World of Straw (guest opinion by David Herbert)




From Penny Arcade

(Guest writer David Herbert strikes again… this time commenting on strawman arguments.)

Any creator who ever puts politics in their comic will inevitably make a straw man argument. It’s a fact of political cartoons and unless you spend pages upon pages ensuring that your opposing has a strong argument, you will eventually pull one out.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes and no, depending on how you pull it off.

Yes in the way that it can cause you to come off as one-sided and bigoted to anyone holding the opposing view. But no in that when you explain your stance well enough, you get the point across quick and easy. The trouble with pulling out a straw man is that you need to be careful with the way you present your argument or it can cause backlash and damage what credibility you have.

Now first, let’s explore the differences between the straw man and the devil’s advocate.

A straw man is built to lose quickly and, in some cases, painfully to the hero of the story. They are usually not meant to be sympathetic and any strength that their argument has is entirely unintentional on the author’s part. Their only reason for participating in the discussion of this particular issue, whatever it may be, is to lose to the person who holds the author’s views and in some cases will not even be allowed to make a counter argument.

The Devil’s Advocate, however, does have a strong argument, but still loses to a stronger one. The term comes from the Catholic practice of preparing a person for sainthood. The party advocating sainthood must collect evidence about the candidate’s life to prove that they are worthy of the title. The devil’s advocate is a check on the system, whose job is to gather evidence that they are not worthy. This is not about keeping people from becoming saints, but to motivate the pro side into making the strongest argument they can.


One of the best examples for this I can think of is the Justice League episode A Better World Part Two. In it, an alternate Justice League, called the Justice Lords, have taken over the earth and imposed a tyrannical rule in the name of public safety. At one point, the League Batman and Lord Batman debate dictatorships against democracy while fighting until the Lord Batman points out with their rule, Thomas and Martha Wayne never would have died. League Batman concedes and the two drive around Gotham until they come across a man being punished for trying to get a free lunch. League Batman asks the Lord one if their parents would have enjoyed this place or not, throwing the argument back in his face and forcing Lord Batman to accept defeat.

However, as I said, there usually isn’t enough time to pump up both sides, especially if the author only wants this to be a one off as most don’t want their comics to become entirely based around politics. So, you have to figure a way to get the point across without coming off as one-sided or ignorant. One way is to base the straw character on real arguments made so that you’re responding to comments made by the opposing side. Another is to cite a real incident rather than a general spectrum of politics.

What you want to avoid, however, is making comics in which you come off as overly opinionated or ignorant of the other side. This can happen by having you character talking over the other side to prevent them from getting a counter out or not even making an opposing argument, just mocking them.

Now you may be wondering, do I have any more examples of good argument presentation besides a cartoon about Batman fighting Batman? Well you’re right, this is a website about webcomics and so I will use them for examples as to what I’m talking about.

1.       Opponent is permitted to express their views.

Done right – Order of the Stick

Done wrong – Better Days

Image two-1

So in Order of the Stick we have a man who is so obviously a villain that a couple of pages later he easily admits it and is looking forward to his son, the hero, beating him. But here he points out that his ‘kill one, save a hundred’ approach could potentially have longer lasting results. You can point out this technically isn’t an intended political argument but it is a good example. We understand the logic, though we may not agree with the ethics.

Better Days on the other hand has the mother talk over a teacher who is understandably concerned at the amount of racism and ableist language in her student’s work and yet told to shut up. You can point out the teacher did cross a line by calling the woman a slut, but it was irrelevant to the argument and so clearly only used to end the scene with the mother on top.


2.       Citing a real argument

Done right – Shortpacked!

Done Wrong – Least I Could Do

Image three-1

The first example is based on Tony Harris and his blog about how most women who attend conventions are only there for the attention, which many women, some of who were fans of Harris, were offended by. And there were some people who were quick to defend the notion. So Willis illustrates this by showing ‘Barass’ attacking one of the most unapologetic nerds in the cast to illustrate the fallacies of this ideal.

Least I Could Do on the other hand creates an argument altogether. The real reason newspapers, and most print publishers in general, were initially reluctant to switch to digital distribution is the cut in profits and the ease of piracy. However, according to Ryan Sohmer, it’s because they’re all lazy luddites who see technology as witchcraft.


3.       Presenting the other side as an equal.

Done right – Darths and Droids

Done Wrong – Sinfest

Image Four-1

So one of the goals of Darths and Droids was to have R2-D2’s player, Pete, be there to portray some of the worst traits of some table top gamers. But despite this, he’s always portrayed as a friend the people enjoy playing with and an asset to the party who will do his best to see they all achieve victory, thus keeping him from the dreaded status of ‘The Scrappy.’

Now before I get into Sinfest, let me point out I do think it’s a good thing that Tat is campaigning for women’s rights. However his way of doing it is not that laudable, especially in this case in which he dismisses his own fans as misogynistic trolls just because they prefer the smiling ‘Nique to the current one who seems depressed thanks to her new outlook on life. It’s also incredibly insulting to those fans who don’t hate her new views since it’s not all that different from her anarchist preaching from before, they just want to see her smiling and enjoying life again.

