringly influential vision of DC Comics’ dark knight — a vision that many believe is the most perfect expression of Batman in any medium. While Warner Bros. has yet to announce any plans for a high definition reissue or any other offerings connected with the special occasion, the film fanatics at Mondo — purveyors of extremely fine illustrated film posters and other cinematic celebrations — decided to honor Mask of the Phantasm with an anniversary event in connection with the famous Alamo Drafthouse of Austin, Texas, where they screened the film in its original 35mm format for a sold-out house last Tuesday, January 7. As always, Mondo came prepared with an extremely limited quantities of new screen-printed poster, which serves as an update of the film’s original theatrical one-sheet and an homage to the aesthetic legacy of Timm and Radomski’s work.
It won’t surprise ComicsAlliance readers to know I was extremely pleased to represent us at the Mask of the Phantasm event in Austin last week, a jubilant and communal affair that included a surprise screening of one of the racially dubious Batman serials of the 1940s as well as other long lost curiosities including vintage pro-wrestling promos featuring Adam West, cute Batman Returns toy commercials, and hypnotic Batman music videos by Prince. The highlight of the night was of course Mask of the Phantasm itself, which looked as grand and beautiful on the big screen as it did that night in 1993, when I brazenly ditched a Boy Scouts troop meeting to go see it at one of the local cinemas. But just as impressive as the ageless quality of Phantasm’s animation and design were the story by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves and performances by Kevin Conroy Dana Delany and Mark Hamill, which compelled an audience of adults to gasp, cheer, laugh and even cry at all the right places, and perhaps even in some spots they wouldn’t have thought to as children. Truly, the film has only improved with age.
It’s that special quality of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that was the subject of my conversation with Justin Ishmael, CEO of Mondo. We also spoke about his history with Phantasm, the handsome poster by Phantom City Creative, and confirmed Mondo’s hopes to create more theatrical programming and artwork around Batman: The Animated Series.
ComicsAlliance: So, the Batman: Mask of the Phantasm screening took place last night. How did we get here?
Justin Ishmael: Really, we just wanted to do a poster for Mask of the Phantasm. Then it was, “Oh, we should do a screening and a marathon of episodes!” We decided to save the marathon screening for later and do just the screening of Mask of the Phantasm as a kick-off to the new year because it’d be fun. We found out there was a 35mm print and we said, “Let’s definitely get that," because we want to watch that and maybe other people would too.
CA: What are the logistics involved with making that happen?
JI: It’s really as simple as emailing the studio. They have theatrical booking departments. We say, “Hey, we wanna show this, is it available?” They have a look around and say, “We can do it DCP [digital cinema package], we can do it 35…” They give us the options and we say, “35!!” and they send it out, we show it, and we send it back.
CA: So the print actually came from Warner Bros. and not some kind of collector?
CA: You’ve probably had to get prints in some unusual ways before, though.
JI: Oh, yeah. Totally. I collect prints. For example, the Alamo would love to show, say, Southern Comfort. Well, there are no prints of Southern Comfort. It’s impossible to find. Then you end up finding a print of Southern Comfort just randomly from some guy off of Cragislist who had a bunch of film prints in his shed or something. He’s reading off titles on the phone, “Um… Heat, Southern Comfort, Army of Darkness” and you’re trying to keep it cool. “Oh, those are OK I guess, I’ll give you $20 for those.” That type of thing.
CA: Is that how you found that Batman serial we saw before the movie last night?
JI: With the Batman serial, that type of thing comes from just being on a film forum and seeing that random episode, number 14 out 15, for sale. Someone had it and it wanted $100 so and I said, “OK, I’ll give that a whirl. It’d be fun to watch.” Honestly, if we hadn’t watched it last night I don’t know if I’d ever have watched it. It would have been years just because everyone’s so busy at the Alamo. I guess it’s nice to be selfish and share when there’s something like that. I think everyone liked it. I thought it was funny. I mean, it was very racial.
CA: It was so weird. Everyone knows they had this Batman serial back in the ‘40s but no one you talk to has ever really seen it. It’s just some weird racist thing we know about from Wikipedia and stuff like that. It was a real kick to see it in a cinema and imagine people watching it back then.
JI: It really wasn’t... that great. It didn’t feel like Batman, it felt like some kind of pulp thing. It was very of the time. It didn’t scream “Batman” the way we think of Batman.
CA: It was kind of cool to watch that right before the animated movie, though, because of how Mask of the Phantasm and Batman: The Animated Series are influenced by the styles of that period.
