Comic books defaming the beliefs of Roman Catholics are being sold by the thousands in evangelical Christian bookstores across the United States.

California publisher Jack T. Chick's "Crusader Comics" are devoted to neither fantasy nor humor. Very little is intentionally funny about the 59-cent proselytizing publications, recommended by Chick for reading by adults and teen-agers.

His comic books are professionally illustrated, sometimes with lurid, violent scenes, including drawings that depict human sacrifice, torture, blood drinking and cannibalism.

While preaching a hellfire-and-brimstone message, they denounce Freemasonry as occult, suggest that Satan attacks through politics and finance with a secret worldwide group called the Illuminati, and contend that the pope does not really control the Roman Catholic Church.

Chick's technique combines fictional accounts of two "born-again" Christians, Scripture quotations, biblical stories and interpretations, footnote references and, in one notable instance, a "true-story" claim.

His "Crusaders" are Timothy Emerson Clark, 21, son of a U.S. ambassador and former Green Beret in Vietnam, and James Carter, 20, expert street fighter and former head of a narcotics ring.

While they go about saving souls -- in meanwhile-back-in-the-Bible interjections -- Clark and Carter also serve as sounding boards for Chick's notions and fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture.

For years, Chick was known mainly for production of small cartoon booklets, low-cost religious tracts that "contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3)." He still publishes the booklets by the tens of thousands and they express some ideas expounded in the comic book-sized Crusader series. But the comic books have seemed to attract most public notoriety.

Their polemic shafts attack most religions almost in passing, through Chick's interpretations of the Bible, but two of his latest are virulently anti-Catholic.

In "Sabotage," Chick defends the 370-year-old King James version of the Bible as the true word of God and charges that the Roman Catholic Church has used "corrupted" biblical texts "to push the King James Bible out of the picture." The comic book contends the Roman Catholic Church is part of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy Christianity.

Chick extends his assault on Catholicism in "Alberto," his 12th Crusader Comic, which purports to be the "true story" of Alberto Rivera of the Antichrist Information Center of Canoga Park in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

In a statement issued last year, Rivera said that his story is a "true and actual" account of how he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in Spain and assigned to infiltrate and destroy Protestant churches, both there and in Latin America.

To the Catholic League of Religious and Civil Rights, a Milwaukee-based Catholic rights organization, "Alberto" is a "compendium of slanderous accusations against the Catholic Church." The league contends that Rivera has been "unmasked and proven to be an impostor."

In the comic book, described by Chick as a "best seller," Rivera says he was a Jesuit-trained "espionage agent" who destroyed 19 Protestant churches in Spain. Because of his success there, he says, he was sent to Venezuela and later Costa Rica to infiltrate churches and carry on his destructive work.

Part of his assignment, he says, was to send to Rome the names of Christians for a computerized list of every Protestant pastor and church member in the world. Rivera says the names will be used when "the Roman Catholic institution gathers all the Protestant churches together under her control."

Aside from offering challenged interpretations of what Roman Catholics supposedly believe, Rivera says "86 percent" of Catholic priests are undergoing psychiatric treatment, that homosexuality permeates the system from priests to cardinals and that babies born to nuns have been found buried in underground tunnels.

Rivera says in the comic book: "I found out the 'Black Pope' [the head of the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuit director general] . . . who actually runs the Vatican in Rome, behind the scenes, was also a Mason and a member of the Communist Party in Spain. I found out that the Jesuit general was closely linked to the Illuminati in London."

A rhetorical question from one of the crusaders set up the final message attributed to Rivera in "Alberto." He replies:

"The pastor must have the courage to say from the pulpit that according to the Bible, Roman Catholics are not Christians! That the Roman Catholic institution is not a Christian church. . . .

"And, the most difficult of all is to say that Roman Catholics who die in that faith do not go to purgatory or heaven but to hell because their faith is in their own system rather than in Christ and he shed blood to wash away their sins."

To check Rivera's assertion that his is a "true story," that he was ordained a priest in the archdiocese of Madrid and that he is a member of the; Society of Jesus, the Catholic league wrote to church officials in Spain.

Since then, the league has released responses from Spanish Catholic officials reporting that Rivera is not a priest; nor was he a Spanish Jesuit from 1960 to 1970, the years listed by Rivera in his credentials.

Saying that Rivera's credibility has been "shattered" along with the credibility of the comic book "Alberto," the Catholic league asked Chick to discontinue publication and distribution of the comic book and to withdraw copies in bookstores.

When the plan failed, Catholic League President the Rev. Virgil C. Blum, S.J., expressed regret.

"Whether Chick will admit it or not," he said, "Rivera's outlandish tale cannot bear the light of public scrutiny. We remain hopeful that the great majority of evangelical Christians, at whom the publication is directed, will prove to be much less gullible than Chick and Rivera apparently consider them to be."

