Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.
The term of the day is: Foil!
A foil is a character that is created to serve as a contrast, most often to the protagonist, having at least one distinct characteristic that serves to create comparison. Some other terms in the ballpark are analog(ue) (comparably similar, but not within the same work) or antithesis (opposite in design). Foils are typically characters within the same story, and often are placed to be reflective tools for the protagonist, either senses of past, possible or future. We’re also not talking about actual future versions, such as Maestro to Hulk, or Future Titans to Teen Titans, nor parallel versions such as Crime Syndicate to Justice League to Justice Lords.
Kishimoto probably did one of the most spot on images to represent this idea. After a lengthy battle between Naruto and Gaara, there is a moment where the two are exhausted and talking (this is a motif within Naruto). The image in itself shows they are reflections of each other, which is an open recognition of Gaara as a foil to Naruto. Naruto and,Gaara share a very similar point of origin, and place within their villages. Their attitudes are the main point of contrast, as Gaara fiercely embraces and succumbs to the beast within, while Naruto struggles to establish a connection with his village, despite the fox in his box.
Many villains are often talked about as foils to our heroes and vice versa. The DC documentary/propaganda Necessary Evil discusses that many of the “rogues gallery” for the heroes are meant to be comparative in some way to the heroes. Some villains are definitely made to be foils Zoom (either) to Flash, Green Goblin/Venom/Dr.Octopus to Spider-Man, Zod to Superman, etc. Part of the benefit of putting an evil face on a familiar body is that a reader can immediately understand the values of the hero. It is to point out their strength, resolve, or morality in the face of other choices. Foils act much like a Frost poem; pondering at a fork in the road, knowing one path will lead inexorably to heroism or villainy.
Foils can also be sidekicks or partners. Robin is often used as a strong contrast to Batman. In Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, there is a moment when Robin is first introduced and Superman takes note of the affect Robin’s presence has on him, not just in demeanor, but look. Robin is filled with youthful energy, drawn with a sense of constant motion, in comparison to Superman and Batman, who stand and converse. This is a good way to create the very staunch contrast between the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder. While not created with the intent as a foil, sidekicks are often solid material to draw contrasts, as they tend to be very close in origin or ideology and help us discuss the nature of a character better.
Hope this helps you see this literary term a bit better. Foil your lesson plans!