JI: Right, and the Fleischer Studios stuff too. The more and more I watch these things and the further I get away from little kid viewing, the more impressed I am. You know how you watch some things when you’re young and it’s like, “That’s the best thing ever!” but then you watch it when you’re older and you’re like, “Ohhh, man.” Willow is a perfect example. I couldn’t make it through it [recently], it was that bad. It’s kind of like seeing the ‘40s Batman next to the Bruce Timm stuff. The more and more Batman stuff I see, the more the Timm stuff quickly becomes my favorite Batman of all time. It’s something that can’t be put on film because these people don’t exist. There’s all these great character actors like Stacy Keach [as a gangster in Mask of the Phantasm]. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Mark Hamill as the Joker. All these great actors are getting big starring roles with just their voices. I love that they’re casting celebrities that were right for the role. It’s not like now, where it’s like, “Brad Pitt, get in there! You’re Bumblebee!” or something. That's very “stunty" like, “We need a name on a poster to sell it!” This series is Batman and someone said, “We’re going to make the best characters possible.” Everything works for me. Every time I watch a Batman thing and it’s animated and it’s not Kevin Conroy’s voice, I’m like, “Hmm…” It takes me a while to get into it. It doesn’t sound like Batman to me. It’s quickly becoming my favorite Batman iteration.
CA: How did you decide who you wanted to illustrate the poster? What was the brief?
JI: We used Phantom City — Justin Erickson’s company. He’s up in Canada. He used to be the art director of Rue Morgue magazine. We gave it to them. They’re great to work with because they send a ton of thumbnails. I can’t remember offhand how many there were for this one, as this was done last year some time — we’ve been waiting for this screening for a while. It’s an old, old project for us, even though it actually happened last night. Phantom City usually send in 8-12 different versions. The one we used was by far the best one so they went off and we did some back and forth and when we got it we sent it in for approval.
CA: Approval from Warner Bros.?
CA: What’s the studio role when it comes to the artwork Mondo releases, the quantities you can make and sell. Do they limit you in those ways?
JI: There’s contractual stuff. There are criteria for the posters that we do. We are definitely in a licensed category. There are things that we can and cannot do. For example, we can’t, say, wholesale to Walmart because that might interfere with someone else’s poster license. We’re very pigeonholed with posters.
CA: Does that account for the scarcity of them?
JI: A lot of times, yeah. There are stipulations in some things, where we can’t exceed X number of posters.
CA: I don’t know if you remember the original one-sheet for that movie —
JI: Oh, I just bought it!
CA: Your poster is kind of like an upgrade. You still have the Phantasm figure sort of dominating the shape of the image, but there’s so much more drama in the Phantom City version. It seems like maybe whoever made that original poster did so without having seen the movie and yours tells a story.
JI: Do you know who did the original poster?
CA: I imagine it was a studio artist at Warner Bros. Animation or the studio’s marketing department.
JI: It’s weird they didn’t have Bruce Timm do it. I’ve seen some old Phantasm stuff he did; I don’t know if it was for a poster but it was amazing.
CA: It seems highly possible that he did some comps or some thumbnails for the direction. My understanding is that he was super involved with anything having to do with that cartoon. I was just speaking to animation director Glen Murakami on Facebook about a Batman Adventures comic he drew years ago and I said, “I remember this panel from when I was a kid and I really love this page,” and he said, “Actually, Bruce helped me redraw that because it wasn’t quite right.” So Bruce Timm was involved to the degree that he was getting in the tie-in comics.
JI: That’s really cool. Usually after the thing that spawned the thing is done, the creators are just kind of done, they’re not involved whatsoever. Other people just draw in their style. Like The Simpsons. Matt Groening’s not drawing all that merchandise.
CA: That comic I’m talking about was a holiday special where a bunch of production artists, I think — people who didn’t normally draw comics — were drawing Batman Adventures comics [which was the name for the comics based on the cartoon]. It’s cool to know the guy whose work you love so much is as invested in it as you are.
JI: He is a style now. Just like The Simpsons or Peanuts, people can draw in that style just like him. It’s really impressive.
CA: Timm’s figure style influenced American TV animation for a good ten years, I think. Some of the stuff on Cartoon Network and Adult Swim now has broken that mold for sure, and there’s obviously a lot more comedy on now than there was when Batman: The Animated Series was on, but it was a big influence on adventure shows.
CA: What’s the measure of success for these events? The presentation, the poster, the screening. What has to happen for you to be like, “We did it. Good job.”
