FOR 90 YEARS, the comic strip has been the most disparaged of American art forms. Like jazz, it started life in a disreputable milieu. For jazz, the milieu was the whorehouses of New Orleans; for comics, it was the yellow press of Jospeh Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. (Garry Trudeau's Pulitzer Prize for Doonesbury is therefore a satisfying full circle.)

To the eclectic taste, is was easy to find signs of art in the form from its beginnings: Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905), Lionel Feininger's Kin-Der-Kids (1906), George Herriman's Krazy Kat (1916). These were distinctive works of imagination with an idiom all their own. The comics form could hardly compete with, say, the novel for range or depth of expression, but what it could do, at its best, could be done by no other form. It seems a sufficient definition of "art." Even a critic so exigent as Edmund Wilson thought as much -- though he was careful never to say so outside of private correspondence.

It's foolish to pretend that the comics were meant to be more than a cheap, disposable, commercial entertainment for the semi-literate -- that's just what the overwhelming majority of them still are. But it's equally foolish to deny that this highly restrictive and demanding form has attracted artists of merit, who worked in it with a high level of craft and commitment.

Of course, any commercial form as it matures will become formulaic. A production- line mentality sets in. Signs of originality become fewer and farther between. E.C. Segar's Popeye, Hal Foster's Prince Valiant, Walt Kelly's Pogo are some exceptions, but the rule produced endless lookalike newspaper strips and superhero comic books.

The most recent change in comics -- potentially the greatest in the history of the industry -- has been the rise of specialty stores, which carry only comics-related material. Eight years ago there was a mere handful of such stores, selling mostly back issues; today there are over a thousand, and perhaps another thousand nonspecialty merchandisers use the same channels of distribution, whereby unsold comics cannot be returned to the publisher.

These stores have been the industry's salvation, because general sales have fallen drastically. Whereas DC's Superman used to sell nearly a million copies a month, today 150,000 makes a comic book a best seller. The newsstand and the mom-and-pop variety store are dying, and with them the young, casual reader. Half of all comics are now sold to the specialty market.

Profit margins are higher; some new comics in upscale formats cost five or ten dollars, while reprints of "classics" like Prince Valiant or the 1950s EC horror comics can cost over a hundred dollars. Obviously this is an audience of fans. Informal surveys show that the specialty audience is predominantly male, mostly teen-agers and young adults.

The comics companies have not yet figured out how to target this audience. Marvel Comics and DC Comics are respectively the IBM and Apple of the industry, accounting for 60 percent and 20 percent of the market; the remaining 20 percent is divided among a host of new independent companies, most of which are under 5 years old. The majority of the independents are run by fans, or artists who could not find mainstream outlets for their work -- that is, people with more than a commercial interest in the form.

Numerically, because of Marvel and DC's sheer size, the superhero is still king of the comic book; of their hundred or so titles, all but one or two are superhero books such as X-Men, Teen Titans or Spiderman; and many independents are simply imitating the formula. But there are more true "alternative" publishers than ever before. They are taking advantage of the fact that a small- scale black-and-white comic can now sustain itself by selling only a few thousand copies. This hasn't been possible since the 1960s underground comics faded. There is a growing distinction between commercial comics and "art" comics, akin to the difference between mass-market paperbacks and small- press books. I have chosen three of the most interesting of these new comics to give a sense of the resurgence of this classically American form.

RAW is a large-format magazine published twice a year by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. (Raw Books, 27 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.) The first issue of Raw appeared in 1980. Spiegelman teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the magazine has an aggressively New-Wave art- student-ish sensibility. He says, "We'd like to entertain a more literate audience than comics usually reach for." Each issue is an anthology of strips by various artists, ranging in length from a page to 20 pages, each quite different from the next. The work is uncompromised by any commercial considerations. As such, it takes some getting used to; one must extend to Raw the same liberality as one extends to any sort of avant-garde work.

Raw is by no means the only "avant- garde" comic, but it is probably the liveliest and most consistent of them, and it is certainly the best introduction to contemporary "experimental" comics. Raw also publishes "one-shots," that is, complete works by single artists; the most recent are Jerry Moriarty's Jack Survives and Gary Panter's Invasion of the Elvis Zombies.

Spiegelman's own strip Maus has been appearing in installments in Raw. It is a retelling of his parents' experiences in the Holocaust; the Jews are cast as mice, the Nazis as cats. The premise sounds outrageous, but the strip is a quiet triumph, moving and simple -- impossible to describe adequately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics.

American Splendor is self-published by Harvey Pekar (P.O. Box 18471, Cleveland Heights, Ohio 44118). Each issue contains a dozen or so autobiographical vignettes. Pekar writes the scripts, and hires various comics artists to illustrate them; Robert Crumb is probably the best known of Pekar's collaborators. All the stories are about blue- collar life in inner-city Cleveland, where Pekar lives and works.

Pekar says: "You can tell a story very concisely in comic books. A lot of the background is in the illustration, so you can say what you want more directly. Using panels you can time stories the way a good oral storyteller would. I thought it was a great medium that had hardly been used."

The stories in American Splendor have no climaxes -- not even the anti-or non-climaxes that have become de rigeur (in imitation of Joyce's Dubliners and Chekov before him) in contemporary fiction. I imagine Pekar couldn't write a passable prose "story" to save his life, but it doesn't matter; in his chosen form he is as good as Raymond Carver is in his.

Because he loses money on every issue of American Splendor, Pekar has published only nine since the first in 1976. Doubleday will publish a selection of the strips this winter.

LOVE AND ROCKETS is the work of Jaime, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez. The brothers self-published the first issue, but since 1982 it has come out bimonthly from Fantagraphics Books (707 Camino Manzanas, Thousand Oaks, Calif. 91360). Continuing strips are "Locas Tambien" and "Mechanix" by Jaime, and "Sopa de Gran Pena (Heartbreak Soup)" by Gilbert.

These strips play with reality as only comics can. "Locas" is set in a contemporary Los Angeles barrio, but its world overlaps the world of "Mechanix," where Third World revolutions occur in jungles thick with live dinosaurs and crashed rocket ships. Gilbert's strip is set in contemporary Palomar, Mexico, a small town where "men are men and women need a sense of humor," and where the dead sometimes return.

This wry, high-spirited play between "realism" and "surrealism" is hard to describe; it is something like Garc,ia M,arquez by way of Garrison Keillor, while Jaime's art suggests a bizarre version of Archie Comics starring Laurie Anderson.

In characterization, plot, and wit, Love and Rockets is a high point in the comics form, conventional in idiom, but not comparable to any strip before it. "Verisimilitude" is a word inapplicable to comics (and the Brothers Hernandez know it), but Love and Rockets features characters more "like" the people one knows than much contemporary fiction.

Publisher Gary Groth says, "The difference between Love and Rockets and the pop icons we grew up with is the difference between art and kitsch; when you read the Hernandezes' work, you hear the beat of a human heart."

Of course, it is depressing to consider that a nominally adult audience buys superhero comics by the hundred thousand. And easily 95% of the comics published are just such escapist, semi-literate, mass-produced stuff. But given the cultural wreckage of our fallen post-literate world, it is near-miraculous to find even a small amount of modest originality; any form of engaging the world which is personal rather than commercial and escapist should be welcome.

The highly stylized and coordinated visual and verbal gestures of the comics require an attention quite different from the passivity at the heart of more modern forms of entertainment. It's gratifying to find that some artists have the skill, intelligence, dedication, and lack of snobbery to keep this particular idiom of attention alive.