New York Comic-Con is taking its mammoth real-world presence into a new virtual space, dubbed the Metaverse. During a year that has seen every major comics convention and book festival since March canceled, the biggest pop culture convention of the fall’s online iteration, the New York Comic Con Metaverse, will be held October 8–11 via YouTube. Show organizers hope that the lessons they have learned over the first six months of virtual cons will lead to a more vibrant and compelling fan event.

ReedPop, the organizer of NYCC, designed the Metaverse with the intent to present the elements of a comic con—the programming, publisher exhibitors, artist alley, and fan presence—in a more engaging way than the now-ubiquitous Zoom video chat platform allows for.

NYCC comes along during a proliferation of virtual con events, including ReedPop’s BookExpo Online and San Diego Comic-Con International’s Comic-Con@Home, as well as anime festivals Anime Expo Lite and Crunchyroll Expo and company-sponsored events like WarnerMedia’s elaborate DC FanDome and Penguin Random House’s Book Your Summer Live. Virtual cons are also competing against an explosion of smaller live-chat events, Facebook streams, Instagram Live streams, and Twitch, and digital fatigue is very real. Virtual cons, including ReedPop’s recent Metaverse event, which functioned as an online warm-up for NYCC, are becoming more complex and innovative in how they cut through online clutter to reach fans and readers.

Meanwhile the comics industry is still dealing with the overall effects of a six-month pandemic. Milton Griepp, CEO of pop culture news and analysis website ICv2, acknowledges that retailers have been hurt by a lack of conventions but warns that “the long-term effect on the [overall] industry is probably more important,” noting, “All the deals that didn’t get done, all the chance meetings that didn’t happen, all the connections that didn’t happen—I think that’s really where we lose as a business.”

The NYCC Metaverse

Making a virtual event stand out has become more competitive in just the past few months, says ReedPop v-p and event director Mike Armstrong. The company’s first Metaverse event, held in August, included both live and prerecorded panels, as well as exclusive merchandise and listings for exhibitors and artists.

ReedPop has been “pivoting into what all of this stuff will look like digitally,” Armstrong says. “The Metaverse was our attempt to bring some content to fans, but also to figure this whole thing out a little bit. I don’t think anybody has perfected it.”

ReedPop event director and NYCC Metaverse showrunner Kristina Rogers agrees. She says the August event was a chance to see what worked and what would allow fans to get the most out of the event. “We said, ‘Let’s figure out how to get our content out there and see what the fans are really passionate about.’ It feels like needs are all changing constantly, because everything moves very quickly.”

One of the most popular features of the August Metaverse was live chat, Rogers says, noting that some of the panels were presented with live feedback on YouTube. “Fans told us they love being able to catch up with each other, and talking about a panel as it’s happening and right after.” Metaverse even included a “professional online con,” an online meeting between publishers and retailers, which was hailed as a huge success by participants.

NYCC Metaverse will have much of the traditional content of NYCC’s IRL editions, including media panels from CBS, FX, Hulu, and Star Trek and a significant amount of anime programming via anime distributor Funimation and manga publisher Viz Media. Traditional book publishers will be represented as usual, including Disney, Macmillan and its graphic novel imprint First Second Books, and Penguin Random House, with an emphasis on providing sneak peeks at trailers and covers, exclusive content, and author workshops, which are very popular with fans.

Looking to avoid still more talking heads on a computer screen, Rogers is searching for ways to offer conversations on fresh topics by dynamic participants. “We’ve seen a lot of iterations, and we’re still trying to figure out what’s actually going break through the noise,” she says.

Nicole Valdez, Random House Graphics’ marketing and publicity manager, says that the uncertainty of virtual cons has been an obstacle at times. “Normally, we would have very clear paths forward about what we’d be working on, what kind of presence we would have. But with the state of virtual events we haven’t had that luxury.” In addition, she notes, just “putting your name on a panel isn’t going to sell it—we really have to find interesting topics that people want to tune in to.”

To counteract that, Valdez and other publicists at PRH worked to come up with unusual panel ideas to pitch for NYCC Metaverse, not just for graphic novels but also for the SF/fantasy authors who are regulars at the con. The result, she says, is to offer more hybrid panels, such as Sophie Escabasse, creator of the forthcoming middle grade graphic novel Witches of Brooklyn, appearing on a female-focused panel alongside prose novelists.

The disappearance of in-person shows has presented special difficulties for Random House Graphic, a newly launched children’s graphic novel imprint that is releasing its first list of titles this year, says publishing director Gina Gagliano. “To have a new book out and not have a show where you’re talking about it and selling it to people is hard,” she notes. “We’ve been doing all these different things to make sure our books and authors are hitting people’s radar. We’re also working on making sure that we can follow up in 2021 on all of the outreach and on all of these new things that we’re trying.”

The online con evolves

Online events are becoming more elaborate as organizers look to get the most out of platforms like Zoom. In August, Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, organized the DC FanDome, a unique fan-focused online event that lasted 24 hours, reached out to DC fans around the world, and was not archived (so far). It was easily one of the more impressive online conventions yet.

