SEVERAL MONTHS ago, a piece of art was destroyed when its owners deemed it unfit for public consumption. The work in question was not a sexually explicit Robert Mapplethorpe photograph that shocked conservatives into a frenzy of censorship. It was a comic book called "Activists!" and its censors were liberals.

"Activists!" had been commissioned in 1990 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a leftist social justice organization devoted to nonviolence and political activism. The fellowship had ordered the comic in an attempt to attract a young audience to their cause, but when some black staff members saw the finished product they were shocked at what they called "racist" drawings of African Americans. Most of the 20,000 copies of "Activists!" were summarily confiscated and destroyed.

The story in "Activists!" that had raised objections was nonfiction. "Survivin-N-Da-Hood" depicted the lives of black New Haven community organizer Pat Boozer and her children, who had told their story to Joyce Brabner, the writer of "Activists!" As reported in Publishers Weekly, Boozer claimed that there were no objections to "Activists!" by the black staff members until they discovered that the artists who drew the comic were white. The staff members say they found the "old-time representations" to be offensive regardless of the artist's race. Boozer tried to convince the fellowship to let her have copies of the comic to distribute on her own, but the group declined.

While the destruction of "Activists!" might seem an extreme, freakish episode, it points to the history of political hostility to comics, from the left and the right. As a pop art form that doubles as a surprisingly sophisticated medium of storytelling, comics have long been politically incorrect.

The first comic strip appeared on Sunday, Feb. 16, 1896, in the New York World, a newspaper owned by William Randolph Hearst. Called "The Yellow Kid," it was a satire of city life that chronicled the adventures of its hero, an urchin who wore a yellow nightshirt. Its success led to more comic strips that were aimed at a large audience, including adults. According to Roger Sabin's "Adult Comics: An Introduction," one of these strips, "Krazy Kat," boasted an "underlying intellectual complexity, coupled with Dadaist artwork and Joycean language, {that} made it a favorite with the American intelligentsia: poet e.e. cummings was known to be a fan, and President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have read it every morning before Cabinet meetings."

Soon comics were being sold in book form and marketed to kids. In 1938, the first issue of Action Comics was published, featuring the adventures of Superman. It was followed by Detective Comics, starring Batman. These titles inaugurated what collectors call the Golden Age of comics, the era of the all-American superhero: Superman, Captain America, the Human Torch, the Flash. These characters were mostly mouthpieces of the hyper-patriotism and austere moral ethic of the war years and they dominated the field well into the 1950s.

A dark underside of comics surfaced in the Eisenhower years. EC Comics, a company that specialized in such titles as "The Vault of Horror," "Weird Fantasy" and "The Haunt of Fear," dished up tales of ghoulish terror, hard-boiled crime and risque fantasies that were influenced by the pulp fiction of the time. Concern over comics grew so intense that (as with rap and rock lyrics today) congressional hearings were held and public moralists worried about the values of America's youth.

The EC hearings, held in the spring of 1954, were inspired by "Seduction of the Innocent," a tirade against comics written by Frederick Wertham, a senior psychiatrist with the New York Department of Hospitals. Among Wertham's charges were that comics were fascistic fantasies, that they caused juvenile delinquency and that, in the case of Batman and Robin, they depicted a homosexual fantasy. When Wertham took the stand at the hearings, he ended his statement by declaring, "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic industry." After what came to be known as "Wertham's Crusade" was finished, comics were driven off many newsstands and forced to carry a seal of approval from the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring organization set up by the industry. Wertham is still cited in comic circles with bitter repugnance as the right-wing crank who almost single-handedly destroyed the industry. But the good doctor was a Marxist whose public philosophy was informed by the Frankfurt School, a leftist institution that preached an anti-mass-culture gospel that scorned pop fluff like comics.

The 1960s brought a renaissance of the form thanks to a new generation of superheroes created by Marvel Comics. Under the creative steam of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, Marvel would give the world the Amazing Spider-Man, the Mighty Thor, the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Unlike the superheroes of the Golden Age, their protagonists suffered quotidian human problems -- money troubles, romantic failures -- that made them more sympathetic. In one memorable early issue of Spider-Man, the hero almost lost a battle because he had a cold.

