Human trafficking is a very serious issue. In comics and in film, we always expect the hero to save the day. Frank Castle and Liam Neeson wage one-man wars against vile criminals, but sadly, the real world is a much darker place and sometimes heroes don’t come to the rescue. Abolitionista! is a manga-style PSA about the dangers associated with human trafficking of young, impressionable girls. Created by a group called Freedom Ladder and funded by Kickstarter, the comic is supposed to strip away any glamour and help at-risk teens recognize the warning signs exhibited by men wanting to take advantage of them. Educating our children to recognize and respond to danger before things get out of hand is an important part of being a functional person in the world—just ask any D.A.R.E. graduate. The message is so important and valuable that I feel bad for criticizing Freedom Ladder’s work.
As valuable as Abolitionista! can be as a teaching tool, the tone goes a little overboard as if Thomas Estler was more concerned about putting his characters through the wringer than presenting a rational, plausible means to deal with human traffickers. Eden is friends with Delilah, a girl with dreams of becoming a superstar singer, fashion designer, and human rights advocate. Eden is concerned by the behavior of Delilah’s future stepfather and the unnecessary physical attention he gives her and her sister Jade. Eddie’s sleaziness is presented with so much unintended hilarity that he encroaches into parody. It distracts from the message that an abuser can be anyone, not just attractive young men who parade around the house with unbuttoned shirts and no shoes. When Eden notices Delilah’s absence from the school’s talent show, she immediately suspects Eddie’s involvement. She also rebuffs a school counselor’s offer to help. At Delilah’s home, Eden finds a distraught Jade who reports that her sister ran away after Eddie tried to sexually assault another girl. Delilah’s escape sets off a series of events that leads her into the grips of an older man with ill intentions.
The problem with Abolitionista! lies in its fervor to force its characters into increasingly terrible situations. In its drive to scare its readers straight, Estler allows ridiculous plot holes and logical fallacies to hurt the message he wants to impart. For example, when Jade breaks down the details of Eddie’s assault, she explains the situation in a level of detail that no one could offer were they not in the room. Where was Jade when Delilah ran out of the house? Why didn’t Jade call the police after her sister ran off? Eden and Jade search for Delilah using a rose that was found on her bed—how did it get there? Later on in the story, Jade falls into an inexplicable depression and gradually becomes addicted to sleeping pills, though not because of her sister’s disappearance, but because her history project reveals her ancestor was an African slave prostituted by her master. That’s a tragic reveal, for sure, but how could she have possibly discovered that information for herself? Many more questions arise like: were there records of such misdeeds printed in newspapers? Did plantation owners keep prostitution ledgers lying around for later generations to discover? What does that have to do with Delilah’s situation apart from giving them a name for their cause?
Another oddity occurs when Jade and Eden are approached by a woman who overheard them talking about Delilah posting uncharacteristic photos on “Insta-Slam.” The woman lays down the central message of the work: human trafficking is a major concern for women and that predators target victims from broken homes. This educational moment is interrupted by the very person this woman has identified as manipulating Delilah, and what does she do? She runs away—with Eden’s cellphone no less—leaving the girls to follow suit. Again, why not call the police? Yet another problem with the sequence is that the woman makes claims about human trafficking that do not appear to be sourced. I have no doubt that trafficking is dangerous to women, but moreso than war? I’m not refuting the statement, but such claims need to be referenced.
Abolitionista!’s artwork isn’t particularly effective in telling the story, though it’s manga style does lend itself to presenting the main characters with doe-eyed innocence. Strangely, there are scenes in which the race of certain characters switches across panels. I can’t tell if this was in error or a stylistic choice. Estler and Freedom Ladder are to be commended for presenting a cautionary tale for at-risk readers, but Abolitionista! comes off as a first draft. The good is often overshadowed by near Reefer Madness-level sensationalism that doesn’t take the reader’s intelligence into consideration.
by Thomas Estler
Art by Delilah Buckle, Lizbeth R. Jimenez
Abolitionista Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 14+