Earlier, Michael Schwartz, the league's executive director had written to Chick, ". . . . Rivera's accounts of the alleged infiltration of Protestant sects and all of the related accusations of criminal and unethical behavior which he levels against the Jesuits are utterly false. After reading this, I am led to the conclusion that Dr. Rivera's account is "nothing new" and claimed Rivera has documents to prove his story, adding they will be revealed in due time.

Chick's opinion of Catholicism is disclosed in a signed, undated statement sent out with one of his small illustrated booklets, entitled, "My Name? . . . . In the Vatican?" It repeats charges found in "Alberto" and defends publication of the comic book.

"Dear Beloved," Chick wrote, "you now know we have taken a stand against the Roman Catholic institution and its godless traditions. We had to. Someone must tell these people that only Jesus is the way to heaven -- without sacraments, saints, liturgy, Popes or Mary."

Since 1974, Chick has published a dozen "Crusader Comics," signed "By J.T.C.," and more is known about his ideas through them than is known about the publisher himself.

Chick's secretary, who requested anonymity, said her boss has a "long-standing policy" against giving interviews.

But she talked a little over the telephone, describing Chick as "mid-50ish" and a Baptist but saying that Chick Publications is nondenominational and run to make a profit.

"He started on his own kitchen table years ago, doing this part time," the secretary said. "It developed into an organization from very humble beginnings. He used to work as an illustrator for an aircraft company.

"We have no ministers on our staff at all. We do have two who are research consultants . . . . He [Chick] is strictly an artist and publisher. He's never been to a seminary or had Bible training, but he wanted to be a missionary years ago."

According to a brief statement from the publishing firm, Chick "experienced a rebirth through Jesus Christ at age 24" and developed the "ministry of Chick Publications as time passed."

Robert Alm, membership chairman of the Christian Booksellers Association of Colorado Springs, Colo., said he does not know how many of the association's approximately 3,000 members sell Crusader comics. But Alm guessed that Chick sells them "at least nationally." He said, "From the complaints I get, I think that's the case . . . ."

Helen Stewart, manager of Glad Tidings in Rockville, one of several local evangelical bookstores where the comic books are sold, said she has had no complaints about them.

"I've checked with my girls to see if there's been any flak and there's been none whatsoever," she said. "A young man came in this morning and bought some more. He said he uses them a lot," she added. Glad Tidings, like most evangelical bookstores, caters to a clientele generally limited to conservative evangelical Protestants.

Stewart added that "I feel what I do, what I sell in the store, has to be something to glorify God. If there is something there that is going to tear up the body of Christ, then I won't sell it."

[Stewart said that even though "comics aren't really my thing," she had read "Alberto" and was not offended by its contents. "I don't know any more than the average Protestant knows about Catholics," she said. Besides, she added, "Jack Chick has written a letter to the bookstores saying this has all been documented, that it's true . . . . We also got a letter from Alberto -- through Jack Chick."]

The operator of the Christian Book and Supply Center in Sedalia, Mo., said that when questions about the accuracy of "Alberto" were raised in his community, he declined to withdraw them. "I'm not about to say this is the gospel truth," said Roy Dameron, "because I don't know, but at the same time, I think there's enough truth in it to make us think."

Complaints about "Alberto" led to removal of the 32-page comic book from Baptist-run bookstores in Albuquerque, Memphis and Oklahoma City last summer.

Grady Cothen of the Baptist Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville, Tenn., said he ordered removal of the magazine because material in "Alberto" appears to be unsubstantiated.

"I believe it is a non-Christian action to circulate that unsubstantiated material . . . . When we discovered the material, we ordered it removed," Cothen said.

After controversy developed over "Alberto" in Rapid City, S.D., John Johanson, owner of Gospel Gardens, stopped selling Chick's comic books.

"The spirit is hate," Johanson said. "There is no way I'm going to have that in my store. I handle the Chick tracts, but none of the comics now. Mainly because of the spirit in which they are written.

"I have a whole rack of about 50 different comics. Those that buy them are kids. I don't want my little boy picking up 'Alberto' and reading it. There's happy stuff to read."

In Mechanicsburg, Pa., a group of religious leaders charged yesterday that a fundamentalist bookstore handling the books is waging a "Christian pornography" war against Roman Catholics.

"This is basically hate literature and Christian pornography done up like comic books to get at the young," said the Rev. Charles Hiller, pastor of the First United Methodist Church and president of the Mechanicsburg Ministerium.

Because the literature is being sold in a social and athletic facility built by fundamentalists to promote their philosophy, the ministerium announced it will not support any programming there.

["They can't come in here and tell us what to sell," said building manager Linda Kauffman. "I am dealing with the truth. The United States still has freedom of speech where a person can voice an opinion of what you think is right."]