Yet for all their realism, superhero comics in the '60s were still largely mired in the innocence of the Golden Age -- and they still were required to carry the approval seal of the comics authority. Other, non-superhero comics, however, weren't as constricted. The 1960s saw the birth of underground comics, including the "Freak Brothers" and "Mr. Natural." While many of these books reflected the satirical aesthetic that had begun with Mad magazine in the '50s, the satire was leveled at the sacred cows of the counterculture as much as at the Establishment. Robert Crumb, considered the father of underground comics, was known for his hostility toward hippies and ersatz revolutionaries. Crumb is the forefather of a new generation of underground comics, books such as "Hate!" and "Peep Show" whose anarchic spirit is outright derisive of the phony liberal hip of Generation X.

In 1986, superhero comics became fully immersed in the adult world. That year, artist and writer Frank Miller published "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," an astonishing work that is so mature and compelling that it popularized use of the term "graphic novel" to describe comics of exceptional length and sophistication. It tells the story of an aging Bruce Wayne -- a k a Batman -- who has forsaken crime fighting. Neurotic, obsessive and tortured by the personal failures of his past, he comes out of retirement to wage war on a city plagued by lawlessness and gang violence.

"The Dark Knight Returns" caused a boom in adult interest in comics and a wave of newspaper articles announcing that "kids comics {are} growing up." It also brought rebukes from liberal readers, who were repulsed by what they saw as the book's defense of vigilantism. More to liberal tastes was "Maus," a comic about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, published in 1987. "Maus" launched comics into the respectable mainstream, winning a nomination for a National Book Award and, for its creator, a nomination for a Guggenheim fellowship. At Borders, it is shelved under "Judaica" while "The Dark Knight" fights for space with Garfield in the comics and cartoons corner.

After the publication of "Maus," Spiegelman became a liberal spokesman in the comics industry, and he was no fan of the Dark Knight style of comics. Spiegelman is relentless on comics he doesn't like. In a recent interview in the Comics Journal, he blasted the Dark Knight as "a rather fascistic Reagan-era hero." He also indicted the artwork of the late Jack Kirby, the man who almost solely gave birth to the superhero comeback in the 1960s. Spiegelman argued that Kirby's work has fascistic undertones. Kirby heroes are built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Spiegelman noted, and such shapes and the attendant fantasy of power expresses "the triumph of the will, the celebration of the physicality of the human body at the expense of the intellect."

Spiegelman's charge against Kirby may seem ludicrous -- if fantasies of strength and power are fascist, then a lot of us are Nazis. But underneath it runs a more profound concern with the morality of comic book narratives. His problem with certain superheroes has less to do with their physique than with their philosophy. Many of the superheroes are ground in a rigid ethic of right and wrong where criminals -- who, unlike the victims of Hitler, are far from innocent -- are punished and their excuses for their actions rejected out of hand by the hero.

This impatience with the therapy of the victim culture is particularly evident in the Batman graphic novels. In "The Killing Joke," Batman's arch-nemesis the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and attempts to drive him insane. When Batman shows up, the Joker justifies his actions on the grounds that a capricious personal tragedy unfairly caused his own insanity. But Batman discovers the commissioner hasn't cracked.

"Despite all your sick, vicious little games," he tells the Joker, "he's as sane as he ever was. So maybe ordinary people don't always crack. Maybe there isn't any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimey things when trouble hits. . . . Maybe it was just you, all the time."

The theme is repeated in "Two-Face: Crime and Punishment," by J.M. Dematteis and Scott McDaniel. The villain, Two-Face, is revealed to be the victim of child abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father, and in his rage he tries to interrogate his father on live television. His father turns out to be Batman in disguise. "We all know pain," Batman says. "Everybody has scars. But we each choose what we do with our pain. Your father made his choices, and you made yours."

This kind of stuff doesn't play well with the inner-child set, who are reluctant to call a sin a sin and are wary of the kind of tough, unfiltered realism currently found in comics -- even when, as in the case of "Activists!," those depictions are employed to push the left's own causes. Artistic renditions of the world and how people live in it are notoriously resistant to psychotherapeutic gerrymandering, just like the superhero fantasies of power that Jack Kirby so peerlessly expressed.

In the end, "Activists!" found an audience. It was put on the Internet, and author Joyce Brabner distributed a few surviving hard copies. The modern censors found what Wertham did: that killing comics and the dreams of justice that give rise to them is like trying to snuff out sexual fantasies or the desire to fly. It's a task for which there isn't enough kryptonite in the universe to accomplish. Mark Gauvreau Judge is a Washington writer. CAPTION: