In all great works of literature, the hero must have a foil; that special character designed to enhance the inherent heroic qualities of the protagonist. Oftentimes, the foil is cut from similar cloth to show the possible path the hero could have traveled down had he or she been so unfortunate. Superman and Lex Luthor, Hamlet and Laertes, Spy and Spy – the list goes on and on and on. While Batman and the Joker are certainly the most classic pair of foils in the history of comics, there is nearly a mandated prerequisite of being a reflection of the Dark Knight in some way in order to be part of his rogue’s gallery.
So, it should come as some surprise that despite Batman’s long legacy of memorable villains that it would take nearly 60 years to firmly establish powerful and meaningful foils for his first partner, Dick Grayson.
There is a certain logic to creating a truly great foil and the basis of this logic is in the connection. The following are just a few simple ways for foils to connect with one another.
Personality/Methodology – the characters are similar in the way they act, but are different in ways beyond that. Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty are both brilliant minds, but they use their talents for very different goals.
Appearance – a similar appearance can often times be strong enough to create a strong foil. The Green Lantern Corps and the Sinestro Corps have similar aesthetic designs, but they are enemies.
Mission/Goal – both characters have similar goals, but different ways of going about them. The Punisher wants to stop crime, but he will kill while Spider-man refuses to take a life.
Of course, the exception to these would be that the characters in question have nothing in common which, in turn, makes them perfect foils for one another. Batman and the Joker are nothing alike, yet they are perfectly alike. Batman is dark and brooding, yet heroic; the Joker is colorful and mirthful, yet he is a killer. They are foils for one another, but they have nothing in common.
Previous to Dick Grayson’s tenure as Batman, the only note-worthy foil for Dick Grayson was Deathstroke the Terminator. The most common enemy for the Teen Titans, Deathstroke’s relationship is more complex than simply being a villain. At times, he saw himself as a kind of mentor to them – teaching them even as he tested them with his insane plans. However, the Grayson/Deathstroke pairing only has significance when the added element of Batman is thrown in. Both Batman and Deathstroke are the pinnacle of human achievement and are prepared for any eventuality, so the two are very comparable to one another. Batman trained Grayson as partners, while Deathstroke “trained” him in their various confrontations. Without Batman, Deathstroke would be just another villain to Dick Grayson – a great villain, but one without major significance nonetheless.
Other attempts at creating a foil for Dick Grayson were far less successful. The most laughable of which is Deathwing – who was supposedly a time traveling Dick Grayson from the future. While the ridiculous mirror name of Deathwing to Grayson’s Nightwing is at least within the parameters of foil logic, the idea that he could be a time-traveling Dick Grayson, but later learns that he really isn’t, is just absurd.
During the Nightwing ongoing series, the villain Blockbuster was one of the recurring antagonists, but he was little more than a crime boss and could hardly be considered a mirror of Dick Grayson. He’s a perfect example of how Dick Grayson has had good villains in the past, but none that are truly worthy of being Grayson’s equal – until Batman and Robin.
Batman and Robin
The Circus of Strange
In Grant Morrison’s notes for the first collection of Batman and Robin, the writer mentions in regards to the Circus of Strange, “With Dick Grayson’s origins as a circus aerialist, it felt right to pit him against a group of circus themed villains in his first adventure as Batman.” Individually, the Circus of Strange don’t reveal new layers of depth to Dick Grayson’s character, but when they are taken together, they present a challenge to him as the new Batman – one that shatters Grayson’s self-confidence as Batman.
“Nobody believes I’m Batman! I spent years building up respect as Nightwing and now they’re looking at me like I’m one more psycho Batman impersonator” Dick explains to Alfred after Mr. Toad had been murdered while under police custody during the battle with the Circus of the Strange. Not only did Grayson have to put up with Damian’s insubordination (something Bruce wouldn’t have had to endure), but Mr. Toad’s lack of cooperation after being captured (interrogation scenes with Bruce almost never ended without the villain giving up some vital clue) combined with having to endure criticisms from police officers regarding his height and voice, all worked in concert to bring Grayson to the point of giving up.
Ever the positive force in life, Alfred suggests, “Try to think of your Batman not as a memorial – you and I know he’d hate that – but as a performance. Think of Batman as a great role, like a Hamlet, or Willie Loman … or even James Bond. And play it to suit your strengths.” With this line, Alfred brings Dick back from the brink of self-destruction to help himself within the role of Batman – which is where the Circus of Strange as a whole becomes a foil for Dick Grayson.
While a toad man, conjoined triplets, a man on fire, and a fat man in a pink tutu don’t reflect Grayson’s personality individually, together they are a troupe of performers who play a role in crime. Grayson mirrors this by thinking of Batman as a performance. Taken together, the Circus of Strange is merely acting out the part of villains and he is acting out the part of the hero. If the actors could step aside and look at the absurdity of their situation, then they would see that none of it is necessary. They are actors in a play.
Furthering the motif of performance is the leader of the Circus of Strange, Professor Pyg. With his entourage of Dollotrons, Pyg plans on infecting all of Gotham City with an addictive identity destroying drug. During the scene where Pyg attempts to transform Damian into one of his Dollotron’s, he won’t begin until Damian is awake because Pyg must have an audience in order to work. And of course, before he can begin the operation, he has to turn on music and dance around like a mad man. To conclude his statement on performance, Pyg mutters “I want to be sick in front of everyone” just before Damian breaks loose.
The connection between Grayson and Pyg doesn’t end with the performances either. While Bruce has been away, Dick has taken Damian under his wing in order to teach him how to be a hero. He uses his experience and kindness in hopes of being able to break through Damian’s past. Meanwhile, Pyg uses his Dollotron method of transformation to create mindless drones to serve him. Both Pyg and Grayson are trying to transform others to agree with their particular ideologies.
While Professor Pyg may not be the physically impending menace like other Bat-villains, he presents a very important foil for Dick Grayson because the entire arc is based around identity. Dick Grayson is unsure of himself under the identity of Batman. Grayson has to shape and change Damian’s identity. Professor Pyg is wrapped up in his own identity and transforming others into his perfect Dollotrons. Identity is so important that Pyg’s virus explicitly destroys identity. The very threat itself is the destruction of identity, but not only this, but the destruction is so powerful that it is addictive.
The idea of destroying one’s own identity as being addictive is so powerfully disturbing and cosmic that it could only have come from Grant Morrison and it could only properly be told in a Batman comic where identity is everything. For years fans of debated whether Bruce Wayne’s true self is either the billionaire playboy or Batman. Dick Grayson has not only struggled with being Batman, but he also struggled as Robin in Batman’s shadow, and as Nightwing in forming his own identity (note: an identity that actually came from Superman).
Speaking of identity, the conclusion of the arc features Pyg’s failure at completing the transformation of Sasha into his latest Dollotron. As she performs a mercy killing on her transformed father, Sasha has ended her old life and becomes transformed into the sidekick for Dick Grayson’s next foil, the Red Hood.