Backed by $ 734,371 of the Justice Department's money, researcher Judith Reisman has turned in the most voluminous study ever done of cartoons and other visual images in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines.

The three-volume, 1,600-page report describes and analyzes pictures from 372 issues of Playboy published since 1953, 184 issues of Penthouse since 1969 and 125 issues of Hustler since 1974. It describes the magazines as "three top-selling erotic/pornographic magazines."

Reisman's study ("A Content Analysis of Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler Magazines with Special Attention to the Portrayal of Children, Crime and Violence") found that children have been portrayed sexually to varying degrees in the three magazines, but offered no conclusions as to what effect those portrayals might have on readers.

Reisman spent one-third more money than the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, which asserted a link between explicit pornography and sexual violence in a $ 500,000 study disputed by many experts.

No one has rushed to embrace Reisman's controversial study. The Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which funded it in 1984 and granted Reisman three extensions, said it would have no comment until it finishes reviewing the report. American University, which received the grant and employed Reisman as a researcher until last year, said any comment would violate "academic freedom."

Reisman, a former songwriter for the "Captain Kangaroo" television show, was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment.

But Robert M. Figlio of the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the peer-review panel that evaluated the study for American University, said in his review: "This manuscript cannot stand as a publishable and/or deliverable product in its present state."

Figlio said the title "misrepresents" the work, which he said was "in no way related" to the grant proposal. "Many of the images assessed by this content analysis are not pornographic . . . . I seriously question the value of the contribution of this project," he said.

A more appropriate title, Figlio said, would be "A Collection of Descriptions of Some Cartoon and Other Images, Some of Which Contain Nudity, Sexual Activity and Illegal Behavior or Some Combination of the Above, With Participants of Various Ages, Sexes and Other Demographic Characteristics."

Another reviewer, Jane F. Huntington, said, "The substance of the work is not clearly revealed. I had difficulty discerning the kernel even after what felt like an exhaustive review of all three volumes . . . . The substantive quality of the report is . . . difficult to penetrate."

Other reviewers were more positive. Emanuel Landau said the analysis "did adequately test the hypothesis of the study . . . . The findings are clearly of interest, but the possible adverse effects from such presentation cannot therefore be inferred."

Reisman, who has a doctorate in communications from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, defended her study against "snickers and sneers" in an op-ed article last year in The Washington Post. "This research lies well within the mainstream of serious public interest . . . . If some sexual education materials portray children as desirable sex partners for adults, this may be of vital interest to parents and children who are concerned about increases in child sexual abuse," she said.

But Reisman's report did not suggest a link to child abuse. She studied 2,016 cartoons that included children and 3,988 pictures, including advertisements, that showed anyone "from fetal development through age 17." The report cautioned that there was "some ambiguity in the nature of the concepts studied."

The report found that 85 percent of the children depicted in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler were white, 3 percent black, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Asian, 1 percent Hispanic and 8 percent unspecified. It categorized cartoons in 23 possible physical settings, ranging from "home/doorway/yard" to "bathroom/private toilet."

"Playboy was the most likely of the three to depict both sexes as physically natural, although 20 percent of the girls were drawn with exaggerated sexual parts," the report said. Penthouse tended to depict children "as unnatural offspring of human parents," while Hustler was most apt to show "deformed, dismembered or dead children," it said.

The report said 18 percent of the main child characters were presented as partially or fully nude, and about a quarter were depicted as having a sexual contact with an adult.

"About one-third of the presentations of the principal child involved direct eye contact with the camera/reader, and about one-fourth had the child gazing offstage or at someone with the whites visible," it said. "About one-sixth had the eyes cast downward or closed, with the sclera and iris hidden, and in about the same number of cases, the eyes were hidden or otherwise eluded classification."

The report also questioned how children might respond to "the numerous illegal or illicit images" of Santa Claus and other fantasy characters.

"I don't think very many people are taking it seriously," said Playboy Enterprises spokeswoman Robin Radomski. "It's ludicrous to connect Playboy in any way with child pornography . . . . It's an embarrassment to American University. This is a great candidate for the 'Golden Fleece' award."