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The Ghost of Jacob Marley

Figura Obscura
by yo go re

You know, when we once brought up Jacob Marley in the context of a Four-Horsemen-made ghost, it wasn't meant to be a glimpse of things yet to come.

Why do the dead walk the Earth? For some, it is because they fear what comes next, and so they cling to the memory of their mortal existence. For others, they haunt the living because they have unfinished business among them. Still, there are some spirits who linger not by choice, but because they are cursed to do so. Such is the case of the spirit who, in life, was known as Jacob Marley.

There's a lot more on the back of the box, but we're not going to reproduce it all here. Instead, a question: have you ever found it weird, in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," that after promising "there'll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow" (all perfectly normal Giftsmastime activities), the lyrics immediately switch to "scary ghost stories"? Who's telling ghost stories after Halloween? Well, until the Puritans banned Christmas in the 1644, everybody was - that really did used to be a tradition, huddling around meager fires and trying to spook one another well past the end of October. Less daylight means less time to get work done and more free time, which needs to be filled with some form of entertainment. So no, the lyric is not specifically about A Christmas Carol.

Many depictions of Jacob Marley show him with a bandage tied around his head, and this figure does the same - it's a feature directly from the original story, used to hold his jaw shut. Remember, he is after all a dead man, and dead bodies will have their jaw droop open if not secured in place. These days it's done with basically a wire twist-tie through the maxilla and mandible, but in Victorian times, that really was accomplished by nothing more advanced than tying a handkerchief around the head. His eyes are blank, and the skin on his forehead has some pocks and holes in it, showing signs of decay. Very few signs, considering he'd been dead for seven years.

Despite the fact he was translucent enough that Scrooge could see straight through him, Marley still had to prove he was a ghost by undoing his bandage and letting his jaw drop down to his chest. How that convinces Scrooge when he was already blaming Marley's arrival on bad dreams caused by indigestion, I couldn't tell you. At any rate, this figure includes a second head, sans wrapper and thus with the jaw hanging inhumanly open, far lower than a living man's could. He still has the blank eyes and the rot on the forehead, though this time his eyebrows are raised in unease, rather than hanging directly over his eyes. Both heads have long, loose hair, though the story describes his hair as being pulled back into a small ponytail.

Figura Obscura releases share parts with Mythic Legions, but in Marley's case, that sharing is minimal: only the upper arms and legs are reused. (They were introduced in the Illythia series, though not on any of the figures we've reviewed from it.) The countdown to a pirate figure appearing in Mythic Legions begins now, because Jacob wears folded boots, a long coat with large buttons and folded cuffs, and a fancy shirt with a thick belt and a cravat. His hands are bare, with long nails, and all the clothes are rich with texture.

You may not get to see it often, though, thanks to the figure's accessories. Jacob Marley, quite famously, spends his afterlife draped in chains. Or "chain," technically: the story specifies only one, "clasped about his middle [...] and wound about him like a tail." It also wasn't made from normal chain links, but "cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses" linked one to another. Pop culture tends to interpret this as boxes, books, and keys hanging from chains, and the Four Horsemen have followed suit. The chains are all real metal, with the various items permanently attached to them. And themselves permanently attached to a harness of leather straps, large metal rings, and padlocks. That's made from PVC, and fits right around Jacob's torso.

So, what's attached to those chains? Well, two of them have books: a thin blue one, and a larger brown one held shut with a leather belt and a buckle; those chains run up through the loops on the shoulders, and connect at the top of the spine. Three of the other chains attached to his back lead to various styles of lockbox, all of which have removable lids. All these chains have keys attached somewhere along the length. Similarly, each of the rings on the shoulder has a second chain with a key at the end and a padlock dangling in the center; a chain hanging from the waist has a chain at each end and a third (plus one more padlock) in the center.

Finally, a longer and much larger chain than the others is attached to the base of his spine. That one has two keys on it, and when we get to the end, what do we find? A sizeable safe sitting on sculpted wheels. It's grey with gold trim accents, and features a silver dial and handle on the front. You can even open the door, because the hinges are real. And what's inside? One more secret accessory!

There's no mention of this piece in any of the solicitations, and it's not in any of the promotional photos. So what is it? Another alternate head. This one is fully encased in a metal helmet, shaped like a skull with thick bands over the top. Another chain dangles from its chin, with a padlock at the end. It's a nice piece, and serves as a reminder that The Man in the Iron Mask is in the public domain, too - pretend this is a hint at the future!

If there's one thing we know about ghosts, be they Jedi or jaguar, it's that they're blue and see-through. Jacob himself is various shades of blue, with white for his eyes and jaw-sling, and dark red for the too-wide open mouth. His harness is brown with silver studs and brass rings, and dirty dark locks. The coat and boots are molded from translucent plastic, with paint fading in as you move up. The ankles are a little loose, shifting with just a minimum of pressure; maybe that means we don't have to worry about the clear plastic getting brittle and breaking in the future? The figure includes four sets of hands: two for holding, one clawing/gripping, and one gesturing.

There are two more accessories that are very nice from a story standpoint, but not so much as a toy. When writing a horror story, you can't just start with things going wild right away - you have to start slowly and build. For Dickens, that meant an entire day's business at Scrooge's lending house, then a walk home. The first clue anything was going to be weird was when Scrooge saw his deceased business partner's face in place of the door knocker at his home. This set includes two: one with the jaw closed, one with it hanging open. Neither with the glasses pushed up to his forehead that the story describes. They're nice, and even include notches on the back so they could be hung up... but there's nothing to hang them from. We need a door. So A+ idea, C- execution. The set includes a baggie with a dozen loose keys, though there's no way to attach those to the figure. Into the safe they go!

This is the sixth Figura Obscura release (not counting paint variations), so by now fans know what to expect from the packaging: detailed art by Nate Baersch on both the actual window box and the thick cardboard "book cover" that snaps in place with magnets. On this one, the outer bit features the door knocker on the front, and Scrooge cowering in his bed chamber on the inside. The box proper has all the ghosts that were wandering the streets of London that night (did you think Marley was the only one?) around its sides, and the insert behind the figure is the sign above the door of the partners' business - though it gets too cute in saying the business was established in 1843. That's when the story was published, and we know the business existed at least seven years prior to the start of the story (and certainly many years before that). It's like when the plot of the 100th episode of 30 Rock was also about the 100th episode of the fictional TGS, despite the fact the pilot episode of 30 Rock was about how TGS had already been running for so long that it was getting stale and needed to be reimagined.

Like Red Death, this set includes a copy of the text that inspired it. Or at least the first chapter. Sorry, the first "stave" - Dickens wanted readers to think of A Christmas Carol like a literal Christmas carol, a song, so the tale is divided not into chapters but into staves, a period British term for the stanza of a poem or verse of a song. Unfortunately, also like Red Death, the layout on this booklet is nothing special. Even leaving aside the fact that white text on a black background is bad design, period, we again just get big blocks of text next to Nate's art. Up your game!

It may be the case the Horsemen are tipping their hand at what the next few years of year-end Figura Obscrura releases are going to be: after all, Marley is just the start of the story, and the other Ghosts are just as iconic. Thinking in Mythic Legions terms, Christmas Past could be one of the female/elf bodies, Christmas Present would be an "Ogre-scale" figure with young and old heads, and I'm sure the Horsemen could come up with something more interesting for Christmas Future than just being a rehash of Red Death. As for Scrooge? Well, if they could justify making a pirate coat for Jacob Marley, they could certainly come up with a nightgown for an old man. This is the longest it's taken for a Figura Obscura release to sell out, which is a shame, because the toy itself is awesome.

-- 12/24/23

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