After a 7 1/2-year absence, Look Magazine returned to the nation's newsstands yesterday, looking more like the old Life than the old Look.

The February Life offers "Lingerie to Show Off in Public," but Look makes its comeback with two hard news covers: a Western edition displaying Patty Hearst, and an Eastern edition illustrated with Nelson Rockefeller. Both editions have identical contents.

Life contains a long essay on investing in photography, some striking photos of military planes and a story about vampire films.

In contrast, Look recalls the old photojournalism crackle of Life, offering a solid interview with Teng Hsiao-ping, a brief item on the sudden rise of the Blues Brothers, a story on Roman Polanski's latest film project in Poland, as well as the Hearst and Rockefeller essays. Despite a press deadline six days in advance of its appearance, the biweekly emphasizes a sense of topicality.

Look also looks better than Life. Its glossy pages are full of snappy black and white photographs that impart a gritty, newsy feel. The layouts are built around the photographs, and even pictures that we've seen before are presented with a new urgency. Six pages of photos taken in Jonestown the day before the mass suicide convey a concretely ominous atmosphere.

Other pieces range from a silly series of color photos of Brooke Shields to a well-thought-out article on a build-your-own-house school in Maine. There's a long, previously unpublished interview with Marilyn Monroe, two gossip columns, an essay on Beverly Hills, "a colony thriving on guilt," (which outscores a similar article in the February Life), a photo essay on new medical machines and an interesting glimpse at an eccentric art dealer with $13 million in paintings stashed away in his personal lead vault.

Even before the first issue of Look hit the stands, there had been rumblings from the magazine's new offices. First over the publisher's decision to switch from a weekly to a biweekly format, then over the hiring of Marianne Partridge, late of the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, as executive editor over managing editor John Durniak, a former Life photo editor who had carved the new Look into what he thought would be his personal vision.

At any rate, the new Look ironically demonstrates that Henry Luce's pioneering concept of photojournalism can be as exciting today as it was half a century ago.

Hits and Misses

Politicians may hit hard and throw plenty of curves in this fair city, but they continue to strike out nationally at the news stand -- a trend noticeable when Jimmy Carter and company turned out to be the worst hitting subjects of 1977 on no fewer than five major magazines.

Their bad batting average continued in the 1978 season. The president himself graced Forbes' worst-selling Feb. 6 cover on bureaucracy, and Walter and Joan Mondale sparked People's lowest sales two weeks later. At Time, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was a worst seller and Newsweek's poorest sales came with a cover on Carter's anti-inflation programs.

Retired politicians fared just as poorly. "Perhaps the Most Revealing and Personal Interview Yet with One of the World's Most Fascinating Men -- Henry Kissinger," headlined the May Cosmopolitan -- the worst-selling Cosmo of 1978.

President Carter himself turned in only one best-selling magazine appearance, on the November cover of High Times, which contained a story critical of his stance on legalizing marijuana. But Sen. Ted Kennedy smiled from the cover of McCall's best-selling August issue, illustrating a long interview in which he discussed Joan Kennedy's bout with alcoholism.

As might have been expected, the Rev. Jim Jones helped to sell many magazines in his death, with Jonestown suicide covers topping the sales year at both Time and Newsweek. Even at People, the Dec. 4th cover had a banner headline "Massacre in Guyana: Why It Happened," although the photo showed a dazzling Priscilla Presley. Elvis was 1977's hands-down winner, and several magazines have continued to use Presley as cover material, including this week's Us. He may have lost his clout, though: "How Elvis Turned America On" was the worst selling cover for Penthouse Forum last year.

America displayed a mixed interest in thrills in 1978.New York magazine's best-seller was a cover on cocaine, even as Redbook's worst was on infidelity. Washingtonian's October issue on fantasies was the snorer of the year, while Playboy's revealing photos of N.F.L. cheerleaders made the December issue the year's only sell-out. (The least popular Playboy was May's, which had a model in black lingerie and headline promising "Anita Bryant Speaks Her Startling Mind on Gays, Jews, Prisons, Hell and Jimmy Carter.")

Other vital statistics:

Sports Illustrated's best: a smiling Leon Spinks, with notably missing teeth; the worst: golfer Andy North.

People's second best: Olivia Newton-John; its second and third worst, respectively: Ed Asner as TV's Lou Grant and Genevieve Bujold in the film "Coma."

McCall's worst: Jane Fonda in January. "We found," says an editor," that a lot of our readers resent the role she played in the Vietnam war."

Rolling Stone's best: a teasing portrait of Linda Ronstadt in a pink camisole by Francesco Scavullo (in red lingerie as photographed by Annie Leibovitz, she was also 1976's best cover); the worst: disco queen Donna Summer.

Bill Bixby worked best for Us, as TV's Hulk; the worst: Lorne Greene and two cohorts from TV's "Battlestar Galactica."

TV Guide's best, as always, was its Fall Preview issue, which sold 21,542,649 copies at 35 cents each. Its worst issue, July 4, sold a mere 18,663,496. TV Guide is the biggest selling magazine in the world.

National Enquirer's best was Jan. 3 ("10 Leading Psychics Reveal Their Predictions for 1978") with 6.5 million copies sold); the worst, in September, headlined: "Top University Studies Show How to Use TV to Live Longer."

Ms. magazine's best was a February Valentine that asked: "Is There Love After Liberation?"; the worst was in July: "What Women Athletes Can Teach Us about Having Babies and Staying Fit."

Esquire's best was the annual December Dubious Achievement Awards issue, a virtual tie with the August R.F.K. issue containing a condensation of Arthur Schlesinger's "Robert Kennedy and His Times"; the worst: I. M. Pei and his National Gallery East Building.

Ebony's best, a May cover shot of Natalie Cole and an unrelated blurb on a story about older men and younger women, "a growing trend in love affairs"; the worst, an April cover story on black college campus queens.

High Times' worst was an August cover on solar energy. New York's worst was Studs Terkel's May 15 essay about working on Broadway. Fortune's worst in April addressed "The Demagoguery about Business Entertaining," while its best in October declared "The Head Hunters Are After You," undoubtedly buoyant news to any executive. Forbes found that its Nov. 27 issue, featuring a new logo, was the best-selling of its issues, excluding three higher-priced, special report annuals. Redbook's best was its January Diet Special, and Cosmo's its January Astrology number.

The wonderfully adolescent National Lampoon's best was, appropriately, its August Teens issue; its worst, March's Crime and Punishment cover.

"A better worst issue was really our Spring Cleaning issue in April," says editor P. J. O'Rourke. "It had a wretched gray cover and absolutely nothing interesting inside.Who's to account for our readers' taste?"

The Plot Thickens

The March Penthouse report on "The Spy Who Never Was" is a fascinating bit of reading -- at least the basis for a good film plot, or, highly debatably, the tip of an immensely embarrassing iceberg at the CIA.

The story concerns John Arthur Paisley, fished from the Chesapeake in October and eventually ruled a suicide, a former -- or was it current -- employe of the CIA, a man reported to have access to secret files on America's spy satellites.

Some journalists around town who have had an advance peek at Wilmington News Journal reporter Joe Trento's analysis say it is full of holes. Others are not so sure.

"I'm convinced that Trento is right about at least one thing," says Bernard Fensterwald, a lawyer hired by Paisley's ex-wife to investigate the alleged suicide. "It wasn't his body that was fished out of the water."

Trento's conclusion:

"There is growing fear among members of America's intelligence community that John Arthur Paisley has 'gone home' and will reappear in Moscow at this year's annual May Day parade in Red Square."