Pitched to a global audience, DC FanDome offered a slate of virtual panels in 10 languages, with content targeted to different countries. The festival featured stars and creators from across most of DC’s upcoming film and TV slates, offering portfolio reviews, video game trailers, and games, all set within a complex virtual space designed by DC chief creative officer and publisher Jim Lee, who is also one of DC’s most popular superhero artists. The event garnered 22 million online impressions worldwide, according to the company, and was widely hailed as raising the bar for the online convention.

“They did an amazing job,“ Valdez says. “But that’s an entertainment company versus a publishing house. Two different approaches. We have to find new ways to be creative.”

Rogers says, “Not everybody has Warner’s resources. Publishers can’t necessarily break through the noise. Everybody relies on NYCC to create a space where they’re discovering new releases.”

Armstrong praises DC FanDome as well as Comic-Con International’s Comic-Con@Home. “FanDome had great content, they had great personalities involved, and they knocked it out of the park,” he says. “As showrunners, our competition used to be the show in the next big town over, but now our competition is the entire internet. If people will watch 20 minutes of a celebrity eating hot wings, there’s got to be an application to have that in our space. We need to make sure that the content is relevant in that landscape.”

How these events present a virtual exhibit floor full of branded booths is also evolving. The Lightbox Expo, a 3-D virtual event for digital artists, which launched as a real-world event last year, will be held this year from September 10 to 12. LBX showrunner Jim Demonakos worked with his team to make it into a more impressive digital environment. “We wanted to make a Google Street View for artists,” he says. Instead of just a clickable logo that links to an online store, the LBX exhibit hall allows fans to move through digital space with a mouse. “You pick an aisle and walk down it, and things pop up at you,” he adds. “You can discover artists, follow them on Instagram.”

LBX is an international event, and fans are asked to register their time zones when they log on, allowing the show to offer differing schedules of events to audiences in different parts of the world. Each LBX panel offers some kind of collectible downloadable element, and the show charges different amounts (from $1 to $40) for different levels of access to its programming. All these ideas are relatively new to the digital event space.

Much like Warner did with DC FanDome, larger media companies are designing and hosting their own branded events. Random House Graphics participated in Book Your Summer Live, a PRH virtual convention. Held August 21–22, the event offered a very attractive website, a virtual artists alley that linked directly to artists’ online stores, and scores of PRH authors and panels focused on topics from geek culture to a series of Reddit “Ask Me Anything” sessions. And all of it is archived and easily available for new viewers.

RHG is also partnering with children’s and YA booksellers around the country (among them BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and Books of Wonder in New York City) to organize a series of five virtual panels to be held throughout September. The panels will focus on such topics as friendships, magic, and LGBTQ issues; they were originally scheduled to be held live at San Diego Comic-Con this year, but Valdez adapted the series to the online environment. “I was going through my emails and thinking, wow, I haven’t talked to this person in months,” she says. “And I realized we need to find that connection again.” She hopes to talk with other PRH marketing people to plan more virtual events.

Professional shows

As the pandemic rolls on, show organizers and industry professionals are looking for a way to connect via virtual re-creations of the kind of networking events formerly held during now canceled in-person cons. Yen Press sales and marketing director Mark de Vera says what he misses about in-person events is the “roundtables with librarians, retailers, and other professionals,” noting, “Any opportunity for us and press to have that connection is something that we’re interested in.”

ReedPop’s August Metaverse event included its first “professional online con,” an online meeting between publishers and retailers, which was hailed as a huge success by participants. “It was the first time retailers and publishers connected since February,” Armstrong says. “And that was so critical.”

One advantage of the virtual get-together is that, unlike a live event, which would have to compete with the show floor for the attention of busy professionals, Metaverse held the event after the show, so there were no distractions. The meetup had 12 publishers as sponsors and just over 100 retailers. “We actually had to turn some folks away, because we wanted to keep the number of participants manageable at the beginning,” Armstrong says. The feedback was hugely positive, he says. “My phone was blowing up after the event. Everyone was excited to be able to reconnect.”

“It was great to connect with people,” RHG’s Gagliano says. “And I met some artists whom I hadn’t heard of before, and I got some good updates from press and retailers.”

Armstrong says ReedPop is open to doing more of these professional events, perhaps on a quarterly or monthly basis. He also wants to add in librarians and educators, a key segment of the book market that NYCC normally features during its annual library day held at the New York Public Library.

ICv2’s Milton Griepp is also planning an online version of his long-running White Paper event, an annual and much anticipated report on the size and trends of the graphic novel market, which presents industry statistics, business-focused panels, and a lineup of comics editors and publishers in conversation. While details are still being worked out, Griepp says the event will be held close to NYCC dates just as it has in the past. The focus of the event will of course be the business of pop culture in the era of Covid-19.

“There’s so much change happening so rapidly that there’s certainly a lot to talk about,” Griepp says. “A lot of the changes were reflected in trends prior to Covid and just got accelerated, but others are totally new.”

The manga and anime virtual presence

The NYCC Metaverse will have a large anime and manga presence. Anime has become a significant part of streaming platforms, via standalone Asian pop-focused services such as Crunchyroll and Funimation and on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. These services and their content have long spurred print and digital manga sales.

