Speculative fiction and comics took center stage at the fourth annual Virtuous Con, a Black woman–owned online convention that celebrates sci-fi, fantasy, and comics artists each Black History Month. The theme for the 2024 Virtuous Con, held February 23–25, was “The Future Is Ours.”

Bestselling novelist Cerece Rennie Murphy founded the con in 2020 to uplift the narratives and projects of Black artists and other creatives of color. In maintaining its ethos, each year the con commissions an artist for illustrations to be featured on all the promotional materials for the event. This year’s artist was concept designer and illustrator Jocelyn Short, who Murphy described as an “unbelievable talent.”

Virtuous Con started Friday night with a kickoff party on Twitch, where Murphy moderated an informal Q&A with a selection of vendors and event panelists such as Sarah Jefferson Carter, writer-director of Queendom Come; comics duo TezraTandem; and Euwarnii Hughes, comics book creator and founder of Great Gale Comics.

Murphy asked questions about the panelists’ professional backgrounds and how they were introduced to comics and speculative fiction, with multiple guests citing “the Batman cartoons” and Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim as influences. Prize giveaways awarded lucky attendees with products from sponsors Adobe Creative Cloud and Wacom Cintiq. The kickoff concluded with a Black comics trivia challenge featuring participants competing via Kahoot!, an online game platform, and a virtual afterparty hosted by DJ BlackIcon1.


Panels were the main event at Virtuous Con. Divided between rooms named in honor of sci-fi and comics pioneers Octavia Butler and Dwayne McDuffie, the panels focused on a sprawling range of topics that included speculative fiction in Sub-Saharan Africa, a webinar on “Behind the Panel: How to Draw Black Hair” taught by manga artist Odunze Whyte Oguguo (Apple Black series), critical analysis of Black horror history, and conversations of representation in the Star Wars fandom by father-son duo Kerwin and Keith Yarde of Father. Son. Galaxy. A Star Wars Podcast.

Acclaimed panelists included Tananarive Due (The Reformatory), multiple Hugo Award–winning author N.K. Jemisin (Broken Earth series), Mikki Kendall (Hood Feminism), L.L. McKinney (Nubia: Real One), Daniel José Older (Stars Wars: The High Republic), and Victor LaValle (The Changeling).

Book bans and censuring have steadily increased since 2021, reaching record highs in 2022 and 2023. With ongoing challenges, and as some authors battle censorship in court, it was a timely discussion topic on the second day of the con during the panel “Pens of Protest: Speaking the Truth in the Age of Banned Books” moderated by culture critic Janicia Francis. Authors Frederick Joseph, Mikki Kendall, and Ibi Zoboi delved into the impact bans had on their books and their career trajectories.

The book challenges are largely a response to “anything that discusses race, gender, sexuality, or anything that implies that these issues are systemic,” Francis said, noting that it’s no surprise that the majority of banned books are authored by writers of color and often feature BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters.

Joseph, author of Patriarchy Blues: Reflections of Manhood (Harper Perennial), agreed that writing anything that counters established narratives fuels public resistance—an experience he has encountered introducing his “book about misogyny and toxic masculinity” to incarcerated populations. It’s not just about themes perceived to be sensitive, he said, but how their work disrupts and financially impacts a “hyper-capitalist white society.”

The books bans are an attempt by a small vocal minority to “stop the clock on progress,” Kendall remarked. “People are scared because their kids are looking up and realizing that what their future looks like, regardless of race, is not great if things are allowed to continue the way that they are.” Fear catalyzed these movements, she added—not fear of the text, but of what those words might expose in the lives of those banning and censoring books. “They might have to face the consequences of the choices they have made for their children,” Kendall said. “They meant to make them for Black children. And instead, they made them for all children.”

The importance of incorporating real-world issues in children’s literature was a frequent topic in other panels as well. Eden Royce, award-winning author of Root Magic (Walden Pond Press), expressed interest in seeing complex tropes and literary devices applied to books for children. “Sometimes,” she said, “adults in publishing have too simplistic of a view of what kids can understand and what kids can grasp,” noting a tendency among editors to doubt the ability of younger readers to “catch on” to what an author is conveying beyond the scope of their perceived maturity level. “I would love to start seeing more things that are typical in work for older people start to be introduced in books and fiction for younger people,” Royce said.

B. Sharise Moore, poetry editor for Fiyah magazine and the panel’s moderator, echoed this sentiment: “Publishers need to have a kid division where they actually have a group of children beta read some of our things. Many of these publishers are really not in touch at all, as far as what children want.” Other authors noted that it’s important for them to exercise their due diligence as writers and include real issues, no matter how harrowing, in books for younger readers.

Kid-lit author Karen Strong (The Secret Dead Club) mentioned that she had received resistance from editors and publishers to incorporating “racial terrorism and lynching,” problems central to her book settings that take place in the American South, in her stories. “I think kids can handle the truth, and I think they deserve the truth,” she said. “So I will also say for writers, you need to stick to your truth and you should never have to water down anything that is making white people uncomfortable.” It is an issue of showing today’s children the realities of the world around them, not to scare them but to educate them.

Despite the serious discussion topics, the con atmosphere was often laidback, creating the feeling that attendees were gathered in a living room with family or friends instead of industry peers and mentors. Gratitude abounded. Attendees filled the panel chatrooms with their thanks for the stellar advice offered from established creators, or just to be in honest conversation with renowned authors and likeminded individuals.

Vendor Workshops

The vendor floor, open from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. EST each day, was an integral part of the cyber con. Hosted on Remo.co, attendees wandered digital booths spread across three virtual floors designed as an intimate conference hall. Participants controlled their immersive experience. They could conduct face-to-face chats with any of the 24 vendors, hang out in virtual lounges with other attendees, or listen to creators who hosted live readings and informal lectures on developing a career in comics and project conceptualization.

Vendor Jessica Mack, author of Afrofuturist young adult novels and indie publisher of Ebony Xscape Publishing, read an excerpt from her book Guardians of Magic and Myth, which is the forthcoming sequel to Guardians of Masks and Memory. Both are published by Ebony Xscape. Speaking about her series, Mack mentioned that her books take place in “a fantasy version of Africa” where characters have a belief system based on Orishas—divine spirits in the Yoruba religion—but the characters have their own domain. “It makes me think kind of, like, Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Mack said. “I was really interested in that, because you have something that makes me think of a series that I really like, and it’s Black and it’s African.”

Patron Hunt, one of the event sponsors, also held court with visitors between panels, often drawing the largest crowds.

Bill Campbell, founder of Rosarium Publishing, enjoyed the virtual atmosphere. “I like the idea of people coming in and just chatting with you,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of really good conversations so far. It’s community building. It’s a community-reinforcing event.”