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From the beginning, Americans have generally assumed that comics were for kids. Sure, there were Sunday strips like "Gasoline Alley" and "Maggie and Jigs" that had loyal adult followings. But for the most part, comic books were a kiddie industry, with the Disney characters at one end, superheroes like Superman and Batman at the other, and peer images such as Dennis the Menace and Archie in between.

The superhero genre came in for special criticism. Most had trite plots, With page after page of violence, parents hated them. So did Dr. Fred Wertham, a pop psychiatrist whose book "Seduction of the Innocent" claimed that comic books produced juvenile delinquency and other social horrors.Succumbing to pressure in the mid-'50s, publishers imposed upon themselves the comics code: There was to be no violence, and no parent, teacher, or politician could be shown disrespectfully. That self-censorship in turn caused a reaction in the form of "underground comics" of the '60s, created by a new class of small independent publishers.

Now, in the tradition of these "independents," a new genre of comics is coming to the fore in the US: graphic novels.

These lavishly illustrated, magazine- or book-length publications have been enormously popular in Europe and Japan for two decades. But graphic novels are only just beginning to attract the attention of mainstream American publishers.

It was Batman and Robin who paved the way for the graphic novel in this country, in Frank Miller's "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" (Warner Books, $12.95) - a haunting remake of the popular comic series.

The new Batman explodes out of the slick paper, in shocking and violent dark blues, grays, and blacks. He takes on a different persona. He's still a vigilante fighting against evil, but he has grown into middle age; he's cynical and has human problems.

The dynamic duo echoes the message of most of today's graphic novels: It's a hostile world, and around the bend lurks the bizarre.

Of all the formats in which comics appear - newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines of various sizes - the graphic novel is taken the most seriously. The ones that are sophisticated, artistically and thematically, attract adults. (Some of the novels, in fact, depict violent and sexual material that is not suitable for children.)

Adult consumers are reading the entire range of graphic novels: superhero, adventure, science fiction, satire, historical drama, fantasy. "At a book signing for (graphic novelist) Alan Moore," says Craig Herman, publicity manager of Warner Books, "there were mostly men from 18 to 28."

While the genre is making slow inroads in American culture, Japanese readers purchased more than 1.5 billion graphic novels in 1986, and the genre has a long history in Europe. In 1929 Georges Remi, writing under the pen name of Herge, started writing the adventure series "Tintin" for the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtiene Siecle. The following year there was a Tintin graphic novel. The real boom in European graphic novels began with "Asterix," which appeared in France in 1965.

"Asterix," a series of 20 titles that satirizes contemporary European society, has sold 100 million copies since it began. The French take graphic novels seriously and generously celebrate their artists' achievements.

The award Prix Alfred, presented at Angouleme, France, is the culmination of a comics festival that lasts three to four days and attracts upwards of 250,000 people, including the minister of culture. The French give the festival the kind of powered attention US news media give to the Oscars.

Graphic novels have won a niche in Publishers Weekly, which earlier this year introduced a review category for them. And bookstores are testing the waters: The 35 Barnes & Noble and 750 B. Dalton bookstores began selling Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" series in November 1986; last November, the 1,200 Waldenbooks stores began installing pocket racks for comic books and graphic novels.

Daryl Coats, assistant professor of English at Northwest Community College in Powell, Wyo., teaches the post-modern "Watchmen," by Alan Moore (Warner Books, $14.95), in his "Science Fiction Literature" course. In "Watchmen" Moore interweaves several story motifs through the panels, which are vividly illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

"This is not the same thing I read as a kid," he says. "`Watchmen' is a novel told with the aid of pictures. Is it literature? Yes, I would go that far."

"The line between comics and art has been obscure for a long time," says Paul Richard, the art critic for the Washington Post.

Says graphic novelist Frank Miller: "I hope people's perceptions will change before long. It's a beautiful form to work in - as versatile as any other."