Viz Media v-p of publishing sales Kevin Hamric reports that sales of Viz titles are up for the year despite the impact of pandemic-related lockdowns on physical retailers. While prioritizing the safety of workers in its publishing supply chain, he says, “we did not alter our publication schedule at all, and that paid off, because our sales are way above what they were last year, and over projections for 2020.”

Hamric notes that during the lockdowns, manga has been the beneficiary of “binge reading.” He adds, “Our box set sales have been crazy. And the number of volume ones sold during this pandemic has been just phenomenal, hitting the deep, deep backlist. Things printed in the 1990s are selling again.”

Yen Press sales and marketing director Mark de Vera reports a similar trajectory. “Amazon and [Asian pop e-tailer] Right Stuf have seen pretty significant growth, along with digital sales,” he says. “Considering the impact of the social distancing that needs to be done at stores, and people’s reluctance to go outside, it’s actually really shocking to see how good sales have been. It’s been a pretty good year considering the challenges.”

At NYCC Metaverse, both publishers will emphasize these successes in publishing panels. Viz will also tentatively have a panel for Seis Manos, an adult anime that airs on Netflix.

Yen and Viz have already participated in a number of virtual panels at anime and Asian pop culture–focused events, among them Anime Expo Lite—the online version of the biggest anime show in the U.S., which was held July 3–4—and the newly virtual Crunchyroll Expo, held September 4–6. Viz presented international bestselling horror manga star Junji Ito at Comic-Con@Home and the first ReedPop Metaverse and presented a live drawing session at the latter. Pre-pandemic, Ito was scheduled to be a guest at both SDCC and NYCC in 2020, and his virtual panels were well attended. “He graciously made himself available at very odd times in Japan to either do things with us live or to do recorded panels,” Hamric says. “So, yes, we did stay up until two a.m. to work with him and his staff to get things done.”

For Anime Expo Lite, Yen did a q&a with author Okina Baba and illustrator Tsukasa Kiryu, creators of the popular light novel So I’m a Spider, So What?, the inspiration for a manga adaptation and an upcoming anime series. Japanese creators are known to be extremely private, and Baba and Kiryu did not appear on camera. However, fans were able to submit questions, and de Vera and other Yen personnel read their answers, which delighted fans of the quirky series.

One advantage of virtual events is the removal of geographical limitations, and while it’s possible that will lead to more Japanese manga creators appearing at online panels, there are still issues regarding their participation. Hamric points to the extremely heavy work schedules of manga artists, emphasizing how hard it can be to get Japanese manga creators to schedule even virtual appearances, as well as the privacy issues that prevent many from appearing at all. “We will do more virtual appearances, but we need so much lead time to work with these creators and get them scheduled for events,” he adds.

With so few willing to participate in public events, the pool of available creators is small. However, Hamric expects that to change. “As conventions find better ways of doing these events virtually, we will see a larger pool of creators willing to participate.”

De Vera says, “If a creator is willing to show themselves, I will gladly take the opportunity to feature them in video content for our fans.” However, he’s also willing to look at alternative options, like the prerecorded reading of q&a responses, similar to the Anime Expo Lite event, in cases where that’s the best option.

The future of New York Comic Con

If there is a NYCC in 2021, the Javits Center will likely be much larger than it was at the previous in-person NYCC in 2019, as the expansion of the exhibition venue should be finished by that time. “We’re optimistic that we’ll be running NYCC in-person in October of next year,” Armstrong says. “The expansion will open up room for new panels and new theaters for exciting, big content.”

The mammoth show has essentially been sold out for exhibitors the past five years, so more exhibit space means new sponsors, exhibitors, and artists. Hygiene will no doubt still be an issue in a year, and Armstrong expects fewer attendees than in past years, even with the larger venue.

Virtual booths will continue to evolve. De Vera is enthusiastic about what he’s seen of LBX. “It’s something that will grow as we try to get closer to emulating what it’s like to explore and discover different companies on the exhibit floor,” he says.

Participants continue to adapt to life in a pandemic, with some companies sending out uniform backgrounds to make Zoom events appear a bit more professional, and others investing in better lighting and cameras.

Gagliano points out the different platforms—Discord, Twitch, Zoom, etc.—still have different specialties and learning curves. “It’s an interesting challenge as we try to figure out how to do all this stuff at the same time that all of these conventions are figuring out how to how to do virtual panels,” she says. “It requires a level of coordination in advance and a whole new level of technical knowledge.”

While most of the individuals PW spoke with are just hoping for their companies to survive the pandemic, they all foresee a future of hybrid events and expect that digital elements will become a permanent part of the pop culture convention circuit. “I think you’ll see a digital element to most of our shows going forward,” Armstrong says, “especially with smaller capacities meaning faster sellouts.”

But even as large media companies develop ever more technologically sophisticated virtual events, in-person events remain the gold standard for bringing fans together, Armstrong notes. “You can only be so community-driven online,” he adds. “People want to be in the same room with their friends and experience things together.”