So as you can see, creating a straw man argument does not always have to be a bad thing. That’s why most of the good examples I listed here aren’t listed as Straw Man arguments over at TV Tropes. It’s why Andrew Dobson gets crap for attacking readers giving feedback and yet Randy Milholland doesn’t have gain a horde of anonymous trolls ready to tear him down when he comments on reader entitlement.

Like any part of writing, it’s all about the way you frame everything.



Posted on March 13, 2013, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. If an argument is well presented and isn’t easily solvable, then it isn’t a strawman argument then, isn’t it?

  2. The Sinfest thing reminds me of Gynostar. The author has built a comic around advocating women’s rights, which is perfectly good. But in especially the earlier pages she makes some seriously bad straw man arguments, belittling and ridiculing people who don’t share her political views.

    I think a straw man can ruin even a good message. Even the people who want you to win don’t want to see you do it by cheating. And a straw man doesn’t do much for the people you’re trying to convince, either… it often makes them defensive and they start constructing their own strawmen.

  3. Ah, Sinfest… so much could be said about it. Actually, it has been. Shameless plug ahead:

    I think Mr Herbert is misrepresenting the problem with Sinfest here. Some people will say that telling a woman to smile is pretty disrespectful in a “you’re worth nothing if you don’t look nice” way and I agree. The problem is not that Nique isn’t always smiling, because she wasn’t before anyway! The problem is that Ishida took a good character — actually, pretty much all of them — and twisted her to conform to his radical ideology, to the point where she denounces her old ways by… doing exactly what she did anyway, but now with more ANGST and FEMINISM!!!!1!!11!

    And then created a Mary Sue to defend his position and made the whole world into straw, with the Devil — former sympathetic villain — into the Big Villain, making the whole social dynamics of gender into a Manichean fight of good against evil. Because that’s exactly how feminism works, sure.

    And then denounced his own past by metaphorizing the whole deal as himself undoing a deal with the Devil. Because that’s the most mature thing you can do, of course.

    In the end, a strawman is not good by definition when you’re trying to actually make a point. It is a tool of ridicule and mockery, which is why it is a strawman — a poor imitation of a man. When you present both sides in logical fashion, that’s just sound debate.

    • Well, this argument wasn’t really about Sinfest, just one aspect (I actually had a really hard time narrowing down which section to put it under).

      I was actually considering doing an article on it but since Tat seems like he’s going on another break from his politics I don’t think now is the time. But when he comes back to it I might.

      I just think it’s a shame that Tat is such a good writer for normal Sinfest but then he throws it all out for political Sinfest.

      • Why yes, yes. It’s just that I have this beef with Sinfest and, hey, this is a comment section. It’s just the right place for arguing and shit.

        I just stopped reading Sinfest around the time the Patriarchy arc was having its anniversary. Actually, it was shortly after the “Pact with the Devil” strip came. So I have no idea anymore. =/

  4. I have used “strawman” in the past to refer to an argument the author of which doesn’t believe in and fully and clearly intends to be a reductio ad absurdum, as opposed to an accusation from outside that the opposition isn’t being represented fairly. Example:

  5. I totally disagree re Sinfest. The characters changed. That’s what people do. They still have a lot of conflict going on, they don’t seem like strawmen to me for feminism. In the old sinfest, Monique was kind of NOT a character. Her running gag was that she had a butt so great she could make guys fall in love with her just by posing. So many of the new characters are so much more complex. Lil’ E has gone from being a straight up devil kid to a very sympathetic boy who doesn’t know who he is and is trying to figure it out. Slick has started to realize that his old ‘i’m a pimp’ shtick isn’t actually that funny, and he clearly has a lot of internal conflict about the new way that Monique is acting (as evidenced by his evil self).

    I don’t think Monique has become a sadder character. She’s just realized things about society that she’s fighting to change. So she’s more serious, so what? It seems kind of shitty that people miss the “old happy nique”, when she was only happy because she was ignorant. I loved the storyline where she began to see the “matrix”. I thought it was a really sweet way to introduce a lot of changes to the characters that he had established.

    And I mean, even the Devil, who has definitely become the bad guy, is still an interesting guy to watch. Before all he did was to advertise porn and gluttony and things that are generally seen as “evil”, now he’s become part of a much more insidious and complicated type of evil that isn’t reduced to ‘haha do drugs, buy porn! i’m evil!’.

    I don’t agree with Ishida about everything (like how he condemns watching porn), but I like to listen to a lot of what he has to say.

    • The problem is that the comic is ridiculously soapboxy. What started as a gag comic has become a venting point for the author’s political beliefs. This is the core issue readers are concerned about. Focusing on the comments on one character is really gathering forensic evidence while the robbery is still taking place, so to speak. The character is angry because the author is angry. The character never smiles because the comic has ceased being about humour. People come for laughs, but they receive outrage. This leads to mixed feelings among longtime readers, which leads them to word things in such a way.

  6. The single greatest thing about Sinfest was at least to me that it affectionately poked fun at everything that came up, without exception. Every character that appeared eventually got the pointy end of the stick. Now I don’t know what happened to Ishida, but I feel both the artist and his comic have changed in recent times, and I don’t feel like I owe it to him to keep reading what I no longer enjoy anymore.

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