Tobias Whale: The Obvious and Subtle Origins of a Disturbed Villain
Tobias Whale (portrayed by Marvin Jones III) is the arch-nemesis of hero Black Lightning in a television show and comic-book series of the same name. Whale is the head of The 100 - a crime syndicate fueled by the persecution of the citizens of Freeland. A glimpse into Whale's backstory uncloaks some clear insight into his motives. Whale suffered emotional abuse inflicted upon him by his father. The disfigurement of a child's innocence by the goring of his father's words help to fuel the character's rise in the underworld.
A (Deficient) Case Study
To say that Tobias Whale’s is a menace of a peculiar type is an understatement. The villain brilliantly showcases an intriguing take on a person who's psyche is split off by a complex that can only exist under precise and peculiar societal dynamics: a world where a person's complexion is visual cue triggering certain attitudes and prejudices in strangers.
Some would argue that Whale's trauma is partly the byproduct of psychological defense mechanisms projected on to him by those in the community he identifies with. Consequently, Whale imposes his will on the community that formed his psychological pathology in a way that is both common and unique. Common because it is well documented that certain marginalized populations have an unproductive history of colorism and fighting among themselves. Whale is special because the pain that swells his rage was not directed at him from an outside source. He was simply white in a black world. Tragically, the resulting orientation Whale possesses towards his community is both reactive and to be expected. A conversation between Whale and a lower level member of his crew puts his attitudes on full display. After the man casually states that Whale really does hate black people, our villain responds “no, I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don't-itch Negroes like you.”
The social experience of Tobias Whale is not a unique narrative. Jones was tasked with delving into deep personal experiences to assist with a familiar villain-type who’s painstaking woes and pursuit of the will to power are forged by a tangible humanity. “ I [had] to tap into the realities of Tobias Whale -- the layers and complexity that make him who he is, and his reasoning behind them,” Jones tells TV Guide. “I still suffer from ignorance and bias.”
The villain wields a complex that highlights the diverging cultural void that pulls African American and other historically darker-shaded people with albinism into two opposite directions. On one hand, they experience common occurrences of being labeled and treated as a white person by those outside of their communities. On the other hand, to pass as white lead a person to be subjected to less instances of discrimination than those of their cultural background. As a result that person possesses less shared experiences between themselves and their social group. Subsequently, the parties are incapable of reflecting with a similar perspective. In the most radical scenarios people with albinism may be right out rejected by community members who may have their own explosive feelings about white people. All of the above lead to to a certain level of alienation from the self and the community.
"I have to tap into the realities of Tobias Whale — the layers and complexity that make him who he is, and his reasoning behind them...It's my duty to bring my humanity to him."
The Whiteness of the Whale
It would be overly idealistic to assume that creator Tony Isabella foreseen during the comic’s inception in 1977 the implications of his villain in terms of the present day. In fact, Isabella himself admits that the motivation behind Tobias was separate from the racially-charged themes featured throughout Black Lightning. "I wanted to do a really fearsome villain and killer whales — Moby Dick — popped into my head...so that’s where Tobias Whale came from. Basically, he was a human whale " By some improbable, subconscious impulse Isabella unintentionally alluded to one of the most war-weary themes of the Great American novel itself. In the chapter titled “The Whiteness of the Whale” Herman Melville goes through great lengths to describe the vilification (and fascination) of the whale’s color as perceived by Captain Ahab in the 42nd chapter of the book:
"What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted, what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid. Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the what that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught."
Melville's discourse continues...
"What is that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It is that whiteness which invests Him, a thing expressed by the name he bears, The Albino is as well made as other men - has no substantive deformity – and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so?"
Perhaps Tobias Whale’s reign on the members of his community may have been totally avoidable had he been nurtured in an environment that allowed him to live his truth and to freely aspire to be who or whatever he pleased. Perhaps Captain Ahab would have lived had he not be so spellbound by the whale and hellbent on being the one to tame the goliath. The beauty of it all is up for interpretation.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Pg 162. London: Constable & Co., 1922.