Back in 1941, a Russian immigrant named Albert Lewis Kanter had (literally) a novel idea for the fledgling medium of the American comic book -- he launched Classics Illustrated, a series that lived up to its name by converting "Ivanhoe," "Jane Eyre," "The Iliad" and scores of other bookshelf familiars into funny-book fodder.
It was a high-minded mission, really, but it had its share of creaky moments; let's face it, a 52-page comic book isn't the most obvious format for "Lord Jim."
The yearning to transfer established literature to the comic-book spinner rack continues. I'd love to see the expression on Kanter's face had he lived long enough to see a copy of the new graphic novel "Shutter Island," which adapts the 2003 Dennis Lehane thriller of the same name.
Profane, terrifying, trippy and unrelentingly grim, this adaptation by gifted French artist Christian de Metter would have scared the bejesus out of Kanter and just about anyone else from a generation that expected comic books to be more like Woody Woodpecker than "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
The graphic version of "Shutter Island" is religiously (and gruesomely) faithful to Lehane's novel and with good reason -- it would be hard to tamper with the circuitry of such a meticulously crafted mystery. The visual demands and page-count realities of the visual medium required tough choices, but de Metter has handled them deftly.
The plot of the original book was purposely confounding in certain dark corners and here those shadowy places are ambiguous in a different but still satisfying way. The climactic sequences of Lehane's book possessed a powerful click as they fell into place and, under de Metter's watch, the dread and revelation remain intact.
The story, set in 1954, presents a U.S. marshal and widower named Teddy Daniels who, with his new partner, is dispatched to an island with one dominant landmark: Ashecliffe Hospital, a fortress-like mental institution missing one of its mass murderers.
A hurricane hits and the entire island becomes a wind-lashed prison where the simple case of an escapee deepens into a surreal puzzle. Daniels, who arrived on Shutter Island with his own inner demons, soon wonders what is real and who can be trusted.
Like Darwyn Cooke's retro-crime masterpiece "The Hunter," the best graphic novel of 2009, "Shutter Island" finds that less is more when it comes to the color palette: Crime and punishment, it seems, are best presented in shades of iodine yellow and drowning-victim blue.
There are only a few slashes of bright colors in the 128-page "Shutter Island" graphic novel, and they are carefully placed to deepen the dream-time quality of Lehane's carefully constructed nightmare.
Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Paramount Pictures are bringing "Shutter Island" to the screen (finally) on Feb. 19, and a discerning consumer of culture might reasonably ask if it's worth investing his or her time in a novel, a graphic novel and a film version of the same tale.
The answer appears to be a resounding "yes."
One word of warning, however: The ending of "Shutter Island" is so jolting that any second-time encounter with the material (no matter the medium) will have a hard time matching the payoff of the first visit to the island.
Choose your nightmares carefully.