Recently, a reader sent me a letter that contains four savvy, thought- provoking questions about comic strips run in this very paper. Before we take a look, I should warn you: If you're "offended" by the idea of grown-ups discussing the funny pages very seriously -- often at small tables in sidewalk cafe's, where we violently waggle our espresso spoons while arguing about such things as the ingredients of a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich* -- you'd better stop reading right now or you'll just get mad. Okay? Great. Here are his questions:

1. Although he doesn't appear to, Henry -- the quiet, baldheaded kid -- has a working mouth. I know this. (Otherwise, even in the fantastic world of the comics, he'd soon starve to death.) The question is: Do we ever see his tongue?

2. In a July 1987 "Cathy," Cathy is drawn with a frown, crossed eyes and sweat beads flying -- traditional comic-art signals of consternation. But in this case our gal has just delivered an ironic remark about the foibles of men, a` la "Sally Forth." What gives?

3. Does "The Phantom" not make sense, or is it just me?

4. What the @%#*! did they do to "Nancy"?

I answered the first two without any trouble (1. Yes; whenever he buys an ice-cream cone. 2. Huh?), but 3 and 4 required major sleuthing in the microfilm reading room. As for

*For the record, it's white bread, ham, sardines, a string of frankfurters, hard-boiled eggs, bermuda onion, swiss cheese, lettuce, catsup, mustard, mayo and butter, all balanced on his arms as he totes them from fridge to table. "The Phantom" -- no, my friend, it's not just you. People the world over find the doings of this mysterious jungle crime- fighter in the pro wrestling suit to be virtually unfollowable. Some comics buffs have even posited what is called the Phantom Uncertainty Principle: the idea that, at any given moment, nobody on Earth could deliver an accurate summary of what's going on in the current Phantom adventure -- including the strip's writer, Sy Barry. It's his fault. Using ruthless narrative-bloating techniques, Mr. Barry extends each tale far, far beyond the human comic-strip reader's attention span. A recent story -- in which the Phantom is bird-dogging a swamp-based Snake Goddess who kidnapped youths from rival tribes as a way of extorting some decent acres for her own people -- began in May and was still going strong on Labor Day. Why? Maddening repetition, as in these early panels:

May 9. The Phantom tells Old Mozz -- an ancient mystic -- that he has heard noises in the Great Swamp. Mozz says he's heard them too: "A strange piping . . . like the wind."

May 11. May 9 information is repeated.

May 12. Mozz adds that he was drawn to a "strange, unearthly glow" in the Great Swamp. And "in the water, crocs and vipers . . . were watching it too!"

May 13. Mozz repeats May 12 info.

May 14. Mozz, one more time: "The crocs and vipers moved with me, as I moved into the glow! Strange!"

May 15. Mozz: "As I entered that glow, my hair and robe seemed to flame. And then . . . I was into it!" Phantom: "And then, Mozz?" Mozz: "And then . . . I came out! (Tomorrow: More Mozz!)" Oh, can't wait!

May 16. Phantom: "There must be more to tell!" Mozz: "There is! Do you wish to hear it, O ghost who walks?"

"Yes!" says the Phantom, and in the coming days Mozz continues to deliver facts with the easy chattiness of an indicted mobster. The Phantom's reply to these revelations, "!", is, along with "?" and "?!", his standard response to new clues. Which may also help explain why he works slowly . . .

Okay, so much for the non-serious stuff. Now on to the big question, the single most volatile comics issue of the 1980s: What did they do to Nancy? If you haven't checked her out lately (she now appears Sundays only), prepare for a shock. The beloved, crisply drawn little mumps- cheeked spongehead (above) on whom three generations of readers cut their comics teeth . . . is gone. In her place is this new person -- called Nancy, but looking much more like a squashed refugee from "Wee Pals," with an unsightly Morse-code dash for a nose (see illustration, left). Gone too is the strip's timeless, minimalist background geography: No more do we see Nancy and Sluggo ambling down a sparse, treeless lane with -- at most -- a tiny box house, a cloud, or one or two outcropped rocks visible in the distance. Not only that, but Sluggo, in the words of Nancy's current artist, "has wimped out," and vital supporting characters like Aunt Fritzi, Rollo the Rich Kid, Irma, the Hobo and those assorted dagger-toothed guest bullies -- all have been banished to comics oblivion. That means no more classic sequences in which oval-mouthed Nancy poses a dumb question to Aunt Fritzi, who sits in her overstuffed easy chair, reading the paper with a mannequin gaze. Worst of all, Nancy's gag sequences display a smirking wryness that smacks of up-to-dateness. In the past, the fashions of the day never seeped into Nancy's stark universe. These days, she openly discusses sunscreen lotion, MTV and even alludes to current events. Not long ago, while thinking of excuses for not having done her homework, she came up with: "I'll say agents of a foreign government destroyed it as a matter of national security!"

What happened? Well, the bad news for Nancy purists begins in August 1982, with the sad death of Nancy's creator, Ernie Bushmiller. Bushmiller once told an interviewer his sure-fire method for devising new Nancy gags: "I open a Sears, Roebuck catalogue, and usually my eye hits some article like an ironing board, and my mind starts to play around with what can be done with an ironing board." And, you know, you can actually see that in his vintage work. Irma asks Nancy, "What's Sluggo's latest idea for a career?" "He wants to be a TV star," Nancy replies. "See for yourself." And the next panel shows Sluggo walking down Minimalism Lane holding a picture frame so that he looks like he's "onscreen." (See? Bushmiller had seen a picture frame. Or a TV. Or a high-school aptitude test.) His immediate successor, Mark Lasky, carried on that honored tradition, but he passed away too. The new Nancy artist, Jerry Scott, is the one who made the changes. I called him last week at his Phoenix home and almost made the rookie journalist's mistake of yelling hot insults before asking my first question, but I didn't. He's a nice guy, and he admitted everything.

"I had trouble copying Bushmiller's drawing style, so I altered it." "Yes, I eliminated Fritzi, Rollo, Irma and the Hobo, and they aren't coming back." And of course: "We wanted to make Nancy a little more relevant to the '80s."

Aaaaah! When will this pernicious decade end its reign of terror? Oh, right. 1990. Sorry, that's not soon enough. ::