JI: [Mondo, as distinct from its sister company, Alamo Drafthouse] doesn’t do a lot of screening events. We try to make them special in one way or another. I was glad that the Batman serial thing happened. I just like to have something that’s a surprise. We tend to do a lot of those. I don’t want it to be something people expect. To have that serial there last night, it’s nice to know that people learn something or experience something for the first time. As for Mask of the Phantasm, I’d never seen it in the theater. I would bet a lot of people haven’t because a lot of people didn’t when it came out. To give people the opportunity to see that was really fun. Our screening was sold out, so absolutely that was awesome. It’s always awesome to show an old movie and have it sell out really quickly and people go, “Darn, I wish I could have went!” because that definitely did not happen when that movie came out. This is 20 years later. And I’m always super nervous when I do intros and that one was easy. I was talking to the audience about something I know a good amount about and that I do care about. And it genuinely felt like people were having fun. Like the Joker stuff, everybody was laughing. It is funny and it’s good. They wrote that show pretty dark but it’s crazy; one second he can make you laugh and the other his whole world behind him goes red because he’s blind with rage. Especially in animation, you can go that far.
CA: Notably, your theater was full of adults and they were laughing and gasping and feeling the romance, and this was ostensibly a movie for children. It speaks to the sophistication that they built into the film. You might argue that level of sophistication is not built into some of the live-action movies.
JI: Yeah. And I have a feeling this movie was not super dominated by upper management. I don’t know the story of it, but this one feels like they said, “Go off and make your animated Batman movie” and then it came back and the studio said, “OK, we’ll put this out” instead of everybody’s overlooking everything and forcing product tie-ins and whatever.
CA: The only trace of that, I think, is the Tia Carrere song in the end credits. I just imagine she must have had a record contract with Warner Bros. and they needed somewhere to put her. But along the lines you suggest, I did notice the executive producer of the film was Tom Ruegger, who was a creative director at WB Animation back in the day. He was one of the guys who got Batman: The Animated Series, Animaniacs and Tiny Tunes on the air. That whole era of Warner Bros. Animation. I think what you say is probably true, they just went off and made this movie.
JI: I just feel like those guys are fans. I don’t know Paul Dini and I don’t know Bruce Timm and I don’t know the guys from the show, but if you’re putting Stacy Keach and Adrienne Barbeau in your show, you had to have seen Escape from New York and Swamp Thing — you had to. You had to be fans of this stuff. Seeing the commissions Bruce Timm does on the art collector sites, he’s doing weird stuff that isn’t Batman.
CA: I remember when Batman Beyond was first announced, I read an interview with Alan Burnett or Paul Dini or Bruce Timm, and they said, “WB said we had we had to do a show about a teenage Batman in the future. It’s gonna happen whether we happen or not so we said we’ll do it and we’ll make it good and someone else would mess it up.” I can imagine another scenario where WB said, “Make an animated Batman movie. We have a chart somewhere that says you should do this for this reason at this time” and they said OK and pulled out this great thing [which is more or less what happened].
JI: That show is great. First of all, the whole setup of that show is brilliant. You still have Bruce Wayne and he’s still kind of Batman and you're still hearing his voice while Batman’s fighting. You have your teenager there too. It’s brilliant. It’s truly brilliant. And it works. It’s old man Bruce with his dog.
CA: The visual idea seemed to be, “Let’s put Batman in Blade Runner.”
JI: That world is supposed to be super-futuristic but it still feels like the animated series style. It feels like an aged version of that world. And that’s cool. I love that you have more than just the animated series. We’re getting the bonus round with the future thing. It’s not taking away from the other thing. Doing the new characters, I think that’s what they really shine at. With all the established iconic characters of the Batman universe, they still made Harley Quinn. Especially in Batman Beyond, they’re really cool and impressive.
CA: The sonic guy, the ink woman…
JI: That sonic guy! I wish people would talk about it more. There’s that episode where there’s no sound in the fight scene because they set off that device. It’s kind of disorientating. You don’t watch things on mute that often and when you do it’s because your’e doing something else. But having to watch it without sound and see what Batman is actually doing, it’s really impressive. And again, that’s a kid’s show!
CA: Obviously you love this stuff. We all love this stuff. You mentioned before Mondo wanted to do more programming around Batman: The Animated Series. Is there anything you can talk about?
JI: Not really. There’s nothing more to say other than that, we want to do more. We’re definitely going to try.