As comic conventions have shut down, redesigned, or rescheduled for next year in the wake of COVID-19, artists, organizers, and vendors have been scrambling to figure out a way to connect with fans and survive as creators. For many artists and vendors, comic conventions represent a large portion of the money they earn throughout the year, and with cons either outright canceled or shifting gears for the remainder of 2020, they've been put in a precarious situation.
Even though some conventions have moved online, many of these "virtual conventions" are simply web pages that list a selection of artists — or don't yet seem to have a plan in place. There's still no word, for example, on how the grande dame of cons, San Diego Comic-Con, which has announced an all-digital event, will pull off such an endeavor. Enter IsekaiCon, an all-new, all-virtual comic convention looking to step into this void in July as organizers start ground-up production on an idea that could become the new normal.
As the founder and head organizer of the all-volunteer IsekaiCon, Ever Wolfsbane explains to SYFY WIRE that the idea is to build a virtual world with the help of an army of volunteers, vendors, and artists.
"I believe the thing that makes us stand out is that we are putting in a lot of work to custom-build a place for our vendors and attendees to enjoy the convention and bring that traditional convention experience to the comfort of everyone's homes during this crisis," Wolfsbane says. "Something that I haven't seen a virtual convention do is give each of their vendors their own customizable page or booth to man during the convention."
With the click of a mouse, Wolfsbane says, vendors will be able to show their products and also engage directly with anyone who visits their virtual booth, much like a traditional exhibitor booth at an in-person convention.
While any and all attendees are welcome at the virtual con, Wolfsbane says they are geared for a specific audience, particularly fans of RPGs, nostalgic anime and manga, games, and comics. If all goes to plan, Isekai will take place on July 17 and 18. Wolfsbane says organizers have already heard from more than 250 interested artists but says they would cap it at 50 for launch. Ultimately, they say, one track of scheduled panels would run through the day and evening as well.
CREATING A CONVENTION
In March, as news of COVID-19-related cancellations began spreading in the U.S., the Artist Alley Network International Facebook Group began buzzing. As a member of the 25,000-member group, Wolfsbane noted how many people were depressed and disappointed that their main source of income was no longer an option. Soon after, Wolfsbane saw a post about a virtual convention gaining some traction among group members.
"I wondered if I could improve on this concept, so I did," Wolfsbane says. "I posted on this forum about my idea, and only expected a few responses from other friends. I was fully prepared to only do this with 10 other friends using a website builder that I'm familiar with. I ended up getting almost 300 responses on my interest check form and was honestly a bit worried I could even accomplish this vision with so many people eagerly watching."
Nuutari Grenier is a crafter and recent television production graduate from New Jersey, as well as one of the main organizers of IsekaiCon. As the Core Organizer, Grenier was one of the first people Wolfsbane brought on to oversee all aspects of the con, including orchestrating panels.
"I have some experience from being a panelist myself, and my former occupation dealt with the organization of the creation and execution of lots of programming," Grenier says.
Through IsekaiCon, Grenier has reignited her love for crafting and creating while finding some direction for the future. Although she had worked in Artist Alleys since 2014, she had never been a part of the organizational aspect of one. After first losing her job in higher education last fall and then seeing the emergence of the pandemic, Grenier decided helping organize IsekaiCon could be a great way to put her newfound time to good use.
"In many ways, being a Core Organizer can be stressful as you are engaged in every aspect of the convention's development, and Ever was looking for another individual to help share some of those responsibilities, as well as someone to bounce ideas off of," she says. "Admittedly, I have not been able to be as involved with both my art and the convention scene as I would have liked during the last few years. This is one of the reasons I initially sought to help out with IsekaiCon. I have found that I am now able to appreciate the time and freedom that slowing down has meant, and get back to doing the things that I love."
IsekaiCon organizers have been busy organizing and coordinating with vendors and panelists for a few weeks now, but with less than a month to finish, the pressure has ramped up to produce. Australian developer Matt Wood was tapped by Wolfsbane and has been tasked with creating the platform to host IsekaiCon. He's also an artist who saw Wolfsbane's call and wanted to help.
With more than a decade in the web design and development field, Wood says he's dealt with a wide range of websites from simple landing pages to quite large eCommerce sites and realtor websites. Two projects in particular, he says, are similar to what IsekaiCon wants to do.
"One of them was a school project which involved an intricate enrollment system, allowing hundreds of parents to enroll their kids while having it sync up the individual school systems and the city government's system too," he explains. "It was quite a large project and it really taught me the unlimited capabilities you can do with WordPress, which is what we're using as a CMS (content management system) for this convention."
Like any other convention, writers, artists, vendors, and crafters applied and, once approved, an account was created for them on the site. Creators and sellers will log in and then be able to fill out their profile and "fill" their shops. Wood says exhibitors will also be able to live stream from home on the day, through their own Twitch accounts or another streaming service via the site.
"All this data will then be saved in the system and output on their artist page on the front end for the visitors," Wood says. "We won't be selling the products for them through the site, what we're only asking for is the link to where customers can buy their product. They can also use an email address if they don't have an online shop so customers can still inquire about a product. That way the artist/vendor has full control over their own products and are completely responsible for their own sales."
When IsekaiCon launches in July, patrons will be able to freely browse the virtual artist alley.
"Fans will be able to catch the artists' feed in their profile and interact with them just the same [as an in-person con]," Wood says. The team also has someone currently creating a game-like option where fans can walk down a virtual Artists Alley much like a video game.
With a rapidly approaching deadline, Wood says it'll be a crunch to make sure there's time to test and have artists load up their individual profiles. Time zones are another issue. While most of the IsekaiCon volunteers are American, Wood lives in Australia.
"We also all come from different backgrounds and have various skillsets so another challenge is figuring out everyone's strengths and weaknesses and how we can dedicate which roles best suit them," he says. "We all have our own lives, work, school, schedules, and other commitments we're also around. We're all volunteers on this and none of us are getting paid. What little money we do manage to get goes straight into up-front costs such as the web hosting and there have been a couple of plugins we've needed to purchase."
Even though he'll be running the site, Wood will also be selling his art at IsekaiCon. In 2018, Wood got back into his work and won Artist Alley spots at two of Australia's biggest conventions, Oz Comic-Con and Supanova.
"I've been making art for a very long time. Even when I went on to study web development, the art has always been like a hobby business," he says. " It could never bring in enough money. While in art school I was teaching myself web design and development as a hobby, then after school it's what I just ended up doing for my job."
For many working on IsekaiCon, the virtual con could be the best way to connect to fans in the age of COVID-19. At the very least, it's a welcome distraction and creative outlet, volunteer Katie Birb says. A regular on the convention circuit since 2017, Birb is a Virginia resident and says her art "mostly leans on the anime side of pop culture and some gaming."
"I'm excited for IsekaiCon because we have a very hardworking team of people passionate about the scene doing everything we can to provide a service where there is none," she says. "If this works, this could be the future of conventions or even a new wave of events! It's another platform for us to share the culture we love so much and a way to get our community back together."