[Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted after the premiere of Black Lightning, and since we’ve only learned a little more about Tobias since then, we’re bringing back our explainer]
There was a lot happening in the Black Lightning premiere episode, but one person who certainly stood out was the mysterious Tobias Whale. Even in his short sequence of scenes, it was clear that he’s no one to mess with. But there’s more happening there than with a typical gangster villain. Whale is an albino African American, and he flanks himself with two white henchmen. Race is an important part of Black Lightning’s story, but Tobias’ looks didn’t originate with the TV show.
The character was always an albino African American crime lord, first appearing in Black Lightning #1 (1977), and created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden. Like Black Lightning himself, Tobias Whale doesn’t have a huge comic presence, so the TV series can pretty much take the character in whatever direction they choose. Still, there are plenty of comic parallels so far. In the most basic terms, he leads the criminal organization The 100, and is a mortal enemy of Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams).
On the set of Black Lightning here in Atlanta, Marvin “Krondon” Jones III spoke to me about playing Tobias, who he is on the television series, and his motivations:
“Tobias started off as a politician / ruler of the underworld, and his corrupt dealings led him to no longer to be on the board of politics in the land of Freeland. So that of itself is a motivator, and motivates the master manipulator that I am on the show, as well as in the uniqueness of the outer appearance, which is so very unique. At the same time, it’s another motivator because of the way he was brought up — he was always the outsider amongst outsiders. So now the outside amongst outsiders is the man of power, he’s going to have an issue with those outsiders that made him feel that way.
That’s what you’re going to see, and we wanted to give a hint that he has a sense of self degradation going on, and that’s rooted in the fact that there’s a need that’s not being met, whether it be acceptance, love, fear, respect. Those things not being met, and whether those things happened in his childhood of adolescence or adulthood, he carries it all the way though. So I think that’s the part that makes the feeling human, because everyone relates to those different aspects. It’s been my job, and it’s been a wonderful job, to bring those things out, when the opportunity permits.”
In the comics, Tobias operates in Metropolis and eventually moves to Gotham City. He is inspired by, both physically and in the way he dresses, Wilson Fisk, Marvel’s Kingpin of Crime. While Tobias has been transposed to Freeland in the TV series, he is still teamed up with Syonide (Charlbi Dean Kriek) in this iteration as well. And while we haven’t seen much of a hint of how this might play out in the TV version, Tobias could also be working with Syonide to distribute a highly addictive drug to the people of Freeland — which will be another way he and Black Lightning are connected.
One of the changes from the comics, though, is how Tobias and Jefferson’s pasts intersect. “The relationship between Tobias and Jefferson runs deeper than what’s been revealed so far,” Jones said. “And it has everything to do with everything that makes Black Lightning Black Lightning. I won’t say much more than that!” We do know that Gambi encouraged Jefferson to take up the mantle of Black Lightning to take downTobias, but that job isn’t over yet. Further, while Tobias is a crime lord in the comics, he does not have powers — Jones confirmed that he will have powers in this series, and they will manifest in the first few episodes.