The Canons of Pain: The Count of Carillion goes off on a crusade to the Levant, "the holiest of holy lands", in the hopes of returning the arrow-pierced shroud of St. Rubrub to France. When he arrives, though, he finds nothing but the familiar puzzle box, which he thinks is ornate and without meaning. His holy crusade unfulfilled, he loses his faith in The Lord. His wife discovers the true power of the box and decides that if she unleashes Hell, her husband's faith will be restored.
Kind of a stupid plan.
The artwork is done in an archaic, classical painted style, and although it appears stiff, it works well for the era depicted and the type of story told. The Cenobite that appears (Grillard) is a grotesque distortion of flesh, quick to remind everyone that he is not Lucifer--but he is no lightweight demon, either.
Dead Man's Hand: This story takes place in the old West, where a stranger shows up in town to make a wager with a gambling cowboy--one hand of poker for the most valuable thing on Earth, presumably the strange box that he carries with him.
In the end, the cowboy wins and the stranger declares that he will indeed give the most valuable thing on earth...by taking the box with him when he leaves.
The illustrations are much more contemporary here, but the palette is one of yellows and faded colors, giving the illusion of age. It was an interesting story, but thankfully brief. There just isn't enough here to justify dragging it out any longer.
The Warm Red: A country bumpkin lives alone in a house, offering up the few unwanted visitors he receives as a sacrifice to a Cenobite named Face. His latest visitor, a land developer who wants to purchase his property to erect an amusement park, proposes to Face that she can offer up a lot more hapless souls than the bumpkin can.
The artwork is sketchy and severe in that distinct 90s style, and Face comes off like a second rate Leatherface with his mask of flesh. I never would have thought from this tale, but Face will quickly become my favorite of all the Cenobites. The story is suitably twisted, and if it was tweaked a bit and extended properly, could've made a good entry in the film franchise.
Dance of the Fetus: Easily the strangest of all the stories in this issue, it features a woman who has thought of killing herself exactly 210 times, which is apparently the magic number. A Cenobite named Mr. Soul arrives to assist her in her death, presumably because she doesn't have the willpower to do it herself, and then whisk her soul to hell. The Cenobite discovers that she is pregnant, though, and states that even he is not cruel enough to take the unborn child's soul. Instead, he plucks the fetus from the mother and it floats away into the night sky, becoming a shining star--most likely a symbol of its ascension into Heaven.
The illustrations have a real underground vibe to them, which fits the story rather well. The Cenobite here is a slippery brute with a face mask, an inverted cross on his forehead, and a thousand tiny sharp teeth. He looks almost like a Frank Miller version of Bane, if that character appeared in his comic series The Dark Knight Returns.
My impression after the first issue is that Marvel Comics really could have had something here if they put more effort into it. With the varying timelines, art choices, and limitless potential for stories, this could have become their answer to DC's Sandman series. The first issue was a bit uneven, but that's going to be the case with any anthology. Still, I enjoyed it and hope that it gets better from here.