Document Type


Publication Date


Journal / Book Title

The Popular Culture Studies Journal


Superhero comic book characters have historically engaged issues of social concern. From Superman’s opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in 1947 (Bowers, 2011) to Captain America’s acceptance of a gay soldier in 1982 (Witt, Sherry, & Marcus, 1995) to Batman’s stance against landmines in 1996 (O’Neil, 1996), stories involving superheroes have frequently demonstrated a developed social awareness on national and international problems. Given that the audience for superhero characters is often composed of young people, this engagement has served as a vehicle for raising understanding of issues and as tool for encouraging activism on the part of readers (McAllister, 1992; Thibeault, 2011).

For more than a decade, superhero comic books have explored the issue of human trafficking as a story element and as an opportunity to raise awareness. Thousands of men, women and children become victims of human trafficking annually, either in their home countries or abroad. The crime of human trafficking involves the “recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them” (“What is Human Trafficking?,” 2004). Article 3 of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (“United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime And The Protocols Thereto,” 2004) further outlines that exploitation shall include “at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. Many people associate human trafficking solely with sexual exploitation, which does constitute a main concern for many countries around the globe (Blackburn, Taylor, & Davis, 2010; Blackburn et al., 2010; Breuil, Siegel, van Reenen, Beijer, & Roos, 2011; Okojie, 2009; Rand, 2009; Subedi, 2009). However, as the UN Protocol outlines, many forms of exploitation can occur aside from that, including labor exploitation (Richards, 2004), bonded labor or servitude (Androff, 2007; Sigmon, 2008), child trafficking for adoptions (Leifsen, 2008), trafficking of organs (Meyer, 2006), exploitation of children as child soldiers (Becker, 2005) or any other form of organized exploitation for economic gain.

Utilizing comic-focused databases, this research investigated comic books where “human trafficking” was listed in the description of specific stories and issues. As this is an investigation of the treatment of human trafficking in titles targeted towards a mass audience, the search was limited to the superhero comics of Marvel and DC. In some instances, human trafficking was considered only a peripheral plot point and was not included in the analysis. As such, this is not intended to be an exhaustive categorization of all treatments of human trafficking in the comic book medium, but, rather, an investigation of several instances where mainstream, superhero titles directly engaged the topic. With this in mind, the following issues and story arcs were considered: Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia (Rucka, Jones, & Von Grawbadger, 2003), Punisher MAX: The Slavers (Ennis & Fernandez, 2006), Wolverine: The Brotherhood and Wolverine: Coyote Crossing (Rucka & Fernandez, 2004; Rucka & Robertson, 2004), Ghost Rider #5 (Williams, Clark, & Arturo, 2011), Batman: Ultimate Evil (Vachss, 1995), and Unknown Soldier: Haunted House (Dysart & Ponticelli, 2009). For each of these examples, this project seeks to identify how the topic of human trafficking is treated. Initial analysis focuses on defining the type of exploitation that is presented. From this, the treatment and presentation of the recruitment, transportation, and exploitation phases of human trafficking are then evaluated. The implications and potential of utilizing superhero stories as a vehicle for education and advocacy are also considered. Finally, the cumulative impressions of human trafficking in superhero comics are contrasted with how the issue is explored in Borderland (Archer, 2011), an educational comic created by the International Organization for Migration to inform at-risk populations about the dangers of human trafficking.

Published Citation

Benton, Bond, and Daniela Peterka-Benton. "When the Abyss Looks Back: Treatments of human trafficking in superhero comic books." (2012).