A FUNNY THING happened to comic books on their way to the 1990s: They became respectable.
In this decade, it's a rarity to see anyone under the age of 30 read printed material -- other than the instructions to the VCR or the millimeter-tall type in CD liner notes. So when a 10-year-old chooses to spend 20 minutes reading a Spiderman comic instead of playing Nintendo, parents consider it a literary triumph.
Bigger publishers are getting in on the act. Little, Brown and Company has a new imprint, Sports Illustrated for Kids, that includes ''Buzz Beamer's Out of This World Series'' ($3.95, ages 8-12). Created by Bill Hinds, Buzz Beamer stars in a strip featured in the monthly Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine.
Buzz's egotistical blunders work well in the book format. In this story, he's the player-manager of a sandlot baseball team that is challenged to a game at Wrigley Field by a team of aliens from Planet Bonko, led by their player-manager, Yuz Yonder.
It's fast-paced, with plenty of jokes, and the sweet moral of the story is easier to take because Mr. Hinds tosses in one great punch line at the end.
Another sign of the comic book's new esteem can be seen on the revolving rack at your local Waldenbooks. ''Graphic Novels'' it says, and underneath you can find two dozen or so different titles in the new -- and vastly improved -- Classics Illustrated line.
It's hard to find a baby boomer who didn't fudge at least one eighth-grade book report by reading the old Classics Illustrated version of, say, ''The Call of the Wild,'' rather than the real thing. From there, it was an easy progression to Cliff Notes for a generation of college students.
By the same token, it's hard to find a baby boomer who doesn't remember spending a portion of his or her allowance on comic books. Of course, that was way back when. Mowing the lawn, taking out
the garbage and washing the dishes was worth $1 a week. After splurging on a Baby Ruth and a pack of Juicy Fruit for 5 cents each, a kid had plenty left to spend on a Classics Illustrated, a Captain America and maybe even a Little Lulu or Sad Sack -- all at 15 to 25 cents each.
Today's Classics Illustrated feature heavy card stock covers (no staples!) and high-quality glossy paper. The first 27 titles in the series are each about 40 pages and cost $3.75, a bargain when you see new copies of Casper and Richie Rich on that old familiar newsprint for $1.25 each.
''Dollar for dollar, they're still basically cheap entertainment,'' said Mike McCormick, art director for First Publishing. The Chicago company acquired the rights to the name Classics Illustrated about four years ago and began publishing the new versions.
The series' 27 titles include ''Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,'' ''The Count of Monte Cristo,'' ''Moby Dick,'' ''The Scarlet Letter,'' ''The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,'' ''Through the Looking-Glass,'' and ''Hamlet.'' Most are written for ages 12 and up, though more are planned, including stories like ''The Pied Piper,'' for a younger audience.
The new Classics Illustrated bear little resemblance to the old series, though many of the titles are the same. The illustrations are superb and many are strikingly original, as in ''Moby Dick'' and ''Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.''
''One of the criticisms the original series got was that the art was too homogenized, that the stories all looked alike,'' Mr. McCormick said. ''With the glossy paper we're using now, we can reproduce paintings . . . it loosens up the restrictions on artists.''
The adaptations include an introductory note about the author that puts the story in historical context. Condensing the novels is never easy, but ''we try to use the exact dialogue whenever possible,'' McCormick said. ''We try not to 'dumb them down.' ''
The result has been greeted with glee by teachers. ''When the originals were first out 30 to 40 years ago, the reaction among teachers was, 'Get those things out of here!' '' Mr. McCormick said. ''Now, the reaction has been very positive. The feeling is, 'At least they're reading something.' That's one of the key reasons our publisher, Rick Obadeah, wanted to revive the Classics.
''You talk about kids using the old Classics Illustrated to do book reports,'' he said. ''Today, they go out and rent the movie and then write about it. The attitude of educators toward comic books like ours has done a 180. They're saying if we can get kids to read anything, that's great.''
The Waldenbooks chain stores carry most of the Classics Illustrated. Comic book specialty stores are another source -- and they stock vintage editions of the originals, for a real blast from the past.